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“After Mythologies, the world never looked or meant the same.” #richardclay #rolandbarthes #mythologies

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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!

“…asking questions about processes of meaning making…” – A new interview with Professor Richard Clay #c21stmyths @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk

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If you’re a regular reader of the Ramblings, you’ll know of my love of a good documentary! BBC4 is my channel of choice, and I’ve been known to witter on endlessly about my favourite programmes. I was delighted to have the opportunity last year to interview Professor Richard Clay, the man who’s behind my favourite shows over the last several years; you can visit the two parts here and here. The interview coincided with the transmission of his excellent documentary “How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme”, and you can read my post about that here.

(c. ClearStory/BBC)

Naturally, therefore, I was thrilled to hear that Richard was making a new film, particularly when I found out the subject; the new show is entitled “21st Century Mythologies”, and it takes a look at the work of Roland Barthes, an author who seems to have been haunting my reading in recent months! The documentary takes a look at his relevance in our modern world and airs on BBC4 next week. Ahead of its transmission, I asked Richard if he’d be kind enough to make a repeat visit to the Ramblings and I’m happy to say that he agreed! 😀

KBR: Richard, welcome back to the Ramblings! You last visited around the time of your excellent documentary “How to Go Viral” last year. Apart from your new programme, which we’ll get onto later, have you been working on any interesting projects since then which you can share with us?

RC: Ah, all kinds of stuff! I particularly enjoyed doing a short film, called ‘Revolution Up North’, about the surprising links between the North East and French revolutions. We filmed at the Bowes Museum; it was founded around the collection of Josephine Bowes and her British husband. She was the daughter of a sans-culottes of the first French Revolution and escaped Paris during the revolutions of 1848.

The Bowes Museum (Alden Chadwick, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Myself, a colleague (Dr Gillian Jein), a PhD student (Lauren Dudley), and an undergraduate fine artist (Lauren Kelly) chatted on camera at the Bowes about its amazing collection and the stash of incredible 1968 revolutionary posters produced by Atelier Populaire artists that are down the road at Brancepeth Castle in County Durham (why is another story).

Our film was basically a pitch for an exhibition that we would love to do, bringing modern Parisian street artists, Lek and Sowat, to County Durham to keep the tradition alive! And that is without getting into the claim that the revolutionary martyr Jean-Paul Marat might have studied medicine in Newcastle (maybe he spoke English with a Geordie accent!) or the survival of copper plates used to print fake revolutionary French money in the North East as an act of 1790s economic warfare! One day, I’m sure we will put the film on YouTube.

You’re currently based at Newcastle University, with the intriguing-sounding job title of Professor of Digital Cultures. Could you expand a little on the kind of thing which that (possibly unique) role entails?

There are other academics out there with a Digital Cultures brief. I’m a bit unusual because I’m a ‘translational prof’ and my role spans across subject areas. I’m a kind of champion of working across academic disciplines and sectors of the economy to do stuff together that has digital dimensions. For example, I’m involved with the Creative Fuse North East project that has been going for more than 5 years and involves all 5 of the region’s universities working in collaboration with creative industries (http://www.creativefusene.org.uk).

For someone who appears on TV you have a relatively low online profile. In these days of constant surveillance, either from external sources or self-inflicted, is this a deliberate decision?

It’s a deliberate decision. I’m aware of how our data is harvested and sold by websites and the risks that poses. Hence, I surf the web with cookies turned off to leave less of a trail and I don’t engage with social media. Social media companies are able to gather a few key points of information about each user and establish surprisingly accurate profiles of the products and services they are likely to buy when targeted with adverts. Users’ clicks and cookie data helps sharpen that picture by telling each site you visit where you’ve been previously. Hence, social media platforms are increasingly replacing print publishing as preferred platforms for advertisers because they can micro target their ads at users.

As the saying goes, ‘If it’s free online, you’re the product’. While many people feel okay with that as being a kind of quid pro quo, I am concerned by the ways in which, for example, such data is being used in often highly targeted political campaigns that are divisive and discourage the kinds of dialogue between citizens that seem ever more crucial. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, the sale of huge social media datasets is being used in pretty shady ways by a range of political and commercial players. Plus, I’m not a big fan of accessing news on platforms whose algorithms are designed to give you more and more of the stuff your clicks suggest that you like. I prefer accessing more diverse bodies of opinion. And that’s without even getting into the ‘clickbait’ culture of much web design….

All of that might make me sound like I’m somehow anti-web, which I most certainly am not! Yeah, I choose to surf in particular ways (cookies turned off, clearing my surfing history periodically, having an email address I only use when I need to give one to purchase something online). But I still surf, getting my news, doing research, being a consumer and so on. As I think I said in our last interview, the web is a truly revolutionary tool that is bringing vast benefits to global society. I don’t want to turn it off, I just don’t want to be manipulated.

