Project 3.5: Deconstruction, Derrida, Truly Madly Deeply

Project 3.5: Deconstruction, Derrida, Truly Madly Deeply
  • Search for more notes on Deconstruction and makes notes in your blog. Then put what you have noticed into practise on an image, film, some literature or piece of music.

Please see my notes on Derrida and deconstruction for the first part of this project. Here I will deconstruct Truly Madly Deeply because the advert I have chosen for A3 contains the strapline, “Truly Madly Thinly”, a direct reference to the film, and so it will be useful to link back to.

Brief synopsis

Truly Madly Deeply is a film about two characters, Nina and Jamie.  Jamie has died suddenly from a sore throat (unusual in our day), and Nina is experiencing grief but finding it difficult to move on. Struggling to come to terms with the loss, she has sunk into depression; her flat is falling apart, it is infested with rats, and she is missing days at work. Lots of men seem to be attracted to Nina but she’s not interested. Jamie reappears in her life one day and they have a heartfelt reunion. The relief to have Jamie back is huge. Jamie is almost the same as he is in life except for the fact he is freezing, so Nina must keep the flat very hot all the time which is uncomfortable for her. Nina misses days at work without realising it whilst they spend time together.  Once she returns to work Jamie starts inviting more dead people into the home and also fixes things up, rearranges them, but the rat infestation is fixed as rats are apparently terrified of ghosts. Nina begins to view the relationship more realistically, accepts that is wasn’t perfect and that Jamie was in fact sometimes a bit annoying and overbearing. The ghosts start to become annoying as they take over her house and Nina realises in an instant when she acts as birth partner to her friend that life is for the living. She connects with a man she meets in a cafe briefly and although she goes on a short date with him, she can only allow herself to go out with him properly and then home to his place once she’s accepted the death of Jamie. Jamie and his ghost friends watch Nina go and are pleased they have succeeded in helping Nina to let go of the past. It’s sad for Jamie (the audience must assume) but he seems content with the outcome, since it would seem that his reappearance was all about achieving this outcome in the first place.

Stages of grief

Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s grief cycle probably underlies some of the plot structure in this film, perhaps unconsciously, but I suspect not. Ross identified denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance as the key stages in the grieving process.  A person might not experience these in any particular order and may only touch on one aspect whilst wallowing in another.  A person may also experience each stage several times, swinging between each of the them repeatedly.  In the model, a person cannot resolve the loss until they have experienced and ‘worked through’ each stage.  Nina goes through each of the stages.

It is a neat and tidy model that appears to have a beginning, middle and end, much like the stories we watch on-screen. However, some therapists have dismissed the model suggesting it can’t really be substantiated. Instead, people find ways to cope, or they don’t. My father, for instance, never found a way to deal with his divorce and spent the last 30 years of his life depressed and angry about the loss of my mother. Others cope extremely well and resolve to get on with life relatively simply, perhaps always missing the person they have lost, but finding ways to live without them in a satisfactory way, which may or may not include a new person. I have experienced grief three times, first following a relatively late miscarriage, then with the death of my father, and when I went through an extremely toxic and bitter divorce. The pain in each was immense and my sanity was tested each time. The divorce was by far the most difficult and from the moment I knew it was on the cards I felt lost in a place that was absolutely terrifying and deeply traumatising.  Truly, madly deeply, indeed, but without the bittersweet and tidy ending expressed in the film. Grief is in fact different for everyone and for each experience. Kubler Ross’s model perhaps fails to recognise the variants.

Nevertheless I enjoyed the film, recognising and identifying with signs of deep grief, carried away on an emotional journey to the song the characters sing together, and perhaps feeling some form of cathartic recognition.  I found the rotting rat element extremely interesting.  Nina realises she has a rat infestation and gets someone in to leave poison out for them. As I went through the breakup of my own marriage we lived in a flat that also had an infestation of mice. It was awful.They were everywhere and we lived at the end of a terrace which is where rodents are known to congregate and make their nests, apparently in a type of cul-de-sac. So when the poison was put down for them mid summer, despite assurances from the company that it would not smell, it absolutely did. A reek of death permeated our home as the marriage died, and the same thing happens in Nina’s home as she comes to terms with her lover’s death. Her sister comments on the smell.  As she begins to accept Jamie’s death the live rat’s return, signifying an end to her denial. My own denial did not resolve itself so neatly.

Tropes in films/TV shows

Deconstruction asks us to look at stories and unpick the mythical elements from the real. In this story there is much that I can relate to; the virtuosic performance from Juliet Stevenson is one, even though her representation offers a short hand for life, and is therefore simplified. Stevenson is able to convincingly portray someone who is not coping with the pain and anguish of her loss. However, her very emotional expressions in the therapist’s room are probably more ‘filmic’ than might occur in reality. Everyone is different and so express grief differently. The influence of Hollywood culture means therapists and laypeople might be tempted to think that all that snot and crying in the therapist’s chair is the ultimate goal for a ‘satisfactory grief process’. Culture tries to homogenise human feelings and expressions. (I do not say this pejoratively). Grief in other cultures is expressed in alternative ways. Collective ‘keening’ – pulling one’s hair our and wailing together might be more usual but would seem very strange to us, for instance. The interface of reality we grow up in gives us a form to live with. This form is what we recognise as culture and is subject to change and evolution. Films promote some aspects of culture as does other media in the way in which religion used to. Sometimes the formulas are unhelpful as they may not address reality, or be too simplistic.  The formulas we recognise in films may prevent us from actually moving through life effectively but I may only think that because I have grown up in a culture of therapy. Each culture has different ways of promoting an existential interface.

The following are a list of conventional tropes in the film listed by, along with very brief notes by me beside each one.


  • Bittersweet ending – Nina has gone through the different stages of grief and having done so she is ready to move on. Luckily for her she meets someone entirely suitable – although in fact they barely meet – she simply looks at him across a room and there is an instant connection. Although she’s extremely rude on their first date, meeting him hours late, (before mobile phones) and then says she can’t stay anyway, they do meet again and by the end of the film the future looks bright for them. In reality, people may or may not find ‘the right’ partner so easily after the loss of one. In fact, the idealisation of relationships in this film might be an unhelpful aspect of modern culture. Love relationships in reality are difficult and require compromise and constant attention in order to continue well. What actually happens following a loss is that someone might enter into a totally inappropriate relationship, or be like my great-aunt, who never met anyone after her air pilot ‘beaux’ died in action in WW2. I also know of someone who has been through a string of disastrous relationships following her decision to leave her husband. Films perpetuate the myth of the happy ever after. Love relationships are defined by culture as explored in a thesis I have posted previously, in relation to the long-term project I am working on, girlhood.
  • Cast showing off (virtuoso performances contradictory to Brechtian ‘making you think’) – The film was specifically written for Juliet Stevenson by Anthony Mingella and he included aspects that would allow her to show off her talents such as singing and playing the piano.  In Brechtian terms this type of performance hinders any attempt at a collaborative process and the story becomes more about the actor than the underlying themes the story might be attempting to address. This would in his eyes get in the way of making an audience think. The film, despite its sad subject matter, is a feel-good film with manipulates feelings rather than engaging our minds or prompts us to action.
  • Cruel to be kind – Jamie in the film returns in order to allow Nina to move on. To do this he must make her see that living with a house full of ghosts is not helpful in life and actually she will short change herself unless she can find a way past it. He does this by filling her house with strange dead men and telling her some home truths, rearranging her house. In fact, this may be tied to myth – that you can’t live well unless you let go through this specific and formulaic process of letting go. Cut Loose by Nan Bauer-Maglin is a book containing essays by people dealing with the loss of long-term relationship and the reality is far more variable and nuanced than the films would have us believe. It’s worth a read and is evidence of a world that is far messier than the films represent. The problem with films is they simplify complex situations and make us think reality can be formulaic, but mostly life doesn’t fit into neat story lines and often has no resolution.
  • Dogged nice guy – of course the man Nina meets is terribly nice and seems perfect for her! In reality no one is perfect. People are difficult, mad, complex and awkward and the older you get the more that seems to be as people have to cope with all the stuff life throws at them.
  • Elegant classical musicians  – this seemed to me about class. The film is about privately educated middle class English people with cultural capital, but with a good dose of shabby chic to make them approachable. The film is in fact described as the “thinking man’s Ghost”, a hollywood blockbuster with a similar theme. It is aimed at a different audience, slightly less populist.
  • Ghosts and impossible goals  – this is pure fantasy. Ghosts have existed in stories for as long as stories have been around. An obsession with an afterlife is human and underlies our navigation of consciously knowing we will all die one day. In reality no one comes back from the dead. It would be horrific! A dead soul wandering round your house and moving in with you is probably as far from what anyone would want as it possible to be. However, coming to terms with death or endings is extremely difficult. I know someone who believed she had swallowed her late husband and he continued to live inside her, speaking through her. Grief can indeed make a person feel and appear quite ‘mad’.
  • Her heart will go on – Films and stories often tell us that life will continue and you will heal. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes people don’t move on. Sometimes they are destroyed entirely by a loss. People are known to have committed suicide as it can be so awful, although of course, that is thankfully rare; but the issues surrounding this are complex. The film and the trope is simplistic.
  • Hypercompetant side kick – Nina can do everything well. This seems to tie in with the elegant classical musician trope and might be considered class-based. It is also part of  a habit of separating women out into two unrealistic types. Idealised and perfect on one hand or slutty and degenerate on the other. It is different to more current trope I have noticed which presents women in a less idealised way. Examples of this are BBC 3’s Fleabag or Netflix production, Love  – both of which show women who are fallible, chaotic, flawed, self-destructive, challenging, attractive and intelligent all at once. Both newer TV programmes challenge the idealisation of women which exists in society and is sometimes cited as a trigger for emotional abuse. Women are idealised and when they fail to live up to those notions blamed and denigrated as being not good enough.
  • Our ghosts are different –  The site I’ve taken this lists from suggest several reasons for ghosts hanging around and I suspect the ‘Power Of Love’ is the trope most relevant here. Jamie’s love for Nina is so great that his ghostly return is the only thing that can help her realise acceptance and move on.
  • Street musician – Nine sees one

