The art of Barthes

The works of French semiotician Roland Barthes have just been published in a comic strip format, but is it any easier to grasp? Yolanda Zappaterra thinks so

The last time I checked everybody I knew had studied Roland Barthes at art college. From media studies to graphic design courses, the theory lectures were full of words like “semiotics” and “structuralism”, usually taught by someone in unmatching socks. If there was a single culprit for this drivel then his name was Roland Barthes.

Those of us who actually attended the lectures might remember that Barthes also had much to say on the nature of pleasure and sexual non-conformity, and applied his ideas on communication to every area of culture and life – from fashion and popular culture to classical French literature and homosexuality. Or, more succinctly, he wrote a fantastic essay on why everyone in movies set in ancient Rome had naff rave-style fringes.

If all that sounds interesting but a bit too much like hard work, there’s a new book by Philip Thody and Ann Course entitled Barthes for Beginners that should get you through the most demanding cross-examination on the man’s life and works.

The For Beginners series has covered everything from Jesus to the Marquis de Sade, and this book continues the comic strip format which introduces the reader to the subject in an accessible way. There are pictures of Barthes at orgies and the like, as well as explanations as to why he’s such an important thinker. It’s easy to read and digest and maybe one day this knowledge will come in useful in a meeting with a smart client.

The pages on linguistics and signs are particularly useful to those in the advertising business and sign design as they explain that signs based purely on icons rarely work because we’re so immersed in language – hence the need for copywriters (and billing for their time). Even cartoons only work because we give them our own commentary. So while a simple sign for a toilet is something we all understand, a pictogram in a country where the men wear skirts is much harder to interpret and potentially more embarrassing. Pretty basic when it’s put like that.

The beauty of the For Beginners series is that they really are for the clueless, although in this case it seems strange that Barthes’ childhood and his views on things such as money, love and longing, dominant ideologies and photography are crammed in at the very end. They might have been better placed at the beginning of the book, as indeed would some kind of introduction rather than a launch into his philosophies. But for anyone interested in twentieth century cultural theory or looking to get ahead in advertising, Barthes For Beginners is a relatively easy entrance into the complex world of semiotics. And Royal College of Art graduate Ann Course shows, with pencil drawings ranging from the sublime to the insane, that in a book of this sort it’s the pictures that carry the story more than the text.

Barthes For Beginners is published by Icon Books priced 8.99.

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