The Third Meaning by Roland Barthes

This miniature book from the “Minima” series published by Ad Marginem consists of three essays by the French semiotic philosopher Roland Barthes: “The Photographic Message”, “The Rhetoric of the Image” and “The Third Meaning”.

I recommend this small one-hundred-page book to those who are interested in Barthes’s work, semiotics, and semiotic analysis; to those who want to look at photography, film, and other visual arts from a new semiotic angle.

However, it is necessary to know what “signified” and “signifying”, “denotative meaning” and “connotative meaning” are, and even better — to get acquainted with semiology as a science in general. Unlike Barthes’s articles on theater, this knowledge is extremely necessary here.


“The Photographic Message”

In this essay, Roland Barthes analyses magazine photography; that is, the photos we see in newspapers and magazines every day.

A photo consists of two structures: a language structure (a caption for a photo, for example) and a photographic structure itself, in which there is a certain paradox. Barthes writes: “The paradox of photography lies in the coexistence of two messages — one without a code (the photographic analogue of reality), and the other with a code (“art”, processing, “writing”, the rhetoric of photography); […] it is paradoxical that a connotative, coded message develops on the basis of a message without a code”.

Connotation in photography takes place at six levels of photo creation: editing, pose, objects, photogeny, aestheticism, and syntax. Connotative techniques include the text, because “the word can’t ‘duplicate’ the image, because the transition from one structure to another inevitably produces secondary signifiers”.

It is obvious that both functions of the language message can coexist in the same iconic image; however, from the point of view of the internal balance of the work, it is not at all indifferent which of these functions prevails

“The Rhetoric of the Image”

In this essay, the philosopher emphasizes that we are talking about advertising images, not artistic ones. And everything that he says in this text applies to advertising photos, but it may not apply to artistic ones.

At the very beginning, Barthes raises an important question for semiology of the image: “Can analog reproduction (“copying”) of objects lead to the emergence of full-fledged sign systems (and not an agglomeration of symbols)? Can there be an ‘analog code’ along with the code formed by discrete elements?”.

An image carries three messages: a language message (it is given to us directly as the name of the photo; by whom, where and when it was taken, etc.), an image as such (or a denotative image; self-contained), and an iconic message without a code (a connotative message; the number of the same lexicon varies individually).

The idea that this was actually the case suppresses our sense of subjectivity

“The Third Meaning”

In the final essay, the preceding purely theoretical essays acquire the most practice-oriented character. It is devoted to the analysis of several photograms by Sergei Eisenstein.

Here, Barthes outputs three levels of meaning: the communication level, the symbolic level (or meaning level), and the third meaning. If the first two are quite simple and clear, what is “the third meaning”? For the philosopher, “the third meaning” is an open meaning (fr. le sens obtus). This is something that doesn’t exist in the language, even at the symbol level. This is the characteristic that can be names as “filmic”, inherent only in the film as such.


Photography: the website of the Garage Museum

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