A Barthesian Analysis of the BP Data in Four Stages

Before I outline the four stages of my research approach, I will discuss in more detail a concept I have mentioned a number of times already—that entire media representations can be conceived of as signs in their own right. This contention is important to the rest of my argument. I hold that sets of texts, such as my three data sets of BP texts, have enough characteristics in common that they are describable as an entity—a “language map”.

Semiotic Discourse Analysis and the "Language Map"

A “language map” is a holistic view of a representation which connects small signs to large signs. When we describe speech or writing as a collection of signs, or semiotic modes, or resources, we are perceiving signs as small elements, perhaps as “building blocks” which become invested with meaning only through the ways in which we put them together, our agreement about what this “code” or system means, our recollection © The Author(s) 2017

J. Gravells, Semiotics and Verbal Texts, Postdisciplinary Studies in Discourse, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58750-3_5

of the ways in which words have been used before and our knowledge that alternative words might have been used in their place but were not. Individual words are signs in that they have a signifier (the written word or spoken sound pattern) and a signified (their “meaning” or mental concept in context). This is the definition of de Saussure’s “isolated sign” (1959: 128) and it is one I will use as I develop my argument. However, there is also a broader interpretation of language-as-sign that I would like to introduce here. De Saussure suggests that larger stretches of language can also be signs:

As a rule we do not communicate through isolated signs but rather through groups of signs, through organized masses that are themselves signs. In language everything boils down to differences but also to groupings. The mechanism of language, which consists of the interplay of successive terms, resembles the operation of a machine in which the parts have a reciprocating function even though they are arranged in a single dimension. (de Saussure, 1959: 128, my emphasis)

The implication of de Saussure’s assertion above is that language can function as a sign at different levels—that individual words, groups of words and individual texts are all signs, and, by extension, that sets of texts may be considered as signs. De Saussure uses the metaphor of a machine with its various interconnected parts, each essential to the efficacy of the whole. I imagine a landscape or a map, where individual features appear in varying quantity, configuration and distribution to give a distinctive yet recognisable landscape. The concept of a map sits well with the notion of “representation”. The question I address in this book is not “what does the BP crisis ‘look like’” but “what does the representation of the BP crisis ‘look like’”.

The idea of representation as map is one explored by Baudrillard (1994) in Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard posits that society has moved through successive periods in which representations have become increasingly disconnected from the reality they depict. Writing of the “image” (which covers a broad range of representation types) he identifies four successive phases (1994: 6):

  • 1. It is the reflection of a profound reality.
  • 2. It masks and denatures a profound reality (art imitates life).
  • 3. It masks the absence of a profound reality.
  • 4. It has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure


Baudrillard here presents progressive stages from signs that offer some reflection of reality to signs that refer only to other signs and have no relation to reality at all. In discussing relationships between simulacra (loosely, “signs”) and “reality”, he draws on concepts of both physical resemblance and authenticity. He alludes in his work to the premodern and modern periods which he identifies as having at least some relationship, however distorted, with the real and original, but his main arguments deal with the nature of late twentieth-century society, where he suggests that not only are the real and original unrecognisable, but that they have evaporated. To illustrate this argument, Baudrillard draws on a fable told by Borges (1999: 325) in which, in an ancient Empire, “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it”. Eventually the map rotted away, leaving only a few remaining shards in remote places. Baudrillard claims that society has reached a stage where it is the territory itself that has crumbled away, leaving only the map as a representation of a reality that no longer exists. Baudrillard denies in his work the existence of any material reality, and this is an extreme view. However, this notion of signs being the outward representation of a shifting, unstable and ungraspable reality is one that is fundamental to semiotic thinking. The discourse analysis approach I offer is one way of describing these outward representations.

In the case of the BP data, I have sought to map three sets of texts, each at a time point a year apart. I propose that, although each set will comprise texts which are very disparate, it will, nevertheless, have important things in common which make it different from the others in the way it makes meaning. I discussed in Chap. 1 that news media texts are highly disparate, yet also in some ways relatively circumscribed in terms of their representation: by external technical, political and financial considerations, by space and time constraints, by a strong set of generic expectations and by the demands of collaborative processes. It is this sense of what news representations of a story have in common rather than their differences which leads me to propose the idea of language landscapes or maps. By this I mean that a synchronic representation of a news story can be investigated by considering a range of texts about the story at a certain point in time. Although the publications, the writers and the genre of the text may be different, nevertheless, a description of the language will show that the combined representation has certain characteristics which make the representation describable as an entity. This is a language map or a larger sign. It is by drawing up a set of language maps of the coverage of the BP events that I hoped to understand how the media were constructing our shared meaning of these events over time.

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