In 1957 Roland Barthes published 54 essays under the title Mythologies. The first 53 were magazine pieces he had written between 1954 and 1956 about wrestling matches, burlesque shows, ads for cars and detergents, advice columns, celebrity marriages and other topics drawn from French popular culture. The final, much longer essay, “Myth Today,” was an after the fact exposition of the ideas which informed the writing of the original essays.
Readers of the magazine pieces could have easily deduced that Barthes was an intellectual with a political agenda. He compared wrestlers to characters from the Commedia dell’Arte and gleefully mocked the pretensions of the petite bourgeoisie at every opportunity. What they could not have known then was that Barthes had been practicing a new kind of cultural critique.
In “Myth Today” he announced:
. . . mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure postulated some forty years ago under the name of semiology. Semiology has not yet come into being. But since Saussure himself, and sometimes independently of him, a whole section of contemporary research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning: psychoanalysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new types of literary criticism . . . are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance (219-220).
Then, having so abruptly abandoned “facts” and thrown his readers into the vortex of esoteric theory, Barthes conjures up a cryptic chart illustrating his central paradigm:
It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, the language (or the modes of representations which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call the metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first.
In other words, myth is just the language we use to talk about what we are talking about.
Today, of course, Barthes’s semiotic paradigm is old hat. It has been taught in thousands of undergraduate courses and even filtered down into the high school curriculum . You can watch hours of semiotic video on YouTube made by professors, students, and advertising gurus. A quick search on Google NGram viewer reveals that use of the word peaked in 1994.
Why then return to “Myth Today” to write yet more semiotic essays?
- because the Antarctic ice shelf is slowly sliding into the sea;
- because we have deciphered the signature of the origin our piece of the multiverse;
- because we need to explain ourselves to those who come after;
- because we know better now than we did then;
- because love has always already torn us apart again;
- because myth still reaches down to steal our speech;
- because we are not dead yet.