Roland Barthes: Mythologies

[Readings] (08.08.08, 8:46 pm)


Roland Barthes work on mythologies extends the field of semiotics to apply to a larger set of cultural phenomena. This book is divided into a multitude of mini-essays followed by an extended analysis that ties all of the examples together under the category of semiotics. Mythologies relates semiotics to cultural analysis on the whole, and has roots in Marxist cultural criticism (Mythologies was originally published in 1957). However, over time, the work began becoming co-opted by bourgeois capitalist control, which (I am guessing) led to its influence in the fields of communication and advertising. Barthes describes these large meaning systems and explores how we view them in their own context, as well as how we may view them from a distance: how their domains of meaning relate to our larger perception of meaning as a whole.


Barthes opens in the preface (dated 1970) with a discussion that devising an approach to mass culture is important and necessary. Specifically, that semiotics provides an approach that may help unmask how sign and value systems are universalized. Barthes notes that after May 1968, ideological criticism is made especially important and necessary. (p. 9) In the second preface, Barthes notes that he is exploring myths of the French way of life. He is exploring heterogeneous media, where reality is portrayed as natural when it is anything but. There is a confusion of nature and history. Has notion of bits of common knowledge. Semiotics systematizes the language of myth. Barthes is criticising the embedded illusion of objectivity. “What I mean is that I cannot countenance the traditional belief which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were endowed with a ‘freedom’ and the latter with a ‘vocation’ equally suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of their situation.” (p. 12)

Barthes first example is about the spectacle of professional wrestling. This may be relevant in terms of mythological analysis of story setting. Wrestling is all about spectacle. The purpose of the spectacle: “… it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” (p. 15) There is a dramatic, grandiose structure: exaggerated power, emphasis on bodily form. (p. 16) More extrapolation: wrestling is about the cycle of good and evil, cycle of punishment, etc. Cultural symbols are taken to extremes. (p. 25)

The next example is the portrayal of the Romans in films. This is interesting because it explores the popular perception and model of a different society. It informs the translation of popular moral and aesthetic judgements to a classical setting. Focus here is on the audience perception of Romans. What “Roman” means to audience. What are the signs used to portray them? Compare with other adaptations, symbolic meaning out of context: compare with contextual meaning (ie, portrayal of character in context of setting, vs to modern audience). (p. 27)

Blind and dumb criticism: Voluntarily ignorant criticism rejects value of knowledge. Judgement in ignorant criticism is avoidance of self awareness. (p. 35)

Novels and Children: Mini essay describes female writers who have children. Has discussion of ’empowered’ women writers as described by ‘Elle’ magazine. Double parturition by magazine: women acquire self confidence, but are still beholden to the nature of motherhood. “… Like Don Juan between his two peasant girls, Elle says to women: you are worth just as much as men; and to men: your women will never be anything but women.” (p. 51) Summarizes: “A Jesuitic morality: adapt the moral rule of your condition, but never comprimise about the dogma on which it rests.” (p. 52)

The Brain of Einstein: Mythology of genius: knowledge formula. A mechanistic approach to thought. Deep thought can be reduced to an iconic portrayal. (p. 69)

The Blue Guide: this is a guidebook that professes to save labour and identify when picturesque things will happen en route of a journey. The guide gradually causes knowledge to vanish. Rejects explanation and phenomenology. Described as labour saving: denies experience of knowledge. Mechinism of being: guide/formula/algorithm (p. 76)

The Great Family of Man: Exhibition of photographs of people from various ethnographic backgrounds and cultures. Imposition of external morality on photographs in supplying extra context. Interplay of history on nature. (p. 100)

Myth Today: “Myth is a type of speech.” “Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones.” (p. 109) Speech assumes signifying consciousness. Semiotics gives a general approach or understanding of knowledge. (p. 110) The imposition of signified onto signifier imbues the signifier with a new meaning: ie, interrelation of roses and passion. (p. 113) Semiotic structure defines myth as a super-structure ‘metalanguage’. (p. 115)

Myth is characterized by motivation and value. “The mythical signification, on the other hand, is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy.” (p. 126) In reading myth: Methods of reading myth as compared to simulation. Myth is a forrm of simulation! Consider the non-false nature, simulation vs hyperreal. (p. 128) The purpose of myth is to transform history into nature. “We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immensely frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason.” (p. 129)

Narrative and history. Writer is expected to signify reality, not represent it. (p. 137) The experience of myth in the bourgeoise world (pp. 150-155):

  1. innoculation: accidental evil conceals a principal evil
  2. privation of history: history evaporates from objects, becomes private in eye of myth-language
  3. identification: other becomes pure object
  4. tautology: kills adverse argument, kills reality behind language, authority
  5. neither-norism: rejects choice as embarassment, flees from reality by reducing it to dualism
  6. quantification of quality: economization of intelligence
  7. the statement of fact: myth tends to proverb, becomes adopted as common sense
Reading Info:
Author/EditorBarthes, Roland
ContextMythologies describes a semiotic structure for interpreting media and cultural artifacts. His critique of embedded meaning in media exposes how meaning can be better conveyed with simulation.
Tagsmedia theory, semiotics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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