Tyson on Barthes: Some Passages Relevant to Barthesian Cultural Criticism

"...semiotics applies structuralist insights to the study of what it calls sign systems.  A sign system is a non-linguistic object or behavior (or collection of objects or behaviors) that can be analyzed as if it were a language" (Tyson 205, my emphasis--so you need to construct a "dictionary" to define the system's legal kinds of agents, actions, and ways of being [its "nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs"] and a "syntax" to explain the rules for combining them with examples of legal and illegal usage).

"Semiotics recognizes language as the most fundamental and important sign system . . . Semiotics expands the signifier to include objects, gestures, activities, sounds, images--in short, anything that can be perceived by the senses.  [ . . . ] [S]emiotics limits its study to signs that function as symbols" (Tyson 217).

"Index": "a sign in which the signifier has a concrete, causal relationship to the signified" (Tyson 218).

"Icon": "a sign in which the signifier physically resembles the signified" (Tyson 218).

"Symbol": unlike classical Structuralists, who believed the signifier-signified relationship in any symbol to be always purely arbitrary, Cultural Critics see "a symbol" as "a sign in which the relationship between signifier and signified is neither natural nor necessary but arbitrary, that is, decided upon by the conventions of a community, by the agreement of some group" (Tyson 21).  [Barthesian Cultural Critics contend they can detect "motives" which drive cultural signifier-signified systems which are designed to conceal the true political reasons for their construction.]

"It is the business of semiotics . . . to isolate and analyze the symbolic function of sign systems, although the objects or behaviors under investigation will often have other functions as well . . . But the semiotician will be interested in [for example] food and clothing only to the extend to which they function as sign systems, only to the extend that they have symbolic content, [and only by analyzing] a sign system by focusing on a group of similar objects . . . synchronically (at any given moment in time)" (Tyson 218).

        Though Barthes differs from Levi-Strauss in his assignment of "motives" for the cultural mythologies he describes, he shares with all Structuralist critics an emphasis on the common structuring rules underpinning all instances of a repeating series of cultural events or "products."  Since its focus is synchronic, looking at many similar instances of the same kind of happening, a Barthesian analyst is looking for semiotic codes shared by things being studied, what Tyson calls "the underlying structural components that carry a non-verbal cultural message."  Your job is to follow the analysis of the structure's operations to the point at which you can begin to translate their "non-verbal cultural message" for your readers, like interpreting the gestures in a story-dance or ballet choreographed by the culture, itself.   Look at the table of contents of Barthes' book, Mythologies, and think about his choice of subjects for study: what do they have in common?

Click here for some passages from Barthes on Ornamental Cookery.

Click here for some passages from Barthes on Wrestling.