Semiotic profile: Andre Helbo

Andre Helbo

The writings of many semiologists are often dogmatically linked to the particular schools of thought to which they relate. By contrast, Andre Helbo has demonstrated in his publications a remarkable open-mindedness, a kind of fluidity of approaches which has steered his works away from any intellectual orthodoxy. In his view, semiology is defined more by its purposes than by its reference to a theoretical paradigm. This position is often clearly articulated in his work: “Semiology contributes more and more to staying the course in a cultural universe which is threatened by the media and the onslaught of information that assails it from all sides” [Sémiologie des messages sociaux, Paris: Edilig, 1987, p.8]. According to this perspective, Semiology is first of all a mode of discourse characterized by its particular requirements, its rigor and its coherence. By contrast, journalistic and media discourses in general are rather loose and open-ended. Thus, a double goal is assigned by Helbo to the semiological enterprise: the understanding of cultural objects in their variety and the elucidating of their social dimension. This approach parallels Roland Barthes’s double task in his Mythologies: “semiological dismantling” and “ideological criticism”.

To this extent, the domain of inquiry of sémiologie cannot be restricted to highbrow cultural objects such asliterarynovels, films, or theater plays. It must be expanded to include paraliterature, election posters, and popular journalism among others. For Helbo eclecticism is a virtue, a valuable heuristics, because a variety of methods is needed to come to grips with the complexity of the objects under study. Applying by principle a single method of normative analysis to objects as complex as comics books or popular festivals, for instance, would be reductive to the extreme and miss the rich entangling of processes of meaning-making, their intertexts and contexts. At least two approaches have to be brought into play: the “defining perspective” and the “historical perspective”.  Thus, in order to address the question of the adaptation of theater plays to cinema, the questions to be asked bear upon what can be expected from images, from the dynamic of space and time, and from the ephemeral quality of live performance transposed to the unchanging version of a movie.

For Helbo, it is only after having marked the boundaries of a conceptual frame and having elaborated ontological definitions that it becomes possible to move to a historical perspective and examine how the relations between cinema and theater evolved semiotically.

Helbo first engaged literary problems (Sartre, Butor) and social messages, but he soon turned to what was to become his main contribution to scholarship: the foundations for a sémiologie of theater in the wider context of a critical assessment and renewal of general semiotics (Le champ semiologique). His approached is characterized by a constant effort to avoid the traditional text-centered attitude which consists of reducing the study of theater to the study of plays as literary texts. Helbo confronted head on the challenge of focusing his semiotic attention on theatrical performances which are by definition fluid and ephemeral objects which seem to resist conceptualization. To progress on this way, it is necessary to place oneself in a multimodal, “intermedial” perspective and to adopt an “intersemiotic” approach. He endeavored to capture the specificity of theater through comparing scenic and cinematic devices. As he states in L’Adaptation: Du théâtre au cinéma (1997), “The characteristic of the theater performance is the double enunciation: referring at the same time to the discourse (I am in the theater) and the narrative (the character describes a program which tends to come true)”. By contrast, “the double enunciation does not characterize the cinematic discourse: generally, the implicit tendency is to erase the enunciator, and privilege the narrative”. This point triggered some constructive debates because if viewers certainly tend to overlook the marks of film enunciation, it can be claimed that this does not prevent in principle the cinema from proceeding also from the same double enunciation as the theater. Moreover, some theorists went as far as claiming that film enunciation is based on the viewers’ sense of being in a movie theater.

Secondly, Helbo brings to light the essential difference of points of view built by theater and cinema: while vision is “direct in the cinema (images, framings created by the author-director)”, it is “inferred (representations built by the receiver) on stage”. It involves, for the stage director, the construction of signals which hold the spectator’s attention and control his/her gaze whereas the film director can manage these effects more easily by means of the camera. Adapting a play for the cinema will then consist of substituting direct vision to inferred representation.

From this set of oppositions, Helbo elucidates all the possible relations between the stage and the audiovisual productions, films or TV programs. With the years, his field of study broadened from this basis to develop “a new type of intertextual and multimedial studies, centered on the relation between the various types of spectacles, even on the spectator’s position”. He insistently pursues the vexing question of the relations of images to texts and of texts to images, the relations between the readable and the visible, and, more specially the challenge of considering spectacles from the perspective of performance, an interest which brings him in his latest work to focus on the role of the body in the show and expand his interest beyond theatrical performances to include all kinds of live spectacles. His impact in this domain is felt internationally, notably through his leadership in the Erasmus Mundus project: or .

Obviously, this cursory overview of André Helbo’s intellectual itinerary and contributions to our understanding of theater and cinema as two contrasted modes of meaning-making processes and his latest efforts to conceptualize live performance in general, cannot do entirely justice to his abundant publications in French, and the subtle and elegant analyses they offer. But this profile would be seriously lacking if his role as editor and organizer were not mentioned. As founder and editor of the journal Degrés, of which 145 issues have been published to date, Helbo has served the community of French-speaking semioticians by providing a constant and consistent outlet, and a forum of the highest scholarly standard. Degrés has dealt with all the major problems of sémiologie, following the progress of this discipline and espousing the meanders of its evolution over the years. Some of the issues published can be considered to be landmarks in the history of modern semiotics, tackling topics such as signs, discourse, genres, media, or artistic activities. Among the landmark special issues are: Le Signe iconique (vol.15), Lire l’image (vol. 34), Signes et medias (vol. 57), Le Texte spectaculaire (vol. 63), Sémiologie du spectacle vivant (vol. 128, 129), to name only a few. As editor as well as researcher, André Helbo manifests intellectual rigor and remarkable open-mindedness and Degrés stands as a point of convergence of all the theories of the sign in their rich diversity.é.Helbo

François Jost

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