Tuesday, February 08, 2011


In Mythologies, Roland Barthes takes up the challenge posed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics: to elaborate "semiology" as what Saussure terms "a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life" (15). Or to put this another way: Barthes takes the world around him as a social text, which can be read more or less like any other and in which the elements that compose it are almost as arbitrary as any other.

But the social text is only almost as arbitrary as any other; for Barthes, we also need "to pass from semiology to ideology" (128), that is, to recognize that the myths that structure the text of everyday life are politically motivated. To adapt a line from Marx: the ruling myths of each age have ever been the myths of its ruling class. There is therefore often a rather complex play between arbitrariness on one level and necessity (or, at least, political motivation) on another.

Wine is a perfect instance of this combination of extreme malleability and narrow determination. As Barthes observes, in France wine "supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions" (58). For example, "in cold weather it is associated with all the myths of being warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling" (60). Indeed, Barthes notes that the fundamental characteristic of wine as a signifier is less any particular content or signified to which it is attached than that it seems to effect a function of conversion or reversal, "extracting from objects their opposites--for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative" (58). And yet however much Barthes makes hay of this chain of associations and contradictions, there is a point at which the arbitrary play of significations ends. For wine is still, fundamentally, a commodity; in fact, it is big business. The analysis therefore concludes with a sort of determination in the last instance by the economy:
There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation. (61)
Hence for this reason, if no other, Barthes is far from suggesting some kind of interpretative free play: there is clearly a right way to read the myth of wine, and a wrong way; if we leave out the fact of expropriation, we have ultimately not understood the myth or its social function.

Elsewhere the moment at which interpretation comes to an end is rather more complex, and perhaps more interesting. Take the essay on "Toys." This is basically a critique of realism. Let us be clear: the problem with conventional French toys, Barthes argues, is not so much that they are gender-stereotyped, that for instance girls are to play with dolls and boys are given toy soldiers. It is, rather, that toys are almost always loaded with meaning: "French toys >always mean something, and this something is almost always entirely socialized" (53).

Toys constitute, in other words, what Barthes elsewhere terms a "work" in contradistinction to a "text"; they limit the range of uses to which they can be put. Indeed, they limit children's activity and expectation of the world to one predicated on use, rather than pleasure; on interpretation, rather than creation. And for Barthes use and meaning are both forms of tyranny, and they are both essentially dead. As he says of modern toys that are "chemical in substance and colour," they "die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child" (55).

What's curious, however, is the reading that Barthes provides, by contrast, of wooden blocks. Such toys are closer to a text than a work: they have no pre-set meaning; they are not premised upon representation, and so do not depend upon interpretation; the child who plays with them "creates life, not property" (54). So far, so good. But the strange moment comes when Barthes associates the open textuality facilitated by such open-ended play with wood. In a sort of poetic reverie, he praises the many characteristics of a substance that is "an ideal material because of its firmness and softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal" (54).

It's not obvious, after all, that wood is any more "natural" (or indeed, any less "chemical") than metal. Here, the point at which the play of signification stops depends less upon a political analysis of exploitation and expropriation, and rather more on a very familiar contrast between nature and industry, tradition and modernity. In short, here at least Barthes seems to be caught in a myth that he has merely made his own.


posthegemony said...

[This was emailed to me by my friend Jeremy Lane:]