To summarise the film provides a western-centric story about love, the process of grief, moving on to a new partner, and does so in way that is neat and tidy, much like the Kubler Ross model of grief that therapists have used to steer people through loss. It is a helpful film in that it normalises and shares the sense of madness one can experience when grieving. But in reality the idea of love is more complex as is the process of coming to terms with loss. The film romanticises grief. I found grief to be entirely unromantic. It is lonely, bleak, depressing and extremely difficult.

The title and story connect both love and grief to madness. The madness connection is crucial. When I was at the height of my own grief I discussed how I felt like I was going mad with a therapist and she alluded to grief as a form of madness, as well as love being so. Madness on one hand is seen as an undesirable state of mind from which we need to be cured or when connected to love, potentially beneficial but also dangerous and destructive. In fact it would seem madness is a ‘normal’ part of human experience and perhaps not ‘mad’ at all but a real and understandable reaction to existence. Charles Lindholm looks at this connection and how useful the term madness might be in his paper, Romantic Love and Anthropology. (2006)

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Image (c)SJField 2015



Maglin, N. (2006). Cut loose. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.


Project 3.4: Author, What Author?

Project 3.4: Author, What Author?
  • Look at Sherrie Levine’s work and the work of Cindy Sherman (or another two artists)
  • Is the birth of the reader at the expense of the author and is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?
  • Does any of this explain or validate the unregulated nature of the internet?
  • Does this invalidate the interest of the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?

I have already explored some of Sherrie Levine’s work in A2 and have been thinking and recording my thoughts since receiving feedback about the question of ‘meaning’. In my previous post I look at the subject of artists following capitalism’s example and appropriating signs, draining them of their original meaning, transforming the signification or attempting to nullify it, as Levine might have done. Whether or not the meaning is drained to zero is a contentious question perhaps, but original meaning undoubtedly becomes watered down in many cases and transformed, as is seen in advertisements in particular. It would also generally be useful when looking at meaning in texts to consider unconscious motivation from authors and the groups they represent, as well as more knowing intentions, which allows for layered interpretation.

Cindy Sherman is one of the most well-known appropriation artists, taking recognisable symbols from cinema, in particular female representations, and re-representing them in her photographs.  The reader is faced with an empty signifier since the recognisable role is minus subject, plot, text but still can be instantly recognised and imagined by the reader. We see the signifier and are invited to fill in the landscape/context through our inclination to give meaning to the signs we recognise. Women, like all humans, are handed roles to play and one crucial way for that to occur is through media. Real life is influenced by the film and TV shows we see. As someone who was given a large number of books over the course of my childhood by my father, which all contained pictures of movie stars from the early years of cinema onwards, I can recognise how these images played a role in shaping my own subjectivity and intersubjectivity. I expect one might be able to argue I felt compelled through the years to unconsciously follow something of Hester’s script in Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea, despite having never seen it. We conform to the roles we are handed, often without question. Sherman plays with this idea and transforms herself in her images, appropriating from the cinema, leaving the script to be written by the reader, and the reader is mostly  bound to follow the patterns/stories/structures that exist in society.

Is the birth of the reader at the expense of the author? Is there anything of “Aura” left?

These are two very different questions.

If one thinks of language as an external resource, then the stories language allows us to tell and hear, the myths that enable humans to make sense of some aspect of existence, are external too. The very many flood myths from Gilgamesh to Noah is an example of a story that has existed for centuries across cultures and time spans, even though the characters are given different names and the plot minor alterations – at heart they are essentially the same story. (I wonder if this example can be used to suggest contradictions to the argument that language and stories exist externally.  I am also mindful of  Jung’s collective consciousness and his belief in the value of an internal mythical life which must have some bearing on all of this.)

I looked at Death of an Author in A2, and Barthes in that essay asserts that the author reaches up to the ultimate ‘ready-mades’ – words and stories. “…text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture…. if he (the author) wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a ready-made dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (Barthes, 1967) In any case, one might be able to suggest the author is ‘dead’ and the reader has greater responsibility over interpretation in a way that didn’t happen in the past, but the way in which our society is organised shows us that individuals are still very much lauded as beacons of virtue, referred to as ‘immortals’ even. Nevertheless, questions surrounding copyright and ownership are current, especially as simply putting anything online leaves it so vulnerable to being purloined and repurposed. (I’m not sure a magazine dedicated to exploring this issue managed to raise the finance it needed to get started.)

Regardless of the salience of the notion surrounding ‘authorship’, nowadays there are very many narratives available to tap into in the modern world because society is so complex. Perhaps because of that complexity, the authors of today’s art often leave a great deal to the reader by providing extremely open-ended work that can be interpreted to suit the reader’s world view . In smaller more cohesive societies the variations would have been far more limited, perhaps without any room for question whatesover and Foucault suggests as much. I am thinking about The Continuum Concept where we are told the ‘subjects’ each have very clear roles and no-one seemingly question them. Individual authors in that setting are unlikely as the community provides societal authorship as it did once in our own society. “The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualism in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.” (Foucault, 1969; 949) (The Continuum Concept is highly subjective and one has to tread carefully about how accurate it might be but it is a useful reference to a way of existing that is very different to our own, and may offer an example of something akin to how we might once have lived).

What’s more, pinpointing who an author might be isn’t always straightforward even in recent history.  Famously, Brecht, has much to thank the many women he worked with throughout his career, such as Elisabeth Hauptmann and Magarete Steffin for instance, but his name still presides over all of his work. He will always be Bertolt Brecht, the great author, and those other names are only known by very interested people. Foucault tells us that in contradiction to how things once were, “We now ask of each poetic or fictional text; from where does it come?” (Foucault, 1969; 951) The answer tells us what we might be allowed to think about the text. And Brecht’s authorship, a man’s, tells us it’s OK. We can trust it. The following Guardian article reports how a woman author elicited many more responses from agents when she used a male pseudonym so that particular issue persists. Foucault also tells us that authorship is a result of transgressive discourse, and is borne out of the need to apportion blame when ideas that challenged the status quo emerged.

Foucault raises the question of individuality and autonomy which is explored by philosophers and scientists today a great deal as neuroscience reveals how our brains work more accurately than before. Here is one example in an article about how there is probably no first-person point of view, “Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.”(Rosenberg, 2016). The book I read before starting this module, The Ego Trick also looks at how our brains are primed to make us think we have a mind, and that illusion is a result of social and physical functions evolved to further our genetic existence.

Regarding the question of aura, I think this is too complex and challenging to write about effectively here. Is that a cop out?  I just think one could write for a very long time about it and still not find a satisfactory answer. We certainly kneel down to kings and queens, and the gods that we believed appointed them, far less easily than we once did. We have new gods in the form of materialism and celebrity, which provide a different form of aura. Benjamin saw the weakening of ‘aura’ as a good thing. Art was becoming democratised in his eyes as I discuss in section 1. However, something powerful can and does happen when communing with some art. Even reproductions of art can make us cry, or the hair stand up on the backs of our necks, or convey something inexplicable and mysterious. I don’t think it is fair to say reproduced art doesn’t have that ability. But its true, it doesn’t come to us a in a cathedral with incense and chanting and religious rhetoric being sung at us while we cope with never-ending starvation and death and inexplicable disease, and beer for breakfast as the norm.

Does this explain or invalidate the unregulated nature of the internet. 

