The role of images in mediating leader-follower communication

Dr François-Régis Puyou reflects on a conference paper and presentation he gave at the 32nd EGOS.

I attended the 32nd EGOS colloquium in Naples and took part into a remarkable sub-theme on ‘Reclaiming the Shadow for Leadership.’

My paper was on leader-follower communication and the role played by images in mediating that relationship. To me, the core argument of the paper was the articulation between the rhetorical figure of “antithesis” (Barthes 1990) with the concept of “intersemiotic translation” (Jacobson 1959; Eco 2003) as successive steps in a process of interpretation of images conveyed by leaders at the origin of morally and intellectually informed actions by followers. A challenge was to try and explicit these notions relying on another example than the one included in the article i.e. Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I thought that a 10 minute live experiment turning the audience into followers of a well-known figure of leadership might eventually do the trick.

Being French, I picked Napoleon Bonaparte as a (long dead but still) influential leader universal enough to induce EGOS participants into practicing the rhetorical trope of ‘antithesis’ and the semiotic work of ‘intersemiotic translation’. Happily enough they had already been introduced to the “antithesis” and “intersemiotic translation” concepts by reading the paper and the Napoleon experiment had no other purpose but to help them experience them first-hand.

  1. Conceptual approach

The antithesis

Barthes (1990) calls ‘antithesis’ the rhetorical figure that consecrates and domesticates the division between opposites and the very irreducibility of this division. Using Balzac’ short-novel Sarrasine as an illustration, Barthes comments on the antithesis between ‘garden’ and ‘ballroom’ as the author introduces the two contradictory atmospheres by describing each of them at length. The warmth, frivolity, movements and music of the ballroom are contrasted with the coldness, solemnity, stillness and silence of the garden at night. The body of the narrator who stands at the frontier between the two universes, sitting at an open window, upsets this harmonious closed-loop rhetorical figure. His body, and by extension the reader’s one as well, is the site where the ‘inconciliabilia’ (ballroom and garden, outside and inside, cold and heat, death and life) are brought together in a composite substance. To Barthes, the body mediation between the two irreconcilable components of the antithesis makes it possible to tell something about the situation and to start a narrative. What Barthes suggests is the possibility for corporeal engagement to be at the origin of discourse originating in but also going beyond the binary opposition of contradictory emotions. In this process, new meaning is added to the initial situation. The paper argues that this last step is akin to “intersemiotic translation”.

The intersemiotic translation

To Jakobson, the meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into some further, alternative sign (1959: 232). To get the meaning of a word therefore requires an act of translation either into other words of the same language (i.e. rewording) or into words of another language (i.e. translation proper) or into another non-verbal system of symbols (i.e. intersemiotic translation). Jakobson makes the necessity for clarification in all acts of translation very explicit by using an example of translation proper of the Italian saying Traduttore, traditore into English. If one translates it as ‘the translator is betrayer’ the original epigram is deprived of its value grounded on words similar in sound provoking humour and a dual meaning. It is therefore recommended to make a more explicit statement when translating the saying into English but to do so requires answering questions such as ‘translator of what message’ and ‘betrayer of what values’. A cognitive attitude to the act of translation therefore compels us to make our understanding of the initial message more explicit in an act of interpretation. Translation and interpretation are closely intertwined: by translating a message, the translator must clarify how he/she understood it (Eco 2003). This point is crucial as it entails an act of subjective sensemaking. In the context of a follower interpreting into words or actions images associated with a leader, sensemaking is a co-construction of meaning with an important input due to the followers’ imagination.

  1. II) Experimental approach

When evoking Napoleon a wide range of images is likely to spring to the minds. Among the most common ones are the Napoleonic civil code of Law (granting similar rights to all citizens); the massacre of Spanish civilians by French troops in Madrid (as painted by Goya); the creation of an imperial aristocracy based on merits and not birth; the re-establishment of slavery after its abolition during the Revolution; the building of majestic high schoold and hospitals (including Les Invalides); the 6,000,000 deaths of Napoleonic wars, etc.

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Such images can then be sorted according to the effects they trigger in the follower’s mind. Some will evoke pleasant thoughts, emotions and atmosphere while others will prompt disarray, uneasiness, etc. Spending time thinking at length about each of these categories separately is characteristic of the rhetorical exercise of “antithesis”.

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The consequence of antithesis is to then encourage the individual to produce a discourse going beyond these mixed feelings: it serves as a ground for giving precisions about what it means for the follower to consider Napoleon as a leader. By forcing interpretation, intersemiotic translation from one system (emotions) into another (words) raises open-ended questions requiring moral and intellectual engagement.

My point was to signal a process of followers’ engagement combining cognitive abilities with embodied experience allowing for careful and original interpretations of leader’s communication. I was pleased to see that the presentation ended up in a debate about the role of rhetorical processes as means for invention and new knowledge creation or as indoctrination. This was not part of the article but finding out what resonates in ones’ work in other people’s mind is one of the unexpected contribution of attending academic conferences. I am grateful to the three convenors for organizing this wonderful event and for conducting discussions in a supportive and collegiate atmosphere.

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