From Barthes to Batman


In these notes I will outline semiotics (semiology) and its’ very close theoretical relation, structuralism. Then I will go on to outline how to do a structural semiotic analysis, and then focus in on how to analyse Batman.


Semiotics (a.k.a. Semiology) has several heroes but the four most noted are:

Ferdinand de Saussure (a Swiss, a Professor at University of Geneva)

C.S. Peirce (an American)

Roland Barthes (French)

Umberto Eco (Italian)

 and there are a whole host of important semioticians from Czechoslovakia, Russia, and Poland. (Trubetzkoy; Jakobsen; Mukarovsky…)


Roland Barthes in his Elements of Semiology (1964) sets out a formal version of Saussure’s ideas that alaso used aspects from others’ work such as Hjelmslev and Jakobsen.


Barthes most famous  ‘book’  was a collection of newspaper pieces (plus the important essay ‘Myth Today’): ‘Mythologies’ (1967) and the follow up volume ‘The Eiffel Tower’. Other works: S/Z; The Fashion System; Pleasure of the Text, Writing Degree Zero (1957).


However it is Saussure I will say something about since he is the most important of the structuralist/semioticians before Roland Barthes became so influential in the 50s. Saussure defines the field in the early part of the 20th century and has had a lasting influence. Saussure virtually invented SEMIOLOGY - the Science of Signs…which gives us the means for analysing all of social life, so he claims.


Saussure gave lectures (1907-11) that were assembled and published in 1915 by two of his students: this book of Saussure’s lectures, Cours de Linguistique Generale introduced us to a study of language as a structural system of differences: sound-wise and letter-wise, ‘cat’ is different from ‘cut’ and so forth at the level of the signifier (the sound/word/referring term/picture/pitched noise that points to (‘means’) a concept where the concept/meant object is the signified. The total system of different language units and what it is possible to say (using rules), IS the structure of language.


SIGN = the combination of sign and signifier; of sound/word and concept. THINK OF IT as two sides of the same coin: when you hear the sound ‘A CAT’ you ‘automatically’ also know what it means i.e. a cat even if you do not immediately have a actual cat image in your head – you just have a sense of the single sign  ‘A CAT’ as expression (the sound) and content (the concept of a cat) A SIGN is thus a structural combination of signfr/snfd.


 Saussure and other structuralists are not interested in what goes on in our heads; they are interested in the properties of language and meaning, so SIGN is to be understood as a linguistic property linking sound and concept. MEANING is therefore not a matter of a person’s intentions – their mental state or disposition to mean something, but rather an outcome of a combination of units of language or of sound, or of patches of colour. (Meaning is thus STRUCTURAL (it emerges from a combination of bits of language)


Unlike his predecessors who analysed language, Saussure got away from looking at the history of language, its’ rules, and units (words/letters). He did not do HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS, he did SYNCHRONIC LINGUISTICS (i.e. looking at language as a given SYSTEM AT A MOMENT OF TIME  without reference to the evolution/history of language. Synchronic mean ‘at one time’ – a ‘now’. (Diachronic means across time) Why? Chronos = time; Syn = at one point; Dia = between two points.


For Saussure there are 3 layers of the field of the linguistic:

PAROLE = an individual utterance (a combination of signifiers) meaningful only because of a code/rule system Saussure names as LANGUE.

According to Barthes, Saussure’s celebrated distinction between parole and langue is between an individual syntagm (a chain of signifiers e.g. a performed string of words or musical notes) and the group of conventions (the code/langue) that gives us the rules to produce/say/perform a parole e.g. rules of harmony in music; grammar in english; putting one colour with another in fashion)


The third level is that of LANGAGE (without a ‘u’): the unorganised available totality of bits of all kinds of languages e.g. words (can become a parole, e.g. an essay or a novel or poem when langue is applied); sounds (can become a parole, e.g. music when langue is applied); various patches of colour (can become a parole, e.g. a painting when langue is applied).


Parole is an INDIVIDUAL statement/message

Langue is the set of conventional rules created by SOCIETY (often across a long period of time i.e. the rules evolve and are often institutionalised e.g. schools teach spelling and grammar)




An example of how to think as a structuralist linking SIGNS (semes)

Firstly - Remember: Semiotics is the structural analysis of narratives – looking at how semes (signs) are linked together (in a weave =  texere (ancient greek for ‘weave’) = TEXT) into a whole picture, piece of music, code, novel, essay etc etc.


Structure: combination (= the relations between bits) + the bits (= the elements/units)

Mummy            loves                            Baby    = structure of a family situation

‘Mummy’         ‘loves’                          ‘Baby’  = a statement in language of the above

Unit      +          relation +          unit       = structural analysis of above


Maths and logic have various ways of notating or coding up these real world situations when analysing them and structuralism and semiotics sometimes uses a similar kind of FORMAL language. For instance we might notate ‘ Mummy loves Baby as ‘aRb’ = ‘a is in a relation R to b’ or even ‘(L) x, y’  = x is in a relation of love to y. There is no one way of writing such coding or notations, it varies according which formal language analysts choose to use.


You can do this kind of analysis for pictures, adverts, Batman, music, and much more…that is by picking out the units (or SIGNS) and seeing how they combine with other units of signs to give us a message, meaning, tune and so forth.


You may ask…well OK but how do I know which are the units in any structural analysis? Good point…the answer is (annoyingly)…it all depends n what you are wanting to analyse. ‘Units’ in music are usually ‘tones’ or pitched notes, in painting however they may be the various items depicted e.g. various people painted, or especially  in modern painting..the patches of colour and shades as they relate (combine) to each other. In literature units are usually words but can be located a the level of phrases, sentences or even individual letters or grammatical parts e.g. the verbs as against he nouns and so on.


