Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Mythologies: Roland Barthes (Sana)

Sana Haque
Text: Mythologies
Author: Roland Barthes
Publisher: Hill and Wang (1972)

Roland Barthes' Mythologies consists of two sections, one containing a series of short essays on different aspects of French daily life written in a humorous journalistic style, and the second containing a longer theoretical essay entitled "Myth Today" that explores the methodology behind this deconstruction in greater detail. Barthes attempts to unravel the layers of meaning that lie behind seemingly innocuous everyday texts. His definition of "text" was one of the early formulations that expanded this notion to include any aspect of daily life with the potential to signify meaning (in the same way as a conventional linguistic sign). The texts that he "reads" in Mythologies include soap powders, children's toys, iconoclastic celebrities, tropes such as the idea of the "writer on holiday", women's magazines, and professional wrestling, among others. He deconstructs each image, product, discourse or act to reveal the ways in which it recreates and strengthens societal norms and values, reinforcing the hegemonic petit-bourgeoisie ideologies that dominated daily life in 1950's France.

One example of this method is the first essay "The World of Wrestling" in which he identifies the tawdry spectacle of pro-wrestling as the modern equivalent of ancient Greek drama performed in the amphitheater: "What is portrayed by wrestling is an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction" (Mythologies, 25). Barthes deciphers how wrestlers take on tragic or comic "stock" personas for the benefit of their fans and how their exaggerated gestures, drama, and Good vs. Evil conflicts perform a cathartic function for the audience, a venue through which frustrated emotion can find a release and the complexity of modern existence revert to black and white simplicity. As a result, "what is displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice" and it can be said that "wrestlers [are] gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible" (Mythologies, 25).

Another essay, "Novels and Children", explores how a feature story in the women's magazine Elle equates the literary output of women novelists with their corresponding domestic output, i.e. number of children. This serves to reinforce the traditional roles of housewife and mother even for those women granted success in creative pursuits. In "The Brain of Einstein", Barthes looks at society's fetishization of the great scientist's brain as an object possessing both exceptional mechanical power and an aura of esoteric energy. And in "Wine and Milk" the construction of French nationhood is examined through the symbolic vehicle of red wine, the consumption of which is indelibly tied to the concept of "Frenchness", while milk as the "anti-wine" is linked to strength, purity and traditional American values. The other essays deconstruct images along similar lines.

In the theoretical essay "Myth Today" Barthes builds on the ideas of linguists such as Ferdinand Saussure with his concept of the linguistic sign that consists of a signifier (the vehicle for the meaning) and the signified (the meaning being conveyed). In Barthes' application of this notion to the objects and practices of everyday life, he takes the analysis a step further and invests a further layer of meaning in each sign - the mythological meaning or cultural subtext that underlies the primary linguistic meaning. He names the language system that myth appropriates the "language-object", while myth itself is termed the "metalanguage", i.e. that language which is used to structure and manipulate everyday language. On the level of everyday language, the signifier is the "meaning" but on the level of myth, it becomes the "form". The signified remains the "concept" in both cases. That which is the "sign" on the first level, however, is equated to "signification" at the level of myth. For example, he deconstructs a photograph of a black man saluting the French flag on the cover of Paris-Match and explores the layers of meaning this image conveys, with the physical image on the paper serving as the original signifier and the signified being the literal reading of patriotism in terms of a loyal citizen saluting the flag, while the deeper or "mythological" meaning of the entire sign becomes a reinforcement of French imperialism by implying that France's non-White "citizens" in colonial territories were content and fulfilled in their role relative to the Empire. Myth being a "second order semiological system", the sign in the first system, which in this case is "the purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness" embodied in the figure of the black citizen saluting the flag, becomes a signifier in the second system that represents a bourgeoisie ideological glorification of Empire.

There are three potential ways to relate to myth, according to Barthes, as a producer, reader or decipherer of mythological speech. The task of the mythologist is to delve beneath several layers of meaning to uncover the ideological structure at the base, exposing the deceptive innocence of mythical speech as a sham. This process restores a sense of "history" and political relevance to naturalized images such as the "Negro-giving-the-salute" in the example above: "As the concept of French imperiality, here it is again tied to the totality of the world: to the general History of France, to its colonial adventures, to its present difficulties" (Mythologies, 119).

This mythological layer of meaning, then, despite its seemingly ahistorical "naturalness" and innocence, is determined by historical processes and motivated by the desire of dominant groups to maintain their ideologies and power. Myth, therefore, reflects the power structure in society at any given time. The hegemonic influence wielded by the petit-bourgeoisie, in Barthes' view, lies in their ability to construct an image of reality that seems most natural and "real" to the rest of society, even if it represents an ideal unattainable by these other segments of the population. It is the manufactured and ideological aspect of this taken-for-granted sphere of daily life that he wishes to reveal for what it is: "In the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there" (Mythologies, 11). In keeping with this analysis, he goes on to delineate the difference between myth on the political Left and on the Right, noting that the Right is better at appropriating and manipulating mythological imagery. Myth is therefore "stronger" on the Right. It is weak on the Left because language on the Left is political and action-based, spoken "in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image" (Mythologies, 146). As the language of the oppressed, it lacks the richness and suppleness of myth on the Right, which is exemplified by the practices of inoculation, removal of history, absorption and neutralization of the Other, tautology, the promotion of mediocrity, the quantification of quality, and the "common sense" statement of fact.