Barthes – The Third Meaning (1970)

Barthes’s essay, "The Third Meaning: Research notes on some

Stills," approaches a third order of meaning, an inarticulable
beyond, extant to the first-order obvious and the second-order symbolic but not
wholly divorced from them.  The third meaning takes its shape from a
"theoretical individuality" (55) (close associate to the punctum/sting,
no doubt).  And it is, of course, difficult to name
because, as Barthes puts it, the third meaning or obtuse meaning "is a signifier
without a signified" (61).  Barthes’s essay-notes proceed through a kind of
awkward profundity; piling through an array of near-descriptors, as near as one
can get without reducing the third meaning into something it is not. 

To attempt these notes (on notes on a thing indescribable), I
have simply assembled marginalia and annotations, crunched them together here,
as if in a build-up of please make sense, so that I can comb through, piecemeal

Early distinctions: obvious (55) and obtuse (56).  The obvious meaning
is evident; it "comes to seek me out" (54)–emphatic and important.  The
obtuse meaning or third meaning ("the one ‘too many’"…yes!) "extend[s] outside
culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about
it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in
the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery,
useless expenditure.  Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the
trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of carnival"

Here, third meaning for Barthes

Third meaning gravitates to the curiously disguised.  "The characteristic of this third meaning is indeed-at least in SME[isenstein]-to blur
the limit separating expression from disguise, but also to allow that
oscillation succinct demonstration–an elliptic emphasis, if one can put it like
that, a complex and extremely artful disposition (for it involves a temporality
of signification), perfectly described by Eisenstein himself when he jubilantly
quotes the golden rule of the old K.S. Gillette: ‘just short of the cutting
edge’" (58).  And so it seems to close in on the touching, sensitive
and emotional without precisely locating such conditions. Next: "Caught up in the disguise, such emotion is
never sticky, it is an emotion which simply designates what one loves,
what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation" (59).

Here, third meaning is dissolved.

"If the obtuse meaning cannot be described, that is because, in contrast to
the obvious meaning, it does not copy anything–how do you describe something
that doesn’t represent anything? The pictorial ‘rendering’ of words is here
impossible, with the consequence that if, in front of these images, we remain,
you and I, at the level of articulated language–at the level, that is, of my
own text–the obtuse meaning will not succeed in existing, in entering the
critic’s metalanguage.  Which means that the obtuse meaning is outside
(articulated) language while nevertheless within interlocution.  For if you
look at the images I am discussing, you can see this meaning, we can agree on it
‘over the shoulder’ or ‘on the back’ of articulated language" (61). 
Paradoxically, third meaning can be understood (right?) and also steer clear of
the "critic’s metalanguage." Third meaning, in this sense, "outplays meaning"
(63), it takes the side exit on "literacy’s depletion."

"In short, what the obtuse meaning disturbs, sterilizes, is metalanguage
(criticism). Reasons: 1. discontinuous (61) 2. depletion (not filled out)
(62) 3. accent (the form of an emergence, a fold) (62).

Just a few more observations, quotations and one or two questions: Barthes
develops this notion–third meaning–around stills (frames from films).  He
argues that third meaning "makes the filmic possible" because it "structures the film
differently without–at least in SME–subverting the story" (64).  The
possibility of an excessive meaning (in this out-there stratum) that
doesn’t destroy narrative seems important here. "The filmic, then, lies precisely here, in that region where articulated
language is no longer more than approximative and where another language begins
(whose science, therefore, cannot be linguistics, soon discarded like another
booster rocket).  The third meaning–theoretically locatable but not
describable–can now be seen as the passage from language to signifiance and in
the founding act of the filmic itself" (65).  Barthes explains that
the filmic is not the same as film (a corollary: novelistic/novel).  Could
it be that this explanation of filmic makes it writable; can the filmic be
written?  Can writing be filmic?  Is third meaning relegated to the

More on narrativity and subversion:

"The indifference of freedom of position of the supplementary signifier in
relation to the narrative allows us to situate with some exactitude the
historical, political, theoretical task accomplished by Eisenstein.  In
his work, the story (the diegetic, anecdotal representation) is not
destroyed–quite the contrary: what finer story than that of Ivan or Potemkin?
This importance given to the narrative is necessary in order to be understood in
a society which, unable to resolve the contradictions of history without a long
political transaction, draws support (provisionally?) from mythical (narrative)
solutions.  The contemporary problem is not to destroy the narrative
but to
subvert it; today’s task is to dissociate subversion from destruction: the
presence of an obtuse, supplementary, third meaning–if only in a few images,
but then as an imperishable signature, as a seal endorsing the whole of the work
(and the whole of his work)–radically recasts the theoretical status of the
anecdote:  the story (the diegesis) is no longer just a strong system (the
millennial system of narrative) but also and contradictorily a simple space, a
field of permanences and permutations.  It becomes the configuration, that
stage, whose false limits multiply the signifier’s permutational play, that vast
trace which, by difference, compels what SME himself calls a vertical reading,
that false order which permits the turning of the pure series, the aleatory
combination (chance is crude, a signifier on the cheap) and the attainment of a
structuration which slips away from the inside.  It can thus be said that
with SME we have to reverse the cliche according to which the more gratuitous a
meaning, the more it will appear as a mere parasite of the story being narrated;
on the contrary, it is this story which here finds itself in some parametric to
the signifier for which is is now merely the field of displacement, the
constitutive negativity, or, again, the fellow-traveler" (64).

Why such a long passage?  Just one megaloparagraph.  But in it we
have one of Barthes’s two references to Eisenstein’s notion of vertical
reading (a dilute or thinly-known story-structure?).  And I’m not sure what
Eisenstein or Barthes mean–vertical reading.  I’m also interested
in the idea of "radically recast[ing] the theoretical status of the anecdote"; I
guess this works on the analogy still is to film as anecdote is to narrative. 


  1. “this cultural tossing of the face”…nice. I hadn’t seen this before; I appreciate the link. Just the thing I can use as I turn to pieces from Baudrillard and Debord today.

    My experience during the first look at Potemkin-Repetition (alone) was anomalous to VV’s comments in the interview where he mentioned laughter. Wonder if he observed a sort of shock-laughter in the group (like the ‘extravagance of laughter’–the large audience, helpless to respond in any other way).

  2. Helpless to respond, yes. On the note of laughter, thinking conductively here, is Diane Davis’s -A Rhetoric of Laughter-, here is the laughter that laughs us, like language; the third meaning not only penetrating down from the photograph, but billowing forward, upward, and out. In the book, Diane writes about sitting in church as a child and noticing errant hair sticking up over the preacher’s head. She couldn’t hold it in anymore, and burst! Ha ha ha!

  3. I’ve been meaning to get to that book. It’s on the list. I was thinking as much about Ralph Ellison’s essay, “An Extravagance of Laughter”; sounds similar (in some ways) to Davis’s anecdote–the outlandishness of Tobacco Road performed in front of the NYC theater-goers.

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