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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.
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).
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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 apparently innocuous as toys and turn them into an intriguing system of signs: “French toys always mean something , and...
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this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life.” He can look at the sleek new Citroen and see in its bodywork, upholstery, and accessories the actualization of petit-bourgeois advancement. The colorful rich glazes of ornamental cookery become for him a clever appeal to the working-class’ need for gentility.
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Barthes criticizes the bourgeoisie because of its effects on art and mythology. He condemns bourgeois art for “naturalizing” phenomena and for giving rise to an essentialist mythology that costs people dearly in language and reality. Barthes cites the case of the Gaston Dominici murder trial of 1952, in which an eighty-year-old Provencal landowner was convicted of murdering three persons found camping near his land. Barthes shows how the judiciary used unreal clichés and epithets from Latin translations and French essays to decorate a psychology posited on categories of action and soul-states straight out of traditional literature. Such a case demonstrates how people can be deprived of language when two conflicting languages, that of official law and that of the uneducated goatherd, grope blindly without ever touching each other or understanding their own psychology.
What Barthes means by the essentialist nature of bourgeois myth can be seen in his essay “Blue Guide,” in which he discusses the Spanish typology that masks reality by codes that reduce a land and its people to picturesque essences: “In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a sentimental highlander.” Ironically, “Blue Guide” expresses a mythology that is obsolete for part of the bourgeoisie itself, because in reducing geography to a description of a world of monuments, “Blue Guide” fails to account for the present and renders the monuments themselves undecipherable or senseless.
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The second part of the book is a substantial essay called “Myth Today,” which outlines Barthes’s theory of new mythologies. It postulates myth as a type of speech, not just of any type but as communication or message. Speech is not restricted to an oral form; it can consist of modes of writing or of representations, such as photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, and publicity, all of which are discourses that support mythical speech. In fact, we are dealing with particular images for particular significations, so even objects become speech if they mean something.
There is a tridimensional pattern in myth because we are dealing with three different terms: signifier, signified, and sign. For example, roses can be a signifier of passion (the signified). The third term, which is the unification of the first two, is roses weighted with passion (the sign or meaning).
Myth has two semiologial systems: a linguistic system, which is the language with which myth builds itself (Barthes calls this “language-object”); and metalanguage (myth itself) which speaks about the first. Barthes provides two distinct examples of mythical speech. In the first, the Latin phrase quia ego nominor leo (“because my name is lion”) is clearly an example of the grammatical rule about predicate agreement. It really tells us little about the lion. Therefore, there is a signified (I am a grammatical example) and a signification in the form of a correlation between signifier and signified, for neither the naming of the lion nor the grammatical example is a separate entity. Barthes’s second example is the cover of Paris-Match magazine in which a young black man in French uniform is saluting something. Barthes presumes that the man is probably saluting the French tricolor. There is a signifier (a black soldier giving the French salute); there is a signified (a mixture of Frenchness and militariness); and finally, there is “a presence of the signified through the signifier.”
The meaning of each myth belongs to a history, that of the lion or that of the black man, and so the meaning is already complete because it is based on a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts and ideas. The Latin example calls up a certain period when Latin grammar was taught by example to some children whose linguistic habits trained them to see the illustrated grammatical rules as something worthy of note. In the saluting black soldier example, the concept of French imperiality is tied to the general history of France, its colonial adventures, and its present difficulties. However, when both these examples become form, they void themselves of their contingencies; in other words, they empty themselves until only images or gestures remain.
Meaning presents form, and form always outlasts meaning. The paradox is a signal one for there is never any contradiction or split between meaning and form. Indeed, myth can have no meaning without motivated form. For French imperiality to successfully deploy the image of a saluting black man, there must be an indentification between the black man’s salute and that of the French soldier. French imperiality can be given many other signifiers beside a black man’s salute—a French general pinning a decoration on a one-armed Senegalese, a nun handing tea to a bed-ridden Arab, a white schoolmaster teaching black children—so this leads to the idea that there is no fixity in mythical concepts because, being based on a condensation of certain sets of knowledge, they can alter, disintegrate, or disappear.