Moving on to your new documentary, it’s based around the seminal figure of Roland Barthes (who’s made many an appearance on the Ramblings) and is called “21st Century Mythologies”. Can you tell us a little about the show and what sparked the idea of making it?

Well, I was talking to BBC staff about how to do semiotics on television and Cassian Harrison (BBC4 Channel Editor) said, ‘Why not do a C20th take on Barthes’ “Mythologies”?’ I said, ‘Yeah, definitely!’ Then I had to actually read the book which was first published in 1957 and written before Barthes really engaged with semiotics! I loved it. It’s a collection of short essays that Barthes wrote for a magazine about a series of modern myths and then some heavier weight pieces that unpack what he means by a myth – something that is endlessly repeated as if it’s true to the point that we don’t question it. For example, he pointed to strip tease and asked whether it’s actually sexy to sit with strangers watching someone disrobe for money, and to professional wrestling which we know is closer to theatre than competitive sport. So, I selected a bunch of C21st myths and we set about unpicking them through interviews in the U.K., USA, and Italy. Oh, and we snook in some semiotics en route!

When did you first encounter the work of Barthes?

That was at UCL as a Masters student. I read his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and it blew my mind. I read it every year for 7 years before I realised that the one point that he made that I couldn’t comprehend was about something he later changed his mind about. I love the serious attention he devoted to popular culture. He didn’t see ‘fine art’ as inherently more interesting or worthy of consideration than advertising. It was liberating. Plus, he helped me got my head around semiotics…

“Mythologies” deals, of course, with semiotics and that subject might not appear on first glance to be related your specialism of iconoclasm. However, you’ve discussed the latter in terms of material sign transformation; could you expand on what connections you see between the two disciplines?

Well, I’d say that semiotics is the name given to the study of sign systems and it offers a range of concepts that can be used in such efforts. For example, a statue can be regarded as being a sign that has two components: the signifier (i.e. a statue of, say, a Confederate officer) and the signifieds that it points to (i.e. the meanings that ‘Confederate officer’ has for any given viewer). The signier + signifieds = statue as sign. Thinking about a statue in this way helps us to describe how and why iconoclasm (image breaking) comes about. For many people who know about the Confederacy’s defence of slavery, a statue of a Confederate officer connotes on-going acceptance and, indeed, heroicisation of that cause in a public space. To other people, the same statue’s ‘signifieds’ (its meanings) are more or less acceptable representations of events that took place generations ago. So, the same statue has multiple meanings to different people at any given time.

Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

As discourse around the Confederacy and its legacies mutates, people have new knowledge to apply in making sense of the statue’s meanings; when another innocent African American is murdered in the street by police officers, those people can come to use material alteration of contested signifiers (statues) to make the object point legibly and publicly to new meanings in public. Hence, the Black Lives Matter graffiti appearing all over Confederate statues in the USA that was then photographed and shared globally online and across the media publicising that the legacies of historic racism are rejected by many people. As protests around such signifiers grew, eventually, activists came to take matters into their own hands and pulled the statues down, often breaking them up, transforming them physically so that what was left (usually just an empty plinth) aligned with their opinions of acceptable meanings (signifiers) in public space and of acceptable behaviour. Hence, I’ve written about the material transformation of signs; but I also write about how those acts are always preceded, accompanied, and followed by transformations of signifiers at the level of discourse which make new meanings available for them and render material transformation imaginable and desirable to some people.

So yeah, I’ve found semiotics useful in terms of thinking about how signs are used to mediate conflicts within societies. But semiotics could equally be used to talk through why some people turn their nose up when they see the signifier that is a jar of Marmite (i.e. it connotes negative meanings for them). We really do live in a republic of signs (a res publica, a public thing) that occupies the material world through which we move and the world of ideas that shapes the sense that we make of that which we see (or hear, or taste, or touch!).

A casual viewer might think that these are abstract ideas which aren’t particularly relevant to them. Why do you think they’re important to our everyday life?

I just think that some of the basic concepts of semiotics are useful tools for thinking with: signifier + signifieds = sign; a symbol as a kind of sign that points to meanings if the viewer knows a rule (i.e. a no entry sign doesn’t look like not entering somewhere; connotation; polysemicity [multiple meanings]; polyvalency [multiple values].) These kinds of notions allow us to deconstruct what is going on when, say, a website tries to get us to make sense of the news it is presenting in a particular way using the signifiers of words, images, film, and/or sound. Thinking semiotically involves asking questions about processes of meaning making and the impact that they have on all aspects of our lives.

Of course, words are signs too. The signifiers that are the written words ‘nation state’ point to meanings in our heads that that vary from person to person, sometimes subtly and sometimes profoundly. Yet, whole tranches of public debate assume that participants are using the words in the same way. In Barthes’s terms, ‘nation state’ is a myth – a notion that is widely used and rarely queried. Yet, armies are mobilised and sent to war in defence of nation states (most of which were not even claimed to exist until after the second half of the nineteenth-century).

