Intrigued by the ideas of twentieth-century French thinker Roland Barthes, but a little intimidated by his reputation as ‘difficult’? Keen to explore further but wondering whether he’s still relevant in the twenty-first century? Curious as to how he would interpret our modern world? Fear not! A recent documentary is just the solution! 😀

c. ClearStory/BBC

Twenty First Century Mythologies“, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, aired last night on BBC4. Richard has featured on the Ramblings on numerous occasions – reviews, interviews and inspiration – and I obviously think very highly of his work. He made a welcome revisit to the blog last week, providing a fascinating new interview, some of which is relevant to the programme and you can read it here. However, I think Richard may well have outdone himself on this occasion… His latest programme is focused around the continuing relevance of Roland Barthes; and as I’ve been spending much time in the last year with that great thinker, the documentary had a particular resonance for me.

“Myths” (let’s call the programme that for convenience) takes as its starting point Barthes’ seminal book “Mythologies” and his concept (and exploration) of the forces that shape our lives. Opening the programme atmospherically and poignantly with Barthes’ untimely death, Clay gives a useful summary of Barthes’ thinking. He then goes on to tackle a number of myths, past and present, exploring how relevant they still are; and looks at situations Barthes would not have encountered but would have instantly understood. His aim, as he states it, is to find out how Barthes’ ideas have permeated our culture and how relevant they still are today. And, well – they really are!

The Myth of Plastic (c. ClearStory/BBC)

So the documentary is structured round these sections on specific myths, interspersed with biographical Barthes bites, which works beautifully in giving a picture of the thinker and his work. Richard begins by exploring the myth of plastics, a topic Barthes predicted might affect the world negatively in the long term, as indeed it does; and as the documentary makes clear, despite being aware of the awful problems it causes, we are still using it… In this section, as with many of the others, Clay meets with modern artists of all kinds to explore how they engage with the issues he finds, and this adds a fascinating element to the programme.

The Myth of Money (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Then there is the myth of money, surely the thing which most affects how our world is run nowadays; and the complex, mythical existence of cryptocurrency, which seems as elusive as smoke to me! This feeds into the myth of the Internet, something Barthes never could have foreseen. Richard’s exploration of this is particularly enlightening, exposing as fake the myth of the freedom we supposedly get from Internet with a welcoming burst of scepticism; revealing that it’s a double edged sword, serving those those in control. This is a programme at its mythbusting best, debunking any idea that the internet is controlled by anything other than money

This also linked into a particularly telling section on the myth of the Madonna, looking at the portrayal of women. The art historian in Clay emerged as he explored the history of the portrayal of the Madonna and the pressure on women to conform to images of perfection. Some have turned to self-documentation to supposedly subvert the stereotype; however, I’ve always had doubts about this and as the programme discusses, this has simply replaced the imposed image with a self-imposed one. Another commentator pointed out that this is most definitely a myth as women have simply become objects of their own making, trying to sell themselves within a system created and controlled in the main by young, white men. Which is chilling… I wondered what Barthes would have made of this, particularly as his notions of women very much stemmed from the idealisation of his mother.

c. ClearStory/BBC

The study of signs and symbols can appear a little exotic if you’re unfamiliar, and Richard provides a very handy semiotics 101 explaining Barthes’ system of signs: the signifier being a sign that transmits a meaning to us (e.g. a no entry sign) and the signified being that message or meaning (e.g. don’t drive down this road!) For someone who’s occasionally got a bit woolly about those terms, this was most helpful! Interestingly, with shifts in culture, a signifier can have more than one signified/meaning, that meaning changing according to current perceptions – a good example Clay gives being the yellow vest, once a sign of someone in charge, and now subverted by French protesters. All this, of course, ties in with Richard’s work on iconoclasm and sign transformation – very relevant at the moment with the protests this year, which have seen the meanings conveyed by certain statues of dead white men becoming unacceptable in public places. I’ve often felt that semiotics and iconoclasm are branches on the same tree, but that’s by the by… Anyway, It was certainly entertaining seeing Clay help a graffiti artist recoding traffic signs with stickers in an attempt to cause the public to think about what they’re actually seeing.

