The BBC program Sherlock showcases one man’s ability to recognize minute details and, from them, create a story. Yet, Magritte’s painting “Treachery of Images” seems to do the opposite, by taking the viewer’s internal narrative (this is a pipe) and contradicting it (this is not a pipe). Though approached differently, Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” and BBC’s Sherlock prove images as a signifier hold more importance than their associated words.
The Saussurean model of the signifier and signified play an important role in Sherlock.
The signifier, such as a sound pattern or arrangement of letters, is the form that a sign takes. Meanwhile, the signified is the concept this signifier represents. As such, Saussure argues that the two are inextricably intertwined; a signifier cannot be meaningless, while a concept cannot be formless. Despite this connection, he argues that the signifier creates the signified and is, therefore, more important. Indeed, one can use gibberish but cannot create meaning from thin air.
Similarly, Sherlock Holmes places greater importance on the signifier in the form of images.
While typical humans don’t view the world as a series of images, shifting frame by frame through time, Sherlock is atypical. Rather, he views the world through the camera lens of his mind’s eye, allowing him to briefly pause and fixate on key details.
Directors McGuigan and Lyn demonstrate this visually by stopping time, focusing on specific objects, and using text overlay. Take, for example,e the crime scene of the woman in pink.
As Sherlock enters, he first sees the engraving on the floorboards. Although he initially interprets this as Rache, a German word for revenge, using text overlay Sherlock finds the last letter through the process of elimination (Rachel). Next, he examines her attire.
By zooming in on her jewelry, both mechanically (with a magnifying glass) and mentally, Sherlock notices that while most of it is clean, the woman’s ring is dirty. Thus, he infers that she is unhappily married. Though the perceptions of one’s surroundings are not typically viewed as individual images, camera work and directing reveal that Sherlock perceives objects and scenes as suchAt the
At the beginning of Sherlock, Holmes can immediately infer intimate details about Watson’s life despite only recently meeting him. Their conversation begins with Sherlock asking whether Watson was stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. When Watson asks how he knew, Sherlock responds “I didn’t know. I saw.”. In other words, Sherlock creates meaning from visual cues. Watson’s clean haircut, for example, implies a military background, while his tanned skin indicates that he’s been abroad. Finally, the way Watson carries himself and his familiarity with St. Barthes leads Sherlock to believe that Watson was an army doctor. His psychosomatic limp implies a traumatic injury, therefore he must have been stationed in dangerous territory. The haircut, tanned skin, and limpness, then, act as the signifiers from which Sherlock builds his argument.
While these signifiers bring Sherlock to the correct conclusion, Watson’s occupation, or the signified, is of little importance. Rather, Sherlock (both the show and the person) are much more concerned with the small, traditionally overlooked clues. Of course, Sherlock would cease to function if the signifiers were ignored. Thus, the signifiers hold more importance than the signified. Additionally, the relation of the signifiers to one another allows Sherlock to draw such conclusions. As Saussure argues, signs have no “absolute’ meaning, as they rely on one another and these relationships. For example, Sherlock examines Watson’s phone and notices scratches around the charger.
He then concludes that Watson’s brother is an alcoholic, as such marks would “never be seen on a sober man’s phone”. Without an unscratched phone to compare it to, these marks have no meaning. Similarly, signifiers are meaningless without comparison.
To Sherlock, images are a much stronger signifier than words. Take, for example, the woman in pink. Although the engraved word means revenge, Sherlock correctly infers that the woman is neither German nor seeking retribution. Visual cues, such as her “alarmingly” pink attire and polished nails, lead Sherlock to believe that she works in the media industry, while her wet collar reveals that she traveled to London from 2-3 hours away, not Germany. As such, he looks for other meanings in the writing.
His distrust in writing and words can be justified, as is seen in his misinterpretation of Watson’s phone engraving. Because the text reads “Harry”, Sherlock believes that Watson has a brother. Yet, Watson later reveals that Harry is short for Harriett, his sister.
Had Sherlock been weary of writing and gathered more visual clues, he could have avoided this error. As such, images as a signifier are more valuable than writing.
Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” furthers this theory by pitting words directly against images. The painting itself is a perfectly rendered image of a pipe, yet the caption reads, “This is Not a Pipe”. As such, the painting forces viewers to decide whether they trust the written text or the painted image. While both could arguably be considered signifiers, the overwhelming presence of the pipe (that is, its central location and size) entices viewers to judge this first. As such, the image as a signifier leads the audience to conclude that the painting is of a pipe. While the written text attempts to destroy this, most viewers hold to the conclusion that it is indeed a pipe and develop new theories regarding the meaning of the text (the image is not a literal pipe, for example). As such, Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” contributes to the idea that the image as a signifier is more powerful than words.
While Saussurean semiotics conclude that the signifier is, in fact, more important than the signified, his argument still leaves many complications. Here, for example, the image as a signifier held more meaning and importance than words. Yet, this is difficult to reconcile with some forms of modern art, in which words themselves are viewed as an image. Barbara Kruger, for example, built her career on enormous installations of text. If text becomes a form of visual experience, then a new problem arises in creating a distinction between words and images.