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How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap
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 called jouissance: 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. For decades, however, only part of “Mythologies” was available in English. Its recent rerelease in a new and (for the first time) complete translation gives us an excuse not only to reread the book but also to consider some of the larger questions it raises, nearly 60 years later, for those of us still swimming through pop culture, and in particular for those of us who consider ourselves critics of that culture, which, these days, seems to be just about everyone.
“Mythologies” is, characteristically, less a unified whole than a collection of parts: 53 short essays that Barthes wrote for a literary journal under the rubric “Mythology of the Month.” The column was Barthes’s way of dealing with the explosion of mass culture in the decade after World War II — the rise to omnipresence of a hypercommodified cluster of media (magazines, film, radio, television) that was shaping everyone’s lives on the deepest possible level, like a new form of psychological gravity. In his modest (and non-Newtonian) way, Barthes set out to be mass culture’s Newton: to identify the laws of its behavior, test its stresses, reveal the invisible boundaries of its influence.
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.”)
Barthes wasn’t the only one writing in the 1950s about this kind of cultural trivia. John Updike’s tenure as a staff writer for The New Yorker, for instance, where he wrote mock-anthropologically about pigeons and pedestrians’ faces, coincided almost exactly with Barthes’s “Mythology” columns. But Barthes’s tone was unique: a detached theoretical rigor that came out in aphorisms, the best of which made it seem as if you were understanding familiar things (the luxuriousness of foam, the significance of a monk’s haircut) for the very first time.
Many of Barthes’s insights apply just as powerfully to contemporary culture as they did to postwar France. Here he is, for instance, analyzing the species of campaign photo — still popular today — in which politicians stare off into the distance: “The gaze is lost nobly in the future, it does not confront, it soars and fertilizes some other domain, which is chastely left undefined. Almost all three-quarter-face photos are ascensional, the face is lifted toward a supernatural light, which draws it up and elevates it to the realm of a higher humanity; the candidate reaches the Olympus of elevated feelings, where all political contradictions are solved.” I find this impossible to read without thinking of Obama, Romney, Palin, Sarkozy, Che Guevara and, of course, Stephen Colbert.
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.
A culture critic is, by definition, betwixt and between: not a regular consumer of culture and yet someone immersed deeply enough in it to appreciate its inner mechanisms. Barthes wrote about mass culture, most often, as a radical outsider. This is a major source of the power of “Mythologies.” He was a marginal figure in the French intellectual scene, writing in a literary journal not for consumers of mass culture but for other intellectuals. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of “Mythologies” is Barthes’s contempt for the petite bourgeoisie, the target audience of the culture he’s dissecting. (The “essential enemy,” he writes, is “the bourgeois norm.”)
“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
It’s hard to imagine many critics today plausibly positioning themselves outside pop culture to the extent that Barthes did. Mass culture has grown and evolved; it has become more fully “naturalized” and therefore further resistant to critique, even as cultural criticism flourishes. And our criticism comes much more often from deep inside the culture, with the dominant attitude being acceptance, if not outright affection.
This raises the question of what this intermingling does to the authority of our criticism — whether it deepens or weakens our force, makes us more qualified to interpret or just reduces us to bit players in the great capitalist theater of mass culture. I keep imagining the questions Barthes might have asked about criticism today. Isn’t even a negative review that falls within the promotional cycle of a film or TV series essentially an endorsement of that thing as a valid product — a tacit advertisement for it? Does writing for a magazine or a Web site dominated by ads make the critic an extension of those ads — in essence, an advertisement for the ads?
For a book devoted almost entirely to 60-year-old pop culture, “Mythologies” feels surprisingly relevant today. Yet the parts that strike me as most dated — and least Barthesian — are the eruptions of blistering Marxist scorn, when Barthes dismisses the petite bourgeoisie and its culture as “infantile.” (This, I freely admit, could be because of my compromised position as a 21st-century bourgeois.)
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.