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“A light without a shadow generates an emotion without reserve” #mythologies #rolandbarthes

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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 “regrettably 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.

The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

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