Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 203

This classic of semiotics is composed of discrete essays written one a month for about two years (from 1954 to 1956) on diverse topics suggested by French daily life. It shows how heterogeneous phenomena can be interpreted as myth or metalanguage because they are cultural moments and constitute their own language. Philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between language and discourse generated Roland Barthes’s investigation of mundane mythologies as active language. Barthes did not consider semiology a grid but an imaginative play with signs, very much like Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenology. Barthes’s tactic of codifying or classifying phenomena flies in the face of philosophers who consider systems to be absurd, including Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It makes for antilinear discourse, and the style permits philosophy to become a performance with multiple meanings.

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Mythologies is divided into two sections. The first is a series of short essays on diverse subjects of French bourgeois life; the second is a philosophical essay on myth. The book is a set of commentaries in the form of short semiological investigations of the operations of myth on the daily sensibilities of social human beings and of the bourgeoisie (the class that assigns value to things).

Signs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Every phenomenon is a set of signs. For example, professional wrestling, the subject of Barthes’s first essay in the book, is not a sport but a “spectacle of excess” where everything (the wrestler’s physique or temperament or technique or an individual moment of competition) is a sign of something else. The wrestler’s body expresses through gesture a temperament—ignobility, suffering, defeat, or justice—that is the signified message.

In this way, even wrestling becomes a language, a “diacritic writing” that can be read by means of “gestures, attitudes, and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious.” Indeed, wrestling is a theatrical spectacle, where the wrestler’s mask (of suffering, arrogance, ridiculousness, and so on) provides “the image of passion, not passion itself.” Therefore, wrestling conforms to images of the great themes of its own mythology, and it accomplishes what its public expects.

The fundamental question is what really lies beneath a gesture or sign. Barthes asserts that a seemingly straightforward signifier transmits a code or set of codes that triggers a message (the signified), converting it into a new mythology. To this end, he focuses on so-called mass culture in order to expose the bourgeoisie as the enemy of myth because this class appropriates phenomena to nationalize them and treat them as social property. Food, drink, cookery, and toys become signs of national character, just as automobiles, the Domenici trial, detergents, striptease, and certain pastimes constitute a new metalanguage of the French bourgeoisie.

In showing how even food and drink can be seen as nationalized basic elements that follow the index of patriotic values, Barthes fans out his semiology into sociopolitical criticism. The essay on wine shows how this drink is considered a French possession and shares a sanguine mythology with steak, except that the mythology of wine bears contradictions, for the drinking of it is both a pleasure as well as a gesture of decoration. Yet, because the production of wine is deeply involved in French capitalism—whether that of “the private distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread”—the mythology of wine is not innocent.

Barthes can take something as...

(The entire section contains 2259 words.)

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