Roland Barthes’ Concept of Mythologies

Differing from the Saussurean view that the connection between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, Barthes argued that this connection, which is an act of signification, is the result of collective contract, and over a period of time, the connection becomes naturalised. In Mythologies (1957) Barthes undertook an ideological critique of various products of mass bourgeoise culture such as soap, advertisement, images of Rome, in an attempt to discover the “universal” nature behind this. Barthes considers myth as a mode of signification, a language that takes over reality. The structure of myth repeats the tridimensional pattern, in that myth is a second order signifying system with the sign of the first order signifying system as its signifier.

roland-barthes-4-638.jpgMyth is a type of speech defined more by its intention than its literal sense. Myth also has the character of making “itself look neutral and innocent” —it “naturalises the concept and transforms history into nature’. It deforms and dehistoricises the original connection between the signifier and the signified. The function of myth is to ’empty reality”, to establish a world “without depth” and to naturalise history. Thus the bourgeoise presents its own ideas and interests as those of the nation, or as universal.

Barthes illustrates the working of myth with the image of a young negro soldier saluting the French flag, that appeared on the cover of a Parisian magazine — where the denotation is that the French are militaristic, and the second order signification being that France is a great empire, and all her sons, irrespective of colour discrimination faithfully serve under her flag, and that all allegations of colonialism are false. Thus denotations serve the purpose of ideology, in naturalising all forms of oppression into what people think of as “common sense”. The most significant aspect of Barthes’ account of myth is his equation of the process of myth making with the process of bourgeoise ideologies.


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  1. Roland Barthes as a Cultural Theorist – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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