What is ‘this’ in the sentence? The problem with the idea of aura, or the fact that the idea of author is subject to more scrutiny that before? Or that fact that there is a scientific belief/knowledge that autonomy of thought may well be nothing more than fantasy/illusion?

I think the ‘power’ of the internet to give individuals more of a voice than they had before is over-played and over-imagined.  Of course, to say there has been no effect would be foolhardy – however, the way in which the powerful companies who dominate the web use code to categorise and market to and for people stops it from being the free for all some imagine. Yes, we now receive tweets and messages from people claiming we can self publish and be happy, but self publishing has always been around. It was referred to as vanity publishing. It is probably true that the opportunity to self publish is greater than it ever has been, but even so, becoming published and selling what you’ve published, or even having anyone read it is still remarkably hard work. Growing up in an environment that fosters self-belief still plays a role as it ever did and we seem to going backwards rather than forward in that regard.

The internet is unregulated, so anyone can publish stuff. But so what? What does publishing things on a webpage do for you? You would have had to get things seen by someone with influence pre-internet days too, just as its helpful now. The younger generation don’t assume they can’t publish and use the internet at will, and just get on with making their lives happen. But as ever, access to technology and self-belief play an important part. Social circumstance still have an impact.

In the end I think the internet is relevant but not quite as much as one might think. It has been the source of an economic and social revolution and has been assimilated into our lives remarkably quickly. But it’s just another means of transmitting information and it happens more quickly and easily now. (Strange how data and now money can be sent across the world in a jot but people don’t have the same ability, and for some without access to much that we take for granted in the west, it’s as hard as it ever was.) And just because it’s easier to get work ‘out there’ nowadays, it doesn’t mean the actual making of the work is any easier. Most blogs that are started are abandoned soon after and raising funds to self publish is not an easy task. The economy has changed because of the internet but the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and the gap between the two growing. So if the internet is meant to be this great leveller and a democratic process I think it has failed. Internet shminternet.

Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s intent at the time of making?

No. The artist is making because the artist must make. What happens thereafter is that the artist has a choice about letting go and allowing the work to go forth into the world and become whatever it is that the readers will make of it, regardless of the medium used to help disseminate the work. Louise Bourgeois’ book of plates and writing, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, contains a poem about a man who

“was not interested in being loved

or protected because he was interested in

something else.

Consequently at an early age he

slammed the door and never came back.

Later on she died but he did not know it”

The poem can interpreted on several levels, but one reading out of many, points to how an artist must let go of their finished works and let them be authored by the readers who find them thereafter. (Karshens and Schampers, Cluitmans, Mayhew and Schwartz, 2011) And it perhaps references how painful a process that might be at times. I saw on Instagram how photographer, Jennifer McClure refers to her editing process as killing her ‘babies’. It is very hard to let go of some images, I know.

So, of course the answer to the question must be an empathic no.

Image (c)SJField 2016


Cluitmans, L., Mayhew, A. and Schwartz, J. (2011). He disappeared into complete silence. Haarlem: De Hallen.

Alex Rosenburg, 2016, Why You don’t Know Your Own Mind, The New York Times, (accessed 2 August 2016)

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics. London: Routledge.

Micheal Foucault, What is an Author? 1969, Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003). Art in theory, 1900-2000. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Alison Flood, 2015, Sexism in Publishing, The Guardian (accessed 3 August 2016)





Notes & Project 3.3: Myth is a type of speech (Cont…)

Notes & Project 3.3: Myth is a type of speech (Cont…)

Some further notes on Myth Today followed by a deconstructed image:

“It is this constant hide and seek between meaning and the form that defines myth” (Barthes, 1973;)  

The words, “More’s the pity for us mortals who hanker after meaning and will read it in at a throw” from my previous feedback has stayed with me. The notion rankles with me for two reasons: we all go the same way in the end, every one of us, so all of us are ordinary mortals, despite the very human desire to elevate some and denigrate others. And secondly, to endeavour to make meaning is a human function evolved over many, many thousands of years. We are eusocial beings with an evolutionary adaptive purpose and “desire to share mental states and inner feelings” (Hrdy, 2009;38)  and have developed a complex means of doing so which far surpasses other apes. So, I suppose what I’m wondering still is, are those appropriation artists I have discussed in A2 trying to nullify meaning? Presenting the world with objects that aim to confuse and short circuit the drive to make sense and interpret form, as I see clearly in Dada. Nonsensical poems written in made up language seems an obvious example. I can recognise in Jenny Holzer’s Redacted series that the whole question of meaning and form is explored but I find it harder to make sense of this in Charlesworth’s or Prince’s work. Aside from that, I find the notion of relinquishing ‘meaning’ as meaningful and valid upsetting and challenging for any number of reasons.

“history drains out of the form ..()… will be wholly absorbed by concept. (The concept) is determined, it is at once historical and intentional; it is the motivation which drives the myth to be uttered. Grammatical exemplarity, French impartiality, are the drives behind the myth.” (referencing the Paris Match photograph Barthes deconstructs in Myth Today) and “Through the concept it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth.”  Perhaps my interpretation of Barthes’ words is askew, but perhaps such a mindset reinforces a lack of responsibility, and potentially prevents a society from feeling able to make changes, or at the very least begin to question dominant myths. I do realise this is difficult territory as of course history is abundant with swathes of peoples being at the mercy of greater or lesser powerful rulers who have obliterated those they seek to rule.  but it is also abundant with challengers to those rulers. It feels like Barthes is suggesting the myth is impossible to see beyond.

Barthes goes not to say, “Truth to tell, what is invested in the concept is less reality than a certain knowledge of reality; in passing from the meaning to the form, the image loses some knowledge; the better to receive the knowledge in the concept….”  Again, I question this. Who is the arbitrator of the actual reality? Reality and ideas about what is right and what is wrong, for instance, change and evolve constantly. So who is the ultimate arbitrator of truth and actual reality. Nobody. Unless you believe in some form of God.

And so to the final part of the project; annotate an artwork with the following in mind:

“The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the window-pane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparency of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full. To wonder at this contradiction I must voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, I must focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics: to sum up, I must pass from the state of reader to that of mythologist.” (This above is extremely difficult to decipher but I think I am helped by the following lines.) “And it is again this duplicity of the signifier which determines the characters of the signification. We now know that myth is a type of speech defined by its intention (I am a grammatical example) much more than by its literal sense (my name is lion)”. Below is another french image also related to France. Here there are social and historical myths some of which  I suspect lead into some of what Barthes is talking about although I can’t quite figure that out yet.

Working Title/Artist: Madame Georges Charpentier (née Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier, 1848–1904) aDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1878 Digital Photo File Name: DT49.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 11/25/2013



The picture shows a family, the wife of a rich and influential publisher who was painted by Renoir, dated 1878. It has a long working title, “Madame Georges Charpentier (Marguérite-Louise Lemonnier, 1848–1904) and Her Children, Georgette-Berthe (1872–1945) and Paul-Émile-Charles (1875–1895)” and the subject used her influence, according The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art‘s website, to ensure the painting was included in the 1879 Paris Salon, an annual exhibition. I find the painting interesting for two reasons. Firstly it is a family portrait without the father, and a relaxed informal one at that.  It is like a captured photograph that would defy all the formal posing and staring into the camera that I have always assumed was the norm during that era (although my assumptions are constantly being challenged as I look at more and more historical art). I have noticed that many paintings from that era use that informal style, fragments from time, a moment captured. It’s interesting to think that painting did what photography could so easily do but didn’t usually until later.

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Before I discuss the other main thing that captured my attention,  I should reference the Japanese influenced decor, as the site states, “In the Japanese-style sitting room of her Parisian townhouse…”. There was, according to Wikipedia, a strong political and trade connection between Japan and France during the 19th century. Japanese art had a huge influence on the work of the impressionists and in notably as seen here the “freedom in placing the subject off-centre” (Wikipedia), which came as a surprise to me, as it implies that Western artists previously placed subjects in the middle of the frame. I didn’t realise that and find it hard to believe as it goes against things I have long held to be true and leaned at school. Whatever else, the composition in this picture places the focal point, the boy, just off centre and he is framed by his mother and older sister. He looks like a little girl but he isn’t, and his physical language suggests he is the lead in this image. I can’t work out his expression.  Is his look adoring or a little scathing. At first I think it’s loving and he looks up to the girl. But then I look again and it seems the opposite. Its hard to tell but perhaps that’s just the style of painting and not intentional. The mother’s expression is perhaps a little vacant, and almost submissive to the child, as if she is there only to protect and serve the child. I can’t tell whether she is looking out of the frame or at the daughter. In a way it looks as if the mother and the boy who looks so much like a girl are ganged up against the daughter whose body language is slightly defensive, clinging to the dog and looking away from them. But then I look again and it might just be that because I can’t recognise the boy as a boy my mind finds it hard to recognise the gesture which is something I don’t usually struggle with.

