Starting Over

So, this blog has gone neglected (ignored, honestly) for a few years now (and they’ve been a crazy few years). I didn’t live up to my expectations for what I wanted this to be. But I’m ready to give this another shot, to try and hold myself accountable for making my often random musings public, to engage my own scholarship in ways I encourage my students and colleagues alike to do. So…


I’d like to start (over) with a brief musing that began as a conversation with my partner while watching the most recent Apple keynote announcing the iPhone 7. During this keynote, Apple announced it removed the auxiliary input (aka the headphone jack) from the latest release of their iconic smartphone. However, this post is not about Apple. It’s not about the decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone. Instead, this post is about the rhetorical significance of a material object Apple is attempting to declare obsolete via this decision: the headphone wire.

Portable headphones are a wonderful invention. And make no mistake, wireless headphones can save time, energy, and entanglement, particularly when physical activity is involved. But headphones serve another important function: they are a public deterrent. They communicate a very specific message – do not bother me. To be fair, headphones aren’t the only public symbol that someone wishes to be left alone, but I would say they are the most ubiquitous, consistent, and convenient one; they are hands-free and remain (relatively) out of the way of everyday business. While over-ear headphones can be easily spotted, wireless or not, I find their size problematic for commuting; they simply take up too much room in a bag. In-ear headphones are super commute friendly, but they are easily unseen. Thus, the wire does the communicative work. And as a woman, this simple object, the wired headphone, is even more important. It’s my one consistent line of protection against the barrage of men catcalling me, harassing me, trying to holla at me, etc. You get the idea. It’s not a fool-proof method for avoiding unwanted attention, but it works damn well.

When looking at the headphone wire as a rhetorical object, I can’t help think of the recent pushes towards object oriented ontology, new materialism, and other variations on the theme objects shape meaning. In the Lacanian sense, the wire is an important actor* in a complex social network of meaning-making. It communicates a message and contributes to, in this case, a potential non-interaction. That is, by communicating a simple “do not bother me,” the headphone wire is a meaningful contributor in staving off a physical interaction. Thus, we see that this wire is vibrant in Bennett’s conceptualization. That is, the wire is alive and buzzing with rhetorical potential, actively shaping possible (non)interactions before they even/ever happen.

From where I’m sitting, the rhetorical significance of wirelessness, in this case, means ambiguity at best (are they or are they not wearing headphones – I can’t really tell with that hair/hat/hood/headband/etc. in the way) and increased harassment, and all that comes with, at worst. Without a clear symbol telling the world to leave someone alone, how will people, particularly women, conveniently wear their desire to remain unbothered as a public advertisement?

Now, to be fair, Apple isn’t forcing anyone to use wireless headphones. In fact, they’ve included newly designed wired headphones as well as an adaptor so people can use their current headphones with the new phone, both plugging into the phone via the lightning port. However, this constant push to exist wirelessly overlooks the material rhetorical significance such wires convey. Wires are more than physical tethers to and connections between objects. In the case of portable headphones, a simple wire communicates a simple request – please, just leave me alone. However, for at least a decade now, Apple has been at the forefront of deciding when technology has become obsolete by removing it from their devices, and typically for the better (like the removal of the optical drive from their computers)**; if Apple does it, it’s not long before other manufacturers follow suit. I think Apple may have overlooked the rhetorical significance of wired headphones and the implications of wirelessness in this context. And I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit concerned that when others follow suit (because they will), an important social rhetorical tool will no longer be available for meaning making.




*I know that Lacan made early distinctions between actors and actants, but I think such a divide is counterproductive. From my understanding, Lacan began considering both human and non-human agents of meaning as actors within a given network, which I feel is far more productive and accurate.

**Apple removed the optical drive, better known as a cd/dvd drive, for a few reasons. First, it took up a significant amount of space inside of the computer, limiting the size and/or inclusion of other components, most importantly the battery (in portable computers). Second, it broke. Often. In fact, as I learned from Apple certified technicians, it was one of the most common repairs done on machines. And any time you open a computer to repair it, you run the risk of damaging fragile internal components, even when done safely and shielded from electrostatic discharge. Less repairs = less potential for further damage. Third, cds/dvds were becoming outdated technologies. Taken together, while people still complained about the removal of the optical drive, Apple did actually make the best decision for its users and its technology, even though it was controversial at the time.

Response: “Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes

Really, what is there not to take note of in Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image”? This in mind, here are a couple of bits that may or may not make their way into my work. It’s important to keep in mind that Barthes is primarily responding to advertising images and mass communications, but many of these statements could be applied to the reading of images as a whole.

Notes and reactions:
“Thus we find ourselves immediately at the heart of the most important problem facing the semiology of images: can analogical representation (the ‘copy’) produce true systems of signs and not merely simple agglutinations of symbols? Is it possible to conceive of an analogical ‘code’ (as opposed to a digital one)? We know that linguists refuse the status of language to all communication by analogy…the moment such communications are not doubly articulated, are not founded on a combinatory system of digital units as phonemes are.” – 33
I like this debate centered around whether the language of the image has its own coding system or if it simply an amalgamation of symbols grouped together. I would assume there is a history of scholarship on the subject since Barthes originally wrote this piece. Look into this for further research.

