Roland Barthes: Mythologies

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART TWO

Mythologies (1957)

In the fifties, Roland Barthes was a semiologist, following Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), in using the sign, the signifier and the signified to study the social condition. The timing of this volume is an interesting one, coming after the deprivations of a long war and occupation and during the decade in which France tried to recapture its pre-war prestige before surrender and humiliation. The nation was entering into the delirium of consumerism and mass media that was the common property of a European culture, rapidly becoming Americanized. The period was also one of nationalism with the country being still mired in the throes of late-Empire, struggling with what would be a long and depressing decade of colonialist chaos. Mythologies, like its content is also part the longer turn towards Structuralism, still in development, and owes much to Lévi-Strauss whose groundbreaking works taught Barthes how to look at cultural forms and analyze them. It is no accident that the foundational article, or the afterword of the book, is entitled “Myth Today,” which discusses contemporary mythology.

In Mythologies, written in 1957 from a compilation of fifty-three short articles published between 1954-56, Barthes became concerned with mass culture and the messages it sends to the hapless watchers of television and readers of magazines. By examining popular culture, Barthes, an admirer of Bertold Brecht, was following in the footsteps of Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin before the Second World War, his colleague Theodor Adorno examined the ideology of the “culture industry” and revealed how the interests of the dominant classes were furthered through Hollywood films. At this time, however, the pioneering and preceding work of Benjamin and Adorno was not well known and the analyses of Barthes were some of the earliest and most accessible de-codings of contemporary myths. Make no mistake, “Myth Today” was an extremely political tract, a scathing indictment of French colonialism and racism that still resonates in the 21st century. As Marco Roth pointed out in his 2012 article in The New Yorker on the new edition of Mythologies, the essays lay out

..his frustrations with social and political landscape of France from 1954 to 1956: a time of increasing middle-class prosperity, coinciding with France’s struggle to hold onto its colonies in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and DeGaulle’s attempts to restore some kind of national pride in the aftermath of the Second World War. Most worryingly for Barthes, these were years that also saw the rise of an explicitly anti-intellectual, racist, and populist political party..

American readers would have not been familiar with the political background of the quarrel Barthes, a Marxist, had with nationalism and right wing politics and French imperialism but “Myth Today” entered into very controversial territory. Keeping in mind the association between Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was associated with and connected to Francis Jeanson, a post-war “resistance” figure who started a network of opponents to colonialism in France. According to a 1991 article by Martin Evans, “French Resistance and the Algerian War,” the Jeanson networks were sympathetic to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian insurrectionists. Jeanson had published a book condemning French behavior in Algeria in 1955, spreading the resistance from Africa to France. As Evans wrote,

In 1954 there were 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries. Slowly but surely the FLN began to organise Algerians in France. It was Algerians in France that were to finance the war.In 1954, French Algeria was a society rigidly polarised along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. On the one side there were one million French settlers; on the other nine million Algerians..During the Algerian war the resisters’ activity was seen as ‘abnormal’ behaviour, it marked them out as traitors, rebels, outsiders in the eyes of French society. And, despite the time that has elapsed, even now a large number of French people would be reluctant to endorse what they did. For the right they were traitors; for the established left they were irresponsible, adventurists. The Communist Party might have taken a clear position against the war but it never condoned illegal action..in siding with the FLN in such a way they crossed too many taboos. This means that their action has never been accepted within the dominant culture in the way that Second World War resistance was..

In uncovering this hidden corner of French history, the article by Evans highlights the extent to which Barthes was taking a transgressive position. In fact “Myth Today” goes on for a number of pages before Barthes introduces his major character, found on the cover of Paris Match:

..a young Negro officer is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor..I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.

Paris-Match

This sudden tough political confrontation is all the more striking, given that the reader of the volume of essays had been browsing through short little narratives on bourgeois habits: the spectacle of wrestling, soap-powdrs, margarine, steak and chips and striptease. Barthes is the sarcastic observer of the absurdities of consumer culture but Mythologies is also a very serious attempt to use semiology as a science and the first half dozen pages of “Myth Today” carefully lay out the semiological structure of myths. Heavily influenced by the 1955 essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss “The Structural Study of Myth,” Barthes organized the structure of myth into a framework that brought its constituent parts together into an assemblage. It is the arrangement of the elements that give the meaning to the myth. Lévi-Strauss pointed out the myth was a third term between the implied times of langue and parole, because “myth is language.” Myth has a double structure, both historical and ahistorical. Of course from a political point of view, this very frozen state of a myth is exactly what gives it power: because it has always existed, it must be true or “natural.”