At first, aside from the interesting cultural practise of dressing the boy in the same style and way as the girl, I thought this painting was not much more than an example of a vanity project whereby a rich woman and her children were able to have themselves painted and flattered by a highly esteemed artist. The room is painted to look sumptuous and indicates wealth, style and class. It shows a family who have access to high quality decor that is expansive and supposedly broad minded, as in knowledgable and welcoming of other cultures, or westernised traces (however, history shows the French to be otherwise elsewhere in the world). But the more I look at it the more it seems like some sort of comment, intentional or otherwise, on the relations between the sexes in families. The boy and girl look identical.  But they are not. One will grow up to have, as far as is possible, a significant amount of agency over his life. (Does anyone have that much agency, one wonders, but perhaps comparatively speaking.) He is male, the son of rich and connected people, and protected by his mother. The other is female and will grow up with very different expectations and despite being older than the boy, already looks like she is lower in stature and afforded a different level of maternal protection and pride to her brother. I don’t think I can say what Renior was expressing here with any certainty. Did he mean what I see or is that simply my own reading?  It’s so hard to know. Feminism was not even remotely on any one’s agenda although I am sure women must have felt frustrated which is what led them to insist on some level of emancipation a few decades later. There is myth relating to the way in which children are presented here, one that does not tally with the myths we relate to our own children with today. The blurring of sexuality in the early years is still extremely strong here, as I suspect it was for a while.  But for me, a child born in the 70s and who had three boys in the 2000s I found it extremely surprising to learn that this child in the centre was a boy and not a girl. Such a blurring is incredibly strange to my own eyes. No matter how long I look the picture I find it hard to see a boy rather than a girl. The separation of the sexes and sexuality in children is something that I think we in Western modern times have very hard time with. And the confusion for children over what is acceptable to feel or not feel seems to cause all sorts of problems, for everyone, especially when the child feels they don’t fit into the gender binaries that have been considered the ‘norm’ for so long.  Nowadays there is a fast emerging awareness and that gender and sexuality don’t always conform so simply. But it seems very strange to me that differences were entirely, dress and hair-wise at any rate, ironed out for you  children in France int the late 19th century.

This is a painting of rich people for rich people to look at. That some should be rich and live in such comfort while so many others don’t was and still is considered perfectly acceptable and desirable by those living as such. It is a myth that still prevails and I am not sure if this painting questions it or accepts and perpetuates it. I think suspect the latter. The painting though is also oddly one of two different genders as children and suggests that they are both the same when patently history tells us that this is not true. The painting’s form through is ambiguous about this. It is difficult to read the expressions and I can really only use guess work and imagination to grab at meaning which makes sense to me, much of which I suppose is relative and subjective.

For me about this painting is the fact that the boy looks to my eye like a little girl in every way and so my mind cannot settle on any meaning because I know it’s a boy. I think it confuses meaning although I can’t say if the artist meant for that to happen since it was the fashion at the time and would not have seemed odd. (I think).

Refs: (Accessed 26th July 2016)–Japan_relations_(19th_century)#Japanese_influences_on_France (Accessed 26th July 2016) (Accessed 19th July 2016)

Notes & Project 3.3: Myth is a type of speech

Notes & Project 3.3: Myth is a type of speech


“Structuralists search for ‘deep structures’ underlying the ‘surface features’ of sign systems: Levi-Strauss in myth, kinship rules and tokenism; Lacan in the unconscious; Barthes and Greimas in the ‘grammar’ of narrative.”

Chandler , Semiotics, 2001

Read Barthe’s Myth Today, respond to following questions;

Notes below and please also see previous notes on Myth Today here.

  • Look up Minou Drouet – controversial French child prodigy poet and author who wrote “Tree that I love”; a tree is often used by people in semantic arguments about notions of reality, what is real, language or objects, a tree is always a tree, except when it isn’t; i.e. at most basic a sign to indicate the collection of atoms that form the shape we come to recognise as tree, however, also a sign that offers up scope for various metaphors, i.e. growth, stability, rootedness, green credentials. Astroff’s conversation regarding the desolation of the forest in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is cited as an example of ecological foresight about the destruction of the planet, and it is true the words fit well with the current green concerns. However, directors often link the subtext in the well-known forestry monologue to Astroff’s sexual desire for Yelena
  • Roses and black pebbles – think about examples of elements within images that signify passions, emotions, or even events?  Windows – opaque, see through, closed or open – signify openness or opposite, eyes, seeing, net curtains can signify class, economic status, or hiding, privacy, curtain twitching; rain can signify weeping, or cleansing, storms can be indicative of passion, rage, fearful situation, danger, seaside – travel, holiday, distance between two parties; all signs signify something, and often they are common and unoriginal, but in advertising for instance that commonality makes them useful as universally understood containers of meaning. For instance an umbrella is seen as a means of protection and so used by insurance company, Legal & General in their logo.
  • Anti physis/pseudo-physis; ideology expressed through images which look benign but actually contain a constructed reality that adheres to the dominant ideology.  Breast milk versus bottled milk is a contentious subject that evokes feelings of guilt, depression, rage, and antipathy in mothers towards anyone with the opposite view-point.  It is hard to argue that capitalism has not appropriated female breasts  – supplanting their primary function, that of feeding babies, and turning them into a sign used in marketing campaigns to sell newspapers, plastic surgery, baby milk powder, cars, TV programmes, a way of life; an undermining of women of as people with minds, rather as objects to be owned etc…. Breasts in our society are sexualised and it is seen as entirely ‘natural’ but in other societies this seems laughable (Detwyller, 1995), and is just as idiosyncratic, if looked at through a detached, alienated lens, as feet being sexualised in Japan over the centuries.

From course folder …..And in your blog think carefully about the passage on Meaning & Form. “The meaning is always there to present the form, the form is always there to out distance the meaning”.  

The question of meaning:

All expression is a function of externalising internal and unconscious events. It does not happen in a vacuum or in isolation. Expression is action in relationship.

“Does meaning cause language (visual as well as literary) or is meaning the result of language? Is language a means of conveying the underlying and overarching truth, or do we understand to be true, that which language tells us is true?”

  • The words ‘reality’, ‘truth’, ‘human beings’ like all words are all symbols; signs for concepts, rather than the things themselves.
  • If reality is based on ‘perception’ guided by sign systems, some more reliable than others, rather than absolute ‘truths’, then meaning is constructed and understood by whatever systems are in place to express, communicate and understand ‘perception’
  • And  …”we live in world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organised”.(Loc 419)
  • However, as stated by Chandler, “...we need not accept the postmodernist stance that there is no external reality beyond sign systems, (but) studying semiotics can assist us to become more aware of the mediating roles of signs and the roles played by ourselves and others in constructing social realities.” (Loc 419) Materialist viewpoint (we are nothing but atoms and a sign system part of the illusion we are any more than that) may make scientific sense but doesn’t address notions that whatever illusion we exist within, it is very real to us, and to deny its reality risks reducing life to being entirely meaningless, perhaps rendering emotions such as empathy or grief for instance potentially defunct, however, empathy and grief, along with love, rage etc are key evolutionary adaptive behaviours relating to our development, behaviours that facilitate our continued development – the illusion matters and is what we are
  • Whether or not one accepts the post modern stance in its entirety or a less extreme view, Susanne Langer is quoted in Chandler’s book: “Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects… In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean” (Langar 1951, 61) (Loc 481) Therefore, language is conceptual and not physical, even though it helps to construct the perception of a physical reality.

Although I see language pertains to concepts rather than things, I am not sure I agree that language is not physical. I know she’s saying the word is not the thing, but the word is a physical response to the thing occurring in relationship to the thing, which makes language a physical manifestation of a relationship (I think). I am a bit confused by this. Isn’t language borne out of the physical self although rendered conceptual, but I question separating ‘mind’ from the physical?  Memory and concepts are held physically. Mind is physical. The structuralist argument is that concept becomes reality, thoughts and ideology become material structures, but are initially informed by the physical world, which might suggest that one without the other isn’t anything. So the question, “Does meaning cause language or language cause meaning?” perhaps has no answer either. I find it difficult to get away from the the idea that the production of language is a multilayered and organic process that is forever changing, evolving, feeding into and reflecting.  In the same way that death and life are not really separate things, rather different aspects of a process whereby genetic coding continues replicating. We can see ourselves as containers for that code’s immortality.  Like a fractal pattern, language can be seen as containment for expressive events either seemingly insignificant or the opposite of that, just as we are containers for the expression of genetic code’s immortality.

