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The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version: Walter Benjamin

The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version: Walter Benjamin

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WA LT E R B E N J A M I N



accompaniment to everyday life. It began to keep pace with movable-type printing. But only

a few decades after the invention of lithography, graphic art was surpassed by photography.

For the first time, photography freed the hand from the most important artistic tasks in the

process of pictorial reproduction – tasks that now devolved upon the eye alone. And since

the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction

was enormously accelerated, so that it could now keep pace with speech. Just as the

illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in

photography. The technological reproduction of sound was tackled at the end of the last

century. Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that

permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it

also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. In gauging this standard, we

would do well to study the impact which its two different manifestations – the reproduction

of artworks and the art of film – are having on art in its traditional form.



III

In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of

art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else

– that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history

includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes

in ownership. Traces of the former can be detected only by chemical or physical analyses

(which cannot be performed on a reproduction), while changes of ownership are part of a

tradition which can be traced only from the standpoint of the original in its present

location.

The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity, and on the

latter in turn is founded the idea of a tradition which has passed the object down as the

same, identical thing to the present day. The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological –

and of course not only technological – reproduction. But whereas the authentic work retains its

full authority in the face of a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a

forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction. The reason is twofold. First,

technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction. For example, in photography it can bring out aspects of the original that are accessible

only to the lens (which is adjustable and can easily change viewpoint) but not to the human

eye; or it can use certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, to record images

which escape natural optics altogether. This is the first reason. Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot

attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form

of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be

received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the

open air is enjoyed in a private room.

These changed circumstances may leave the artwork’s other properties untouched, but

they certainly devalue the here and now of the artwork. And although this can apply not

only to art but (say) to a landscape moving past the spectator in a film, in the work of art

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this process touches on a highly sensitive core, more vulnerable than that of any natural

object. That core is its authenticity. The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that

is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical

testimony relating to it. Since the historical testimony is founded on the physical duration,

the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction, in which the physical duration plays no

part. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority

of the object, the weight it derives from tradition.

One might focus these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura, and go on to

say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the

latter’s aura. This process is symptomatic; its significance extends far beyond the realm of

art. It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the

reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it

substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to

reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. These

two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the

past – a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal

of humanity. Both processes are intimately related to the mass movements of our day. Their

most powerful agent is film. The social significance of film, even – and especially – in its

most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of

the value of tradition in the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most apparent in the

great historical films. It is assimilating ever more advanced positions in its spread. When

Abel Gance fervently proclaimed in 1927, “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make

films. . . . All legends, all mythologies, and all myths, all the founders of religions, indeed,

all religions, . . . await their celluloid resurrection, and the heroes are pressing at the gates,”

he was inviting the reader, no doubt unawares, to witness a comprehensive liquidation.1



IV

Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does

their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in

which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history. The era of the migration

of peoples, an era which saw the rise of the late-Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis,

developed not only an art different from that of antiquity but also a different perception.

The scholars of the Viennese school Riegl and Wickhoff, resisting the weight of the classical

tradition beneath which this art had been buried, were the first to think of using such art to

draw conclusions about the organization of perception at the time the art was produced.2

However far-reaching their insight, it was limited by the fact that these scholars were

content to highlight the formal signature which characterized perception in late-Roman

times. They did not attempt to show the social upheavals manifested in these changes in

perception – and perhaps could not have hoped to do so at that time. Today, the conditions

for an analogous insight are more favorable. And if changes in the medium of present-day

perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social

determinants of that decay.

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What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a

distance, however near it may be.3 To follow with the eye – while resting on a summer

afternoon – a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the

beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In the light of this

description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay. It rests on two

circumstances, both linked to the increasing emergence of the masses and the growing

intensity of their movements. Namely: the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to

things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness [Überwindung des

Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit] by assimilating it as a reproduction. Every day the urge grows

stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image [Bild], or, better, in a facsimile

[Abbild], a reproduction. And the reproduction [Reproduktion], as offered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, differs unmistakably from the image. Uniqueness and permanence are

as closely entwined in the latter as are transitoriness and repeatability in the former. The

stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a

perception whose “sense for all that is the same in the world”4 has so increased that, by

means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in

the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing significance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality

is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.



