Barthes’ collection of essays exploring the mythology in popular culture is his most famous work. Written each month from 1954 to 1956, the collection was a best seller in France in 1957 and has become one of the most well known works of semiotics (for instance, although only a few of the essays deal with the cinema, my film theory lecturer insisted it was the one book we should all read). The essays themselves differ in length (12 pages is devoted to wrestling as a spectacle of suffering; soap powders and detergents get 2) but the variety and humor make it a quick read. While the insights into society are perhaps less valuable to someone not living in 1950s Paris, and some of the contemporary references are dated, surprisingly little has changed, especially when it comes to advertising, and as an approach to decoding modern life Barthes’ examination of the signs and symbols all around us are still useful.
It is hard to choose a favorite. ‘The Romans in Films’ deals with fringes and sweaty faces as signs for Roman-ness in cinema. ‘Wine and Milk’ and ‘Steak and Chips’ examine the importance and significations of these foods to the French. ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’ and ‘Neither-Nor Criticism’ are essential reading for all critics, dealing with common faults even the best suffer from constantly (that the subject of criticism is ineffable; the critic confesses they are too stupid to understand something philosophical; that criticism has to walk a middle line politically). Most of these are only a few pages long yet they identify so well and succinctly these problems that I’ve felt but would struggle to articulate myself. Barthes’ analysis will also start you questioning what you see around you.
It is the concluding segment, ‘Myth Today’, that binds the book together into a coherent theory. While it uses far more technical terms and so might be more difficult for a lay reader to follow, it is valuable because it shows how these simple signs become signifiers themselves and attain the status of ‘myth’. For example, in the picture above the saluting black soldier is a signifier of many concepts (French, military, ethnicity), and through these concepts becomes myth, chosen by the magazine to show
that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors
The ideology perpetuated by this image is not ‘present’, explicit, and so it is a modern ‘myth’. While I would have liked Barthes to have written more about the cinema before his untimely death in 1980, he did publish a collection about photography, Camera Lucida, that, after revisiting Sontag’s On Photography, I’ll tackle sometime this year.