An Animated Introduction to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and How He Used Semiotics to Decode Popular Culture

In 1979, French the­o­rist Jean-François Lyotard declared the end of all “grand narratives”—every “the­o­ry or intel­lec­tu­al sys­tem,” as Blackwell’s dic­tio­nary defines the term, “which attempts to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive expla­na­tion of human expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge.” The announce­ment arrived with all the rhetor­i­cal bom­bast of Nietzsche’s “God is Dead,” sweep­ing not only the­ol­o­gy into the dust­bin but also over­ar­ch­ing sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries, Freudi­an psy­chol­o­gy, Marx­ism, and every oth­er “total­iz­ing” expla­na­tion. But as Lyotard him­self explained in his book The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion, the loss of uni­ver­sal coherence—or the illu­sion of coherence—had tak­en decades, a “tran­si­tion,” he wrote, “under way since at least the end of the 1950s.”

We might date the onset of Post­mod­ernism and the end of “mas­ter nar­ra­tives” even earlier—to the dev­as­ta­tion at the end of World War II and the appear­ance of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialec­tic of Enlight­en­ment and of Roland Barthes’ slim vol­ume Mytholo­gies, a col­lec­tion of essays writ­ten between 1954 and 56 in which the French lit­er­ary the­o­rist and cul­tur­al crit­ic put to work his under­stand­ing of Fer­di­nand de Saussure’s semi­otics.

As a result of read­ing the Swiss lin­guist, Barthes wrote in a pref­ace to the 1970 edi­tion of his book, he had “acquired the con­vic­tion that by treat­ing ‘col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions’ as a sign-sys­tems, one might hope to go fur­ther than the pious show of unmask­ing them and account in detail for the mys­ti­fi­ca­tion which trans­forms petit-bour­geois cul­ture into a uni­ver­sal nature.”

While gen­er­al­ly lumped into the cat­e­go­ry of “struc­tural­ist” thinkers, as opposed to “post-struc­tural­ists” like Lyotard, Barthes nonethe­less paved the way for a par­tic­u­lar­ly French mis­trust of “petit-bour­geois cul­ture” and its pop­ulist spec­ta­cles and all-know­ing talk­ing heads. He was an oppo­nent of total­iz­ing nar­ra­tives just as he was “an unre­lent­ing oppo­nent of French impe­ri­al­ism,” writes Richard Brody at The New York­er. Like Adorno and many oth­er post-war Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­als, Barthes riffed on Marx’s notion of “false consciousness”—the men­tal fog pro­duced by dog­mat­ic edu­ca­tion, mass media, and pop­u­lar culture—and applied the idea relent­less­ly to his analy­sis of the post-indus­tri­al West.

“Barthes’s work on myths,” writes Andrew Robin­son at Cease­fire Mag­a­zine, “pre­fig­ures dis­course-analy­sis in media stud­ies.” He direct­ed his focus to “cer­tain insid­i­ous myths… par­tic­u­lar­ly typ­i­cal of right-wing pop­ulism and of the tabloid press.” Barthes though of pop­ulist mythol­o­gy as a “meta­lan­guage” that “removes his­to­ry from lan­guage,” mak­ing “par­tic­u­lar signs appear nat­ur­al, eter­nal, absolute, or frozen” and trans­form­ing “his­to­ry into nature.” Through its nor­mal­iza­tion, we lose sight of the arti­fice of cable news, for exam­ple, and take for grant­ed its for­mat­ting as a uni­ver­sal stan­dard for high seri­ous­ness and cred­i­bil­i­ty (as in the por­ten­tous sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of “Break­ing News”), even when we know we’re being lied to.

The Al Jazeera video at the top of the post asks us to con­sid­er the “rhetor­i­cal motifs” of such media, which con­struct “the biggest myth of all: that what we are watch­ing is unmedi­at­ed real­i­ty.” The obser­va­tion may seem ele­men­tary, but Barthes sought to go fur­ther than “the pious show of unmask­ing,” as he wrote. He “would have seen,” the video’s nar­ra­tor says, “the TV screen as a cul­tur­al text, and he would have unveiled its myths,” as he did the myths prof­fered by wrestling, adver­tis­ing, pop­u­lar film and nov­els, tourism, pho­tog­ra­phy, din­ing, and oth­er seem­ing­ly mun­dane pop­u­lar phe­nom­e­na.

The video above from edu­ca­tion­al com­pa­ny Macat offers a more for­mal sum­ma­ry of Barthes’ Mytholo­gies. The French crit­ic and semi­oti­cian made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to lit­er­ary and crit­i­cal the­o­ry, demonstrating—with the wide-rang­ing wit and eru­di­tion of his human­ist coun­try­man Michel de Mon­taigne—how “dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies suc­cess­ful­ly present them­selves as sim­ply the way the world should be.” Look­ing back on his book over twen­ty years lat­er, after the events in Paris of May 1968, Barthes remarked that the need for “ide­o­log­i­cal crit­i­cism” had been “again made bru­tal­ly evi­dent.” Indeed, we have ample rea­son to think that, over six­ty years since Barthes pub­lished his clas­sic analy­sis, the need for a rig­or­ous­ly crit­i­cal view of mass media, adver­tis­ing, and polit­i­cal spec­ta­cle has become more press­ing than ever.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Roland Barthes Present His 40-Hour Course, La Pré­pa­ra­tion du roman, in French (1978–80)

Hear the Writ­ing of French The­o­rists Jacques Der­ri­da, Jean Bau­drillard & Roland Barthes Sung by Poet Ken­neth Gold­smith

Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tions to Edward Said’s Ground­break­ing Book Ori­en­tal­ism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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