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Barthes on Bond

Tuesday, 3 November, 2015

“When we are told that Bond, upon hearing the telephone ring, while upon duty in his Secret Service office, ‘picked up one of the four receivers’, the moneme four constitutes in itself a functional unit, for it refers to a concept which is necessary to the story as a whole (one of a highly technical bureaucracy). In fact, in this case, the narrative unit is not the linguistic unit (the word) but only its connotative value (linguistically, the word four never means ‘four’).” Roland Barthes, An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative (PDF).

Now that we’ve got our tickets for Spectre, it’s time to read what Roland Barthes had to say about James Bond. The great French literary critic, theorist and philosopher was a 007 fan and he subjected Goldfinger to close scrutiny in his ground-breaking structural analysis of the narrative form published in 1975. Nothing in that essay reflects the enormous technological changes in the past 50 years than Bond’s reaction to “hearing the telephone ring”. How did he react? Why, he “picked up one of the four receivers.” Imagine explaining that to 21st-century teens who spend most of their days and nights on their mobiles. What was a “receiver”? Why were four of them needed for taking a call? Back to Barthes:

“The administrative power that lies behind Bond, suggested by the number of lines on his phone, does not have any bearing on the sequence of actions triggered by the act of answering the phone; it only takes on value on the general level of typology of a character (Bond is on the side of Order).”

If Ronald Barthes were with us today, he’d have lots of fun deconstructing a recent item of Bond news about an object signified as a “smartphone”. Check this out: “Sony offered $5 million for Bond to carry the phone, with an $18 million bid to be the exclusive vendor. Samsung offered the same $5 million deal for Bond, but beefed the total payment to $50 million. Both offers were rejected by Bond actor Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes, after judging the phones to be too lackluster for Bond.”

Towards the end of his life, Barthes said: “All of a sudden it didn’t bother me not being modern.”

Spectre


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