French philosopher Roland Barthes is perhaps the leading figure in the field of semiotics, which is the study of signs. Launching his study from the landmark theories of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes transformed the study of semiotics beyond merely linking signifiers to the signified and further toward understanding the actual meanings of signs, as well as how that meaning becomes established. His book Mythologies is, arguably, the single most influential book for anyone who is interested in semiotics or those hidden and implicit meanings in what appear to be obvious phenomena.
For such an incredibly important and influential book, Mythologies is surprisingly slim. It is really just a collection of short essays written by Barthes between 1954 and 1956, which were originally published in a French magazine. The overweening subject of these essays is media manipulation, and the fascination part is how Barthes is able to dig down below the sometimes bland and relatively uninteresting façade to the real meat of the semiotic meaning. Barthes titled his book Mythologies for reasons that at first glance may be somewhat less than obvious. If you were to pick up a copy of Mythologies, you might be let down to discover little between its pages that deal with well-known Greek and Roman mythological figures. The idea that Roland Barthes seems to have in mind in choosing this title is not necessarily to make a comparison between mythological and modern eras. His desire instead seems to be to focus on the idea of myth with a small “m.” A myth is something that contains elements of an illusion, of something that is yet isn’t at the same time. Barthes’ target are the myths created by societal authorities which are designed for the purpose of distracting the masses from reality while also creating a naturalized viewpoint that serves to further control them.
It is the strange and somewhat odd selections that Barthes chooses to focus his attention on in Mythologies that imbues it with its power. Roland Barthes seems to suggest that most of us confront everyday images and objects as self-contained signs, but the reality is all of these images were created. It is precisely in the way that these objects are arranged that imbues them with ideological meaning beyond that which is readily apparent. To take just one example, Barthes discusses the connotative qualities that something as apparently innocuous as an image of foam can produce in the mind of someone; in this particular instance it is the image of luxury. He then goes on to argue that foam signifies luxury only in the mind of someone living in a prosperous culture. To take the sign out of context, foam is nothing more than air bubbles in water. The real power of that image of foam actually exists not in what foam really is, but in what foam really isn’t: an idea of luxury. The power that is brought to bear here stems from the fact that the foam in the advertising image is a natural thing, while the ideological meaning is a social construct.
The very same advertising image of foam that produces the ideological meaning of luxury and high living would not mean the same thing to, say, a tribe in Africa. In fact, it is probably that the image of foam would carry no connotation at all, but would possess only a denotative meaning. And yet, foam connotes a wealth of
information to the materialistic, capitalist society to which the image is really being geared to. Roland Barthes is saying that all signs in an image are really two different signs. There is always the natural sign we all recognize easily, but there is also buried within it a mythological sign that has been manipulated by the author of the image. What Barthes is suggesting is that the public need not only look closely and be aware of what the mythological perceptions of objects contained in images are, but that it should also be aware that no image exists independently of an author and that no author acts independently of an ideology.
By all means try to find either a copy of Mythologies, or else find it somewhere on the internet. It is a fascinating book and after reading it and digesting, you will never look at any image in exactly the same careless, shallow way again. Throughout the book Roland Barthes is able to find the deeper level of hidden ideologically meaning in such diverse things as movies, photography, wrestling, wine, milk, and even the face of silent film queen Greta Garbo.