Mythologies – Roland Barthes (1957)


Mythology, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious.”
We attach to that definition the sense of history or legend, the tales of heroic endeavours by singular people, often men, against the foreboding beasts of ancient lore. It is easy to overlook that it is in these stories we see embodied, within the protagonist and antagonist, societies desired attributes, structures roles.
In recognising these character traits within the stories we understand how they were and are used a tool to teach and train the reader what humankind has deemed ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and as Barthes explores ‘accepted’ and ‘unaccepted’
Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ is not an exploration of the impact of traditional story telling on the human experience but an attempt to reveal the adoption of the story telling techniques employed in myth, today in our everyday lives.
From the communal public event through to Hollywood film and even the toys with which are children grow, myth is intertwined with the way we teach, embed and reinforce ideals of modern society.
‘Mythologies is a collection of Barthes’ essay on the subject of myth, its link to historic beliefs and references, its modern day interpretation and also the consequence of those now inherent meanings.
Without getting into the detail on each and every example he provides, the journey through the essays is almost compound and where one may fail to mean anything to the reader the next picks up and develops the them further, the overall message is relatively simple yet increasingly complex in its interpretation.
If I was to summarise Barthes’ writing in on sentence I feel it would be, ‘do not take anything at face value’
That being said, in no way can such a concise sentence fully explore the concepts he writes about, numerous book have been written further developing Barthes’ work, on elf which I feel fits well to this purpose is John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ in which he focuses on the act of demystification.
The long version of summarising Barthes’ ‘Mythologies’ is to think of how we understand the everyday world and how we instantaneously make dozens of decisions each hour continuously, subconsciously and infinitely.
The world is an ever increasingly complex and abstract experience, one in which if we are separated from our culture can feel isolating and scary. One which we inherently ‘know’ through experience, experiment and guidance. Guidance which has been passed to us through family and friends, trial, error and instruction. All of which are based on their own trial, error and instruction from previous generations leading back to the beginnings of communication and the foundations of our cultures.
The myth was a method of teaching, of communicating ideas and knowledge. It was the telling of story which inspired behaviours through examples, examples which were refined to be universally understood by the culture that shared them.
The Myth was, I suppose, the birth of the stereotype, homogenisation and connotation. There are simply not enough words in any book to describe the enormity of the universe and, in teaching through myth, generalisations must be utilised.
The issue, as raised by Barthes, is the extent to which life has been subsumed by myth. It pervades every aspect of the everyday from the advertisements promising happiness and cleanliness to the signs which direct our traffic and pedestrians. In every aspect which a message must be communicated quickly, effectively and efficiently the myth underpins the methods in which this is executed.
Whilst in itself a universal understand language of signs is not inherently dangerous, what is dangerous is when the entirety of the human experience is boiled down into these ‘signs’ and projected as a system of desired and undesired behaviours and attributes. Especially when the message conflicts which history or papers over the complexity of what it represents.
Barthes, in the final chapters of the book, proposes a system of demystification. His first point is also the most powerful tool, to question what is the purpose of this ‘sign?
When posing this question its forces the viewer to question not the message but the motive. When you can understand the desired outcome of the ‘sign’ or message it becomes much clearer how the message has become myth.
For example many of our modern messages are advertisements, buy this product, buy this brand, support this candidate, use this service, and from that we can see how the creator is playing on our ‘common sense’ to communicate that message. White is good, white is clean, clean is modern, modern is better etc etc.
It is in these types of connotations that we see the link between mythology and ideology. If we can take the fundamental building blocks of language and use them to distill down ideals to symbolic imagery the message becomes easy to communicate, and it is in the adoption of the the symbols of ideology where myth succeeds, often for the political right.
A modern representation of the political myth is the flag of the Confederate States. Whilst in and of itself the flag has no message its adoption by the southern states in 1865 has inexorably linked it to the political views of those parties at that time. Today, the flag now represents those views but unspoken, an instant form of communication between the viewer and the presenter, a proxy by which desired attributes can be shared but also denial of those desires is possible.
The issue facing demystification is the pure effectiveness of myth itself. How can one challenge the systems of manipulation if understanding of the system requires reading a book where the product of the system requires only a word.

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