V

The uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of

tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An

ancient statue of Venus, for instance, existed in a traditional context for the Greeks (who

made it an object of worship) that was different from the context in which it existed for

medieval clerics (who viewed it as a sinister idol). But what was equally evident to both

was its uniqueness – that is, its aura. Originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the

context of tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated

in the service of rituals – first magical, then religious. And it is highly significant that the

artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function. In

other words: the unique value of the “authentic” work of art always has its basis in ritual. This

ritualistic basis, however mediated it may be, is still recognizable as secularized ritual in even

the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular worship of beauty, which

developed during the Renaissance and prevailed for three centuries, clearly displayed that

ritualistic basis in its subsequent decline and in the first severe crisis which befell it. For

when, with the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction (namely

photography, which emerged at the same time as socialism), art felt the approach of that

crisis which a century later has become unmistakable, it reacted with the doctrine of l’art

pour l’art – that is, with a theology of art.5 This in turn gave rise to a negative theology, in

the form of an idea of “pure” art, which rejects not only any social function but any

definition in terms of a representational content. (In poetry, Mallarmé was the first to adopt

this standpoint.)6

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No investigation of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility can

overlook these connections. They lead to a crucial insight: for the first time in world

history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility.7 From a photographic plate, for example,

one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But as

soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function

of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.



NOTES

Written late December 1935 – beginning of February 1936; unpublished in this form in Benjamin’s

lifetime. Gesammelte Schriften, VII, 350–84. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn.

This version of the essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”

(first published in Volume 7 of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften, in 1989) is a revision and expansion

(by seven manuscript pages) of the first version of the essay, which was composed in Paris in the

autumn of 1935. The second version represents the form in which Benjamin originally wished to

see the work published; it served, in fact, as the basis for the first publication of the essay – a

somewhat shortened form translated into French – in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in May 1936.

The third version of the essay (1936–1939) can be found in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4:

1938–1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 251–83.

1 Abel Gance, “Le Temps de l’image est venu!” (It Is Time for the Image!), in Léon Pierre-Quint,

Germaine Dulac, Lionel Landry, and Abel Gance, L’Art cinématographique, vol. 2 (Paris, 1927),

pp. 94–96. [Benjamin’s note. Gance (1889–1981) was a French film director whose epic films

J’accuse (1919), La Roue (1922), and Napoléon (1927) made innovative use of such devices as

superimposition, rapid intercutting, and split screen. – Trans.]

2 Alois Riegl (1858–1905) was an Austrian art historian who argued that different formal orderings

of art emerge as expressions of different historical epochs. He is the author of Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Questions of Style: Toward a History of Ornament; 1893) and

Die spätrömische Kunst-Industrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn (1901). The latter has been

translated by Rolf Winkes as Late Roman Art Industry (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1985). Franz

Wickhoff (1853–1909), also an Austrian art historian, is the author of Die Wiener Genesis (The

Vienna Genesis; 1895), a study of the sumptuously illuminated, early sixth-century  copy of

the biblical book of Genesis preserved in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

3 “Einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag.” At stake in Benjamin’s formulation is an

interweaving not just of time and space – einmalige Erscheinung, literally “one-time appearance” –

but of far and near, eine Ferne suggesting both “a distance” in space or time and “something remote,”

however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be.

4 Benjamin is quoting Johannes V. Jensen, Exotische Novellen, trans. Julia Koppel (Berlin: S. Fischer,

1919), pp. 41–42. Jensen (1873–1950) was a Danish novelist, poet, and essayist who won the

Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944. See “Hashish in Marseilles” (1932), in Benjamin, Selected

Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 677.

5 Applying Kant’s idea of the pure and disinterested existence of the work of art, the French

philosopher Victor Cousin made use of the phrase l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) in his 1818

lecture “Du Vrai, du beau, et du bien” (On the True, the Beautiful, and the Good). The idea was

later given currency by writers such as Théophile Gautier, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles

Baudelaire.



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6 The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) was a central figure in the Symbolist movement,

which sought an incantatory language divorced from all referential function.

7 In film, the technological reproducibility of the product is not an externally imposed condition of

its mass dissemination, as it is, say, in literature or painting. The technological reproducibility of films is

based directly on the technology of their production. This not only makes possible the mass dissemination of films

in the most direct way, but actually enforces it. It does so because the process of producing a film is so

costly that an individual who could afford to buy a painting, for example, could not afford to buy a

[master print of a] film. It was calculated in 1927 that, in order to make a profit, a major film

needed to reach an audience of nine million. Of course, the advent of sound film [in that year]

initially caused a movement in the opposite direction: its audience was restricted by language

boundaries. And that coincided with the emphasis placed on national interests by fascism. But it is

less important to note this setback (which in any case was mitigated by dubbing) than to observe its

connection with fascism. The simultaneity of the two phenomena results from the economic crisis.