Expression is a reflexive response that occurs NOT in a vacuum, but rather organically, within the context of the paradigm in which expression is made and received. Rhetoric of all sorts comes about because someone is good at exploiting the responsive action of expression, be that speech, dance, photography or whatever else we humans do to ‘say something’, including staying silent, as in Cordelia’s response to Lear, when she refuses to make empty promises of love in return for land and power. Cordelia’s response, when she replies, “Nothing, my Lord”, when she’s asked to say how much she loves her father, is a powerfully manipulative (perhaps unconscious) behaviour that has a huge impact on Lear. It’s a mistake to read that response as benign.

Furthermore, rhetoric may be many things; it might be subversive, empty, hollow, or meaningful. And in some cases it’s what isn’t being said that conveys meaning. This is one of Lear’s central themes and is embodied in Regan & Goneril’s declaration of love for their father, King Lear, in exchange for land and power, and Cordelia’s refusal to speak beyond giving simple yes or no answers. Nevertheless, rhetoric can also stem from a place of genuine concern and desire to reveal problems, but with seemingly positive intentions, as indicated in a recent article in The Guardianplacing the blame for events, which were in part a result of rhetorical power, at technology’s door. “In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories.” The author goes on to say that, “At the same time, the levelling of the information landscape has unleashed new torrents of racism and sexism and new means of shaming and harassment, suggesting a world in which the loudest and crudest arguments will prevail. It is an atmosphere that has proved particularly hostile to women and people of colour, revealing that the inequalities of the physical world are reproduced all too easily in online spaces.” (Viner, 2016) The phrase “new torrents of racism and sexism” alarms me as such things have always been around. All news does not look the same on your phone, not if you follow different news sources, although, yes, technology will do its best to show you what it thinks you want to see and not much more. And in any case, all news looks the same on the Daily Mail page if that’s all you read. Yes, there is a new medium for transmitting the bile but the bile itself is not new. Nor are the lies being told to the public by those in power. The medium is new.  Lying, propaganda, bigotry are as old as humanity. And I would be interested to know how theories about social contagion and collective consciousness fit in with the premise that technology is responsible for the spread of ideas. Ideas do travel quickly, but I wonder if there is a case to be made that suggests ideas always did spread quickly and technology is a digital manifestation of something that went on anyway.  The difference now is that we can see it happening. It has been made visible by technology. The article by Viner is really intelligently written – I admire how well researched and ordered it is (I long to have that ability!) But ultimately, questioning the reliability of language is not a new phenomena. And the strength of Viner’s argument triggers in me a suspicion that there is rhetoric there which should be analysed and deconstructed before accepting it as a set of absolute truths. Shakespeare in Lear explores similar concerns over langauge and how words can be manipulated and exploited, and technology was a long way off when he addressed them.

Meaning is subject to relationship

As I discussed earlier, meaning is not only subject to intention, but formed in relationship. It is possible to say a thing and mean it explicitly, only to have one’s mind changed a moment later by a response from someone else. We see it all the time in arguments and debates and especially in teaching.

Student 1: “I think this art work is rubbish”.

Student 2: “Really, do you not see this and that about it?”

Student 1: “Oh yeah, I do!  OK.  I’ve changed my mind.  I like that art work.”

Student 2: “Hang on, I think you may have been right. I agree with some of your first position.”

Student 1: “Now I don’t know what to think. I like this about it but I don’t like that.”

Opinions change, become more complex and evolve, and that doesn’t make some statements any less true or false at the time of being said.

Expression is an action. “Meaning is not transmitted to us – we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware” (loc 417). We respond and adjust our thoughts.  The action occurs in relation to other actions, past and present, genuine or imagined, and are always reflexive even when thought of as controlled, despite huge effort being made through the semiotic academic project to understand and control that reflexive action. The propagation of myths is ‘action’, responsive and organic, and the result of a shift elsewhere, another reflexive action.

What happens when structures change?

Structures have changed a great deal since the enlightenment. For many centuries we existed within a reality that adhered to The Great Chain of Being,  a didactic ideology  – underscored by a powerful sign system i.e., religious texts, religious art, religious figures which supported and perpetuated the position of those in power. As science and enlightenment emerged those ideologies were and continue to be challenged. A new reality has taken over, secular and science based, supported by the texts of Darwin, Dawkins and E O Wilson for instance, rather than by biblical myth.

What prevents the newer science based realities from being seen as myth, or indeed being myth?  And what else drives modern secular myths? According to Marxism, industry and capitalism do. Whatever is responsible for driving new myths or truths, structures have changed and realities that exist within them have changed too, (although history has a habit of hanging around long after the fact, and there have been some arguments along those lines in relation to attitudes left over from years of English Empire still affecting how people think today, following the referendum result which are discussed in the following articles.

Out of scientific and less magical thinking, come the Structuralists and Post Structuralists and within that, the semioticians, including Saussare and Barthes, all of whom aim(ed) to deconstruct our ‘reality’, expressed through signs for there is no other way; “we learn through semiotics that …()…we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organised” (loc 425). Whether or not the sign is the only reality, or not, is debated. To suggest there is no reality without the sign might be argued as reductionist and is questioned. “Theorists who veer towards the extreme position of philosophical idealism (for whom reality is purely subjective and is constructed in our use of signs) may see no problem which has itself been described as idealist (e.g. Culler 1985, 117). Those drawn towards epistemological realism (for whom a single objective reality exists indisputably and independently outside us) would challenge it. According to this stance, reality may be distorted by the process of mediation involved in apprehending it, but such processes play no part in constructing the world.” (Loc 1234) (Whatever else is true, the constructed thought processes that have grown out of our own Western history don’t always apply so easily in cultures that have not been part of the history which formed it.  Which is why it is not always appropriate, for instance, to analyse cultures outside of the West in Freudian terms as the lens through which that takes place can lead to projection and an imposition of one cultural view onto another. I have written far too much but feel the way in which we interpret life through a heavily influenced Freudian lens is critical  – I think we cover this later.)

Returning to the question asked in the folder, “Is language a means of conveying the underlying and overarching truth, or do we understand to be true, that which language tells us is true?”  

“Theorists differ over whether the system precedes and determines usage (structural determinism) or whether usage precedes and determines the system (social determinism)” (loc 393)

This questions seems impossible to answer definitively not least because of the choice of the word “truth” which can in certain contexts be contentious.  (Although, despite arguments for the opposite view, not in all cases.) There is a drive for authenticity in acting which is described as truth, but that is not the same as the idea of truth which exists between two opposing sides. Both might see their own reality as the truth. As for the debate between structural or social determinism, as with all deterministic arguments, they appear to only look from the bottom up which ignores other influences. Are there not many more factors involved? And as I suggested earlier, the process is organic, so perhaps it is limiting to suggest any form of absolute determinism. The best we can do is to examine how language functions, perhaps relying on semiotics, and train ourselves to respond to the signs we have learned to trust in a considered fashion, as well as retaining some degree of scepticism since there is always the possibility that the sign system we choose to rely on might in time prove to be just as misleading as ones we have previously rejected. In any case, Barthes suggests we “might purport to discriminate … (but that)… would be illusory”. (1975; 51)

Changeability of meaning vs fixedness of the symbol

Meaning within a sign is subject to change, “form and concept are inseparable” (Loc 2166) In the past a Swastika did not mean ‘Nazi’.  Now it does.  It is impossible for someone to separate that history even when one is told about its former use. Context and history feed into the emotional response a sign (word or other) triggers. A more mundane, less emotive example might be the word “Smartie” or the visual image of one. Is a Smartie always and only only ever a Smartie? A child may be trained, using behaviorism techniques, to use the potty with a reward of a Smartie.  The Smartie and all related cousins in the form of confectionary/chocolatey treats then potentially embody concepts surrounding far more than a sweet.  Even the fact I suggest the Smartie is a treat is indicative of the social construct we place around sweets. In the case of the potty learning treat, the reward  becomes unconsciously tied to the relationship with the parent, development of a sense of self, unconscious feelings about separation, learning, relationship with food, sugar, treats etc.  Before potty training, the Smarties might just have been seen as a thing to eat (although if a parent chooses to use this technique then Smarties are likely already to have been established as a ‘treat’, something potentially bad, something potentially used as proxy for attention, love, and punishment by its absence etc.) Potentially, a whole world of mythical thought becomes tied up in a single small round coloured bit of candy covered chocolate. And so meaning is rendered subjective.  A Smartie may mean many things to various people and even to the same person. Feelings associated with a heavily reward-based behaviourally-engineered upbringing to one person, or a joyful reminder of childhood parties to another. Or both.

