Connotation and Denotation

Denotation and connotation are crucial concepts in semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, cultural studies and in the entire realm of literary and cultural theory. Denotation refers to the primary signification or reference – the definitional, literal, obvious meaning of a sign. In the case of linguistic signs, the denotative meaning is what the dictionary attempts to provide, while connotation refers to a range of associated significations, the socio-cultural and ‘personal’ implications (ideological, emotional etc.) of the signs These are typically related to the interpreter’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on. Signs are more polysemic and more open to interpretation in their connotations than their denotations.

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Roland Barthes noted that Saussure’s model of the sign focused on denotation at the expense of connotation. In his “The Photographic,” Message” (1961) and “The Rhetoric of the Image” (1964) Barthes argued that in photography connotation can be (analytically) distinguished from denotation. Later, in his analysis of the realist literary text, Barthes observed that denotation pretends to be the first meaning; however, under this illusion, it is ultimately the last of the connotations (the one which seem both to establish and close the reading). In fact, it is connotation that produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of-language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as a process of naturalization, whereby it creates the illusion of a purely literal and universal meaning, which in Aithusserean parlance attempts to interpellate the reader.

Barthes explicates connotation and denotation in terms of “order of signification:. The first order of signification is that of denotation: at this level there is a sign consisting of a  and a signified. Connotation is a second-order of signification which uses the denotative sign (signifier. and signified) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified. It is this second order signifying system that Barthes terms ‘myth’ ( in his Mythologies) and famously illustrates with the image of a young negro soldier saluting the French flag; that appeared on the cover of a Parisian magazine – where the denotation is that the French are militaristic, and the second order signification being that France is a great empire, and all her sons, irrespective of colour discrimination faithfully serve wider her flag, and that all allegations of colonialism are false. Thus denotations serve the purpose of ideology, in naturalising all forms of oppression into what people think of as “common sense”.

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