Mythologies–Roland Barthes

“Myth is a language”–Roland Barthes

Everyone should own a copy of Roland BarthesMythologies. 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?

2 thoughts on “Mythologies–Roland Barthes”

  1. Speaking of things ontological: this, from Clay Shirky’s monumental “Ontology is Overrated.”

    “It comes down ultimately to a question of philosophy. Does the world make sense or do we make sense of the world? If you believe the world makes sense, then anyone who tries to make sense of the world differently than you is presenting you with a situation that needs to be reconciled formally, because if you get it wrong, you’re getting it wrong about the real world.

    If, on the other hand, you believe that we make sense of the world, if we are, from a bunch of different points of view, applying some kind of sense to the world, then you don’t privilege one top level of sense-making over the other. What you do instead is you try to find ways that the individual sense-making can roll up to something which is of value in aggregate, but you do it without an ontological goal. You do it without a goal of explicitly getting to or even closely matching some theoretically perfect view of the world.”


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