Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: Unmasking the Ideological Underpinnings of Popular Culture
Roland Barthes was a French literary theorist, critic, and philosopher who had a profound influence on 20th-century thought. His work ranged from investigations of everyday objects and signifiers to more abstract meditations on history, reason, and language. In this essay, I will focus on Barthes’s work on Mythologies, in which he analyses the ways in which bourgeois society uses myths to naturalize and legitimize its power structures. I will discuss some of the key themes in his work, including the relationship between myth and language, the role of history in mythmaking, and the problem of rationalization. Ultimately, I will argue that Barthes’s work on Mythologies sheds important light on the ways in which dominant ideology operates in our everyday lives.
2. Barthes’s work on Mythologies:
In his book Mythologies, Barthes offers a series of close readings of popular cultural objects and events. He shows how these ostensibly innocent objects often serve as vehicles for the perpetuation of bourgeois ideology. For instance, in his essay “The Great Family of Man”, Barthes examines a photograph exhibition by Edward Steichen that was housed in the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition purported to show the essential sameness of all human beings, but Barthes argues that it actually served to naturalize and legitimize the inequalities of capitalist society. He writes:
“The very idea of an anthropology founded upon commonalities leads us back inexorably to that great classifying forgetting which is racism… The only possible way out of this impasse would be to put an end to classifications altogether; but then we should have to accept the chaos of individual particulars.”
In other words, the attempt to universalize human experience actually reinforces existing power relations by erasing the particularities of individual experience. This is just one example of how Barthes uses close readings to unmask the ideological underpinnings of popular culture.
3. Themes in Barthes’s work:
One of the key themes in Barthes’s work is the relationship between myth and language. He argues that myths are not simply false stories or beliefs, but rather systems of meaning that are produced and reproduced through language. In other words, myths are not just products of individual cognition, but also products of social interaction. This means that we cannot simply dispel myths by providing people with “correct” information; instead, we need to change the way that myths are produced and reproduced through language.
Another key theme in Barthes’s work is the role of history in mythmaking. He argues that myths often rely on distorted or inaccurate histories in order to naturalize and legitimize unequal power relations. For instance, he shows how the myth of French cuisine relies on a distorted history of France as a nation of gourmands who have always enjoyed fine food and wine. In reality, France only became a nation of gourmands after the Industrial Revolution made it possible for the bourgeoisie to afford luxury food items like truffles and champagne. This distortion of history serves to reinforce the idea that French cuisine is a natural expression of French national identity, when in fact it is a product of historical circumstances that privileged a small minority within French society.
Finally, Barthes addresses the problem of rationalization, or the tendency to reduce complex phenomena to simple causes. He argues that this tendency is a product of bourgeois ideology, which relies on a false dichotomy between reason and passion. Reason is seen as good and desirable, while passion is seen as bad and dangerous. This dichotomy allows the bourgeoisie to justify its own power and privilege while demonizing those who challenge it. Barthes writes:
“The point is not to abandon reason, but to critique the ideology that would have us believe that reason is the only legitimate way of knowing and acting in the world.”
In conclusion, Roland Barthes’s work on Mythologies is a critical investigation of the ways in which bourgeois society uses myths to naturalize and legitimize its power structures. His work highlights the importance of close readings, the relationship between myth and language, the role of history in mythmaking, and the problem of rationalization. Ultimately, Barthes’s work provides us with a valuable tool for understanding how dominant ideology operates in our everyday lives.