Think of it like this: you know the ‘meaning’ of your group of friends but without quite checking it every day you kind of have a sense of the structure of the group as they change, sometimes being annoyed with each other and, at other times liking each others and these filiations vary constantly. But you have the ingredients for a structural semiotic analysis: i.e. you know the units (= the several individuals in your group of friends) and you often know a lot about another unit – the range of possible relationships that can exist between the members e.g. liking/not liking/hating/loving AND you usually can tell the actual state of relations between the units such that today I know that ‘X loves Y’ = X (unit) loves (combinatory relationship) Y (unit).


To complicate matters: you also know that X loves Y today but, does not like Y best friend Z (and Y knows this) such that, Y cannot be seen to love X as much as X loves Y! And that’s a not untypical structure that can be ANALYSED structurally much like the analysis of language in terms of how words are strung together by grammatical rules. You could even draw the NETWORK of relationships just described in a social network model of points and lines to depict the people and the relationships and +/- for like/dislike against the linking lines.




Now…why can’t you do this kind of analysis for say…BATMAN?


Well…you can: Let us start from the beginning:


A: Organisation of meaning at level of TV production:

= Batman is a TV series from 1966 – 68


Batman is thus a series of episodes that have to be made.


Batman (as a TV series) to have an identity in each episode and thus across the series must have several things in common (creating familiarity/meaning/identification with and for the audience). These commonalities may be various, but often they are shown by use of the same characters, similar plot lines and structure, typical music, clothing and so forth i.e. fairly unvarying structure. (And this is true of say, your favourite newspaper and gives it an ‘in-house style’.)


B: Organisation of meaning at level of the episode

= identifiable episodes within each episode e.g.

1)      opening sequence of crime committed + aftermath

2)      in the police HQ leading to call for Batman

3)      at Wayne Manor and then leaving for Police HQ

4)      Batman etc + Police at Police HQ

5)      B&R+Police+ expert analyse the crime and the criminal

And then next scenario/or ‘episode’ within the whole episode.


1+2+3+…. etc., makes up episode and is a mapping of the basic high-level structure of the episode. You can go on to analyse the structure of the other levels of the episode and actions in it. Or even analyse only those other levels.



C: Organisation of meaning at the level of the episode’s story/narrative:


You could first pick out the abstract basic units that conventionally are used to signify meanings such as: (you could probably think of others)








And then identify these in the actual episode of Batman you are watching, i.e.


significant colours shown – conventional colours for officials – grey or black in suits as opposed to brilliant colours of the goodies and baddies etc, thereby highlighting the main scene of the action;


the contrast of clothes grey/black with brilliant colour creates a system of differences and thus meaning at the level of the fashion system or code that operates in Batman and more generally in ‘superheroes’ of that period. (Barthes called this the vestimentary code)


basic set of characterisations in terms of function around which all episodes are organised at the level of identities (goodies, baddies, mediators) and their actual named characters:  Batman&Robin; Penguin/Joker etc; and for mediators/facilitators of the meeting of goodies and baddies we have the Commissioner and the Chief of Police.


Sounds: split into

attack/decay = hard abrupt sound or a slow building and then drifting note?

Timbre = a smooth pure tone or a grating harsh sound?

Pitch = high or low note?

Speed = fast urgent (speedy urgent sound as with the opening of News bulletins) or slow?

As you know sounds announce or reinforce action. (think horror films)



And the same sort of analysis can be performed on much smaller groups of items or even individual items such as utterances, movements etc.


I think I noted that the Police Chief signified deference to the Commissioner by not only wearing uniform - which groups him with the other police as opposed to the individualising  suit-wearing of the Commissioner, BUT through the ‘gaze’ – the organisation of the ‘looking up to’; the looking into the far distance when referring to Batman ‘ the saviour’ (which the even the Commissioner does…and so forth.

So we can produce a structural semiotic analysis to understand the organisation of meaning at various levels i.e. within a hierarchy of levels.


The series

The episode

The episodic structure of each episode (e.g. scenes 1-5 +…. - see above)

A short sequence of action – e.g. a conversation between characters

An individual moment e.g.  the moment of the look between characters


All the time we are looking to show/analyse the system (the flowing) of

sign-ificant differences – i.e. the organisation and sequencing of the relations between one thing and another ..that creates a story…a episode…an episode within an episode.


All the time ask yourself: how do the various units/elements you have picked out..relate to each other – how do they interact and modify each others’ ‘meaning’? It s the same thing for words:


It is hot (syntagm)


It is very hot (longer syntagm = adding more words/qualifiers)


The signifier very modifies (shades/makes a difference to) hot


But: It is very cold (paradigm change)

In the place of ‘hot’ I have put ‘cold’ to change the meaning to its opposite but, it is still grammatically correct. Structurally I have put one adjective in place of another, so the essential (= ideal = paradigm) structure remains the same; but the sign changes (from hot to cold) and thus the meaning becomes different…is changed by changing a signifier. Not a structural displacement but a structural replacement. – Structural Form remains the same; content changes, in cases of paradigmatic change. Where syntagmatic change occurs, then the structural form changes.


The adding of adjectives to nouns, adverbs to verbs etc changes the meaning just as adding other colours to a painting changes its meaning…or more notes to a piece of music. changes the meaning. It is our job to analyse meanings are organised by pointing out in a systematic way how and what changes are made.