The same disorders which led, in the world at large, to an attempt to maintain existing property

relations by brute force induced film capital, under the threat of crisis, to speed up the development

of sound film. Its introduction brought temporary relief, not only because sound film attracted the

masses back into the cinema but also because it consolidated new capital from the electricity

industry with that of film. Thus, considered from the outside, sound film promoted national interests;

but seen from the inside, it helped internationalize film production even more than before.

[Benjamin’s note. By “the economic crisis,” Benjamin refers to the devastating consequences, in the

United States and Europe, of the stock market crash of October 1929. – Trans.]



FURTHER READING

Benjamin, W. (2002). “What is epic theatre?” in M. Huxley and N. Witts, eds, The Twentieth Century

Performance Reader, 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 73–9.

Berger, J. ([1972] 1990). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

McLuhan, M. and Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. London: Penguin.

Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.



SOURCE

W. Benjamin (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings

on Media, ed. M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty and T. Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

pp. 20–5, 42–4.



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42

INTERACTION BETWEEN TEXT

AND READER

Wolfgang Iser



Wolfgang Iser was a German literary theorist concerned with the way in which meaning is

generated between the reader and the written word. Drawing on psychoanalytical research,

particularly the work of R. D. Laing on interpersonal communication, Iser argues that the interaction between text and reader is regulated by “revelation and concealment” through a series of

structured blanks. Of equal importance is the fact that the reader is also brought into being, is

“produced”, through this dynamic exchange with the work.



Central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its

recipient. This is why the phenomenological theory of art has emphatically drawn attention

to the fact that the study of a literary work should concern not only the actual text but also,

and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. The text itself simply

offers “schematized aspects”1 through which the subject matter of the work can be produced,

while the actual production takes place through an act of concretization.

From this we may conclude that the literary work has two poles, which we might call the

artistic and the aesthetic: the artistic pole is the author’s text and the aesthetic is the

realization accomplished by the reader. In view of this polarity, it is clear that the work itself

cannot be identical with the text or with the concretization, but must be situated somewhere between the two. It must inevitably be virtual in character, as it cannot be reduced to

the reality of the text or to the subjectivity of the reader, and it is from this virtuality that it

derives its dynamism. As the reader passes through the various perspectives offered by the

text and relates the different views and patterns to one another he sets the work in motion,

and so sets himself in motion, too.

[. . .]

Similar conclusions may be drawn from psychoanalytical research into communication, as

carried out by R. D. Laing, H. Phillipson, and A. R. Lee, whose findings provide insights

that can be utilized in assessing text–reader interaction. In Interpersonal Perception, Laing

writes: “My field of experience is, however, filled not only by my direct view of myself

(ego) and of the other (alter), but of what we shall call metaperspectives – my view of the

other’s . . . view of me. I may not actually be able to see myself as others see me, but I am

constantly supposing them to be seeing me in particular ways, and I am constantly acting

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in the light of the actual or supposed attitudes, opinions, needs, and so on the other has in

respect of me.”2

Now the views that others have of me cannot be called “pure” perception; they are the

results of interpretation. And this need for interpretation arises from the structure of

interpersonal experience. We have experience of one another in so far as we know one

another’s conduct; but we have no experience of how others experience us. In another

book, The Politics of Experience, Laing writes: “. . . your experience of me is invisible to me and my

experience of you is invisible to you. I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another.

Experience is man’s invisibility to man.” It is this invisibility that forms the basis of interpersonal relations – a basis which Laing calls a “no-thing.” “That which is really ‘between’

cannot be named by any things that come between. The between is itself no-thing.” In all

our interpersonal relationships we build upon this “no-thing,” for we react as if we knew

how our partners experienced us; we continually form views of their views and then act as

if our views of their views were realities. Contact, therefore, depends upon our continually

filling in a central gap in our experience.

[. . .]

An obvious and major difference between reading and all forms of social interaction is the

fact that with reading there is no face-to-face situation.3 A text cannot adapt itself to each

reader with whom it comes in contact. The partners in dyadic interaction can ask each other

questions in order to ascertain how far their views have controlled contingency, or their

images have bridged the gap of inexperienceability of one another’s experiences. The

reader, however, can never learn from the text how accurate or inaccurate are his views of

it. Furthermore, dyadic interaction serves specific purposes, so that the interaction always

has a regulative context, which often serves as a tertium comparationis. There is no such frame

of reference governing the text–reader relationship; on the contrary, the codes which might

regulate this interaction are fragmented in the text and must first be reassembled or, in most

cases, restructured before any frame of reference can be established. Here, then, in conditions and intention, we find two basic differences between the text–reader relationship and

the dyadic interaction between social partners.