Without revealing too much, “21st Century Mythologies” builds to some very powerful concluding sections; it’s perhaps your most impactful programme so far. Did you envisage this when initially planning it?

Yep. I really wanted to end with the myth of ‘race’; a pseudo-scientific myth but probably the most pernicious social reality. I’m always amazed that people speak so readily of, for example, African Americans, as being members of a different ‘race’ to non-African Americans. Yet, Europeans only started to describe people of differing skin tones (varying shades of brown) as belonging to different races at a point in history when ‘white’ people began to enslave other ‘races’ for slavers’ commercial gain? I think that all citizens need to reflect on the world around them as Barthes did and be alert to the fact that there are interest groups out there who do not wish us to unpack and challenge myths like ‘race’ and ask how can they still persist.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch of the Smithsonian Institution with Richard (c. ClearStory/BBC)

Barthes has a long cultural reach, influencing works as diverse as “The 7th Function of Language” by Laurent Binet and “This Little Art” by Kate Briggs. Why do you think he still inspires such interest?

Well, he was properly clever!

It’s hard at the moment to ignore current world circumstances. How has this impacted on your working and teaching – and, indeed, the making of the documentary?

Well, filming was complete before the first lockdown and the finished edit was sent to the BBC during the first month of that lockdown. But contemporary affairs other than the current pandemic had impacted on the film during its development and production. I don’t claim to make objective films any more than I’d claim to write objective history; objectivity is a laudable but unattainable goal. I’ve always thought that history is more or less consciously written in the present, about the past, with an eye on the future and the same applies to documentary film making.

As for the impact of the global pandemic on teaching, most of mine is in one-to-one supervisions with undergraduate and postgraduate students writing a dissertation or thesis. It isn’t quite the same having our discussions over Zoom or Teams, but it’s not as problematic as it is for many other forms of teaching. I really feel for my colleagues and our students, but they are all doing their very best to make the most of deeply challenging circumstances.

You’ve talked in the past about the challenge of condensing your work into a relatively short television format, as well as the difficulty of getting semiotics on camera. Do you think that sometimes TV companies underestimate the interest of their audiences in engaging with more complex ideas?

I think that independent TV companies who make films don’t underestimate audiences’ interests in engaging with challenging ideas, but I’m not sure that the same is the case for all broadcasters. I’ve been lucky because BBC4 took a liking to the kinds of films I’m interested in making. But whether that will last is another matter.

In our previous interview you described yourself as a synthesist, and you’ve explored this path widely with initiatives such as the C.A.K.E. (Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange) events. “21st Century Mythologies”, as with your earlier programmes, draws on a wide range of contributors from different disciplines. Do you regard this cross-curricular approach as crucial?

It is for me! I just like being challenged to think in new ways that help me to look at the world afresh, to ask new questions, to reach new conclusions, to query my own assumptions. But then I’m the kind of person who’d start a conversation at a bus stop; you just never know what you might learn.

You’ve been quite vocal in the past about the focus on STEM in education, championing instead the STEAM model, integrating arts into the mix along with sciences. Do you believe in the continued need for the arts to help us make sense of our world?

I do! Many moons ago I heard the then Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) telling a story about his predecessor listening to his equivalent at the Medical Research Council saying, quite rightly, that their work saved lives. The AHRC head said, ‘Yes, but our Council makes people’s lives worth living’.

David’s masterly image

We covered your early career and training as an art historian in our first interview. Popping your art historian hat back on for a moment, do you have a favourite artist and/or painting?

Jacques-Louis David, ‘Marat at his last breath’, oil on canvas, 1793 (Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels).

Finally, having gone from strength to strength with your series of wonderful documentaries, do you have any plans for future programmes?

Ah, thanks! The challenge is finding an idea that appeals to commissioning editors; otherwise, it just remains an idea. I’ve been pondering Henri Lefebvre’s argument that all space is coded and how my take on his thinking could shape some good films. But maybe there won’t be more TV commissions for me, and I’ll need to think about whether to make and share films in different ways. Broadcast is being revolutionised by YouTube and streaming. Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to that technology that has stood the test of time for sharing complex ideas – the book!

*****

Well, let’s hope that last sentence comes to pass, because it would be wonderful to see Richard share some new writings! I’d very much like to thank Richard for being prepared to make a revisit to the Ramblings and providing such an utterly fascinating and thought-provoking interview, as brim full of ideas as his documentaries and writings always are. “21st Century Mythologies” premieres on BBC4 on Monday 9th November at 9 a.m. – don’t miss it! 😀

Interview c. Richard Clay/Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings – no unauthorised reproduction, please.

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