Denotation, Connotation and Myth

Denotation: the explicit or direct meaning or set of meanings of a word or expression, as distinguished from the ideas or meanings associated with it. What it actually is. (ie ‘red’ denotes a certain colour, a ‘car’ denotes a vehicle for moving people and things around, the McDonalds golden arches denote a fast-food restaurant, the twin towers denoted a place of work in New York).

Connotation: the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning. (ie ‘red’ connotes danger/passion/communism, a ‘car’ connotes freedom, the McDonalds arches can connote ‘americanisation’). This is very often cultural and can depend on context.

Myth: Roland Barthes in ‘Mythologies’ explores this further by looking at the mechanisms through which meanings are produced and circulated. He is interested in ‘how’ things mean.

‘Mythologies’ (1957) contains 54 short articles on a variety of subjects and trends that took place in France in the 1950s. He looks at film, newspapers, magazines, events, photographs, toys and popular pastimes such as tourism and wrestling.

He is interested in how apparently apolitical activities are expressive of certain ideological positions.

This is Roland Barthes famous example of exploring myth with a cover of ‘Paris Match’.

For Barthes, Myth subtly obscures, distorts and hides truth and reality. So much so that the reality is robbed from us. Barthes argues that myth functions to naturalise an ideology.

“It is now possible to complete the semiological definition of myth in a bourgeois society:  myth is depoliticized speech. One must naturally understand political in its deeper meaning, as describing the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their power of making the world [….] Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. [….] In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”

^Barthes. Mythologies (1957), selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 142-143. Excerpt from chapter “Myth Today”.

When analysing texts it is important to consider the following: colour, age, gender, race, looks, beauty, nationality, nature, technology, mannerisms, eye contact/gaze, composition. As well as these, we must be aware of what we dont see.


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