Barthes’ Codes

French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, most notable for writing  ‘Death of an Author’ in 1977.  He developed an idea that every narrative requires five codes to maintain interest with its audience.  The use of these different codes, of truth, empirics, person, science and symbol, create a complexity in the narrative’s meaning and representation to the audience.

The Hermeneutic code consists of the loose threads and information that is not addressed straight away.  It is left to the viewer’s imagination, suggesting a deeper untouched element of a character or event.  These elements create tension, and are a primary device used in crime drama and detective stories.  The usage of these ‘plot holes’ intrigues the viewer to want to learn more in order to find out the relevance of events and see the larger picture on completion.

The Proairetic code is another tension building device, getting the audience to guess towards the future, such as the outcome of a situation in which the protagonist is in jeopardy.  This can be seen as a literary device in cliff-hanger endings in serial or episodic modes of narrative

Barthes described both of these codes as “…dependent on … two sequential codes: the revelation of truth and the coordination of the actions represented: there is the same constraint in the gradual order of melody and in the equally gradual order of the narrative sequence.”

The Hermeneutic and Proairtic codes work together to get the viewer to ask why something has happened and what will happen next.  This envelopment in both the past and future and fuels our need to predict, testing our intelligence and perception.

The other three codes are related to the interpretation of the narrative discourse.  The Semic code deals with the character, settings and events and may be used to create a link and understanding by conforming to stereotypes, hence creating an instant recognition and association with an abstract idea or setting without a lot of explanation.  For example, in Science Fiction, aliens are often given a humanoid bipedal appearance.  This not only helps us associate with a character, it helps us empathise with them if they display certain other stereotypical human qualities.  The Semic code makes a fictional account more believable if the audience can associate the events, characters and settings into the real world.

The Symbolic code brings in the everyday conflicts that we ourselves come up against, but these are often presented in metaphors such as the conflict between men and women, this can manifest itself in character dynamics and relations.

The Cultural code presents a strong basis for the way the world works.  The physical environment must be believable for the viewer to be able to believe a situation can exist, and personify with the character.  If we are better able to empathise with a character if we believe that they would be able to exist in our world, they look like us, they see their world in the same way we do, and they have the same vulnerabilities that we do.

One Response “Barthes’ Codes” →

  1. Mark Ingham




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