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.