Why is the Church like margarine?
This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but is actually one of the questions addressed in Roland Barthes' Mythologies, which first appeared in 1957. Inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure's proposition that meaning is culturally determined and that the discipline of semiology would one day exist, Barthes examines how a range of everyday objects, values and rituals signify in French culture. The subject matter shifts considerably from chapter to chapter: food, hairstyles, horoscopes, detergents, Martians, religion, toys, photography, plastic and advertising are among the many targets. But through the eclecticism rings a repeated denunciation of "myth", or the transformation of the historically specific values of the ruling class into naturalised, eternal, universal truths. "I resented", Barthes wrote, "seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there."
Unlike Barthes' two earlier volumes, Mythologies was an immediate critical and commercial success. In July 1957, for instance, French magazine L'Express crowned it the "holiday book choice", and it missed winning the Sainte-Beuve Prize by just two votes. Even the mythmakers were seduced: the head of research at the Publicis advertising agency invited Barthes to speak to his colleagues, began a doctorate on the semiology of advertising, and hired the author to analyse the marketing strategies of the Renault car company.
Although Barthes often dismissed Mythologies in his more mature work, it remains his most influential book. Its force has been felt across and beyond the humanities, both in the development of disciplines such as cultural studies and in the work of critics such as Umberto Eco, Marjorie Garber and Jean Baudrillard. Contemporary newspaper and magazine columns, meanwhile, regularly critique consumer society in tones that recall Mythologies, most of whose chapters, appropriately, first appeared as pieces of journalism between 1952 and 1956. (Barthes slightly confuses the dates in the book's preface.)
It was journalism, in fact, that led me to Mythologies. While an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I discovered The Modern Review, a magazine that analysed "low culture for highbrows" by setting Roland Barthes alongside Bart Simpson. I was an expert on the work of Bart, but knew nothing about Barthes, so I read Mythologies and was instantly enchanted. Inspired, a friend and I launched a column in the university magazine, in which we preciously punctured the myths of our moment. (When Western capitalism somehow survived, he became a journalist and I resigned myself to a myth-filled life of "impact" and "knowledge transfer".)
Re-reading Mythologies while working on the expanded English edition last year brought home to me why the text is still relevant: while much separates the 1950s from the present, Western culture remains riddled with appeals to "common sense" and "human nature". Myth endures. But a euphoric alternative rages in Mythologies.