Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was concerned with the critical analysis of literature, famous for his pronouncement of “the death of the author”, which is also “the birth of the reader”. Just as Nietzsche argued that life, self and meaning are open matters of interpretation, Barthes argued that texts can be read in any variety of ways, without fixture of its meaning by the author, the text’s authority. As we read a text, we are not only connecting it to our personal life experience and within our cultural and ideological frame, but we are also critical of the author, reinterpreting their work in light of what we glean about them from the text.
Like Foucault, Barthes was a critic of the idea of “the natural”. Barthes saw in his own day older religious pronouncements about what is “natural” being replaced by political and scientific claims about the “natural”, as well as countercultural calls to return to the “natural” from the modern. Barthes argued that there are no natural pure states, but networks of signification that can be revealed as historical processes and cultural practices. Barthes examined “texts” such as advertisements for clothes and food products, noting that certain fashions were meant to signify luxury, happiness or freedom and certain food products meant to signify health, decadence or satisfaction. Barthes’ book Mythologies (1957) is a short set of critical essays focusing on modern day production of mythology and meaning. In the first essay, The World of Wrestling, Barthes argues that wrestlers, not athletes but the entertainers derived from Mexican luchadores, are personifications of good and evil, and each wrestling match is a “spectacle of excess”. The crowd wants purified, mythologized justice, and they would rather watch a wrestling match or a detective show than an actual court trial involving a real crime. The symbolic crime and punishment satisfies the displaced need for justice that is not purely obtainable in society.
In my favorite essay, Operation Margarine, Barthes compares a margarine commercial to propaganda for the French military and colonialism. Very much like a wrestling match, in which the bad guy cheats and seems victorious, only to be bested by the good guy, successful propaganda often puts criticized faults on display, and then has the faulty triumphantly rise over its faults. The Established Order (Barthes’ capitalization, what the Frankfurt School called the Establishment, the powers that be) admits to being flawed, but argues that only it can save us all from these flaws.
Barthes is critical of American movies in which the main character, a likable guy with whom the viewer can identify, joins the army or police, rebels against its conformity, but then, against a greater evil, leads it to victory in the name of good. Only the army can protect us from destruction and war, thus the need for slight confession followed by grand redemption. Barthes compares this to a margarine commercial, in which one housewife is appalled that another has made a mousse, not with butter, but with margarine, a new product at the time which was trying to gain household acceptance. The second housewife replies, “Here, try it!”, and the first says, “Wow, that is good!”, clearly rid of her old irrational prejudice, wealthier and wiser for using a cheaper product.
In the final essay, Myth Today, Barthes lays out his theory of modern mythology after summarizing the Semiology of Saussure. For Barthes, much of the meaning that is circulated in modern times is ideology which can serve as a mask for social contradictions, much as Rousseau wrote that polite society is a mask that conceals brutality and oppression. As a left leaning intellectual, Barthes was particularly concerned with nationalist messages of peace, freedom and equality that conceal class conflicts and colonial domination. The famous example is Barthes’ scornful analysis of the cover of an issue of Paris Match, a French equivalent of Newsweek or Time magazine, that he found in a barbershop. Barthes argues that it is clearly propaganda for French colonialism, the young black soldier’s salute signifying not only loyalty to France, but that the French government and military are loved and supported by Africans, that “all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag”. The boy’s loyalty signifies the faithfulness of France to liberty, equality and community, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”, the national motto.