Lewis levenberg for Critical Theory and Contemporary Media

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lewis levenberg
for Critical Theory and Contemporary Media
Dr. Matthew Tinkcom

Midterm Exam

I. Describe a historical transformation of representation that Walter Benjamin [would argue] is a result of technological change.

Mumia Abu-Jamal has written many essays as a death-row prisoner in Pennsylvania since 1982. These essays, at least, some of them, have been printed and bound as books or part of books. They have also been recorded, as read by Abu-Jamal. It holds with common sense to attribute characteristics of sameness to each of these mediations: the "same essays" might easily exist as manuscript, printed text, and recorded/spoken word. Granting that common-sense assumption for the moment, there is yet another "transformation of representation" of the "same" essays -- they are now reproduced digitally.

One particularly interesting way in which representation of the same content changes based on technology in this example arises not from the hardware technology itself, nor from the particular software encoding by which it writes the text that the user sees, but instead by the introduction of sociality to media practices. Specifically, the popularity of one site in particular - youtube - has led to many users re/generating non-visual content (for example, those earlier recordings) as "videos", albeit "videos" with only a static image, if any.

This is not to imply that the popularity of youtube as a participatory medium (for the conceptualization of which I refer to Jenkins1) is arbitrary, or even entirely socially constructed. On the contrary, certain features of its technological design are instrumental to its reproductive dominance. For example, its powerful search engine, combined with folksonomic epistemological organization (user-generated tags), the ability to divorce videos from their broader parataxis of the site and embed them into another context, and the function which calls up related videos at the end of each discrete representation are all formal characteristics of the technology. End users and content creators are able to generate rich content, including annotations on their videos, interactive features such as links internal to the videos, responses, ratings, and commentary at the micro level. At a macro level, participation in this youtube commons generates deep structure to the organization of videos on the site, allowing one to search by any number of categories or tags.

These effects of sociality inform every video that appears on youtube, even those without "video" content in the strict sense. In many of Abu-Jamal's recordings on the site, there is little or no visual stimulus within the content of the video itself2. Instead, the major changes to the form of representation result from the parataxis of the content, in its relation to every other youtube video. For example, when the recordings were made, with a broadcast audience in mind, the listener would have had one opportunity at a time to listen to the essay, and then, in order to give their feedback to the audience of the same broadcast, the phone lines would have to have been made available on the air. In the case of the same essay on youtube, the listener/viewer sees the text of the essay (albeit imperfectly transcribed) from which Abu-Jamal is reciting, as visual stimulus to complement the aural. Perhaps more significantly, the audience is subject to, and creators of, the commentary and related videos that surround the central "text".

In this way, the mode of representation shifts with the medium, from print to sound to digital video. For this example, those modes are literal meaning for print, evocative feeling for sound, and responsive figuring online. To what might "responsive figuring" refer? First, following the point just noted, the audience is also the constructor of the meaning of the text, and co-authors, as they add to the commentary, annotation, and relations of and between the video - this is what "responsiveness" implies: a participatory, collective engagement with the context of the work. Second, engaging as a reader with the parataxis of the video -- its title, re/creator, related videos, tags, and especially its commentary -- one notices a shift in the content of representation. Discourse surrounding each video begins to address the figure of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which in turn seems to become metonymic for social issues such as incarceration, race, class, or alterity.

At the time of this writing, the dominant discussion in the commentary to the video noted above is on the topic of eugenics. The topic of the video/essay under which that conversation is taking place is the relationship between organized religion and political violence. When discourse slips between topics and speakers as easily as it does here, it becomes very difficult to ascribe an origin to meaning. The uses and effects of this difficulty are critical topics for exploration in the radical political projects of both Walter Benjamin and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

II. Roland Barthes writes that 'the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image' (p. 25, Image/Music/Text). What do you make of this claim?

Rather than concentrate on a particular case of a relation between text and image, this response will approach a close reading of the claim itself, moving from explication to interpretation, and finally into application. First, "connotation" is the process of representation of a signified beyond the visually or literally signified in an image, or piece of music or text, as distinct from the process of denotation (representation of the "literal meaning" of a signifier: e.g. x in "this is a picture of x"). For example, the American flag denotes red and white stripes, a blue field, and white stars. It connotes "America". The problems with this distinction, then, begin to appear almost immediately.

