Polysemy

I have been reading Roland Barthes ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (challenging read!) which has introduced me to the concept of ‘polysemy’. It basically means that an image or indeed word can have many different meanings. See my lovely diagram below.

We did a rough experiment on this idea in a recent seminar. My tutor showed each of us the same image – a dark house with a single light on downstairs – the asked for us to interpret it. John said that perhaps the family were away out and had left the light on to make it look like someone was in (a deterrent to burglars). Lynsey said it looked quite scary and that only one person was in the house. I said that the whole family were sitting together, maybe watching a film or having visitors over. Notice how Lynsey and I had a completely opposite reaction to the picture; I seen it in quite a positive light where as she seen it as a negative, scary image.

Is there a psychological reason we all seen different things from the same image? Possibly. In fact probably. I was wondering if we all maybe relate it to things in our lives – things that are most familiar. For example, is Lynsey part of a big family or even just doesn’t really like being on her own? Is that why she thinks a single light on in a house as being quite lonely therefore, to her, scary? Did I not see this because I am an only child and have indeed lived on my own? I also noticed that Lynsey and I both assumed that someone was in the house – John assumed they were not. We seen the function of the light differently; he seen it as a deterrent, protecting the house; we seen it as a sign that something was going on. Whilst I seen the sign as an amenity however Lynsey seen it as quite chilling.

From a design point of view, in fact maybe even advertising these results create a problem. If the image was being used for an estate agent it might put Lynsey off the house. If it was being used for a horror film poster I wouldn’t be very scared and John would think the scary stuff happens whilst the characters are out.

What if the advertiser of, say the horror film, wanted us to all have the same interpretation?  From what I have understood from Barthes essay, one of the meanings needs to be chosen (meaning A in my diagram). Doing this, will then close off other meanings and open up new ones: creating a “chain of signifiers”. So, choosing the scary meaning and adding text (linguistic message) will fix this chosen image, making it no longer open to such broad interpretation. The word ‘outcast’, for example, would get rid of the ‘family gathering’ view I had. In fact it would maybe get rid of John’s to because it suggests a person being the ‘outcast’…in the house. Adding a colour might also help, if the light were white instead of glowing orange it would come across as more clinical. Does everyone see white as being clinical though?

Anyway, this concept, of polysemy and manipulating images using linguistics as well as iconic symbolism (something else Barthes talks about) is something I feel I am only just touching the surface of! I will be exploring it more tomorrow though as I will be doing a little experiment with a group of friends from uni. I’ll keep you posted with the results and see if I gain any more understanding of this concept.

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