Contemplating the Myth of Copyright (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Other myths explored were copyright and authenticity, a knotty subject and one which divides opinions strongly; if you create something, you have a right to have control over it, but that seems impossible in the digital age. The argument of copyright vs creativity is not one I would like to take a definitive stand on, though if anyone ripped off the Ramblings I’d probably be a bit peeved! And the myth of the gun as the ultimate righter of wrongs is unnerving in our modern age of violence, particularly when there’s often such an unrealistic portrayal in the media which establishes that myth, letting us accept the existence of guns. As Richard reminds us, repetition normalises a myth so that we regard it as part of our everyday life; and that’s never more true than of the advertising with which we’re constantly bombarded. Back when “Mythologies” was originally published, Barthes was already aware of the effect of images embedded in culture – how much more is that evident nowadays!

The Myth of Race (c. ClearStory/BBC)

“Myths” concludes with a most powerful section at the end concerning race. Barthes was aware of the contradictions which existed in French society of his time, living in a country in the middle of an imperialist war with Algeria. In his book he deconstructed a troubling “Paris Match” cover; and Clay takes this as his jumping off point to consider the myth of race. Interviewing historian Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, both men acknowledge that less than 1% of 1% of DNA differs between so-called different races of people. However, it’s chilling to hear Bunch state that despite those infinitesimal variances in DNA, we are visual beings and so see and judge by the superficial differences we perceive. It’s a potent piece with which to round off what has been an entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of TV. The documentary closes with the myth of Barthes’ meaningless end; was it really an accident or had he simply given up the will to live, devastated as he had been by his mother’s death? I guess we’ll never know…

“Twenty First Century Mythologies” is a wonderful introduction to the concepts of Roland Barthes and a powerful reminder of how relevant his ideas still are to the times in which we live. Tracing the evolution of Barthes’ life and thought, Clay reveals how the French thinker deconstructed and challenged many of the myths we take for granted nowadays, and goes on to lay bare the myths that came after Barthes. At the end of the documentary, Richard considers whether we can be “post myth”? I don’t think so personally, as the cultural controls imposed by the signs and symbols fed to us by those in charge are too embedded, and most people still don’t think enough about the norms to which they’re expected to conform. We need certain myths to structure the world; what we need to try to do is not let them control us.

Professor Richard Clay (c. ClearStory/BBC)

As I mentioned in my review of “Viral“, Clay wears his erudition lightly, but his commentary here draws on decades of his own research; for example, the defacing of money and coins reminds me of the part of “Utopia” dealing with Thomas Spence. There are sly hints at the Situationists, with the Beach Beneath the Streets becoming Wi Fi Beneath the Streets. What’s especially interesting for me, as someone who’s followed Richard’s work for some time now as well as watching his documentaries from the very start, is seeing how his ideas have evolved, observing how he expands on concepts hinted at in previous programmes. He’s a brilliant communicator, adept at getting complex ideas across in an accessible way and I have to applaud him for continuing with his one-man mission to sneak semiotics into the mainstream! These can be complex topics, but in the hands of an experienced and erudite commentator like Clay, they become wonderfully clear.

As you can tell, I absolutely *loved* this programme – it could have been made for me! It’s quite clear that we can’t underestimate the importance of Barthes’ thinking nowadays, in a world where the population is distracted by consumer society; which I guess is why, even in these days of lies and fake news and no leadership worth talking about, we still put up with so much and don’t rebel. If there is a lesson to be taken from Roland and Richard, I would say that it is to try to look past the constant daily bombardment of signs and symbols, ignoring the distractions, really *seeing* what is in front of us in everyday quotidian life – and question it. That is the liberation of understanding how these myths work. “Twenty First Century Mythologies” is on the iPlayer here at the moment, and I strongly urge you to catch it while you can – definitely my documentary of the decade!