Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Well – I may not quite have had a Barthes Binge (except in shopping terms…) but I *have* finished “Mythologies”; and what a fascinating and brain-pummeling book it turned out to be. I read it during December, finishing it close to the end of the month (yes, I’m very behind with my reviewing); and I let it sit and settle over the Christmas and New Year period. If I’m truly honest, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to approach this post as so much has been said about the book over the years that I find myself wondering if I’m really qualified to comment (or, indeed, clever enough…) But for what it’s worth I’ll throw my two penn’orth into the discussion…

Barthes on the train…

According to Wikipedia, “Barthes was a French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism.” For a non-academic like me, that’s fairly scary to start with; but in fact I’ve owned a Barthes book since 2015 when I picked up “Camera Lucida“; and I considered reading “A Lover’s Discourse” for our 1977 Club reading week, but ran out of time. So Barthes has slipped in and out of my line of sight for some time now, turning up most recently in Richard Clay’s “Viral…” documentary; and frankly he seemed like an author I had to read, so after a bit of thought I decided to start with his most famous work – “Mythologies“.

The book was first published in 1957, and is split into two parts; the first section collects together a series of essays Barthes wrote on modern myths. Covering anything from wrestling to soap powder to toys to the face of Greta Garbo, he discusses the signs and symbols which affect us on a daily basis. This was a time in the 20th century where the mass media was taking hold and bombarding us with all kinds of imagery designed to sell stuff, control us and mould our thinking; imagine how much more powerful that media control is nowadays… Anyway, these essays were fascinating; a glittering series of pieces, full of so many ideas and observations that linger in the mind. The wrestling essay struck a number of bells as I can remember this being on the TV when I was growing up, with its (what seemed to me) ridiculous ritualistic format; and Barthes identified it as a form of theatre, as subject to signs and symbols as is any drama.

Advertising, of course, is one place where semiotics are vital (and this element turned up in the “Viral…” documentary); Barthes deconstructs this wonderfully and I shall try to keep his comments in mind when next being tempted to splurge on something I really don’t need! The essays sparkle with trenchant and often very funny analysis – I hadn’t quite expected to find myself laughing out loud at Barthes! His essay on the differing on-screen representations of historical Romans by French and American cinema was hilarious, with his discussion of Spectacle as a concept perhaps prefiguring the Situationists (“What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees”). “Blind and Dumb Criticism” is quite brilliant, and actually makes me think I should stop implying I don’t know what I’m talking about and have the belief that I’m making some kind of sense.

Part two of the book contains an extended section entitled “Myth Today”, and I have to confess to finding this a little more difficult than the essays. In fact, I wish I’d discovered the graphic below earlier to help clarify signified, signifier etc in my head a bit more clearly… However, it was worth persevering with, because in particular his insights into the effects of bourgeois cultural norms on our everyday lives were utterly fascinating.

Katyabogomol [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Semiology can sound scary, but the more I read and think about this, the more I believe we need to pay attention to the objects around us and what they signify. And interestingly, there seems to me to be a strong relationship between semiotics and iconoclasm; if we study the signs and symbols around us and there is a disjuncture between these and our beliefs, then naturally we’re going to want to tear down those symbols…

“Mythologies” is a book that is still so very relevant, particularly in our modern world where the cultural norms seem to be all over the place at times, and there are multiple media competing for our attention. Commenting on celebrity culture, Barthes bemoans the β€œregrettably materialistic times, and the glamour status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless)“, a statement that still sounds fresh today. And he’s very clear-eyed about the aspirations fed to the general public to keep them distracted from the real issues, saying of bourgeois culture:

The whole of France is seeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.

Semiotics is not something I’ve really thought about until recent years, but I do feel that it’s such an important element of understanding our world. Part of our inherited survival skills come from our ability to correctly decipher the signs and symbols around us; on the most basic level, “Is that rustle in the bushes over there a ferocious threatening beast or just the wind?” I guess the risk is that you could end up analysing your responses to everything around you so thoroughly that you become paralysed and unable to take any action! However, I do think we need to look morely closely at the signs and symbols we’re being fed, and resist the forms of control society is trying to enforce.

The Barthes pile has increased slightly…

Well – that’s my (hopefully not too dumb) non-academic take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”. Although at times a testing read, it was fascinating and in plenty of places I got those “Yes!” moments you sometimes get when reading a book, realising how we’re often surrounded by cliche and cultural shorthand, really not thinking very deeply about the world. Although it’s over 60 years old, so much of the book seems remarkable relevant; and in this day and age, when the signs and symbols being fed to us daily by our mogul-controlled mass media are becoming hard and harder to decipher and decode, we need Barthes and his “Mythologies” even more than we ever did.