Roland-Barthes-1

In an attempt to “denaturalize” received wisdom, which is the role of the critic, Barthes de-coded familiar myths and made them un-familiar by pointing out that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on..because all materials of a myth..presuppose a signifying consciousness..” Given that the myth must be familiar, it is constructed, as Barthes instructed, “from a semiological chain which existed before it: sign, signifier, signified. As a “second-order semiological system,” myth is divided into the “language-object” or the raw semiotic materials used by the myth and the myth itself or the “metalanguage.” Therefore, the signifier has two points of view: meaning and form, while the signified is the concept or the correlation of meaning and form. In terms of signification, according to Barthes, signification had a “double function: it points and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

“Myth is a type of speech” and Barthes gave a great deal of attention to the structure of the linguistics of the myth, which is a system of communication, a message. The mode of signification is the form of the myth which is not defined by the object of the message but only by the way or mode in which it utters the message. The mode of writing the myth is representation, that is, the use of material that has already been worked and is suitable for communication. Each myth has two levels of meaning: a primary message is conveyed, but when the main message is bracketed, a secondary message can be discerned. This secondary message reveals the workings of socio-economic structures that function to continue the oppression of the people who receive the messages and continue an ideological world view that keeps the ruling classes in power. As Barthes stated,

..When it becomes form, the meaning leaves it contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes improvised, history evaporates, only the letter remains..the essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress the meaning, it only improvises it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal..the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment..

The myth works with raw materials, reduced to pure signifying functions so that the myth becomes a sum of signs. In fact the myth prefers to work with poor and incomplete images. The myth will naturalize the concept and will transform history into nature. The reader then consumes the myth innocently as a factual system. The myth is already a form of language that can reach out and corrupt everything as depoliticized speech, organizing the world without contradictions and establishing clarity. Barthes pointed out that the myth was emptied out and became pure form into which new and ideological contents could be poured. The significance of the dozens of essays Barthes wrote for Les Lettres nouvelles is that most of his topics are based on commercial images in mass advertising, making him a semiologist of images the same way Lévi-Strauss was the structuralist of human behavior. In crossing the techniques Lévi-Strauss used for his analysis of the myth of Oedipus with a Sassurean examination of ordinary photographs, Barthes uncovered the inner workings of the myths that shaped the mindset of fifties France.

To decode a myth is to expose a delusion, making a revolutionary of a literary critic who can point to the “science” of semiology. The myths that Barthes found floating throughout popular culture were not, at that time, taken seriously, but the role of wine in French society was as important as the role of Charles de Gaulle, for as Barthes wrote, wine was political: ..its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of he privae 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.. Indeed, the seemingly benign exhibition The Family of Man which had originated at the Museum of Modern Art, was curated by Edward Steichen, and renamed “The Great Family of Man” in France, flattens differences into a universal cycle of birth, life and death, mythologizing the “human condition.” Barthes pointed out that the exhibition, which was also much criticized in America, obliterated the historical facts of the “condition,” which for some was positive while for others was grindlingly negative. As Barthes explained in “Myth Today,”

..In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves..

For example, America is characterized by and characterizes itself on the myth of the “Wild West.” The history of the “wild west” with its plural cast of characters, cowboys, social misfits, sociopaths, whores, settlers, opportunists, victims, lawyers and schoolteachers and sheriffs and so on. What is conveniently forgotten or emptied out is the exploitation of Chinese laborers, the genocide of Native Americans, the savage struggles between the settler and the rancher, and the wholesale rape of the land. Thus, through forgetting or suppression of the facts, the truth or history is emptied out, leaving a hollow form. What is left is the myth of the Frontier. To the consumer of the myth, this image of America is linked to nature to make “America” seem inevitable and natural. We do not question this myth of America and when those who question the myth are called “unpatriotic,” we are hearing ideology at work.

Because as Barthes stated, “Myth is depoliticized speech” that is “political in its deeper meaning,” precisely because it talks about, for example, French colonialism or American imperialism, in to “purify” these events, “it gives them clarity.” This clarity which Barthes called “blissful” is what makes it so difficult to challenge myths: to call a depoliticized myth political is to risk being refuted, in turn, charged with being “political.” Barthes understood the dilemma and suggested that the best strategy was to “produce an artificial myth”..”why not rob a myth?” he asked. To read and receive a social myth is to be complicit in the making of the myth. The myth is always form, never content, and operates as a sign of the real or as a meta-language. Myths, he pointed out, exist on the left and right as political tools that tell cultural stories. Rather than study signs from an “objective” standpoint or from the position of “scientific” analysis, Barthes understood that signs are embedded, not just in a cultural context or a network of purely linguistic relationships, but belong to politics, economics, and ideology. Although he hinted at the notion of political critique in Writing Degree Zero, it is at this point with this essay that Barthes became a critic of culture or a critic of the workings of power and a revealer of the trappings of ideology.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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