What is the main argument of Mythologies, by Roland Barthes?
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.
In Mythologies, Barthes discusses how myth works, both generally and in modern society (he was writing in the 1950s). Building on semiotics, the relationship of a sign (word) to a signifier (the object the word describes), Barthes defines myth as a special form of language. Normally, the sound we associate with an object, say, the sound "house" for an object with four walls and a roof that people live in, is arbitrary. In other words, there is no secret reason why the sound "house" stands for a house. However, myths as a form of language are not arbitrary. They are designed to communicate certain ideologies, or simplified, distorted ideas about the world. These myths support ideas about the world that the ruling elite wants to communicate, so they are about power. Significantly, too, it is characteristic of myths that they are seen as outside of history and posited as natural and universal. These mythologies then mystify (hide) that the way society is structured is not "natural" or "eternal" but constructed within history to serve the interests of the ruling class. Barthes's point is for people to be aware of this and also of how myths are communicated through advertising, so that they are not so easily manipulated by the ruling elite.