postFriday, 14 March 2008

Who the Hell is: Roland Barthes

Roland_Barthes_smallWas Roland Barthes simply a guy who smoked cigarettes and looked non-chalant? Find out here.


The Just: Roland Barthes was a sickly Frenchman. While some would probably use the term sick to refer to his sexual or religious orientation the word is used here quite literally. Barthes suffered from bouts of poor health throughout his life. Which prevented him from being part of the more prestigious academic institutions of French academic life but also meant he could skip out on the draft during World War 2.

Born on November 12, 1915 Barthes lost his father to an act of man (a naval battle during WWI) at the age of one. Without a father figure Barthes was raised solely by his mother, Bill O’Reilly would probably argue that this turned him gay. His mother would prove to be the one true great love of his life as Barthes proved to be a tragic lover generally falling in love with the 'wrong' man. Or O'Reilly would argue, the wrong gender (If you haven't worked it out yet O'Reilly is homophobic).

Barthes would become most famous for a series of bimonthly articles he wrote for Les Lettres Nouvelles (those French and there crazy magazine names), these articles would latter be published in English in Mythologies and The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. These articles dissected the ideological beliefs of modern day culture in the most seemingly ordinary everyday aspects of life. For instance kids toys teach kids to be part of society and stripping is about avoiding nudity.

Barthes died tragically in 1980. While crossing a road after a party (probably drunk) he was hit by a laundry truck (yes a laundry truck). He died a month later on the 25 March 1980 in hospital after failing to recover from his injuries. Friends of his said he just didn't seem to have the will to live anymore since his mother died 3 years earlier – the laundry truck just sped up the process.

The Scandal: Apparently had a friends with benefits relationship with fellow French philosopher Michel Foucault. Barthes ended things because he was jealous of Foucault's promiscuity and their friendship never recovered.

Probably Not True: It is reported that whenever Barthes uttered the word “Shazam!” he would transform into a superhero and defend France from the criminally insane.

Key Concepts: The man had more ideas than a JFK conspiracy theorist. He had a theory for everything and unlike most academics he was his own worst critic constantly re-evaluating and adopting new theories whenever his older ones began to become popular.

No 1. Myth:

Before reading this you might want to brush up on the concept of the sign. Now the problem with the sign is that the whole concept is pretty neutral. So it doesn’t explain the whole idea of say propaganda or ideology.

That’s right ideology or a belief system. Obviously when people talk they transport their beliefs through language but this isn’t always done in the regular direct fashion. We use things like simile or metaphor and things take on different connotations.

Barthes’s purpose with myth was to dissect the underlying belief systems that were fused into everyday life (rather than just claiming it’s common sense). Yeah, that’s right common sense is lame.

So what we think is common sense is in fact a myth – or an element of culture that makes itself appear natural when in fact it has a historical origin based on an ideology. For instance for years scientists made claims that the left side of men’s brains were more developed, while for women it was the right side. This enforced the whole notion of men being logical and rational, while women were intuitive. However, now that ideologies of gender equality are becoming more and more prominent scientists are finding that there is no difference between the development of men and women’s brains. Ola.

Barthes read cultural practices searching for these hidden ideologies by investigating that which he called “falsely obvious”. The only problem is that in investigating an object which myth works through, the object does not cease to be that object, thus making the whole process seem more concrete. For example in No Country for Old Men Chigurh’s coin represents fate or destiny but it does not cease being a coin.

Barthes expands the sign to explain this. There is a signifier and a signified that combine to make a sign – this is a first order system. But then myth hijacks this sign by turning the first order sign into a signifier of another sign. So myth is a second order system. Basically think of a step and then add another step onto it. The second step depends on the first.

Barthes uses the terms denotation and connotation to explain this. Denotation refers to the first order meaning and connotation refers to the second order meaning. Thus, Chigurh’s coin denotatively represents a coin but the connotation of it is fate.

In Short:

  • Signs can have layers of meaning
  • Myth is a sign that is built on another sign
  • Denotation refers to the first order sign
  • Connotation refers to the second order sign

More ideas coming soon...



Really interesting article and analysis. Your discussion about myth and ideologies reminds me of the part in Dogma when Chris Rock's disciple character says that it's better to have an idea rather than a belief because ideas can always be changed, while people kill and die over beliefs...

Rob Scott said...

Dogma what a great movie, I must watch it again. Having beliefs only makes you look like an idiot, even if it is only long after you're dead. Rather stick to ideas and be less dogmatic about everything.

Anonymous said...

typo: their not there

Anonymous said...

(those French and there crazy magazine names)

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