Expression is an action

I am constantly reminded while studying this section of the course about a time when I was in a play at drama school. It was Women of Troy by Euripides. We had a strenuous and highly physical rehearsal process. I was in the chorus.  One night I opened my mouth and understood not only every word but every syllable that came out of it.  The ‘meaning’ felt as if it were flowing through me, as if Euripides’ spirit (for want of a better word) in the form of his words had allowed some historical event and a woman’s personal response to it to travel through history and emerge through my being in that moment. It was the weirdest experience I ever had in a play.  It was an illusion but one that was made possible using a set of sign systems and conventions of a theatre.  But the most important thing here for me is the fact I understood each and every part of each word I spoke.  Not just intellectually, but throughout my entire body, emotionally, physically.  It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, not least because I knew ostensibly I was in a play so safe, even though in that instant I knew, as much as it is possible from that distance in time and place, what it would feel like for me to be one of those women being dragged away from their homes. My mouth opened and out came the expression that Euripides had sent us through the centuries, via a translation, shaped and modelled as English words in this instance, which were made up of a collection of sounds that came together as something real and true, but were the ultimate outcome of a collective, highly physical experience in the form of a rehearsal period where we (the actors, director and movement director, plus Eurpides and the translator) embedded the words into these very particular movements. Together we all contributed in a relationship towards creating a physical form, out of which came this incredibly fluent meaning. The language we used consisted of words (translated), physical experience, muscle memory, thought, empathy, imagination, history, being human, actual knowledge, learned knowledge and presumably other elements too which I may not have access to. The sounds (phenomes) each had meaning which went beyond the meaning of words. The words contained the expressive responses which had been internalised and then transformed as they erupted externally in the form of speech and movement, augmented with costume, lights, positioning, all signs.  We became the form, enabling some meaning to be shared. And the meaning resonates still, in me and anyone I tell about it at the very least.

Annotated art work to follow

References (accessed 15 July 2016) (accessed 15 July 2016) (accessed 15 July 2016)

Stuart-Macadam, P. and Dettwyler, K. (1995). Breastfeeding. New York: Aldine De Gruyter. (accessed 15 July 2016)

Chandler, D, 2004. Semiotics,

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.

Dawkins, R, 2014. Selfish Gene Explained, YouTube, (Accessed 14th July 2016) (accessed 18 July 2016)

Project 3.2: Structural analysis (3)

Project 3.2: Structural analysis (3)

…continued from Structural Analysis (1)

Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:

Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so


I have chosen this portrait because I do love how a great male artist is naked, doing something relatively benign albeit fairly intimate, usually private, and yet he communicates a sense of ease, even though his laughter and expression suggest he wasn’t entirely in on the decision to have his photograph taken while in the bath. (I feel it only fair to say that Picasso allowed himself to be photographed in all sorts of unusual ways and an image by Robert Capa shows him holding an umbrella for his lover on the beach in a photo where the woman is very clearly shown as the dominant force – who knows how much of that is reality as there are also plenty of stories about Picasso being exactly like so many of his fellow males from the age in terms of dominance). The photographer who took the bath photo was David Douglas Duncan, someone who reportedly took over 10 000 photographs of Picasso during their 17 year friendship. (Life, 2009) I also chose it because I have taken several photographs of my children in the bath over the years, which continues a family tradition since my mother took several of my bother and me too.  I suspect many parents photograph their children in the bath, or did, before chemists and other developers started reporting pictures of naked children in case of potential harm. Now that people tend not to have snaps developed I suspect pictures of children in the bath continue but snaps of adults in the bath are relatively rarer.  We usually shut the bathroom door, don’t we?

This photograph is not like the Hunter one where an ‘informal’ but constructed image is made formal.  This is a snap – but a great one due to subject and place, and entirely informal in every way. Even so it still references paintings and more formal spacial structures.  The subject is to the left of the picture, he is framed by the pipes leading up to the ceiling behind him and the taps/shower pipe and edge of the bath.  He is well lit and the shadow of his form can be seen behind him on the wall of the bath.  There is space around and above him, without which he might seem cramped and perhaps even too close to us, or maybe even imprisoned by his framing.  Instead there is an airiness, room to breath which together with the expression on his face gives the image a sense of easiness, joviality and deep friendship.

I am reminded of a friend of Picasso’s in Lee Miller’s famous portrait taken by David E. Schema in Hilter’s bath. Although Schema took it, the suggestion in various articles is that the idea to photograph this scene was hers. I find it a very disturbing image.  Although she may have been wanting to display a defiant attitude towards Hitler by getting in his bath, the mingling of personal space and intimate activity is distressing.  Her boots, which according to the Telegraph article (Parker 2014) (linked above), were covered in mud from Dachau where she had just been and photographed evidence of the atrocities that took place there. What interests me is that there is such a difference between the two images in their intention, even though the ‘forms’ are so very similar – resulting in totally opposite messages being communicated. Are these good examples of how content can be quite different within the same form, and how we are guided by a collection or chain of signifiers when receiving information?  And comparing these images is part of my ongoing determination to comprehend zero, empty or free floating signifiers which were alluded to in the conversation I had with my tutor and Peter H following feedback from A2. Here are two images, each of which tell a very different story, and it makes me wonder how one can empty a signifier of meaning, as, I believe, it is thought many of the artists working with appropriation are attempting to do.


As I have stated several times in the past I am not a fan of traditional nudes, however, I don’t mind nakedness in the least. What I find offensive is, as Berger describes it, the uniform of nudity that women have been obliged to don in their appointed representations over the centuries, and still do. Men on the other hand have tended to be represented with medals, property, land, and other signs indicative of power, strength, dominance.  Picasso above has been stripped of all of that. In the Lee Miller image there is a prime example of that kind of male power based imagery in a portrait of Hitler resting on the side of the bath; an example of the male-owned, nude representation of women in the form of a small statue, and an alternative to that in the form of Miller, who nevertheless looks away from the viewer; but mid wash just like Picasso. It’s an enormously difficult and complicated photograph.  In the Duncan picture there is an intimacy, joy, relaxation, slight embarrassment, but a direct and relatively confident gaze back at the viewer. Although mid action, i.e. washing, he is engaged, he is part of a scene which breaks the fourth wall.

Compare this too to one of the first images I spoke about for this course, In the Bathroom by Pierre Bonnard, a painting that was made using photo-referencing. The influence of photography can be seen in the way in which the photograph captures a moment in time, just as Picasso and Miller have been captured, mid ablutions.  The painting somehow seems prurient though.  We the viewer are being invited to spy on this woman whose face is passive, meek, almost insipid, and with an indirect gaze.

In the Bathroom 1907 by Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947
In the Bathroom 1907 Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 Lent by a private collector 2005

The informal portrait of Picasso can be compared to the informal but constructed painting by Bonnard – but there is so much more life rather than the pretence of it.  Not just because it is a photograph instead of a painting, but rather because Picasso is treated like an equal, a fellow human being whom one can have a joke with, as opposed to the women drying herself who is being observed, owned and spied on.  Her pert breasts painted to look utterly ludicrous, not least because of the spacial dimensions which don’t remotely tally with her actual physical position, and this was done decades before plastic breasts appeared.

Finally – here is a photograph of my brother and me in the bath in the early 70s.  It’s one of my favourite childhood photographs and reminds me of running around all day on the beach in Cape-town and not caring about all the things that infect our lives with so much worry today. I will need to think about the various signifiers in this image and compare them to the others I’ve mentioned, and perhaps other images of people in the bath, young and old.  It might be a useful exercise in terms of semiotics to do a table. In the meantime, I am minded to think about the differences between how we respect certain boundaries in terms of children compared to adults, about the changing nature of those boundaries, about how those changes impact on us.  I suspect the answers t the questions such an excercise might raise are many and complex. I like the picture of Picasso in his bath very much.  He is made human and warm in it and it manages to convery something genuine about the relationship between Picasso and Duncan in the split second that it was taken.

Scan 1
Taken by my mother circa 1975 of my brother and me in Cape-Town


Parker 2014, The Telegraph, (accessed 12 July 2016)

Picture credits 

  1. Picasso by David Douglas Duncan from Life, 2009, The Great Life Photographers, Thames and Hudson, London (obtained online from accessed 12 July 2016)
  2. In the Bathroom 1907 Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947 Lent by a private collector 2005 (accessed 12th July 2016)
  3. From personal archives taken by my mother, Evelyn Dean, c 1975


Project 3.2: Structural analysis (2)

Project 3.2: Structural analysis (2)

…continued from Structural Analysis (1).

Gainsborough’s portraits of society ladies often show them in the guise of mythological characters. Photographic family portraits from Victorian times to the high streets of today usually have the father as protector, the pater familias, and the mother as his support and the nurturer:

  • Find two examples of portrait photography, one formal and one informal, and annotate them to see what connections from the formal are observed in the informal and give your thoughts on why this might be so

3. FORMAL  – Women reading possession order, Tom Hunter, 1997

Hunter’s image is described on the Saatchi Gallery website as giving his outsiders a “visible presence and quiet nobility.” (2016) The image also prompts viewers to question assumptions about our relationship with the notion of ownership. In order to deconstruct it, it is necessary to look closely at the painting the photograph is based on.

