Reading Workshop III

One day, the literary critic Roland Barthes went into the barber’s and was given a copy of the magazine Paris-Match to read while he waited. It was the 1950s and France was involved in a bitter war of independence with Algeria, a country it had colonized in the 19th century. On the front cover of the magazine was a picture of a young black boy wearing French uniform and making a smart, fierce salute. Barthes found himself profoundly discomforted; he knew he was in the presence of a certain way of reading that was prevalent in society, exploited ruthlessly by the media, but false, unethical and plain wrong. He realized that the magazine was trying to tell him something: that both black and white served equally under the French flag, that the nation was a proud empire, not an oppressive colonizing power, and that the detractors who said so were not to be trusted. Here, in this young boy’s salute, was there not the proof of racial harmony?

And what would we think today? Confronted by the image of a very young man in uniform (and really, he is so young, properly speaking a boy) giving a professional salute, we might well think how terrible it is that children of that age find themselves co-opted into the military. We might pine to send the child back to school, to have him play in fields with his friends. Children have become the new divine, I once read, and childhood a place where we are quick to project idealized dreams. What it is most unlikely that we would think, in the absence of any given explanation, is that here we have a picture of a stranger, about whom we know absolutely nothing, who evidently has his own reasons for being in this place and time which are beyond our powers to guess. A picture is worth a thousand words, it’s true, but not many of them are mundane and based in dull common sense. What Barthes saw when he looked at his magazine image, was what he called the potency of myth in modern society, the way we are quick to overlook the evidence of our eyes to fixate on some more distant, idealized, cultural meaning.

Barthes, as I’ve mentioned before, was a deeply suspicious reader. Language to his mind was not a transparent window onto the world but a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand that conjured up images of such vivid reality we mistook them willingly for the real thing. We assume language – be that language in a book, or the ‘language’ of images – is inherently truthful, that it reveals something real. But Barthes was keen that we should recognize the artificial nature of language, its function as a tool of creation, not of reflection. After all, creativity was the very best of language’s qualities – language with its huge pool of associations and thoughts and feelings continually offers us something new to say, some new way of considering the world, some new thoughts to entertain and illuminate. When language solidified into myth, then all that creative power was lost. Think about the rose, for instance, which is just a pretty flower with some very unpleasant thorns attached to it, and yet it is almost interchangeable with the notion of love. But love is much more than roses, and roses are also about much more than love. The association between them diminishes both over time, until we reach Valentine’s Day, and a collection of sickly, greenhouse-grown and early-frozen roses sit wilting in buckets of cold water, as tired out and unappealing as the old symbolic cliché they embody.

Barthes saw this kind of mythology arising everywhere, like a plague that attacked language, that insinuated itself into the minds of spectators, readers and consumers across the globe. He didn’t like it, not just because it ultimately devalued language and images, but because it made people into fools. Advertising was one prime culprit. Think about the slogans that have been attached to Coca-Cola. In 1891 it was the ‘Ideal Brain Tonic’. In 1927 it was ‘Pure as Sunlight’. In 1957 it was ‘The Sign of Good Taste’. In 1976 it was ‘Coke Adds Life’ (entertainingly mistranslated in South America as ‘Coke Brings You Back From The Dead’, which in fact shows the ludicrousness of what’s being suggested here). In 2001 it was ‘Life Tastes Good’. How can any of these slogans have any truth value? Coke is simply a highly sweetened drink that tastes of rusty nails the moment its fierce carbonization falls away. Suggesting that it might in any way improve our quality of life is myth-making of the highest order.

Barthes wanted to point out that where you find myth, you find someone’s hidden but vested interest. There’s a desire to make the association seem ‘natural’, just a normal part of the everyday world, when in fact it serves someone’s agenda, usually a political or commercial one. That image of the young, black soldier was used to comfort readers who might be a little afraid that their own country was behaving in a brutal way (and you do not want to know how France behaved during that war of independence; it was horrific). It appealed to notions of glorious empires and tried to hide away the other side of the coin – aggressive colonizers. This is what modern myth works to do, according to Barthes. It highlights some meanings at the expense of others. We all know when we’re in the presence of a myth that runs counter to our own political or ideological views. We recognize the distortion of reality that’s going on; it feels uncomfortable, annoying, infuriating almost. But the problem lies when the myth reinforces ideals and ideas that we do hold dear. Then the sensation is one of great reassurance, comfort, rightness, homecoming.

