The first is the use of the word ‘understanding’. One definition of understanding is ‘the power of comprehending; esp the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories’1. There are numerous theories and arguments surrounding popular culture, and as such it could be argued that we still do not truly understand it. Secondly, comes the assumption that the reader agrees with the suggestion that Barthes’ writings on myth did in fact have an impact on the way we assess popular culture. There are several facts that can be used to highlight this point. For example, it could be argued that as Barthes did not have a following of thinkers who modelled their own theories after his, and that as such there is no recognised term as ‘Barthesism’, that Barthes work was not as important as and lacked the visibility of Karl Marx, and could therefore be considered ‘unimportant’ in comparison.
In light of this, this essay will instead look at the ways in which Barthes’ work has changed the ways in which we look at popular culture, and aims to answer the question, ‘To what extent did Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘myth’ influence the ways in which we examine popular culture?’. What is ‘myth’? In addition to the usual meanings of folklore, legends and superstitions, ‘myth’ has gained several other connotations in modern theory. In particular, Barthes states that myth is the result of ideology – it is a socially and historically determined idea which has gained the status of accepted truth.
Barthes’ most widely read book, Mythologies, is a collection of 54 feature articles written by Barthes between 1954-1956 for Les Lettres Nouvelles entitled ‘Mythologies du Mois’, with the addition of a closing essay called ‘Le Mythe, Aujourd’hui’. In this conclusion, Barthes interprets myth as: ‘a system of communication, that it is a message which cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is made of signification, a form’ The consequence of this, then, is that everything can be a myth. Anything that has meaning has the potential of becoming mythical. This means that there is no need to separate between both linguistic and visual representations – they are both signs of meaning and equally constitute a language-object.
Barthes’ icons Clearly, Barthes did not pull his theories out of nowhere – his thoughts were influenced by great theorists that came before him. The two most significant to Barthes were Ferdinand Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss. Numerous structuralist scholars were influenced by Saussure’s work on structural linguistics, and Barthes was no exception – indeed, he is the most popular scholar to expand on Saussure’s concepts to interpret cultural instances as ‘codes’. The foundation of Saussure’s theories was that meaning is made through difference -something only has a meaning when we can determine something it is not (for example, a ‘dog’ is a furry, four-legged creature that is not a cat; a man is not a woman). Barthes took Saussure’s linguistic system of ‘langue and parole’ and adopted it within the social dimension.
Lvi-Strauss was an anthropologist who applied Saussure’s theories to his own area of study (such as kinship). He believed that ‘Although they belong to another order of reality, kinship phenomena are of the same type as linguistic phenomena’5. Lvi-Strauss believed that there would be one standardised system connecting all myths and societies, and Barthes adopted this approach. Barthes and Lvi-Strauss came up with fairly similar ideas, and it seems accepted that Barthes would be attracted to his findings of similarities structural elements in the lives and tales of varied tribes. Lvi-Strauss wrote:
‘With myth, everything becomes possible. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions’ Barthes built upon the work of his icons – he did not believe in adopting inferred ideologies, regardless of their source. With Saussure, Barthes introduced the idea of ‘the motivated’ in as a concept in between ‘the icon’ and ‘the arbitrary’. With Lvi-Strauss’ work, Barthes wanted to look at all past and future works through the language the authors used, arguing that authors could not help but be no more than expressions of the times and cultures they lived in.
Barthes and the schools of thought Barthes’ insightful criticism contributed greatly to the development of various theoretical schools – in particular, Semiotics and Post-Structuralism. Post-Structuralists rejected the idea of an underlying structure upon which meaning can sit, unchanged. Meaning is always in process. Within post-structuralism is the belief that the situation is more complex than Saussure’s theory of the signifier, signified and the sign suggests. In ‘The death of the author’, Barthes argues that a text is: ‘a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ In other words, only a reader can bring a temporary unity to a text – there are numerous readings to a text, dependent on the person reading it.
Barthes also merged Marxist theories relating to commodity fetishism with Post-Structuralist ideas, bringing into world-view the relationship between consumerism and the ‘realm of the sign’. In addition, whilst Levi-Strauss worked in search of a universality or standardisation throughout all the many types of myths, Barthes focussed on the possibility of difference as a role of language. In this way, Barthes became a link between Structuralism and Post-Structuralism.
In Elements of Semiology, Barthes introduced four classifications (terms borrowed from linguistics) of elements that make up the process of semiological analysis10. These applications of concepts of language/speech, signifier/signified, syntagm/system and denotation/connotation surely changed the ways in which Semiologists worked -he introduced a new process of analysis which is still used to this day. Barthes’ influences in effect today Whilst Barthes’ influence is mostly found within the aforementioned theoretical fields, it is also felt in any field relating to the representation of information – computers, photography, film, television, music and literature. In media and communication studies, the main reason that Barthes’ work can be considered critical is that he related linguistic rules to cultural codes.
Barthes’ biographer argues that in France, Mythologies did not simply influence scholars, journalists and critics, but novelists and filmmakers of the ‘Neuvelle Vague’. Barthes’ influence is not just limited to the disciplines of media – the concept of myth also crosses over to politics. The myth function allows interpretation to become fact; this transforms the cultural into the natural and can be argued to be a political practice. Building on Barthes, Weber talks about the theory of ‘unconscious ideology’- an ideology which has no formal name and as such is difficult to identify: it is the commonsense foundation of our world views which are beyond debate. Although there is no one canon of thought within his theory, Barthes is arguably one of the most influential scholars in the area of mass communication and popular culture.