Already in 1964, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published one of his best-known essays, ‘Rhétorique de l’image’¹. It is also a text that’s quite difficult to understand. Here’s what I make of it: according to Barthes, any image (except for those created by “illiterate societies”, e.g. ancient cultures) contains three messages, the linguistic, the literal (or denoted), and the symbolic (or connoted, or cultural). It should be noted that Barthes deviates from traditional communication theory by using the term ‘message’ without necessarily tying it to a sender: “the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted (for example at the level of the combiner of the signs or creator of the message), it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the ‘surprises’ of meaning.” Anyway, let’s look at these three messages in detail:
The linguistic message can be found “in, under, or around the image”. Such textual matter is always there, says Barthes (although I can image at least one kind of image where text may be completely absent). This linguistic message may have either (or both) of two functions: anchorage and relay. Anchorage means, the text clarifies or “fixes” the meaning of the image, which is always polysemous, by choosing some of the possible signifieds and “banishing” others. The relay function is less common and puts the text in a “complementary relationship” with the image – Barthes explicitly mentions comic strip dialogues as an example.²
The literal or denoted message consists of the objects depicted in the image, stripped of all symbolic meaning. It conveys nothing but a consciousness of the “being-there” of the represented things. (Barthes is particularly concerned with photography here, which additionally implies “an awareness of […] having-been-there” and a tension between “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”.) According to Barthes, little more than “anthropological knowledge” is required to recognise the objects in the image on this level, although I doubt it’s always as easy as that.
Finally, the symbolic message contains the signifieds (or ‘meanings’, colloquially speaking) of the image. In contrast to the literal message, more specialised kinds of knowledge may be required to decipher this message, but different “readings” of the same image are still legitimate. The totality of signifiers in an image, by the way, is what Barthes calls the eponymous ‘rhetoric’. It’s also noteworthy that Barthes seems to think that in some instances (e.g. advertisement photography, his principal example) we may even realise signifieds invested by the sender/creator of the image, i.e. recognise the creator’s intention (and there we have the good old sender-message-recipient model again).
Let’s see if we can read a panel from a comic in this way.
This is the first panel of one of my favourite Azumanga Daioh (あずまんが大王) strips, by Kiyohiko Azuma. On the literal level, we can identify all the objects depicted: the face of Osaka (one of the main characters), her hair and part of her neck, and a bed with its various components. We are also able to tell the flower pattern on the blanket apart from ‘real’ flowers-as-objects. I think we’re still within the realm of the denoted message when we say: this is a sleeping girl.
Before we tackle the symbolic message (even though literal and symbolic message are perceived simultaneously, says Barthes), let’s look at the linguistic message. There is no writing in this panel, but in this case, Barthes is right when he says there’s always some writing nearby. Consider the complete four-panel strip (from the German edition published by Tokyopop):
There is a heading above the panel and a speech bubble in the fourth panel. The heading reads “Osaka’s New Year’s dream” and tells us that rather than just watching Osaka sleep, we are about to learn what she’s dreaming of. The speech bubble says, “Chiyo, how come you’re able to fly?” Now we need to recall the knowledge of writing that is located even further away from our panel: in previous episodes, Osaka already had weird ideas about the character Chiyo and her plaits. With this knowledge in mind, we can almost guess Osaka’s dream (and indeed, in the next strip we see how Chiyo’s flapping bunches enable her to fly in Osaka’s dream). I’d say this is an example of anchorage: without the writing, the meaning of the image would be unclear.
As for the symbolic message, we need to take into account once more previous episodes, which established Osaka as a slow character who often has wondrous or naive thoughts. This strip is not funny because of the absurd idea of a flying girl – after all, such illogical ideas are common in everyone’s dreams – but because it’s such a typical thing for Osaka to think, no matter whether she’s asleep or awake. The symbolic message may well be to invoke Osaka’s characteristics in order to convey humour. In the last panel, the invoked characteristic are her weird ideas, but in the first panel, which is repeated twice almost unchanged, it’s probably Osaka’s slowness. When in a later episode the livelier character Tomo is shown dreaming her own “New Year’s dream”, one panel of her sleeping in bed is enough to indicate that the following panels show her dream.
So that was, if I got it right, a basic application of Barthes’s theory to a comic panel. A more interesting example would be a panel in which literal message and symbolic message are at odds with each other, or in which the linguistic message acts as relay rather than anchorage. I’m sure there are plenty of such examples once one starts looking.