Ferdinand de Saussure defined semiology as "a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life." We all practice it before we learn the word: High school drills it into us, if nothing else.
In my day, you wore your backpack carelessly slung over one shoulder, not two, unless you didn't mind being taken for a geek. Long hair signified headbanger and probably stoner. My friends and I, who went out of our way to affect a studious indifference to such signs (a naïveté about sign-systems that merely revealed the depth of our implication within them), would mock those who meant to signify non-conformity by dressing like all the other non-conformists. Whoever you are, even if you're the Unabomber, you are a satellite in the orbit of signs. Roland Barthes invented the telescope.
Not that Barthes was the first semiotician, of course, but his brilliant application of semiological methods to mass-cultural signifiers — advertisements, politics, sports, popular music, consumer goods, news media, film — has inflected cultural and media studies ever since. "Mythologies" was his third book, published in 1957. For some reason it's taken 56 years for the complete "Mythologies" to be translated into English. The familiar translation by Annette Lavers cut 25 of the 53 "mythologies" proper — brief essays and sketches Barthes originally published in various monthly magazines — including some of the best (on ufology, the Paris flood of 1955 and French politics). A newly published complete edition includes them all. The title is intended in a literal but specific sense: "myth is a type of speech … a system of communication … a message … a mode of signification, a form."
"Everything can be a myth, provided it is conveyed by a discourse."
This definition, coupled as it is with a Marxian analysis of class consciousness, can still lead American critics to fits of apoplexy. Richard Brody, blogging for The New Yorker, recently huffed about Barthes' "strangely simplistic accusations of what Marx called 'false consciousness.'" But Marx never used the term "false consciousness," and Barthes' critique is directed precisely against a simplistic vulgar-Marxist critique of ideology. Brody is incensed that Barthes uses the term "bourgeois," which he does with some frequency; this is amusing, given Barthes' own discussion of the "flight from the name bourgeois" as constitutive of bourgeois ideology. "The bourgeoisie," he writes, "is defined as the social class which does not want to be named." Is it so strange that a French theorist of the '50s should refer to class relationships by their names? After all, as Barthes points out, the newspaper Paris Match (a fount of mythology for Barthes) had recently openly proclaimed its bourgeois commitments: "The fate of capitalism is to make the worker wealthy." Brody, on the other hand, seems to imagine that his own language is transparently free of ideology, an illusion Barthes' essays are intended to expose if not exactly dispel. Ideology, for Barthes as for Marx, is not a question of "false consciousness," but of consciousness.
And signification is the business consciousness is in. As Barthes puts it in a telling footnote:
In a single day, how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.
Barthes' genius lies not in his ethical perspective but in the cunning and verve with which he reads these messages. The more "natural" a sign appears, the more it is likely to be loaded with myth (in his later work, he will reverse the polarities of denotation and connotation in photographic signs). In Barthes' sense of myth, the unity of signifier and signified that is a sign in conventional semiotics becomes a mere signifier, whose signification as part of a second-order semiology must be deciphered by the mythologist. This is what differentiates mythology from the sort of thing my bozo friends and I practiced in high school. Myth is a "metalanguage": the signs that make up wrestling, say, turn out, as signifiers in a mythology, to communicate messages that are not really about wrestling at all. Thus a newspaper's publication of photographs of writers on vacation, which might seem an attempt at demystification, turns out, at the level of myth, to remystify them: the recourse to "the ordinary-guy image" actually reinforces a differentiation of "the writer" as "a star" precisely insofar as it implies that authors' just-like-the-rest-of-us ordinariness is newsworthy.
This is a common strategy in both psychoanalysis and historical materialism, as Barthes acknowledges, but his innovation was to reframe it in terms borrowed from Saussurean linguistics. The resulting analytical method leads him to several delectable formulations: the "principal artisan" of Joseph Mankiewicz's film "Julius Caesar" is "the hairdresser"; the readers of Paris Match acquire "a clear conscience by merely looking in the shopwindows of sanctity"; "to see someone not seeing is the best way of seeing intensely what he doesn't see"; "the First World Detergent Conference … authorized the world to commit itself to the euphoria of Omo"; "my claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which can make sarcasm the condition of truth."
The new edition features translations by Richard Howard while retaining Lavers' translation of the long concluding section on "Myth Today." Howard is in general closer to Barthes' French than Lavers is, though at times at the expense of clarity. In the essay on "Garbo's Face," the passage rendered by Lavers as "a mask is but a sum of lines; a face, above all, is their thematic harmony" becomes gibberish in Howard's hands: "the mask is merely an addition of lines, the face is above all a thematic recall of the former to the latter." In addition, a number of typos have made it past the copy editor.
But despite these quibbles — despite the inapposite irony of the new edition's dust jacket ("a consecration of Barthes's classic — a lesson in clairvoyance that is more relevant now than ever"), despite consumer capitalism's having learned to turn the lessons of Barthes' essays to its own advantage — Barthes' essays retain a flinty utility and a weaponized beauty. "Mythologies" is a rush, an experience of great writing that can form a lifetime's attachment. Susan Sontag once said that everything Barthes wrote was interesting. Reading "Mythologies," you could almost believe it.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, 274 pages, $27