“the image is re-presentation, which is to say ultimately resurrection, and, as we know, the intelligible is reputed antipathetic to lived experience.” – 33
Image as re-presentation/resurrection is interesting language. It implies in it some of the debate around “death of the author” while also turning it on its head; is there a “death of the subject” that happens after an image is taken? Can an image only represent a moment that is past, that can never again be? I think there are links to image and memory that could absolutely be explored here as well.
Side note – reminds me of a moment in DiLilo’s White Noise (image of the barn). Bring this into the conversation?

“Now even – and above all if – the image is in a certain manner the limit of meaning, it permits the consideration of a veritable ontology of the process of signification.” – 33
Food for thought. Do the limits of images allow for a stronger understanding of the process of signification?

“If all these signs are removed from the image, we are still left with a certain informational matter; deprived of all knowledge, I continue to ‘read’ the image, to ‘understand’ that it assembles in a common space a number of identifiable (nameable) objects, not merely shapes and colors.” – 35
Points to the layered nature in which images must be read. There is almost a hierarchy to the information presented in images: some elements foundational to the composition of the image, other elements are signifiers helping the reader of the image know what is being signified.

“the relation between signified and signifier is quasi-tautological; no doubt the photograph involved a certain arrangement of the scene (framing, reduction, flattening) but this transition is not a transformation (in the way a coding can be); we have here a loss of the equivalence characteristic of true sign systems and a statement of quasi-identity. In other words, the sign of this message is not drawn from an institutional stock, is not coded, and we are brought up against the paradox…of a message without a code.” – 35
Again, interesting food for thought. The endless chain of signifiers those like Saussure and Derrida point to in words and language carries over to our images. Maybe this is why multimodal composition can be so successful; by using multiple modes/languages to communicate a message, the likelihood of signifiers being misunderstood or misrepresented is diminished.

“the viewer of the image receives at one and the same time the perceptual message and the cultural message” – 36
Multiple messages are receives simultaneously with images. Is this an advantage or a problem?

“the literal image is denoted and the symbolic image connoted.” – 36
No real reaction here. Just wanted to collect this to have for later.

“Today, at the level of mass communications, it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image: as title, caption, accompanying press article, film dialogue, comic strip balloon. Which shows that it is not very accurate to talk of a civilization of the image – we are still, and more than ever, a civilization of writing, writing and speech continuing to be the full terms of the informational structure. ” – 37
Would be interesting to open this up for discussion considering we’re around 50 years removed from when Barthes wrote this. With the current state of digital communication being as foundational to society as it is, has this changed at all? Are we shifting towards a language of images being dominant? Is text still king? What is the dynamic?

“What are the functions of the linguistic message with regard to the (twofold) iconic message? There appear to be two: anchorage and relay.” – 37
This point could be important when talking about how text juxtaposes with image in multimodal composition.

“all images are polysemous; they imply, underlaying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction, even if this dysfunction is recuperated by society as a tragic…or a poetic…game…Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of these techniques…The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself; it is a matter of a denoted description of the image…The denominative function corresponds exactly to an anchorage of all the possible (denoted) meanings of the object by recourse to a nomenclature” – 37
Ties in to previous quotes/notes/reactions about the multiple messages contained in images being communicated simultaneously. Also ties in to images being a prime example of the floating chain of signifiers/signifieds. Text-as-anchorage helps the reader navigate these issues.

“When it comes to the ‘symbolic message’, the linguistic message no longer guides identification but interpretation, constituting a kind of vice which hold the connoted meanings from proliferating, whether towards excessively individual regions…or towards dysphoric values” – 37
This quote could be useful to highlight how text-as-anchorage serves multiple purposes.

“In all these cases of anchorage, language clearly has a function of elucidation, but this elucidation is selective, a metalanguage applied not to the totality of the iconic message but only to certain of its signs…anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility – in the face of the projective power of pictures – for the use of the message. With respect to the liberty of the signifieds of the image, the text has thus a repressive value and we can see that it is at this level that the morality and ideology of a society are above all invested.” – 38
Ties back into the limits of an image. Text further limits image? Texts focuses image? Can text-as-anchorage open up an image?

“The function of relay is less common (at least as far as the fixed image is concerned)…Here text and image stand a complementary relationship; the words, in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis…While rare in the fixed image, this relay-text becomes very important in film, where dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meaning that are not to be found in the image itself.” – 38
In multimodal composition, how does text function? Is it anchorage? Relay? Can the same text function as both?

“In the photograph – at least at the level of the literal message – the relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of ‘transformation’ but of ‘recording’, and the absence of a code clearly reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’: the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly…Man’s interventions in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation.” – 40
So the composition elements of an image are related to the connotation of the image; the artifact(s)/object(s) present within the image are denoted, but because there is an absence of code to fill them with meaning, it is in the compositional elements that meaning is made.

“The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing…but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then.” – 40
Ties back into comment earlier about “death of the subject” as a nature of image, particular of the photograph. Also, these temporal concerns are interesting and could play into questions and understandings of delivery.

Quotes from: Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” PDF.