Barthes produces three different readings of myth by focusing on meaning (a full signifier) or form (an empty signifier) or both at the same time. The first two types are static and analytical: The focus on form fills the myth literally (the saluting black man is a symbol or example of French imperiality); a focus on meaning, which distinguishes meaning from form, yields a distortion (the saluting black soldier becomes the alibi of French imperiality). The third type of focus is dynamic and yields an ambiguous signifier: The saluting black man is no longer a symbol or alibi; he is “the very presence of French imperiality.”
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There are two languages that resist myth: One is mathematical (this is a finished language that admits no parasitism); the other is poetic (this is essentialist, seeking to be an antilanguage because it believes there are no ideas but in things themselves). The essentialist attitude is what also informs bourgeois ideology, which continuously seeks to transform the products of history into essential types, as in the Basque identity’s being expressed ethnically by a Basque chalet. This attitude also reveals language’s ability to signify rather than represent reality.
Bourgeois ideology transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world; in other words, the world supplies myth with a historical reality, and myth gives back a natural image of this reality. Although the status of the bourgeois is contingent on historical factors, humanity is represented as something universal and unchanging. Bourgeois ideology expresses myth’s capacity to provide a natural justification for historical intention. Therefore, the semiological definition of myth in a bourgeois society is depoliticized speech. When the image of the black soldier states French imperiality without explaining it, the myth abolishes the complexity of French colonialism and accepts it as something natural, thereby depoliticizing reality and its language.
The book concludes with seven rhetorical forms of bourgeois myth. Barthes contends that the bourgeoisie, while admitting some of its small evils, conceals its large ones. History becomes the servant of the bourgeois, and the petit bourgeois is unable to imagine the Other because that threatens his or her secure existence. Bourgeois mythology is a tautology that assumes its own causality and explains itself by killing rationality. It does not accommodate choice; instead, it seeks merely to endorse itself by a quantification of quality and by an appeal to universalism. Bourgeois aphorisms belong to metalanguage because they are an overlayer for a world already made, established on common sense (that is, something arbitrarily assumed to be its own truth), and held to be unchanging.
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Calvet, Louis Jean. Roland Barthes: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. This comprehensive account of Barthes’s life frequently provides connections between Barthes’s biography and his literary production. Includes numerous photographs, a bibliography, and an index.
Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. The best short study of Barthes’s works. Culler divides the protean Barthes into such areas as “Mythologist” and “Hedonist,” which enables the reader to see the range of Barthes’s mind. Contains clear, direct, and insightful discussions.
Knight, Diana. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1997. Knight thoroughly examines Barthes’s work, thereby placing his work into larger political and theoretical contexts.
Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. The most detailed study of Barthes’s literary criticism. Lavers discusses not only Barthes’s thought but also critics who influenced and were influenced by him. Scholarly.
Moriarty, Michael. Roland Barthes. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. A lucid introduction to Barthes’s writings, usefully equipped with definitions, illustrations, and relevant contextual background for the benefit of new readers of his work. Includes primary and secondary bibliographies and a brief “Biographical Appendix.”
Payne, Michael. Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997. Barthes’s principal works are introduced and carefully examined. Payne also devotes a section to the study of Barthes’s important work, S/Z .
Sontag, Susan. “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes.” In A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Sontag provides a sympathetic and revealing introduction to Barthes’s thought and an excellent selection of Barthes’s writing. Students who wish to read Barthes might begin here.
Stafford, Andy. Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Stafford examines the influences on Barthes’s work and how that work was received.
Wasserman, George. Roland Barthes. World Authors series. Boston: Twayne, 1981. A brief biographical section is followed by a critical overview of Barthes’s works. Includes a bibliography, a chronology, and an index.