So how do we get around these myths and read more carefully, more insightfully? Well, Barthes felt that there was one crack in the edifice of mythology and that could be found right at the basis of its fortress: myths treat their audience as if they were stupid. Look at those coke adds – the advertising agency has to make a basic assumption that the consumer will swallow anything (and not just a slightly repellent fizzy drink). Wherever myth exists, it patronises its audience, it over-simplifies, it dumbs down. And so it’s up to us as readers to make sure we remain in touch with the complexity of representations. As soon as we cut an image off from reality and stick a frame around it, we are responding not to what was real in the picture, but to all the associations and ideas it provokes in us. So, most of all, we need to hang onto common sense, and the recognition of what is there, right in front of our eyes. Myths invite us to scoot over the surface very fast, towards our hopes, fears, desires and anxieties. To combat its insidious effects we need to take a step back, and to take a deflationary needle to the puffed up fantasies that fuel myth-making. Reality is mostly mundane, and simple, and about not knowing. It’s when we get carried away on a tidal wave of assumptions and ideas that the trouble begins. So Barthes wanted us to keep challenging our assumptions all the time, to keep fresh ideas revolving, to understand things could always be different or otherwise to the notions that took a stranglehold on our minds.  And I could happily salute him on that score.

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14 thoughts on “Reading Workshop III

  1. Facing the myths is certainly a challenge for the reader, but, if we are prepared to be brave, what a challenge for the writer! I like reading books that undermine the status quo and I hope to write them too – but what if by deflating those myths, I’m making some of my own?

  2. Were I still teaching, I’d give copies of this to my Eng.comp students end of the fall term: final assignment: a paper examining the myth of the American Xmas.

    I never fail to be appalled at the infantilization in the dominant images and symbols and what it implies about our notions of childhood–how the erasure of real memory of what it was like to be a child fosters a need for a mythical substitute, which adults than impose on their children in a form impossible for them to resist. It’s this need to force children into roles that reinforce this erasure that itself underlies and is primary to the more obvious commercial exploitation. A moment’s reflection is enough to recognize the irrational message of advertising, but the sources of the anxiety, the fears, the need these irrational messages exploit is not so easy to unpack. Never just one thing– loose threads on the knitted hologram. Keep pulling and the whole social, political cultural structure comes tumbling down and leaves us poor howling animals on the garbage heap of history.

  3. As always you have given me much to ponder after reading your post. I have said I want to read more “deeply” this year and ask more questions of myself when I am reading. This post reminds me of other layers of things I need to look for when I am reading.

  4. Going through college getting an English degree put me off Barthes for ages. Thank you for this post: it reminded me keenly that he was a person with worthwhile ideas, not just the guy responsible for several very, very irritating professors. :P

  5. What a fascinating post! I’m taking modern theology this semester, and one of the things we’ve been talking about is how the modern philosophers attempted to strip away all the myths and accretions that had been added to our understanding of reality. But the question arises as to whether that myth-free understanding is in itself a myth, as Charlotte suggests.

    In one of my earlier classes, we talked about “embedded theology”–the beliefs we have about God that just surround us and that we never bother to examine because they seem “seem ‘natural’, just a normal part of the everyday world.” Theological study largely involves examining where those understandings come from and determining for ourselves which ones are built on shaky ground and which ones are worth holding onto. (And the word myth takes on a different meaning in the world of theology, where myth is not necessarily bad–it’s unexamined swallowing of myths that is dangerous.) Anyway, your last couple of paragraphs describe very well what that process of getting out from under our embedded theology looks and feels like.

  6. This is fantastic! I wish there was some way we could force-feed Barthes to Americans right now so we can cut through the stupidity that is our current political system, health care reform, the Tea Party crazies and the even crazier Sarah Palin (she’s writing another book!). I’ve had to limit my news content to keep my blood pressure from going up. Anyway, much to think about. Please keep writing posts like this, I really like them :)

  7. This is fascinating and thought provoking. I’m only not sure whether it’s possible to strip away myth entirely. Words in themselves have connotations and associations, and by thinking verbally or through images, or communicating, we are choosing to say things one way or another. We also tell ourselves story. We form things into narrative to make sense of them, to learn, for many other purposes. A practice of mindfulness can counteract it. But do you think it’s possible to live without it altogether? Or even desirable?

  8. That’s a very clear explanation, which is always to be treasured when dealing with theory. Why couldn’t theorists themsleves put it so well? Is ideology (which I read somewhere is dead, but I suspect that is just a myth, too), different from myth other than in its being especially political in its purpose? Certainly I fear that in removing one myth I might be simply voyaging on to another, like Russian dolls and that there is no myth free reality, but only perhaps a less mythologised one. I did wonder whether this story of his finding the magazine in a barber’s was an established fact, as it could be, or part of a myth of the philosopher of ordinary life, which I have always sensed, possibly wrongly, to be part of the modern French philosophical stance since reading Sartre and Camus. I fear I’ve been wandering about, not good recompense for your lovely clarity.

  9. Especially relevant as the election campaigns ramp up here in England. We are very lucky in this country to have free press (even though there is political bias in that free press, there are oppossing biases so we know there are alternative views to every story). How do you go about exposing and deconstructing the myth in countries where all the information is controlled by one higher authority?

