Lecture 11: History Writing in the 1960s and 1970s and the ‘linguistic turn’

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Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

French theorist and semiotisn theatre and literature critic, and populariser of cultural studies who worked and wrote at the same time as the scholars of the Annales school (Ferdinand Braudel). He was first a structuralist, so an admirer of Saussure’s ideas, but then in the 1970s moved into what became called poststructuralism. The article you’ve read is an article of the time inbetween (I’ll come back to that). His most famous work was in the 1950s when he published a magazine articles deconstructing icons of popular culture.

Let me just briefly go into Mythology a bit which is a thoroughly structuralist book:

1st part is a collecting of often very funny short article about a modern ‘ myth’. They are short and fun to read I’ll give you some of the titles: Soap-power and detergent (on the occasion of the first world congress of Detergent that was held in Paris in 1954) or Novels and Children (an acid attack on the women’s magazine Elle ); Steak and Chips, Striptease (the commodisation of nakedness and sex), Plastic, the New Citroen, The brain of Einstein, wrestler.

In the second half of the book Barthes addresses the question of "What is a myth, today?" with the analysis of ideas such as: myth as a type of speech, and myth on the wings of politics. So, what he does here is to develop Saussure’s theory further – and politicize it – by moving it from mere language ot the study of cultural objects. What he hopes to do with this new methodology is to be able to decode these myth – and by decoding them make them useless.

What drove him to analyse those he says himself:

The starting point of these reflections was ususally a feeling of impatience at the sights of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspaper, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtly debermined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abouse which, in my view is hidden there. (mythologies, 11)
What did he aimed to do with such an idea was ultimately political:
Barthes used Saussures ideas to explain the dominance and durability of bourgeois imperialist-culture. Like many left-wing and Marxist ¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">intellectuals ( such as Antonio Gramsci in Italy ), Barthes believed that the class struggle was being won by the elites not ¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">only because of economic or political oppression, but also by cultural power. ¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">Whilst Gramsci explained this through concepts of 'social control' and 'cultural hegemony' (through control of the churches, leisure and education), Barthes argued that ¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">an oppressive ideology was normalised in society by silent sign systems in everyday popular culture – through myth. But from this, he turned to show how to analyse popular culture for embedded silent signs and their meanings; he aims at deconding these mythical systems, to lay bare their structure and to demystify them – and capitalistic culture with this decoding. This made Barthes an originator of the stud y of popular culture.
¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">One of the best examples of his work is an analysis of a popular wrestling match - the professional version, which many people see as 'staged' , fixed and a sham. Wresting he shows is a performance with an elaborate set of codes. It is a language with its own meanings. Each sign means something else!
¿Tæ†ÒË, serif">So, Barthes argues and extends Saussure here that we have more going on than just the signifier – signified relationship. He arguest hat each sign is also realted to a bigger sign system that transends the signifier-signified relation described by Saussure. In fact, so Barthes argues, every sign belongs within a bigger myth. The ‘myth’ is not necessarily untrue – therefore the name myth -- but is an accepted part of culture. This makes language work. Everybody in a culture understands nor just the sign but also the myth to which it belongs. The sign already exists - it is not new - in a pre-existing sign system. Barthes showed that signs and sign systems were embedded codes with normative meanings. Barthes called all of this 'the semiological system', and the study of the hidden meanings he called 'semiology'.

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