  • Formal portrait with direct reference to Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, approximately 1957/59.


  • Woman standing reading letter by an open window
  • Title tells us the window being open is important
  • The title also says exactly what is happening in the picture so perhaps can be described as tautological
  • Wikipedia suggests x-rays show a cupid in the top right hand corner (although the fruit perhaps makes such a signifier overkill, hence its removal)
  • Plentiful bowl of fruit on the bed
  • Window open
  • Green bed curtain to the right creating formal rules of thirds dimensions –
  • Also, curtain is open, revealing what was hidden,
  • The viewer is being invited in, this is a private moment being made public Performative perhaps
  • Red curtain flicked over the open window
  • Woman reflected in the window
  • Light from outside lighting woman in painterly style of the time, pre-camera use
  • However, it is reported that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura (Wikipedia)*
  • Bedroom – dutch houses, like in most of Europe, were only just beginning to have specific rooms and according to one source Dutch houses were generally quite cluttered unlike the room in the painting (Jansen, 2001-2016) The room appears tidy and ordered and would have been painted with upper and upper-middle class taste in mind to appeal to  buyers in a competitive market (Jansen, 2001-2016)
  • Turkish carpet and oriental bowl on the bed

The painting is a collection of signs which collectively come together tell a story about a women yearning to break away from social conventions, directly in the form of a love affair, and indirectly from the structures that house or ‘imprison’ her depending on your view.  She reads a letter by an open window. The open window is suggestive of her yearning to leave the space she inhabits, and of the possibility she might do so, also of the fact that something from outside may enter in.  According to Wikipedia there was a cupid in the top right hand corner evident in x-rays (Wikipedia), however, the bowl of fruit on the bed is enough to be suggestive of some form of eroticism.  Apples have long been signifiers of temptation, we use the word ‘fruity’ to imply sexual naughtiness.  The bowl is abundantly filled and on the bed.  It is not normal for a bowl of fruit to be on a bed so to question its presence and position seems the right thing to do. Being on the bed makes it quite a big statement. The green curtain in the foreground is apparently a trope used elsewhere by Vermeer (Jansen 2001-2016) and while it may be tempting to think of it as like a theatrical curtain, that was a convention that didn’t really start being the norm until a century or so later when scene changes were covered up to contribute to the illusion. However, the curtain being pulled back in that way is certainly suggestive of a ‘reveal’ or tricking the eye into thinking you might be able to really close the curtain.  In fact such curtains were employed in real life to cover up nudes; rich people would buy nudes to hang in their houses and then cover them up. This is described as ‘tromp l’oeil’ (tricks the eye) and signifies there is something akin to a nude that might be covered up. Painting illusory curtains in this way was not uncommon at the time and a visual ‘colloquialism’  amongst Vermeer’s colleagues. The reading of a love letter is a private moment but in this picture it is visible from several directions, suggesting this women’s love life is on show.  What is also on show is a Turkish carpet and the aforementioned bowl which is oriental – both suggestive of something exotic and alien or foreign.  Whilst such objects were purchased and shown off by rich homeowners to signify their wealth, and so adding to the overall picture of a modern, wealthy home to potential buyers of art, the erotic signification is clear too. “The exotic and erotic are often intertwined in  Western conceptualisation of the Other” (Dubisch, 1995;33) It adds to the suggestion of highly charged sexuality, but perhaps a darker more dangerous form of eroticism which might have been challenging or perhaps seen as a little ‘risky’ for the middle class Dutch homeowners, in a similar way to how the idea of racially different sexual coupling is explored in E. M. Foster’s Passage to India; non-Empire sanctioned sexuality is registered as dangerous and uncontrollable, something to be curtailed. If one were to accept that as a possible interpretation it becomes a very modern painting that deals with a comprehension of inner psychological issues in conflict with external social constraints, as well as questions surrounding empire building, rather than simply relating to a love affair. It is probably helpful to also consider that the Dutch were at the time sailing around the world, appropriating land and people, whilst building its own empire, much like Britain was. Dutch legacy is still seen today in Africa, America, India etc. So the idea of foreign, exotic Others, who potentially offer tempting but also ‘frightening’ experiences would also have been in the collective consciousness of the public.

The reflection of the woman might be suggestive of an early reflexive comment on the introspection of Western art buyers at the time, wishing to see something of themselves reflected in the paintings they value, and so artists needed to pander to that. Or a comment on the practise of painting which is  a refection of the world, even when stylised and rendered heightened versions of reality.

This is a formal portrait, of an imaginary woman (possibly modelled on Vermeer’s wife) perhaps trapped in a marriage whilst in the throws of an erotic  love affair with an(O)ther, an intruder, who is unable to escape the confines of her marriage. Which in turns leads to a greater story about an internal opposing conflict between civility (marriage, middle class-ness, money, things, ownership) and the natural, base and potentially dangerous forces that exist within, and which can be triggered by alien intruders – outsiders invited in through the process of Empire building.

And so to Tom Hunters image:

  • Formal, conventional but starkly rendered dimensions  – lines, angles, rules of thirds
  • Woman reading a document
  • By a closed window
  • Sunlight streaming in
  • Bed
  • Baby on a blanket on bed
  • No middle class decorative accoutrements, not made to appeal to middle class taste
  • Empty shelves apart from what look like speakers for listening to music
  • Some form of decorative wall art, but it is cropped so we only see a small part of it – the frame is not contained
  • Painted walls different colours, not smooth, the opposite of the middle class expectations in the original, or when transposed to modern middle class expectations
  • Baby looks towards its mother
  • Mother focused on possession order
  • Title suggests the woman is a squatter, and reading the history behind the picture confirms this, at which point text and context become crucial to the image
  • The image is a direct reference to the Dutch painting by Vermeer, not only is the image influenced by the original, it appropriates the painting, along with the title.
  • The image is a photograph – indexical, a trace of the formal scene but also of the original painting it is copied from
  • Women dressed in darkly coloured, long skirt and green, long-sleeved shirt which emulate historical styles, although the dress is modern
  • Her hair is scraped up in a loose pony tail so informal, despite being in a formal highly constructed portrait.

This portrait is formal, but it is not a simple portrait and doesn’t show a formal situation, rather a formal representation of an informal, albeit formally staged, private moment. This is a women in front of a closed window, and the relationship of the painting to the picture suggests that the state of the window is highly relevant, as does the fact that in the title Hunter doesn’t reference the window at all. If the woman in the original is hoping to escape the confines of her marriage, here is a woman who has little or no chance of escape from her situation. She, unlike the original, wants to stay in the house which she is being evicted from. The whole relationship is inverted. This photograph rejects the idea of ownership, whereas the painting supports it, not only in terms of things, but also of women and foreign lands, along with their people.

Although this is an appropriated image it is difficult to believe this is the appropriation of zero meaning, even though I can see that some of the signifiers play subtle jokes with our perception of what makes up the ‘reality’ (see feedback for A2). With reference to the outfit the woman wears, here perhaps is a postmodern references to the way in which signifiers are potentially meaningless – the outfit the woman wears links her further to the historical painting, but is also a sign that makes fun of the viewers potential reception of a visual cue.  The woman’s outfit creates a pastiche, a quiet demure, old-fashioned outfit worn by a female quietly reading  – the letter she reads relates us to the commonly held view that ownership of property is a right, and that living in a property one doesn’t own without paying rent is a wrong, and that therefore she should face the consequences of squatting; although in reality, that is unlikely to be the view of the artist since he has placed the child so prominently in the foreground, nor does it appear to be the overall discourse contained within the image.  Does that mean the signification of the outfit might be described as having zero meaning, or is it in fact simply a visual inversion designed to make us question our assumptions? The viewer sees a quiet, perhaps benign although dignified, still, female person dressed in a certain way, and using body language, both of which  we recognise from historical representations of ‘ladies who were painted’, when in fact the image is about the opposite of that position. Whereas the Dutch were busy appropriating lands and people, here the woman has appropriated a home. Is Hunter asking us to consider, which form of appropriation is acceptable, which is not? And why? And are the moral implications based on some of Barthes’ myths? In other words, should we accept the social norms as just, or as something to buy into without question? The woman in the Dutch painting was in all likelihood painted in such a way as to suggest she was having a torrid affair with someone outside of the marriage/home; the woman in the photograph has gone beyond that and has a child, representative of the future. Future looks to its mother and there is an expectation conjured up in that relationship. Since the window is closed, what is being signified is that the woman and her child are trapped, inside an economic system that embraces ownership for some and under certain conditions, and within historical relationships, but not for all. Which implies that Hunter is suggesting we should question historical socio-economic norms since what the Dutch and British, and many other countries did in the past isn’t really different from what the woman has been doing. Or if it is different, perhaps her reasons are more urgent.  Although in her case she is up against the law in the form of a ‘possession order’, whereas Empire building and all the countries associated with it had law on its side at the time. Additionally, there is no tromp l’oeil here, with any suggestively placed curtains.  The photograph is barefaced and unashamed, unadorned. A clearer less theatrical straightforward rhetoric. More Brechtian in its subject matter. The placing of the infant (the infant which makes the photograph hark back to so many Madonna & Child portraits) might have been a sentimental ploy but somehow the photo bypasses that trap, perhaps because the child is placed on the bed where the fruit would have been – which establishes the fact that this goes beyond love affairs and yearning but relates instead to fundamental issues such as life and death. The modern version seems to be focused on a specific historical relationship we have with ownership whereas the original painting seems to trigger broader questions about sexuality, female positioning, social and cultural structures, and historical, political events. Although Hunter employs a recognisable iconic version of female idenity he does so without rendering her an object – perhaps it becomes abundantly clear he is utlising long held visual tropes in an affect of alienation or distancing to overturn the assumptions that fed into thier originators.

