|Publisher||Les Lettres nouvelles|
Published in English
Mythologies is a 1957 book by Roland Barthes. 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.
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 the sport of boxing, the aim of theatrical stunt fighting 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 actors pretending to be wrestlers, like characters in a pantomime, portray grossly-exaggerated stereotypes of human weakness: the traitor, the conceited, 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, who described the connections between an object (the signified) and its linguistic representation (such as a word, the signifier) and how the two are connected. 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 edition no. 326, of July 1955, 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 ...
Exploring the concept of myth, Barthes seeks to grasp the relations between language and power. He assumes that myth helps to naturalize particular worldviews.
According to Barthes, myth is based on humans’ history, and myth cannot naturally occur. There are always some communicative intentions in myth. Created by people, myth can easily be changed or destroyed. Also, myth depends on the context where it exists. By changing the context, one can change the effects of myth. At the same time, myth itself participates in the creation of an ideology. According to Barthes, myth doesn't seek to show or to hide the truth when creating an ideology, it seeks to deviate from the reality. The major function of myth is to naturalize a concept, a belief. Myth purifies signs and fills them with a new meaning which is relevant to the communicative intentions of those who are creating the myth. In the new sign, there are no contradictions that could raise any doubts regarding the myth. Myth is not deep enough to have these contradictions; it simplifies the world by making people believe that signs have inherent meaning. Myth “abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…”
Why do people believe in myth? The power of myth is in its impressive character. It seeks to surprise the audience. This impression is way more powerful than any rational explanations which can disprove the myth. So, myth works not because it hides its intentions, but because the intentions of myth have been naturalized. Through the usage of myths, one can naturalize “the Empire, [the] taste for Basque things, the Government.”
Speaking of myth and power, Barthes asserts that myth is a depoliticized speech. He uses the term ex-nomination (or exnomination), by which he "means 'outside of naming'. Barthes' point was that dominant groups or ideas in society become so obvious or common sense that they don't have to draw attention to themselves by giving themselves a name. They're just the 'normality', against which everything else can be judged." For example, he says, "[the bourgeoisie] makes its status undergo a real ex-nominating operation: the bourgeoisie is defined as the social class which does not want to be named" (italics in original). Myth removes our understanding of concepts and beliefs as created by humans. Instead, myth presents them as something natural and innocent. Drawing upon Karl Marx, Barthes states that even the most natural objects include some aspect of politics. Depending on how strong the political side of myth is, Barthes defines the strong and the weak myths (des mythes forts et des mythes faibles). Depoliticization of the strong myths happens abruptly, as the strong myths are explicitly political. The weak myths are the myths which have already lost their political character. However, this character can be brought back by “the slightest thing”.
Barthes also provides a list of rhetorical figures in bourgeoisie myths:
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 myths are built up by the bourgeoisie in its various manifestations. He returns to this theme in later works including The Fashion System.
There are analogies between Mythologies (1957) and Marshal McLuhan's The Mechanical Bride (1951), in which also a series of exhibits of popular mass culture (like advertisements and newspaper or magazines articles) are critically analyzed.