Now it is the very lack of ascertainability and defined intention that brings about the text–

reader interaction, and here there is a vital link with dyadic interaction. Social communication, as we have seen, arises out of contingency (behavioral plans do not coincide, and people

cannot experience how others experience them), not out of the common situation or out of

the conventions that join both partners together. The situation and conventions regulate the

manner in which gaps are filled, but the gaps in turn arise out of contingency and inexperienceability and, consequently, function as a basic inducement to communication. Similarly, it

is the gaps, the fundamental asymmetry between text and reader, that give rise to communication in the reading process; the lack of a common situation and a common frame of

reference corresponds to the contingency and the “no-thing” which bring about the interaction between persons. Asymmetry, contingency, the “no-thing” – these are all different

forms of an indeterminate, constitutive blank which underlies all processes of interaction.

[. . .]

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With dyadic interaction, the imbalance is removed by the establishment of pragmatic connections resulting in an action, which is why the preconditions are always clearly defined in

relation to situations and common frames of reference. The imbalance between text and

reader, however, is undefined, and it is this very indeterminacy that increases the variety of

communication possible.

If these possibilities are to be fulfilled, and if communication between text and reader is

to be successful, clearly, the reader’s activity must be controlled in some way by the text.

The control cannot be as specific as in a face-to-face situation, equally it cannot be as determinate as a social code, which regulates social interaction. However, the guiding devices

operative in the reading process have to initiate communication, the success of which is

indicated by the constitution of a meaning, which cannot be equated with existing frames of

reference, as its own specific quality manifests itself in questioning existing meanings and in

altering existing experiences. Nor can the control be understood as a tangible entity occurring independently of the process of communication. Although exercised by the text, it

is not in the text. This is well illustrated by a comment Virginia Woolf made on the novels

of Jane Austen:

Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the

surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and

endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.

Always the stress is laid upon character. . . . The turns and twists of the dialogue

keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present

moment, half upon the future. . . . Here, indeed, in this unfinished and in the main

inferior story, are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness.4

What is missing from the apparently trivial scenes, the gaps arising out of the dialogue – this

is what stimulates the reader into filling the blanks with projections. He is drawn into the

events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said. What is said only appears to

take on significance as a reference to what is not said; it is the implications and not the

statements that give shape and weight to the meaning. But as the unsaid comes to life in the

reader’s imagination, so the said “expands” to take on greater significance than might have

been supposed: even trivial scenes can seem surprisingly profound. The “enduring form of

life” which Virginia Woolf speaks of is not manifested on the printed page; it is a product

arising out of the interaction between text and reader. Communication in literature, then, is

a process set in motion and regulated not by a given code but by a mutually restrictive and

magnifying interaction between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment. What is concealed spurs the reader into action, but this action is also controlled

by what is revealed; the explicit in its turn is transformed when the implicit has been

brought to light.

[. . .]

Whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins. The gaps function as a kind

of pivot on which the whole text–reader relationship revolves. Hence the structured blanks

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of the text stimulate the process of ideation to be performed by the reader on terms set

by the text.

[. . .]

If we are to grasp the unseen structure that regulates but does not formulate the connection or

even the meaning, we must bear in mind the various forms in which the textual segments are

presented to the reader’s viewpoint. Their most elementary form is to be seen on the level

of the story. The threads of the plot are suddenly broken off, or continued in unexpected

directions. One narrative section centers on a particular character and is then continued by

the abrupt introduction of new characters. These sudden changes are often denoted by new

chapters and so are clearly distinguished; the object of this distinction, however, is not

separation so much as a tacit invitation to find the missing link. Furthermore, in each articulated reading moment, only segments of textual perspectives are present to the reader’s

wandering viewpoint, and their connection to each other is more often than not suspended.

An increase of blanks is bound to occur through the frequent subdivisions of each of the

textual perspectives: thus the narrator’s perspective is often split into that of the implied

author set against that of the author as narrator; the hero’s perspective may be set against

that of the minor characters; the fictitious reader’s perspective may be divided between the

explicit position ascribed to him and the implicit attitude he must adopt to that position.

As the reader’s wandering viewpoint travels between all these segments, its constant

switching during the time-flow of reading intertwines them, thus bringing forth a network

of perspectives, within which each perspective opens up a view not only of others but also

of the intended imaginary object. Hence no single textual perspective can be equated with

this imaginary object, of which it only forms one aspect. The object itself is a product

of interconnections, the structuring of which is to a great extent regulated and controlled

by blanks.

