Roland Barthes and Hidden Myth

Roland BarthesOn this day in 1915, the great philosopher Roland Barthes was born. The truth is that I don’t know his work that well. I know one thing, Mythologies. It was an extremely powerful book to me when I was a young man. The broad idea is that things in our culture have meanings that go far beyond their concrete significance. No one would question that the Eucharist has symbolic content that far exceeds the simple act of eating a wafer. But that such symbolic content would be every bit as powerful in the purchase of laundry detergent was a revelation to by 17-year-old mind.

In the years since first reading Mythologies, it has come to dominate the way I look at sociology. At one time, we lived inside a mythical framework where gods created thunder and other things that we have since developed more general naturalistic theories to explain. But we still live inside a mythical framework. I often wonder about my own blindness, and I have a few ideas of where some of the more obvious elements of this exist. But there are many things I see in society as a whole that are entirely and nakedly mythical. Yet most people are wedded to them and react violently when they are pointed out.

The most obvious of these is the treatment of drug users. I must admit to having evolved so far on this issue that I don’t even understand many people. It is still quite common for people to think that there really is something dangerous about cannabis, even while they have no problem with alcohol. What is clear — and has been for hundreds of years — is that this is pure ethnocentrism. I’ve noted before how supposedly reasonable David Frum continues to be against cannabis legalization until he has some ultimate scientific proof that it doesn’t lead to other drugs. It is curious how he uses the language of science and argument to justify what is nothing more than cultural elitism.

Of course, this issue is slowly dying as more and more people have direct experience with cannabis. At the same time, this experience does not make the cannabis user any more open minded to other categories of drugs. We continue to see a shift from an alcohol-nicotine society to an alcohol-cannabis society. The other “harder” drugs are still seen as unacceptable. But they are unacceptable not because of their pharmacology but because of their cultural significance. “Crack” and heroin are unacceptable because of their associations with underclasses. And the move from “addiction” being a criminal justice problem to being a healthcare problem is meaningless, because they are both concerned with controlling “foreign” behavior.

A far biggest mythology that I think society is just on the edge of considering — and I am only beginning to understand — is our belief in meritocracy and the idea that one human deserves to live better than another. I understand that there may be practical limitations on how a society approaches this. But it is simply immoral that some people have more money than they could ever spend while children starve to death. Yet we have created elaborate systems of myth, which are increasingly implausible, to avoid seeing this. (See Scale, Profits, and Inequality for an economic overview of the problem.)

All of this comes directly from what I learned from Barthes. It doesn’t provide a way to find the truth. I’m afraid Plato was right on that issue — we will always be blinded by our delusions. But it does provide a way to cut through our most obvious myths. The key is to recognize that we have such a strong tendency to create such myths. And culturally, we doubtless need them. But they are often pernicious. And with greater advertising sophistication, it is easier and easier for the powerful to use our myths against us. So I will always be grateful to Barthes for showing me this.

In addition to everything else, Mythologies is great fun. Here it a bit from one of the essays in the book, The World of Wrestling:

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm- lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pieta, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction. It is obvious, of course, that in wrestling reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which is the very aim of the fight. This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a conjurer who holds out his cards clearly to the public. Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood; a concealed action that was actually cruel would transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers call a hold, that is, any figure which allows one to immobilize the adversary indefinitely and to have him at one’s mercy, has precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore intelligible, fashion the spectacle of suffering, of methodically establishing the conditions of suffering. The inertia of the vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of one’s powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one’s fist with a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle.

Happy birthday Roland Barthes!

3 thoughts on “Roland Barthes and Hidden Myth

  1. I’m afraid that every single good point you make here – and I agree with almost every positive statement you make – absolutely does not require Barthes to utter, understand, or argue. You can get to the same conclusions, more quickly and with more fun, by reading Martin Garner or Randi.

    The beliefs in phoney meritocracy similarly can be disposed by reading J.S. Mill, though here I’d have to admit that the fun factor is not high in Mill.

    Sorry, I think Barthes is Part of the Problem. The problem of poorly articulated views defended with soft-headed arguments, thick on the ground in Barthes’ writing. To me, Barthes is in the bin with Beck and Limbaugh.

    Also Barthes: boring!!! Little real argument, really just self-congratulatory “Ecoutez-moi!!!” “Aren’t I so fucking cool!!”. He mocks argumentation and rationality. Part of the problem; not part of the solution.

  2. Interesting take on seeing drug addiction as a healthcare problem being a class-based thing. It’s certain that addiction to anything cuts off other possibilities in life. We could say that about being addicted to power or money just as accurately as we could say that about addiction to heroin or crack, and those addicted to power/money probably often do more social harm. I’m not sure people addicted to power/money are necessarily healthier either (stress, high blood pressure) although they get much better health care. The main difference might be that more drug addicts voluntary quit, or try to quit, their addiction than power/money addicts. You read about people who give that up, but not often.

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