“Myth is a language”–Roland Barthes
Everyone should own a copy of Roland Barthes‘ Mythologies. Published over 50 years ago, the book seems more relevant than ever. Barthes wields his sense of ironic humor like a scalpel, dissecting the ideological abuse of the post-war spectacle society. In this collection of short essays, Barthes examines the ways in which societies create, use and mediate myths–particularly the way that the “elite,” monied crust of society create new myths–whole systems of myths, really–to control cultural perceptions of “reality.” Barthes uses the language and tools of linguistics in his meditations to examine the malleable space between the signifier and the signified. Barthes analyzes a range of disparate topics: amateur wrestling, plastic, advertisements for milk and wine, the face of Greta Garbo, children’s toys, and modern film’s conception of the ancient Roman haircut are all considered in relation to how these “everyday” things support the dominant cultural/economic ideology. The methods put forth in Mythologies are certainly a precursor to what we now call popular culture studies; Barthes is certainly one of the first writers I can think of to dissect mass-mediated, popular culture. And even though it was published half a century ago, Barthes’ keenly ironic style and short-essay format comes across as thoroughly contemporary.
In the final essay of the collection, “Myth Today,” Barthes warns us that the myths we uphold to protect our culture can ultimately destroy the culture. What are the contemporary myth-systems of the United States? What ideology do these myths uphold? Do these myths hold the potential to harm the culture of our great country?