[. . .]

Now we are in a position to qualify more precisely what is actually meant by reader

participation in the text. If the blank is largely responsible for the activities described, then

participation means that the reader is not simply called upon to “internalize” the positions

given in the text, but he is induced to make them act upon and so transform each other, as

a result of which the aesthetic object begins to emerge. The structure of the blank organizes

this participation, revealing simultaneously the intimate connection between this structure

and the reading subject. This interconnection completely conforms to a remark, made by

Piaget: “In a word, the subject is there and alive, because the basic quality of each structure

is the structuring process itself.”5

The blank in the fictional text appears to be a paradigmatic structure; its function consists

in initiating structured operations in the reader, the execution of which transmits the

reciprocal interaction of textual positions into consciousness. The shifting blank is responsible for a sequence of colliding images which condition each other in the time-flow of

reading. The discarded image imprints itself on its successor, even though the latter is meant

to resolve the deficiencies of the former. In this respect, the images hang together in a

sequence, and it is by this sequence that the meaning of the text comes alive in the reader’s

imagination.

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NOTES

1 See Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art, transl. by George G. Grabowicz (Evanston, 1973),

pp. 276ff.

2 R. D. Laing, H. Phillipson, A. R. Lee, Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research

(New York, 1966), p. 4.

3 See also E. Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York, 1967).

4 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader: First Series (London, 1957), p. 174.

5 Jean Piaget, Der Strukturalismus, transl. by L. Häfliger (Olten, 1973), p. 134.



EDITORS’ NOTE

This extract is reproduced from Iser’s 1978 publication following the edited version as it appears in

Counsell and Wolf (2001) Performance Analysis.



FURTHER READING

Bennett, S. (1997). Theatre Audiences: a theory of production and reception. London: Routledge.

Fish, S. E. (1980). Is there a Text in this Class?: the authority of interpretative communities. Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Tyson, L. (1999). “Chap. 6. Reader-response criticism” in Critical Theory Today: a user friendly guide.

New York: Garland, pp. 153–96.



SOURCE

Source: W. Iser (1978). The Act of Reading: a theory of aesthetic response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, pp. 20–1, 164–9, 196–8, 203.



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43

SEMIOTICS

Lois Tyson



Lois Tyson offers a succinct introduction to semiotics, a branch of structuralist criticism. She

explains the use of semiotics as a tool for the analysis of the way in which signs function

symbolically in society. Tyson gives us a “semiotic” explanation of a number of “objects” and

“behaviours” in popular culture. These range from Roland Barthes’ on wrestling, to the analysis

of advertising billboards and restaurant menus.



Just as structural anthropology applies structuralist insights to the comparative study of

human cultures, semiotics applies structuralist insights to the study of what it calls sign

systems. A sign system is a non-linguistic object or behavior (or collection of objects or

behaviors) that can be analyzed as if it were a language. In other words, semiotics examines

the ways non-linguistic objects and behaviors “tell” us something. For example, the picture

of the reclining blond beauty in the skin-tight, black velvet dress on the billboard advertising

a particular brand of whiskey “tells” us that those who drink this whiskey (presumably male)

will be attractive to seductive, beautiful women like the one displayed here. As this example

illustrates, semiotics is especially interested in analyzing popular culture. Other examples of

the kinds of pop-culture sign systems semioticians tend to examine might include pictorial

ads in magazines, popular dances, Disneyland, roller derby, Barbie dolls, Cadillacs, and, to use

two examples analyzed by the famous semiotician Roland Barthes, professional wrestling

and the striptease.

Here’s a simplified summary of Barthes’ semiotic analysis of professional wrestling: He

argues that professional wrestling (the brand of wrestling in which the contestants use

pseudonyms like Gorgeous George or Haystacks Calhoun, dress in costume, and orchestrate

the match in advance) can be viewed as a sign system. It can be interpreted as a language

with a very specific purpose: to provide the audience with the cathartic satisfaction of

watching justice triumph in a situation that (unlike life) makes it very clear who is good and

who is evil. This purpose is revealed in the structural similarities of the matches, regardless

of who the contestants are: for example, (1) each wrestler is a clear type (clean-cut

All-American, mean-tempered slob, barbarous evildoer, and so on); (2) each match contains

contestants who, by their type, their behavior during a particular match, or both, can be

clearly identified as the “good guy” and the “bad guy”; and (3) each match ends with the

triumph of goodness over evil.

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The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version: Walter Benjamin

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