Semiology And French Cultural Theory

The theoretical model formulated by Saussure was to become especially influential amongst French cultural theorists and has inspired some of the most widely developed ideas shaping cultural products, including film. French cultural theory, especially since the late 1960s, has shaped and influenced much of the progressive research into popular culture. Perhaps the key French theorist for cultural commentators is Roland Barthes (1915-1980), who adopted Saussure's linguistic model in order to analyse popular culture from the 1950s onward, most notably in his collection of essays Mythologies (1957). Barthes was especially interested in what Saussure had described as the process of signification (how we make sense of signs.) He argued that signification operates at two levels: "denotation" and "connotation." Denotation describes the literal meaning of a sign. Connotation describes the process we use to interpret what we see. At the level of connotation, we judge and interpret what we have already recognized at a simpler level; we read deeper levels of meaning into things at a connotative level. For example, in the film Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) the color red is used repeatedly as a motif. The titles of the film are in a bold red, James Dean wears a red jacket, Natalie Wood is first seen in a red coat and red is used as a color that links the protagonists of the film to the idea of rebellion. So, at a denotative level, we might recognize the bold red of the film's titles or James Dean's jacket as simply titles written in red and a red jacket; but at a connotative level we are able to draw on our culture's understanding of the symbolic importance of red, representing danger, anger, love, and passion.

For Barthes, analysis of popular culture using Saussure's methods uncovered the hidden or obscured meanings that lie beneath the everyday, commonsense notions of popular culture. Using semiology, Barthes conducted detailed textual analysis to "deconstruct" cultural products. His aim in this project was to reveal the workings of ideology through what he termed "myth." Barthes's concept of myth parallels the Marxist concept of "false consciousness.'' It is a form of naturalized language or discourse that hides itself in the notion of the commonsense. Doing so helps to maintain the status quo or consensus within a culture about socially acceptable norms of behavior and values (dominant ideology). Barthes analyzed a range of cultural products, including magazine articles, photographs, and films in order to uncover myths concerning class, ethnicity, and cultural imperialism.

While Barthes used semiology to analyze film, he was driven chiefly by the goal of uncovering the hidden ideological workings of popular culture. Even so, his approach demonstrated the usefulness of semiology as a method for systematically analyzing cinematic texts. Adopting Barthes's method, critics could undertake detailed microanalysis of films, frame by frame, in order to discuss the formal construction of cinematic images and the ways in which they are used to construct meaning. After Barthes's work became readily available in English, notably with the publication of a translation of Mythologies in 1972, his ideas became extremely popular among a new generation of film theorists, along with those of the French Marxist Louis Althusser. The method of analysis advocated by Barthes has been extremely useful for theorists, including Marxists, feminists, gays, and lesbians, as well as those concerned with questions of race and ethnicity.

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