This week’s readings are particularly pertinent as I work through my project because they offered some tools to think about the text and images on my license plate. While intellectual Roland Barthes explains how semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in language) helps us to understand the multiple layers of meanings in text and images, the art historian Wendy Bullion offers her understanding of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Philadelphia through her study of visual illusions (trompe l’oeil) in various contemporary artworks. In both cases, they produce rich cultural analyses through their focus on the image as object.
French scholar Roland Barthes, significant contributor to the study of semiotics, gives us some tools to talk about images in his “Rhetoric of the Image.” Using an advertisement, Barthes classifies its images as having three different messages: linguistic, coded, and non-coded. Linguistic messages come in the form of text and often support the messages of the images it accompanies. They serve to “fix” or anchor various meanings into place to “counter the terror of uncertain signs” (197). Coded messages are found in the images themselves, but a very specific cultural understanding needs to be in place in order for someone to derive information from the images. In the case of my license plate, this makes sense. Someone from another country might look at the bell in the center as just a cracked bell, but almost any American would immediately identify it as the Liberty Bell. Finally, Barthes identifies non-coded messages that serve as literal rather than implied representations of something.
Wendy Bullion in Citizen Spectator adds to this conversation in her study of art and the larger cultural trends in Philadelphia during the early federal period. She argues that trompe l’oeil techniques served to emphasize the importance of seeing and awareness as a means to avoid deception. How people saw these images and interacted with them in various spaces throughout Philadelphia, explains Bullion, played an important role in shaping citizenship in early America. She shows in paintings by the likes of Charles Willson Peale that images of illusion had their own multiple, material perspectives within the image themselves that were further compounded by the perspectives viewers brought to it. This is really important because while Barthes explains that several elements are used to anchor and fix meanings in images, Bullion deconstructs and uncovers the overt and hidden perspectives within these trompe l’oeil pieces. Objects have perspectives, too.
Barthes and Bullion have given me a lot to think about as I continue on with my project. I need to unravel some of the imbued cultural precepts of my license plate and understand how these are created. For example, I know just by looking at the plate that it’s a license tag. But why do I know that? Surely someone else would view it differently, or maybe even as a foreign object. Bullion helped me to step outside my ideas about the license plate as a measure of state control and look at citizenship a bit more. And how are people engaging with this particular license plate? Her extensive conversation about people’s interactions in various exhibition spaces to images helps me to think about license plates as another kind of social viewing. The bicentennial plates were meant to be seen and displayed, which raises questions about what its images communicated not only to the state but to the countless people who drove past it at some point or another. So much to discover!