    I like your point about when the myth reinforces ideals. The first thing that brings to mind is the relationship between scientific studies and women. Much of society is eager to believe that women who work damage their children, or that women who don’t breastfeed have a higher risk of cancer and when these stories are backed up by scientific study many feel no need to interrogate those ideas. As many women who are interested in showing the flaws in these theories do not have science backgrounds and the women who do go into science haven’t been exposed to the same kind of critical thinking skills you get from a humanities background it seems like one of the most dangerous, hard to break into areas of myth making at the moment.

  10. That’s great! It reminds me of Orwell’s essay on writing where he shows the consequences of bad thinking and bad uses of language on our political system and vice versa. In order to keep from falling for empty political cliches, we have to keep a close eye on the language we use and that other people use. He makes it sound like each person can have a large effect just by staying aware of and critical of language — and it’s a message I like!

  11. I think I agree with Lillian: we have words and ideas that have connotations derived directly from myth (the type of myth that developed to explain an unknown and scary universe, not to oppress; at least, not at first). Advertising, as Barthes noted, is not myth: it is commerce, PR, propaganda.Are we now capable of separating what is a basic need of our psyches from what others wish us to believe is a basic need of our egos? I don’t know. Really thought-bringing, resonant post, litlove. Thank you.

  12. Hello all! First of all, let me just answer one question that many of you had – and quite rightly so. Barthes was entirely pessimistic about myth, despite the vigorous critique he made of it. He felt it was inescapable and a stable part of representation (even if the myths themselves were dynamic). In later work, he focused on everything that destabilized this type of stolid representation and applauded it. So, we can always challenge mythologies, and absolutely, art is all about booting them into the process of transition, so there are moments when we can deconstruct myths and see them for what they are. But it IS impossible for us to live without some level of myth in representation, not least because language is inevitably full of associations.

    Charlotte – you go girl! I think anyone who takes on the power of myth is permitted to create a few of her own en route. It’s kind of like natural selection. :)

    Jacob – Ah, once you put children and Christmas together you are linking a large number of myths to make a super-myth. I keep thinking that in the Western world, Christmas will eventually implode and return to something achievable. But so far, I wait in vain.

    Kathleen – what I really love about reading is that there are always so many levels you can take it to – and that reaching just about any of them is an enriching experience. Even just reading for the most straightforward level of story is to be moved and challenged and made to think. Good luck with your reading, I have every faith you’ll get loads out of your good intentions.

    Jenny – lol! I love Barthes, truly I do. But I can imagine he’s spawned quite a few annoying professors, too.

    Teresa – ooh now that sounds like a very interesting course. If you come across any really good books on your reading list, I would love to know about them. I have a distinct sideline going for spirituality. I read up about negative theology a while back and found it fascinating.

    Stefanie – for you my friend, your wish is my command. And Sarah Palin is writing a book? Aaaaarrrghhhhhh – run for the hills!

    Lilian – absolutely – no it’s not possible to live without it, and precisely because language is too full of associations (and we can’t make sense of it any other way). My feeling is that all myth should be challenged (even if one decides to uphold it) but that could just be me. :) I certainly agree that it is inevitable.

    Bookboxed – oh but I always like to hear your reactions! I think Barthes really did read that magazine at the barber’s. But there was a fertile line of philosophical inquiry at the time that was fascinated by the everyday (people like Michel de Certeau, in particular, should you be interested). It came about after phenomenology (early 20th century) and a switch from philosophy as epistemology (what can we know?) to ontology (what does the experience of living feel like?). Now that’s a lot of ologies, and it’s easy around about this intellectual era to get all tangled up in them. But to risk one more, ideology is undeniably related to Barthesian mythologies. The structure is exactly the same, but whilst a mythology happens in response to a representation (or sometimes a performance – one of B’s famous examples was wrestling), ideology is utterly pervasive, and governs how we behave and respond, what aims and ambitions we have, what values we endorse. Does that help? I fear it’s the kind of topic that proper academics write books on! :)

    Jodie – oh don’t talk to me about myths in the sciences!!!! Any piece of research needs funding, and so what gets looked into (breast feeding being a prime example) is what the government, essentially, decides the country needs to know. So, not that the researchers are themselves frauds, but if a government can choose between commissioning a report on breastfeeding that intends to assess its value for mothers, and a report that is looking at better alternatives to it, well. Go figure what gets chosen. And I dread this election – it will be fought like all the others on PR and spin and we will be none the wiser as to serious policy making. Boo. :(

  13. Dorothy – that is a great message and one I’m right behind. I need to read Orwell (it’s shameful that I never have), and I’ve heard nothing but good things about his essays.

    ds – you pose the dilemma very clearly indeed. It’s intriguing to think about where myth still holds sway in the absence of knowledge. I guess medicine is a prime contender (so much of the human body we have yet to understand) and subject to all kinds of myths at present about diet and lifestyle, most of which are based on minimal and often contradictory evidence (at least in our media here in the UK!). So if I look at that example, I feel I’d rather know the truth, such as it is, but I can also envisage how I might long to be comforted by myth!

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