Mythologies (book)  

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Eiffel Tower in Paris, France  The status of technocratic icons within contemporary society (the Citroën DS, the Eiffel Tower etc.) is a theme in Barthes's Mythologies
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The status of technocratic icons within contemporary society (the Citroën DS, the Eiffel Tower etc.) is a theme in Barthes's Mythologies

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Mythologies is a critique of consumerism and a precursor to Guy Debord's 1967 Society of the Spectacle. Mythologies' philosophical stance is well reflected in Georges Perec's 1965 novel Things.

Mythologies is the title of a book by Roland Barthes, first published in 1957. It is a collection of essays taken from articles in Combat, a left-wing magazine, examining the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths.

Contents

Introduction

In the 1950s Roland Barthes published a series of essays examining modern myths and the process of their creation in his book Mythologies. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1873-1961) and his followers also tried to understand the psychology behind world myths. Jung argued that the gods of mythology are not material beings, but archetypes — or mental states and moods — that all humans can feel, share, and experience. He and his adherents believe archetypes directly affect our subconscious perceptions and way of understanding.

Summary

Mythologies is the title of a book by Roland Barthes (ISBN 0-374-52150-6), published in 1957. It is a collection of essays taken from articles in Combat, a left-wing magazine, 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.

The first section of Mythologies describes a selection (54 short chapters in the original French, 28 in Annette Lavers' translation) 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.

First Section of Mythologies- Essays

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.'p.60

In another chapter, Barthes explores the myth of All-In Wrestling. He describes how, unlike in boxing, the aim of the sport is not to discover who will win or 'a demonstration of excellence' p.15, it is a staged spectacle acting out society's basic concepts of Good and Evil, of 'Suffering, Defeat and Justice' p.19. 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.

Second Section of Mythologies- Theory

In the second half of the book Barthes justifies and explains his choices and analysis. He calls upon the concepts of Semiology as laid out by Ferdinand de Saussure at the turn of the century. Saussure developed a theory on the connections between an object (the signified) and its linguistic description (such as a word, the signifier) and how the two are connected. For example, the object 'a tree' joins together with the sounds or letters that signify 'tree' to us to give us the sign for 'tree', a set of sounds/written letters that, although they are only arbitrarily connected to the idea of a tree, come to mean 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 and the sound come together to make a sign. To make a myth,the sign itself is used as a SIGNIFIER, and something else ( a new SIGNIFIED, or new meaning) is added. But- this is important!- this is not added arbitrarily. Although we are not necessarily aware of it, modern myths are created for a reason. As in the example of the red wine, mythologies are formed to encourage an idea of society that falls in line with the accepted 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. As he explains, the picture merely shows one boy. This signifier cannot give us much factual information. But it has been chosen by the magazine to symbolise more than just one boy- the picture, in combination with what we already know/assume about the context, gives us a message about the French Empire and its success and strength (in 1957, with independence struggles at a head in both Indo-China and North Africa, this was a hot topic). Something has been added- the picture does not actually demonstrate 'that France is a great empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag,' etc. p.116 but such is the mythology already in existence around the subject that this is what the viewer sees. In addition to the SIGNIFIER 'a black soldier is giving the French salute' there is a SIGNIFIED: an idea of 'Frenchness and militariness' and together the two form a SIGN. (example taken from p.116) This is modern myth.

Mythologisation and Cultural Studies

In writing about the process of mythologization, Barthes refers to the tendency of socially constructed notions, narratives, and assumptions to become "naturalized" 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. The 'science' used by Barthes, Semiology has never really caught on, but Mythologies is a gripping and deeply thought-provoking research into the signs we are surrounded with every day. As Barthes himself explains in justifying the work, 'In a single day, how many really non-signifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message.But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, sign-boards, clothes, sun-tan even, which are so many messages to me.' p.114

The work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his investigations into ideology and how it is controlled by the state, should also be considered in this context.

References

  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (éditions de Seuil, 1957, France)
  • Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (Paladin, 1972, London) translated by Annette Lavers




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