By Mohamed Handour
By Mohamed Handour
Beni Mellal, Morocco – The narrative theory is of capital importance when dealing with a text, media or otherwise. It is mainly concerned with capturing and representing a set of facts following a given coherence or organization. To grasp things, anyone dealing with media texts needs to rely on the way events are interrelated so as to come up with a relevant interpretation. When we analyze a text, we tend to look for a beginning, middle and an end and how they are all tied together through events, actions and characters.
To adequately construct and understand meaning, we need not, as analysts, merely focus on the media text at hand, but also go beyond it drawing on our experience of reality and previous texts. This being the case, one may come to the conclusion that every text is an intertext. Regarding a text, in all its various forms and intricate patterns, as a self-sufficient entity with no bearing on the environment in which it is created, is an attempt to limit myriads of interpretations it is calling for.
This brief essay represents a humble attempt to analyze the image of a young black boy in a French uniform in the light of a set of narrative codes put forward by a number of narrative theory scholars.
An account of the image in the light of Barthes’ narrative codes:
Roland Barthes describes a text as:
“a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible. We gain access to it by several entrances; none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can read, they are indeterminable … The systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed…” (S/Z-1974 translation).
According to Barthes, the text is open to plural interpretations and the codes we can base our analysis on are indeterminable. However, we will content ourselves with the five codes he has suggested:
The hermeneutic code (it embodies those elements of a text that create an enigma and suspense leading us to ask questions): the young black boy is seemingly African; however what remains enigmatic is his country of origin and his status as a military man in the French soil. This may lead the reader of the text to raise a series of queries such as: what is his exact country? Why has he been enlisted into the French Army? To what extent is recruiting a child compatible with the French Empire’s claim for democracy and respect of human rights? Are the principles of fraternity, equity and equality associated with the French revolution null and void when it comes to the French nation’s treatment of the Other? Etc.
The semic (connotative code) (it has to do with the second order of signification using hints or flickers of meaning). We know that the boy is a soldier through his military uniform, his beret and his posture. His uplifted gaze suggests that he has an aura of conscientiousness, self-denial and nationalism around him.
The proairetic code: (the ability to determine the result of an action within logico-temporal constraints). The portrayal of a young black boy saluting the flag, or a superior, or any other national symbol can all be construed within the context of Eurocentric indoctrination. The boy has apparently undergone the process of brain washing that will undoubtedly culminate in his ‘Frenchness’.
The cultural code: (accepted knowledge and social mores): the military uniform, the beret, the uplifted gaze, the black boy and his posture all combine to convey an important message: French nationalism is not color-bound.
Actantial Model of Greimas:
With regard to this model, it is possible to proceed with the following analysis:
Subject (protagonist): an African young boy serving under the French flag.
Object (the goal set for the action): A black boy serving the French empire and defending its flag suggests that the state is powerful enough to reach far beyond the local geographical boundaries and encroach upon the far off land of lesser people. Taming the land takes place prior to subduing the people and making them, as the boy in the picture, fight for the French nation with ineffable zeal.
Sender (the one who sends the subject to fulfill a mission or quest): The journey might have been taken unwillingly or the boy might have been duped into leaving his native land and going to the Metropolis. The sender can be the colonial regime or the imperial institution that resorts to dislocating the Native African and enlisting him into the French Armed Forces.
Receiver: (the one who benefits from receiver’s quest or mission): The French nation / the Metropolis.
Helper: (event or person who assists the subject to succeed in his mission): the military institution backed up with a wide range of tactics and strategies it employs to lure the black boy into clinging to his duty.
Opponent: (events, people or any other obstacle that impedes the subject from fulfilling his action): it can be the boy’s consciousness when he is mature enough to reflect upon his situation as a fully-fledged black African serving under the enemy’s flag.
Todorov’s Equilibrium Model:
- Equilibrium: (A state of order, peace and serenity): the soldier’s peaceful experience in his colonized home prior to being enlisted in the French Military Force.
- Disrupted Equilibrium/ Disequilibrium: (balance and equilibrium are disrupted): An attempt to get things back on normal track (former state of peace and tranquility) creates a sense of chaos when the boy is engaged in the resistance of empire.
- New Equilibrium: (A new state of equilibrium and balance): Cracking down on resistance is aimed at restoring peace and security. The boy is domesticated and indoctrinated in such a way as to make him show allegiance to the French nation and fight for her with ineffable zeal.
Levi Straus’s Binary Opposition:
Binary opposites serve to foreground the position of the white man and relegate the black man to the subordinated margins of humanity. They also bring to the fore the plight of the colonized subjects whose destiny is to be subservient to their white masters. A set of binary polarities can be inferred from the image: Master versus Slave. Central Europe versus peripheral Africa. Reality (France claims to be the guarantor of Human Rights) versus illusion (enlisting a black child into the army is an affront to human dignity). Etc.
All in all, this short analytical essay has attempted to deal with the image displayed on the cover of Paris- Match. The aim is to decode the image on the basis of four distinct models: Barthes’ narrative codes, Greimas’s Actantial Model, Todorov’s Equilibrium and disequilibrium and finally Straus’s binary opposites. Despite the individual differences of the aforementioned models, they all serve to construct meaning about a fixed image that cannot be regarded as an auto- telic entity but as something linked to the political, social and cultural context in which it was first created. So, the mythical dimension of the image is not to be overlooked in so far as it is intent on fostering the ideology of the French nation. This mythical speech is elucidated in the following extract from Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’:
“I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag , and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so called oppressors.”
The image, as a kind of pictorial writing, is one among other tools of mythical speech. The black boy giving the French salute signifies ‘Frenchness and miltariness’. Myth has double function: it makes us understand something and imposes it on us. However, once we get to the core of the intended meaning, we may succeed in subverting the seemingly adequate grounds on which a given text is built.