Some (e.g. Fiske cited in Chandler3) argue that all signification is connotation, and that denotation is always already a lower-order form of connotation. This argument is based on the shared knowledge in a community whose interpretations of semiotic encoding and practices of decoding are held in common. In this case, denotation is lower-order connotation as such because most interpreters of the sign in question will agree on a particular denotative interpretation. Barthes goes on to note a highest order of connotation (where?), that of "myth", as a structuring phenomenon in semiotic coding. Interpretation of mythology, when it takes place in common, is the very basis of sociality -- myth (and, of course, therefore connotation) is the grounds of the common as such.

Borrowing metaphorically from biology, Barthes invokes the figure of the parasite, an organism whose sustenance comes at the expense of another creature, a "host". But rather than assign subjectivity to the text, Barthes applies this metaphor adjectivally, positioning the text as that which "constitutes a parasitic message". This is a useful hedge, since it leaves unexamined the implicit transformation from text to message. If we are to read this phrase as something other than a simple conflation between text and message (and it makes sense to allow for this alterity, for if text and message are conflated, then the image becomes an addendum to that message, rather than a host for meaning, and Barthes' semiotic question ["how does meaning get into the image?" (“Rhetoric of the Image”)] is reductively answered by the facile declaration "by text"), then we must examine how text changes into a message. The process is not complicated; text becomes message when it is historicized.

By eliding the representation of history in his argument, Barthes exploits a denotative tendency of the singular reader. That he recognizes this tendency is apparent by his use of the adjectival metaphor of parasitism. "[T]ext constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image"-as-host if, and only if, text is always already message. Image is not excluded from the status of message, but the process by which image becomes message is different than the reading practices of textual signification. Returning to the argument that connotation is the reading practice of the commons, and the implication that denotation is the reading practice of the singularity, the isolation of the message from its communal historical context allows Barthes to posit a viewing practice of the image as immediate and total. Even if this is the case (and it is argued in a similar way by McCloud, for example, in "Understanding Comics"4), however, two factors belie the illusion of the possibility of denotation of images.

First, the viewer is always already embedded in their particular historico-social context. Second, the image is always already embedded in its particular historico-material context. Because of these conditions, even a complete and instantaneous perception of the content of an image is mediated by historical subjectivity. Thus, Barthes' opposition between image and text, presented as a distinction in viewing/reading practices between denotation and connotation, rests on this indefensible duality. We can apply this critique to the status of both text and image as digital media, following Chun's articulation of the process of creative production in software5. In such an application, we must return to the question of how myth might structure meaning, in these digital and other non-static media.

To begin, then, with text, how does myth enter into the claim, "text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image"? A founding myth is that it is possible for the image to denote at all. A second, related myth figures an origin of meaning in the image, as in de Saussure's dyadic model of the sign, in which the image stands in for the concept/signified of the word/linguistic signifier when that dyad is represented6. Myth also enters into this claim at the level of the social, in the ability to define a word, e.g. "parasitic," or even to classify it as an adjective based on its suffix, in common with a reading public. These correspond, of course, to linguistic messages, non-coded iconic messages (the denotative paradox), and coded iconic messages (connotation).

The image is intelligible on precisely on these mythological grounds. One wonders, however, what Barthes’ analysis would do with moving images, for example, Greta Garbo’s face, or a television version of the Panzani advertisement he made famous. Might such an analysis include the role, and the levels of meaning, of sound, esp. of a voice reading the same text that is displayed in a commercial as a voiceover? Another question this line of inquiry might raise is how the redundancies between such readings relate, or whether they remain discontinuous. For digital media, finally, might such an intuitive, semiotic analysis encounter the paradox of a “message without a code” (ibid)? These questions are too broad to deal with here, but they hint at an inversion of Barthes’ claim. Online, that is, text, sound, and image constitute parasitic communication, designed to connote the myth of the message.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” in Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt.

Barthes, Roland. Image/Music/Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

1See Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006.

2For example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiPb6RvCJow Accessed 2 November 2009. Web.

3See Chandler, Daniel. "Denotation, Connotation, and Myth." http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem06.html. Accessed 30 October 2009. Web.

4See McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. p. 49

5In software, the computer writes for us, and even (especially) the characters, letters, words, and text which appear on-screen are precisely appearances, nothing more and nothing less than visual representations of their print counterparts; text is explicitly an image, produced not by manual writing but by automatic coding. “See” Chun, Wendy. "On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge." Grey Room 18 (Winter 1995). pp 26-51.

6See de Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. London: Fontana/Collins, 1974.

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