09 June 2010

A Barthesian shoe-in

I am a devout disciple of Barthes' tenet that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. Not that I am always, necessarily, uninterested in either the author or her/his intent; but neither can have any connection with the text being read. Or with the image being viewed.

Faced with those who are not so convinced, however, I am often at a loss to find a demonstration of the principle which doesn't immediately skitter away off their disagreement like water off a duck's back. I don't kid myself that this is about to change, but I do have a nice graphic reminder that I should practice what I preach and not expect my own intentionality to be any sort of exception to the Barthesian rule.

At the time of writing, I have had 143 responses to the Today 100602 image ... every one of which focusses on the shoes. Clearly, most viewers "read" the image as one in which footwear dominates. The semisillhouetted figure makes no appearance whatsoever. in any of these responses.

I (author) wouldn't actually go so far as to admit that I had an intention when I clicked the shutter button; but my instinctive response was to the figure, contextualised by the objects (that they are shoes hardly occurred to me at the time) surrounding him.

Insofar as I can reconstruct it, my own "reading" of the image involves:

  1. The (apparently) thoughtful pose.
  2. The (apparent) incongruity of an (apparently) unaccompanied male figure (apparently) contemplating with such (apparent) attention what is (as I understand it) commercially intended to be a feminine space.
  3. The way the visual structure of that space (apparently) orients to emphasise his presence at its hollow centre.
  4. The illusion that his left foot rests supported by a displayed object.

There is nothing "correct" about my reading. It is of no greater value (arguably, on democratic grounds, less) than that of my 144 (another has come in since I started typing this) correspondents. In fact, since I already had my reading whereas the other 144 come as gifts, I place little value on mine while the others delight me. The Barthesian lesson, however, is simple: my view of what I saw is utterly irrelevant to anyone else's reading of the result..

Note: "Shoe-in" (before a blizzard of correspondents write in to correct me) is here a deliberately punning use of what is, as I learned recently from Ray Girvan at JSBlog, called an "eggcorn".

  • Roland Barthes, "The death of the author". Originally Aspen, 5-6, 1967. Anthologised in Image, music, text, 1977, London: Fontana, 0006348807 (pbk) and subsequently. Web copy available at the Athenaeum library of philosophy (accessed 2010/06/09)


Geoff said...

" my view of what I saw is utterly irrelevant to anyone else's reading of the result "
What the viewer sees is just a reflection of their mind...............so I say when people look at my paintings and this goes, I feel, for the viewing of all creativity........surely must be so. How dare one, I am bold enough to say, decide "what the artist meant"

Ray Girvan said...

The (apparently) thoughtful pose.

No, I can tell you from experience what he's doing: he's biting the tip of his index finger in the hope that the pain will keep him conscious despite the soporific gas (the one genetically designed to work only on men) that they pump through the air-conditioning in female clothing/shoe shops, as he awaits the dreaded words, "Which do you think looks better?"

Felix said...

RG> ...as he awaits the dreaded words...