With Mythologies, Roland Barthes gives semiology legs. Barthes expands upon Ferdinand de Saussure’s study of signs by subsuming the tripod of signifier, signified and sign, previously used primarily in decoding units of language or language-objects, as Barthes prefers (words, art, rituals, material culture) and using this tripod to map what he terms myth — that is, a metalanguage, where signs themselves are only signifiers in a greater chain of cultural connotation. For Barthes, myth begins with the sum of signs and extends to a “greater,” “global” system, necessitating the semiotician’s analysis as a schema that not only “makes us understand something” but also “imposes it on us.”
Barthes’ mythologies can be found in both high and low culture, with seemingly equal implications. In the marketing of laundry detergents in mid-20th century France, for example, Barthes detects an intricate mythology at play. Chlorinated fluids have an “implicit legend” derived from their ability to burn human hands, which connotes violence: chlorine “kills” dirt. Barthes aligns these chemical cleaners with a washerwoman’s violent beating of clothes. Soap-powders, on the other hand, are perceived as more peaceful — ethnographically aligned with a housewife pressing the wash — the powders merely “push” or drive the dirt away. In addition, Barthes decodes the mythologies at play in the marketing specifically of Omo, a foaming powder detergent. Foam “signifies luxury,” and it does indeed call to mind that image of a celebrity in her bubble-bath; but there’s more. Foam, Barthes asserts, has a spiritual quality: the creation of something from nothing, a substance at once material and immaterial. Barthes considers “foam” or “chlorine” as the signs in his mythological system, and then, through thoughtful analysis, extrapolates the further-reaching signifiers and signifieds.
In “The Family of Man,” the famous photographic exhibition, Barthes finds perhaps his most profound case study for mythology. The controversial exhibition depicted the lives of men and women from around the world, at first asserting the mythologies of exoticism: “diversity in skins, skulls, and customs are made manifest, the image of Babel is complacently projected over the world.” The exhibition proceeds, however, to transform this pluralism into depictions of an unprecedented global narrative: “man is born, works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way,” which constructs or taps into the mythology of a basic human nature. Barthes argues that these mythologies are in fact dangerous, that to exalt a “lyricism” of the so-called facts of life (birth, death) is to suppress the facts of history (conflict, injustice) and that this comforting common myth of humanity merely makes “the gestures of man look eternal the better to defuse them.” (Italics mine.) In this mythical analysis, the signs are these depictions of humanity, and the “signifcation” (as Barthes calls the third term, or sum total of myth) is nothing less than Nature itself.
Throughout Barthes’ essay, the sinister applications of myth are only slyly implied, and yet these moments reveal the Marxist, anti-bourgeois sentiment of the author. Myth is essentially a way of reinforcing the status quo, of giving “the immobility of the world the alibi of ‘wisdom.’” From the first, when myth is purported not only to help us understand but to “impose” that understanding, to the last, where, in criticizing the The Family of Man, Barthes argues for a more Marxist material history (that we should learn about “historified work” instead of an “eternal aesthetics”) Barthes reveals his politics. At times with wry wit, as when he notes at the end of his discourse on laundry detergent that one company actually owns all the various soaps which appear to be in competition with each other; and finally with poignant clarity, as he argues that the mythology of death encourages us to forget “that there is still so much we can do to fight it” — Barthes implies that the global language of myth is itself only “the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part” — A greater system that perhaps serves only to reinforce itself, immobilizing society and inoculating against revolution.