Epilogue- some worries about structuralism…..

Whilst completing the previous projects, and reading the texts ‘Rhetoric of the Image and ‘Myth today’ (Barthes, 1999 a and b), I realised that I was having some misgivings about the nature of the structuralist arguments. After reading the second half of Don Slater’s text ‘marketing mass photography’ (Slater, 1999), I have realised that I am not alone.

In the text Slater critiques the structuralist-semiotic tradition, and structuralist analysis -a development of structuralist linguistics. He suggests that because  Structuralist theorists in the 1960’s wanted to escape from the overpowering  influence of Marxist theory on texts, they essentially excluded any discussion of external forces when discussing meaning (Slater, 1999 p. 302), and ‘Decoding became an end in itself,…..’ (Slater, 1999 p.303). . They essentially threw the proverbial baby of common sense out with the Marxist bathwater !

Slater argues instead that the task is ‘…. to analyse how the economic, institutional, ideological and political forces, strategies and dynamics have constructed the social relations within which material cultural practices are carried out’ (Slater, 1999 p. 305).

My main concerns during reading resided in just this sort of closed structuralist system of analysis which Barthes was pursuing. For example, he contests that ‘myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the nature of things’ (Barthes, 1999 b; p.52). I wondered if this was true, and that surely concepts are universally important and by their very nature more likely to be mythologised? Slater explains that although based on semiotics, which promised ‘to return the captured moment of reading to its determinations…’ , in structuralist analysis  these determinations have ‘ been indefinitely postponed and then utterly forgotten’ (Slater, 1999: p.302). Barthes unrealistic assertion above seems to be evidence that much of the political, sociological and historical context of Barthes’ debates seemed to operate in a vacuum and that these were never really discussed.

Similarly, after reading the example of Latin grammar as mythical speech (Barthes, 1999 b.: p.54), I wondered whether decisions made during the analysis of meaning were too arbitrary, and whether our conclusions were likely to be affected by other undiscussed factors- not least of which was that the sentence is initially said to be in a latin grammar. Once again the context of the text seemed to have been ignored by  Barthes.

I became even more disquieted during the second example of the language of myth:  a picture on the cover of Paris Match magazine, of a negro boy saluting (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 54). Acknowledging an interesting analysis, my main  thoughts were

  • what right does the author have to analyse the text and conclude that this meaning is dominant?
  • Would all French citizens interpret the image the same way?
  • Might it be more simply interpreted as This black boy is saluting a superior ?
  • Who determines the amount of semiological coding within an image or sentence – is it the author or the viewer, or both?
  • Is this the way the magazine wanted it to be interpreted?

After reading Slater’s text I now realise that this sort of ‘structuralist analysis is ‘hegemonic’ in left cultural theory (Slater, 1999: p. 301), and tends to analyse texts (including images) in a vacuum. I feel somewhat happier to know that I was not being overcritical, though Dick Hebidge in his excellent ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to the Face’ (1999) had already hinted that post-structuralists had many bones to pick with the Bourgoise structuralist method. Surely as well, the answer to any meaning within the text should depend upon how the reader interprets it, which involves both external issues of history, internal issues such as one’s own psyche, and finally (but not exclusively) elements within the text.

In fact here I disagree with Slater, who later remarks in passing that ‘the worst form of empiricist sociology’ is one where we ‘ask what did individual A actually think that film X meant, then aggregate all the individuals surveyed….’ (Slater, 1999: p. 304). On the contrary this seems a very democratic and scientific method and at least a helpful start in textual analysis (akin to Grounded theory in science and social sciences).

I’ll leave this Epilogue with two further reassurances which I gained through Slater’s article. The first is that I have often thought how outdated some of these texts on semiology and photography are, written in an age before the digital revolution, global communications, and a certain amount of democratisation of  communication.  Pierre Bourdieu’s text ‘The social definition of photography’ written in 1965 seemed very outdated in its assessment of mass photography. This view is shared by Slater who finds Bourdieu’s definition ‘outdated’ and ‘local’ (Slater, 1999: p. 289).

Much more importantly though, is that Slater reassures us of the ultimate vision he has for social photography, and one that has proved prescient I think.

In contrast to the restrictive practice of social photography in both Pierre Bourdieu’s and his own day (writing in 1985), he sees that it will need to break away from the  exploitative capitalist control of  the photographic industries, and instead look towards ‘feminism and other movements within politics, in collective practices of photography, and alternative social relations such as  community groups, campaigns, community arts, etc……’ (Slater, 1999: p. 305).

Testament to the way that social photography (and visual culture more generally) has moved on is found in the Visual Culture Reader (Mirzoeff,  2013). This book discusses many contemporary examples of how the battle between the controllers and the politically controlled is being fought out using Visual methods in the present world of global communications, includeing the use of photography and Facebook during the Arab Spring uprising.

More generally one can read about the use of Architecture used for the good of both the Oppressor and the oppressed, for example by the Israeli colonisers in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in a more democratic way in Mexican neighbourhoods.  It also includes analysis of how ‘differences’ are represented in Virtual Reality games, and in visualising ‘queerness’ (Mirzoeff, 2013).


Barthes, R (1999 a.).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Barthes, R (1999 b).  ‘Myth Today’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p 51-58

Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography’ in visual culture: a reader.    Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 162-180

Hebidge, D (1999 b) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to the face’ in  visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 99-124

Mirzoeff, N. (ed.)  (2013) The Visual Culture Reader Third edition. Routledge, OXON.

Slater, D (1999) ‘Marketing mass photography’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p.289-306


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