- Not to be confused with Mythology (book)
The 1st English edition
|Publisher||Les Lettres nouvelles|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Softcover)|
Mythologies is a book by Roland Barthes, published in 1957. It is a collection of essays taken from Les Lettres nouvelles, examining the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths. Barthes also looks at the semiology of the process of myth creation, updating Ferdinand de Saussure's system of sign analysis by adding a second level where signs are elevated to the level of myth. It is considered to be a key antecedent of cultural studies.
Mythologies is split into two: Mythologies and Myth Today, the first section consisting of a collection of essays on selected modern myths and the second further and general analysis of the concept.
The first section of Mythologies describes a selection of modern cultural phenomena, chosen for their status as modern myths and for the added meaning that has been conferred upon them. Each short chapter analyses one such myth, ranging from Einstein's Brain to Soap Powders and Detergents. They were originally written as a series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles.
In a typical example: Barthes describes the image that has been built up around Red Wine and how it has been adopted as a French national drink, how it is seen as a social equaliser and the drink of the proletariat, partly because it is seen as blood-like (as in Holy Communion) and points out that very little attention is paid to red wine's harmful effects to health, but that it is instead viewed as life-giving and refreshing- 'in cold weather, it is associated with all the myths of becoming warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling.'
In another chapter, Barthes explores the myth of Professional wrestling. He describes how, unlike in boxing, the aim of the sport is not to discover who will win or 'a demonstration of excellence', it is a staged spectacle acting out society's basic concepts of Good and Evil, of 'Suffering, Defeat and Justice'. The wrestlers, like characters in a pantomime, portray grossly exaggerated stereotypes of human weakness: the traitor, the conceited one, the 'effeminate teddy-boy'. The audience expects to watch them suffer and be punished for their own transgressions of wrestling's rules in a theatrical version of Society's ideology of justice.
In the second half of the book Barthes addresses the question of "What is a myth, today?" with the analysis of ideas such as: myth as a type of speech, and myth on the wings of politics.
Following on from the first section, Barthes justifies and explains his choices and analysis. He calls upon the concepts of semiology developed by Ferdinand de Saussure at the turn of the century. Saussure described the connections between an object (the signified) and its linguistic representation (such as a word, the signifier) and how the two are connected. For example, the object and properties of 'a walnut tree' are joined by the sounds or letters that signify 'walnut tree' to give us the sign for 'walnut tree', a set of sounds and written letters that, although they are only arbitrarily connected to a walnut tree, come to mean the 'walnut tree' to us.
Working with this structure Barthes continues to show his idea of a myth as a further sign, with its roots in language, but to which something has been added. So with a word (or other linguistic unit) the meaning (apprehended content) and the sound come together to make a sign. To make a myth, the sign itself is used as a signifier, and a new meaning is added, which is the signified. But according to Barthes- this is not added arbitrarily. Although we are not necessarily aware of it, modern myths are created with a reason. As in the example of the red wine, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media.
Barthes demonstrates this theory with the example of a front cover from Paris Match, showing a young black soldier in French uniform saluting. The signifier: a saluting soldier, cannot offer us further factual information of the young man's life. But it has been chosen by the magazine to symbolise more than the young man; the picture, in combination with the signifieds of Frenchness, militariness, and relative ethnic difference, gives us a message about France and its citizens. The picture does not explicitly demonstrate 'that France is a great empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag,' etc., but the combination of the signifier and signified perpetuates the myth of imperial devotion, success and thus; a property of 'significance' for the picture.
“I am at the barber’s, and copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me : that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the 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 ...”
Mythologisation and cultural studies
In writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become "naturalised" in the process, that is, taken unquestioningly as given within a particular culture. Barthes finishes Mythologies by looking at how and why mythologies are built up by the bourgeoisie in its various manifestations. He returns to this theme in later works including The Fashion System.