Category Archives: Structuralism: Barthes definition of the intermediate; the ethics of signs

Structuralism: Barthes definition of the intermediate; the ethics of signs

Barthes says that ‘the intermediate sign[…]reveals a degraded spectacle’ (84). What does Barthes mean by intermediate? And how does this relate to ‘an ethics of signs?


‘Intermediate’ means a sign that stands halfway between “the artificial and [the] natural,” (84), it is a sign that is attempting to explain a particular effect (in this case that the offending senators of Rome were under great moral and psychological stress), but is also so completely artificial that to even achieve the effect for the actors it required large quantities of vaseline.

Barthe’s believes a sign must either be completely abstract, such as the flag in a Chinese play signifying a military regiment, or it must be formed naturally from the genuine experience. Here Barthe’s mentions Stanislavski who is famous for his school on acting and preparing actors to react genuinely to the material they are performing rather than just taking a few vocal and dance lessons. An actor who is genuine in their performance would not need vaseline to convey moral struggle, their moral struggle would manifest itself naturally without the aid of a prop.

This relates to an ‘ethics of signs’ in that the ‘intermediate’ sign is thus considered a “degraded spectacle,” (84) because it is unethical in that it fails to be genuine in how it is attempting to signify its intent and it adds a layer of artifice to the real world where none should be needed. Barthe’s goes as far to say that this intermediate sign is “deceitful” because it can actually “confuse the sign with what is signified,” (84) – in this example it confuses the sweat with real moral struggle. The sweat is not the moral struggle, however, it is an artificial prop attempting to show moral struggle, but it fails to actually represent the moral struggle of the killing of Caesar and the plunging of all Roman civilization into political turmoil.