What is the main argument of Mythologies, by Roland Barthes?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Mythologies is a classic in the field of semiotics, which interprets human action and language as a series of signs with mutually agreed-upon, though often contested, meanings. For example, in his first essay, entitled "The World of Wrestling," Barthes examines professional wrestling, discerning a certain language that is understood by wrestlers and audience alike:

The function of a wrestler is not to win; it is to go through exactly the motions which are expected of him...Wrestling...offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. 

Professional wrestlers exagerrate their triumphs, failures, injuries, and so on to provide the audience with drama. Of course, everyone realizes that it is not real, but that is actually part of the point Barthes is trying to make: The audience are in on the act, and suffering, good, evil, and triumph are portrayed with an eye to drama. He compares the symbolism to the "mask of suffering" worn by actors in classical tragedies, tied up in mutually-understood mythologies. 

Barthes goes on to show that the bourgeoisie, in France and elsewhere, has created new mythologies through consumer goods, popular culture, and advertising. This often occurs in opposition to, or at least in tension with, other mythologies. Barthes goes on to outline his notion of how meanings are signified through actions as well as actual speech and images. Using a famous image of a black man saluting in Match magazine, Barthes shows how different layers of meaning, tied to historical mythologies and understanding, can be conveyed by it. However, he argues that often the form outlasts the meaning, and that a similar image might be displayed much later without evoking the same meanings. He suggests that bourgeois ideology has the effect of doing exactly this: It perpetuates the forms without the meanings, removing, for example, the meanings of imperialism that might be conveyed by the saluting black man, and making it a standard, "depoliticized" form of speech:

Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to speak about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of statement of fact.