The fact that this is a photograph rather than a painting contributes in several ways to the way in which the image will be read. “…in the common sense attitude of everyday life we routinely treat high modality signifiers…()…as ‘a window on the world’ and we assume ‘the camera never lies'”. (Chandler, 2002;22%) Even though we know this is a photograph and we know it is constructed and based on a painting, it is still a photograph and so tricks a human mind into believing it is reality. Despite all that has been written about why this might be, there are still plenty of questions about why photographs are so powerful as asked by photographer and author, Stuart Franklin, in an interview with Guernica magazine. “We don’t understand what photography is doing. We don’t understand the power of its rhetoric.” (2016) The painting clearly resonates with us as it has stayed in the public imagination, even after an incredibly difficult history having been lost and attributed to other artists. But there is something very powerful about the photograph which seems to out run the power of the painting. Not only perhaps the fact it is a photograph, but also that is an inverted version of its predecessor, prompting us to ask questions about common held assumptions relating to ownership and value.

*Quote from wikipedia: “This use of light may support speculation among art historians that Vermeer used a mechanical optical device, such as a double concave lens mounted in a camera obscura, to help him achieve realistic light patterns in his paintings.[3]” (Wikipedia)

References: accessed 9/7/1 accessed 9/7/16  accessed 9/7/16 accessed 9/7/16

Dubisch, J. (1995) Lovers in the Field from Kulick, D. and Willson, M. (1995). Taboo. London: Routledge.

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics. London: Routledge.




Notes on Myth Today by Roland Barthes, 1957

Notes on Myth Today by Roland Barthes, 1957

Myth Today is an extremely complex and difficult text about the way in which languages, visual or oral, are used to perpetuate myths in society that people believe to be the natural way in which things are, how assumptions are made, and accepted as the only way life is lived.  These myths are augmented by the language of myths, which obscure the realities beneath them. Advertisers and propaganda makers rely heavily on social myths to sell their products/ideas. These are notes from parts of the text that I am able to penetrate.

  • Myth – a system of communication, a mode of signification
  • Every object can pass from a closed object into the existence of a signifier.  Minor Droutet’s Tree is given as an example
  • Barthes establishes that verbal or visual mean of communication are carriers of myths
  • Links myth to semiology, to Saussuare and signification
  • Looking at basic semiotics, describes: Objects  – signifier + signified = sign, i.e. rose + passion = love
  • Myth is a “second-order semiological system”
  • Two semiological systems; language object such as word or image, reduced to put signifying function when it becomes myth.  Myth sees only the global sign.
  • Myth is the second language, not interested in the parts, but only in the thing signified from the sum of signified, signifier = sign, out of which grows the myth.  Rose, passion = love. Love = all that we learn to think love is
  • Signified formed by a string of signs (made up of signifiers and signifieds)
  • Form and concept: signified can have several signifiers, dependent on history, context, and ‘repetition of forms’, really crucial as allows myth to be deciphered.  insistence reveals intention
  • Myths can be spread over a large expanse of signifier -i.e. a book, or a single word
  • Myth hides nothing, it’s function is to distort
  • There is no need of an unconscious order to explain myth
  • Literal and immediate
  • it can appear only through a given substance, without the signifiers and signifieds it cannot materialise, manifest
  • In images is multidimensional – oral, linear
  • Meaning distorted by the concept, i.e. the concepts surrounding romantic love being ‘natural’ behaviours distorts the underlying social source for the myth
  • Myth a double system, making it hard to identify and get hold of as signification of a myth is constituted by a moving ‘turnstile’ between empty and present
  • Myth an ideographic system: i.e. the whole of Moliere can be seen in a doctor’s ruff
  • Reading myths;
  • Focus on an empty signifier and allow the concept to fill the form
  • If the signifier is full, you need to undo it, an obvious signified becomes an ‘alibi’
  • Focus on whole – meaning and form, receive ambitious signification
  • Myth transforms history into nature (the natural mother figure who looks, with her head to the side, at her child)
  • Myth is an inflection, not a lie or confession
  • Myth is read as a reason rather a motivator
  • Myth is always motivated
  • Myth is fundamentally borne of the bourgeoisie
  • The avant garde revolts against the bourgeoisie, but is of them and only contests the language it uses rather than its status
  • ‘everything in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.  These normalised forms attract little attention, by the very fact of their extension…’ (15/26)
  • Petit-bourgeois norms are the residue of bourgeois culture, they are bourgeois truths that have become degraded, impoverished, commercialised, slightly archaic, or shall we say out of date?
  • The bourgeoisie is constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination, that is at the cost of immobilisation, and by the impoverishment of consciousness.
  • Myth is depoliticised speech
  • Myth gives a naturalised image of reality
  • The function of myth is to empty reality
  • It abolishes the complexity of human acts
  • Myth exist on the left too – leftwing myth supervenes precisely at the moment when revolution  changes itself into ‘the left’; when it accepts to wear a mask, to hide its name, to generate an innocent metalanguage and to distort itself into ‘Nature’.
  • Statistically myth is on the right
  • It takes hold of everything, all aspects of law, of morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment.

Strategies (rhetorical figures) used by Myth include:

  • Inoculation – admitting the accidental evil of class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil.  One immunises contact of collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil
  • Privation of history – miraculous evaporation of history is another form of a concept common to most bourgeois myths; the irresponsibility of man.  This seems extremely apt for today’s UK society
  • Identification – Petit-bourgeois is man unable to identify with Other. Otherness must be reduced and transformed to sameness. Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. The petit-bourgious  class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it); it follows the same route of the bourgeoisie, but lags behind it
  • Tautology – An ugly thing. One takes refuge in tautology as one does in fear, or anger, or sadness. Tautology creates a dead motionless world. See my blog post for Project 1 – Operation Black Vote advert
  • Neither-Norism, a lack of commitment, hovering on either side and nullifying both. Modern form of Liberalism. It becomes embarrassing to choose between sides of an argument. One no longer needs to choose, but to endorse. New Labour in the 90s.
  • Quantification of quality – myth economises intelligence; it understands reality more cheaply.  The ‘naturalness’ of an actor is a conspicuous quantity of effects for instance. Society will dismiss what is plain for all to see, had they not been shrouded in a mythical realities.  Myth stops people from questioning, from the child-like “why?”, from saying, “but that isn’t…”  It shuts people up.
  •  The statement of fact: An unalterable hierarchy of the world, a refusal of explanation.  Class system inevitable and cannot be dismantled is a belief held by many as a statement of fact.  Terrible Twos is an actual thing… (it isn’t) etc.

Necessity and limits of mythology

  • Man sees the reality and yet is complicit in Myth making making and living (see Brecht’s Einvertandnis)
  • Mythologist remains excluded, at a distance. The mythologist cuts himself off from all the myth consumers  – mythologist can become estranged in some cases from society if he wants to liberate the myth.  To decipher the Tour de France or Good French wine is to cut oneself off from those who are entertained or warmed by it
  • The mythologist wreaks havoc in his community
  • Utopia is an impossible luxury for him
  • Mythologist deals with the rhetoric surrounding the object, not with the object itself (how else though? Since the object is nothing without the signification and the eventual myth that is projected onto it. The object, surely, is not anything)
  • The fact we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation – (23/26)  Perhaps, unless you’re one of RD Laing’s understandably ‘mad’ people people, at which point it becomes wholesale alienation.  (Or a teenager? Again an especially traditionally alienated group)

Image (c)SJField 2016

Myth Today, Roland Barthes, 1957, From Mythologies, (translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New york, 1984) (accessed 27/06/2016)