Barthes' most famous contribution to the semiotics school of structuralism, post-structuralism: though not his most-read according to GoodReads (an accolade reserved for Camera Lucida
). While I love all of the Barthes that I have read, I think this should be required reading somewhere (the first part, anyway). Barthes is brilliant; his eyes seem always turned to the world as it is, and yet remain mindful of the world as it seems: that is the premise of Mythologies
. Intentionally or unintentionally, everything we observe has a meaning and a counter-meaning, which change and reverse roles based on the society which views them. The actor's casual headshot: symbolic of his 'everyman'-ness, or rather his apotheosis above every man? The Tour de France
: a meritorious battle of bikes, or rather the stock-puppet sitcom-drama of bikers' personalities? Toys: innocuous playthings, or instruments of class-shackling and occupational pre-fitting? Drinking wine: a symbol of French national, equalizing pride, or an instrument of expropriation from French capitalists over the Algerian farmers? These are the kinds of dualities which Barthes discusses in his Mythologies
(so well written and well argued you may not even remember you bought it hoping for a sultry summation of Leda and her cygnus-seducer. No grey-eyed goddesses or illustrious Joves here, save the moonfaced Greta Garbo or the Romanesque Marlon Brando)
I have not viewed the world with the same naive glaze since reading Barthes' Mythologies
, and whether it has caused me to overthink is debatable, but it has forced me to think more critically about the world of messages around me. Not just the message-laden world of advertisements, of which I was already dubious, but also of objects, cult-classics movie posters, favorite-books, cover-art, newspaper articles from The Wall Street Journal
to The New Yorker
to Home & Garden
and Men's Fitness
, Food Network Magazine
and so forth. For example, from Los Angeles Times
A city's unrealized ambitions in 'Never Built Los Angeles'
The article describes a new, permanent exhibition of the passed-over projects of Los Angeles: the phantom freeways, the might-have-been monorails and suggested subways, the sky-scrapers of could-have-been and the plush potential parks. While the the exhibition and the article offer this alternative-history on display as a wistful reminder of the many potential Los Angeles-es that could have existed, there is a more sinister criticism of the mayoral governance that the city has had, which aborted the many better projects. The exhibition comes in stride with a new mayor, Eric Garcetti, and makes the political statement that the unhappy denizens of Los Angeles want more of these projects to be brought to fruition, not left unrealized on scraps of stock-paper.
The exhibition is a sign. The signifier is the "never built Los Angeles" though the intended message is "should have been Los Angeles" - perhaps not wholly should have been, but at least in part. This signified message is in turn the signifier to the latent message of a sort of Marxist equalizer: that capitalism in cahoots with bureaucracy has bastardized the Los Angeles skyline, stunted its greatness, handicapped its potential. The signal is not of a great city, but of a Lost Paradise. While the message is that the past should educate the future, the ultimate message is that Los Angeles is a future foregone. Tossed tramways and abbreviated bikeways overshadow the ill-concieved and rightfully miscarried monstrosities averted. The remote past, and more significantly the unchosen past has simultaneously the luring life of the future and the death of the past. Instead of being a pivot for the city's projection, the exhibition serves instead as a tombstone.
Now, I'm not as brilliant as Barthes, and I am not well-informed in the culture of Los Angeles, but that is the kind of though-process which Barthes utilizes in dissecting French culture. Mythologies
is about digging in to every sign, asking what is this supposed
to signify to me? what does it actually
signify? It is a thought process which does not require genius, for as Barthes proclaims: "myth hides nothing
: its function is to distort, not to make disappear. There is no latency of concept in relation to the form: there is no need of an unconscious in order to explain myth." The world is populated with distorted messages, it is our responsibility as readers, thinkers, participants in our cultures to reconstitute the messages which reach us in distortion, not to let it lead us into complacency.
tautology dispenses us from having ideas, but at the same time prides itself on making this license into a stern morality; whence its success: laziness is promoted to the rank of rigor.
We must not be slaves to our own laziness, but rather discover the truth about us: we must uncover with a vigor. For myth is a sly mischief-maker, it masquerades as truth, as the obvious and the assumed. Myths are like puns: they have different meanings to the casual auditory observer and the close reader:
No, syntax, vocabulary, most of the elementary, analytical materials of language blindly seek one another without ever meeting, but no one pays the slightest attention: Etes-vous allé au pont? --Allée? Il n'y a pas d'allée, je le sais, j'y suis été.