Hi Jon,
Can’t seem to get your ‘comments’ function to work. However, as regards Barthes on wood and what you call his ‘poetic reverie’: whether by accident or design, you’ve stumbled on a truth here inasmuch as Barthes’s essay on toys was heavily indebted to (it comes close to plagiarism) Gaston Bachelard’s work on poetic imagery and poetic reverie. Indeed, all of Barthes’s supposedly semiological readings of contemporary life and advertising images were greatly indebted to Bachelard’s phenomenological studies of the poetic imagery of a number of elemental substances – earth, fire, water, wine, wood etc.. Barthes’s emphasis on the apparently contradictory connotations of wine, also comes from Bachelard. The toys essay reprises all of Bachelard’s earlier points about toys’ capacity for fixing kids into their allotted social roles. During his analysis, Bachelard refers to Lacan’s first version of the essay on the mirror stage, which I think appeared in an Encyclopaedia of Psychology or Psychoanalysis before the war, so a direct link can be traced here which suggests profound affinities between Barthes’s –Mythologies- and Althusser’s later essay on ideological interpellation. Everything Barthes writes about wine, milk, washing powders, detergents etc, is hugely indebted to Bachelard’s poetics, in ways Barthes isn’t entirely open about. Bachelard’s original analysis of toys can be found in his –La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté- (Paris: José Corti, 1948), pp.23-30. (I guess this has been translated but don’t have the details to hand.)
Anyway, I’ve discussed most of this in the following article, which you might be interested in:
Jeremy Lane, ‘Towards a Poetics of Consumerism: Gaston Bachelard’s “material imagination” and narratives of post-war modernisation’, French Cultural Studies, vol.17, no.1,  February 2006, pp.19-34, ISSN 0957 1558 (200602)17:1;1-0

Sara said...

Very interesting to see this comment about Barthes' sources and inspirations.

Even so, I do think there is a difference between wooden toys and the "graceless material (of current toys), the product of chemistry, not of nature." Contrasting wooden and plastic toys (and it seems to be plastic, not metal,that he most objects to) is, yes, a little obvious, but does highlight his ideas about production, consumerism and ideological conformity. Particularly in light of:

1) The apparent timelessness of wooden toys which keeps them always in, always out of fashion and therefore out of the compulsive, competitive consumerism attached to new designs.
2) The more basic style of wooden toys which means they are less prescriptive in terms of creating hierarchies of form and accepted aesthetics. They don't work towards pushing an image at us of something we should be aiming to copy or seek in our daily life.

Of course, I'm not sure that there is a major difference between wooden building blocks and plastic ones - except that the plastic ones will have a brand name and beg to be replaced once the new model comes out while the wooden ones will probably be tumbled into a box, splintering at the edges, passed down through the family, telling their own story. So maybe it's not just a nostalgia for the past...

posthegemony said...

Sara, I'm sure that there are differences between wooden and plastic toys, but I think that they are mainly (if not solely) "mythological," to appropriate Barthes's terminology.

And yes, what about Lego (or Meccano)?

Olga B. said...

<p>Take the essay on "Toys." This is basically a critique of realism.

I found this comparison (toys and art) interesting for two reasons:

A.- Toys like, lets say, literature are produced to sell. They're both commodities.

B.- They represent or attempt to recreate the real world and how it functions...but from a bourgeois perspective. They're maintaining the system alive by naturalizing the ideologies they perpetuate.
Therefore, if I understood well, toys and art (realism) are just some of the tools employed by myth-makers, correct?

Now, following this idea that literature, like toys, is perpetuating the dominant ideology, would you say that (some) literary theory(ies) allow/s us to see the roots of some of these bourgeois ideologies that have been appeared as innocent and perfectly natural, or would you say that even those theories developed to 'see' through social constructs play also the role of myth-makers? Who would we say play the mythologist role then?

posthegemony said...

Olga, indeed the point is for Barthes that one can read a wide variety of cultural artefacts, and reading toys (or wine or the Guide Bleu) is not all that different from reading a novel or a poem.  All are encompassed within a general science of semiology.  Again, this is one of the things he takes from Saussure.

Moreover, Barthes would definitely believe that semiology, and particularly the study of social mythologies that he is practicing and advocating in this book, enables us to see how (in his terms) history comes to appear natural, or how ideology structures the very fabric of our daily life.  This definitely goes for literature as much as for any other cultural production.

But note that he argues that there are different kinds of toys: plastic, representational toys on the one hand; and wooden, creative toys on the other.  My reference to realism is to point out that he treats the former like a realist text or what he elsewhere (in an essay included in the collection you have: "From Work to Text") calls a "work"; the building blocks, on the other hand, are more like a (modernist) "text."

Now, Barthes is consistently concerned also with showing that even the most realist works ultimately can be read as though they, too, were texts.  This involves, among other things, overthrowing the tyranny of the author and recasting the role of the reader.

But still, for Barthes some artefacts are more obviously amenable to such readings than others.  My point here is merely to question somewhat the way in which, in this particular essay at least, he makes that distinction.