On Barthes, pop culture as mythology and the rise of cultural criticism

Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one. (Foucault was the tough one, Derrida was the dreamy one, Lacan was the mysterious one — I like to imagine them sometimes as a black-turtlenecked, clove-smoking boy band called Hors de Texte, with the hit album “Discipline ’n’ Punish.”) Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he calledjouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment. He proclaimed the death of the author and advocated a style of reading he referred to as “writerly,” in which readers work as active creators of a text. His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy. (Barthes first rose to prominence, or notoriety, thanks to the furor surrounding his early book about Racine.) In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.

The most reliable and user-friendly source of Barthes’s special variety of fun — the bouillon cube, if you will, of his critical flavor — is his early book “Mythologies,” originally published in 1957. In it, Barthes basically invented what we think of as cultural criticism: he was the first really first-rate intellectual to tell us what our most mundane pop culture actually means…

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths. He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk. He wrote an essay about Greta Garbo’s face. (“The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”) He wrote an essay about Billy Graham, who had come to preach in Paris. (“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

…The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning. “In a single day,” Barthes writes toward the end of the book, “how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.” (He was the Walt Whitman of critical theory.)

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

This also suggests, however, one of the major differences between postmillennial America and 1950s France. Barthes was writing at the dawn of what we think of as mass culture: a time when the average citizen’s relationship to images was changing rapidly, when the texts people shared were suddenly not just religious or civic or local but global: a common set of images drawn from commercial entertainment.

The dawn of that kind of culture has obviously long since passed. We now live at least in its late afternoon, possibly even its twilight. The Internet, notoriously, came along and broke the old model’s kneecaps. Instead of just passively absorbing a series of broadcasts from Planet Media, consumers today participate directly in the creation of culture.

To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.

My favorite moments in the book are those in which Barthes seems moved by, and invested in, the culture he discusses: when he writes, for instance, about professional wrestling as a spectacle of justice, and seems to be defending it against reflexive and shallow criticism. In Barthes’s posthumously published book “Mourning Diary” — a collection of the notes he made after the death of his mother in 1977, 20 years after “Mythologies” — there is an especially poignant moment. Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

–Sam Andersen, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap

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