“Mythologies” by Roland Barthes
(Originally written some time in 1999 for an Independent Study anthropology class on various seminal works in the field)
Roland Barthes’ exploration of the mythologizing characteristics of bourgeoisie society in France is an absorbing read. He starts out by investigating the possible mythical meanings of many of the conventionally accepted societal norms or rituals in France, then closes the book with a fascinating chapter on the nature of myth today.
His writing uses an implicit formulation. He assumes an informal common ground with his reader, adopting a rather conversational discursive tone; he obviously sees language as a social activity. Oddly enough, even though Barthes almost chattily assumes entitlement in dissecting the meanings of various mythologized objects and ideas, he then does an end-of-book about-face, noting that the “mythologist,” by unpacking such possible meanings, excludes and isolates himself from the very society and mythologies he examines.
The framing technique of examinations of individual objects or ideas was rather interesting in and of itself. Barthes’ French orientation is obvious; he makes no effort to hide behind a false objectivity, and frequently compares and contrasts what he sees with what he’s heard of in America. He seems to fight de Saussure’s structural functionalism of language seen as merely arbitrary symbol, or ‘signifier,’ by noting that the very objects (or ‘signified’) so named are themselves semiologically created and re-created.
I found the chapter on The Lost Continent a fascinating (and more concise) precursor to Said’s Orientalism. Barthes lays out in only a few pages most of Said’s objections. For example, he notes the “glamour of the ‘images'” being presented to the Occidental viewer. As he points out, the ‘Orient’ is shown in the movie as “exotic in form,” whose “variations matter very little compared to the basic unity of idealism.”
This “romantic essence” view of the Orient demonstrates a lack of historicity and differentiation. The ‘language’ used in such examinations of the Orient is that of langue: the viewpoint taken is a rather abstract and structuralist one. Barthes does not use the term langue, but he does point out that according to this mythology, the Orient, like a language, need not be lived to study it, but rather can be examined through study of the ‘eternal’ rules and structures upon which its homogenous essences are based.
From his rather acerbic commentary, I have drawn the conclusion Barthes is not a structuralist. ;)
The chapter on Dominici discusses further the mythologizing uses to which language is being put by French bourgeoisie society. I found this comment quite applicable to Orientalism as well as to Dominici himself, “[T]here was also the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us. We are all potential Dominicis, not as murderers, but as accused, deprived of language, or worse, rigged out in that of our accusers, humiliated and condemned by it.” While form should carry the message, in the examination of the Dominici trial it can be seen that the meanings of language were not truly ‘shared’ — and thus form belied meaning.
Barthes’ examination of wrestling was another example of this, as well as being quite interesting to me personally. I’d never been able to figure out wrestling’s fascination, but if it is indeed an updated, hypostatized version of the Commedia dell’ Arte then its appeal becomes more obvious to me. Barthes’ perceptions on writers were also absorbing, as he notes the use of essentialisms in the creation of bourgeoisie myth.
The final chapter on “Myth Today” is a summation of Barthes’ conclusions to that point. He discusses the synchronic and syncretistic nature of mythology, noting one of its most powerful attributes is its ability to strip an object or idea of its history. He notes the isomorphic relationship between the French bourgeoisie society and its myths, showing how these mythologies establish a socially patterned mode of action among the French people as a whole.
He reviews myth as a semiological system, a form of depoliticized, stolen language that normalizes the very bourgeoisie society it both creates and is created by. Thus myth-making by the bourgeoisie is, in Barthes’ rationalistic assessment, both cultural domination and ideological absorption of the petit-bourgeoisie, and a way for the bourgeoisie to become the unnamed standard of normality.
It is interesting that even as Barthes notes the stereotypy and normalization characteristic of myth-making, he indulges somewhat in the same mannerisms as he positivistically analyzes myth itself. For example, is myth-making truly representative of the entire bourgeoisie class, as Barthes asserts, or is this more a characteristic of France at that time? More study would be required to know for sure.