Read Chapter 4

Dana Polan on Roland Barthes

CITE AS: Polan, D (2016). Dana Polan on Roland Barthes. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 66 - 76). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 4
Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
During my junior-high and high-school years, I had had two leisure pursuits: amateur radio and moviegoing. In pursuing the latter, I could see from the films, which increasingly were coming to challenge both older proprieties (with new subject matter dealing with violence and sexuality, among other issues) and older storytelling norms, that something was going on with the art form that merited attention. It was, in fact, increasingly getting attention from critics who had to deal not only with common Hollywood fare but also with cutting-edge experimentation. But these critics didn’t seem so much to be studying cinema as responding to it intuitively, directly, and even viscerally. Pauline Kael, the standout critic who most seemed alive to new currents in movies, wrote bristling essays that were quickly collected into books with kinetic, physical, and dynamic titles like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968). She also notoriously attacked scholars like the émigré intellectual Siegfried Kracauer, who had dared—scandal of scandals, as Kael saw it—to offer up a full-length Theory of Film (1960).

 Not seeing how film could be an object of study, I didn’t imagine it as a career path for me (I wasn’t interested in production, just cinema appreciation), and my high school guidance counselor concurred, with the additional assumption that, in any case, film was too much a form of popular diversion or escapism to even be worthy of study had such study existed.{AU: Please consider clarifying the preceding sentence: If you didn’t even imagine, yourself, that film studies could be a career, what idea did the guidance counselor concur with?} Instead, she locked onto the fact that I also did amateur radio and suggested that, since it involved wires and vacuum tubes and the like, I should go into electrical engineering. Such were the arbitrary decisions that made many career paths in those days of guidance counseling in small-town America. I began a B.S. in engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York.

I made two discoveries pretty quickly. First, I had no aptitude for math, which you need a lot of to be an engineer. Second, RPI had two professors who taught film classes (they were not full-fledged cinema scholars but were branching into this hot new area from more traditional parts of the humanities), which suggested that somehow film could be studied. Of course, that fact, in itself, didn’t suggest how one prepared for film study or even how film study itself should proceed. Indeed, one of the two professors (whose name I’ve forgotten) did little in his course but show films and ask us about particular shots and how they were, to his mind, composed according to classic art precepts. We looked at balance and harmony in the frame and things like that, and while it all was no doubt useful in getting us to think of the visual aspects of cinema (whereas the tendency for the young student—still apparent today in our students—was to focus on plot and character), it didn’t go beyond simple appreciation of compositional design. I remember, for instance, wondering about the moving images that clearly made up films and how that dynamism might change the meanings we could attribute to static scenes. Although I now understood that one could teach cinema, I wasn’t yet convinced that this was the only way to do it. And even had I liked the art-history approach, it seemed to involve little more than just saying what you saw on the frozen screen before you, which didn’t seem very analytic. Although I wasn’t satisfied with the RPI professors’ approach, I didn’t understand, at the time, that humanistic study needs a method and principles, as well, to give that method purpose and reach.

At the beginning of the 1970s, when I transferred to Cornell University in search of a liberal arts education that would give grounding to my budding interest in cinema appreciation, it turned out that French theory, which at that point primarily meant structuralism and semiotics  with some beginning glimpses of the poststructuralism that would challenge the claims to objectivity of these methods, was all the rage in cutting-edge departments in the humanities. This was true even in disciplines that might have claimed a greater adhesion to social-science principles than those of the humanities. I remember, for instance, one session of Dominick La Capra’s course, Twentieth-Century Intellectual History (which met on Thursdays), when he breathlessly announced that the previous Tuesday he had started reading the just-published translation (in the French-inflected journal New Literary History) of Jacques Derrida’s “White Mythology” and wanted to talk about this important work a bit, although his first impressions were still inchoate. To be there as ideas seemed literally to be brewing before you was intensely inspiring for young scholars (and I’ve tried over the years to replay that breathless enthusiasm at first contact with great thoughts as I work with my own students).

My film study at Cornell came to entail not only extensive viewing but, in the energetic context of Cornell’s investment in French theory, intensive reading. (Reading was something I hadn’t really realized you needed for film appreciation; I assumed you watched the films and their resonant power announced itself to you directly, and it’s true that there was an energy and mix of viscerality and cerebrality to the films of the times that meant they often did seem to speak in direct fashion to the hip viewer.)
Structuralism and Mass Culture
Structuralism captured how diverse cultural productions shared regularities in their makeup (that is, in their underlying structure), whether it be Tzvetan Todorov on the codified pivotal moments in the literature of the fantastic, Vladimir Propp on the narrative consistencies in Russian folktale, or Umberto Eco on the basic formula for James Bond stories. Many of these texts were appearing in English translation at just the moment when I was beginning my study, so, even though I could read French, there was the excitement of the newly new, the immediately available, coming onto the scene with direct impact. Of the influential texts that I would characterize as structuralist, the most significant one wouldn’t have its translation until the 1980s, so I had to slog (and it often indeed was a slog) through its recondite, even dry French prose: this text was Système de la mode (The Fashion System) by Roland Barthes, which set out to establish some fundamentals of structuralist methodology by taking fashion slogans (i.e., the captions that accompanied fashion photos in popular magazines) and submitting them to extended analysis. Barthes examined how the captions commonly designated an object (say, a sweater) and a support for a variant (say, a collar which could either be wide or narrow or lacy or solid or whatever), and I’ve always thought his attempt to render the regularity of the structure by the abbreviation OSV (object/support/variant) offered resemblance to the basic structure of a sentence (SVO: subject/verb/object). In other words, it seemed to me that Barthes was suggesting that fashion statements were modeled on the more fundamental form of statement that is the linguistic utterance. For all its user-unfriendly dryness, Barthes’s argument that phenomena of everyday life other than direct linguistic communication—in this case, discourses of advertising in the world of fashion—were basic acts by which a society spoke to itself and spoke of its values struck me as exciting and still does.

Even more consequential for me, though, was another of Barthes’s books, which I encountered early on in my time at Cornell: Mythologies ([1957] 2012), a book that made him known to a wide part of the French public and made him an important public intellectual. Significantly, I came to read Barthes in one of the courses for the basic French language sequence: compared with usual suspects like Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, Mythologies was much more in keeping with the sense, at Cornell, that Theory was everywhere and could help you at everything.

 Bringing together most of a series of essayistic reflections that Barthes had been fashioning on a monthly basis for the journal Lettres Nouvelles (plus two pieces from other publications) on objects, phenomena, and key practices of contemporary mass culture, Mythologies stands as one of the first concerted modern attempts to attend closely to the concrete operations of mass culture as ideological practice. The volume gains additional value from a long theoretical postscript, “The Myth Today,” that Barthes penned in 1957 after he had concluded his series of little examinations of French everyday life. He appended the postscript to these examinations{AU: OK?} to seem to grant them the rigor of quasi-scientific method: although the analyses themselves tended to eschew jargon and high theoretical formulation for more journalistic commentary, “The Myth Today” claimed that underlying each of Barthes’s disquisitions on specific practices of mass culture was a grounding of analysis in that fairly new methodology known as semiology (the science of signs, here understood as the taking of mass cultural phenomena as so many loaded messages addressed to everyday citizens). Barthes had, in fact, been grappling with semiological theory from the end of the 1940s, when Claude Lévi-Strauss and A. J. Greimas had first recommended some key readings to him, and Mythologies certainly can give the impression of a gap between the essayistic mythological readings themselves and the more formal, even dogmatic theoretical framework offered up by “The Myth Today.”

Overall, it is the book’s combination of the very concrete and specific in its often harsh reflections on individual practices of mass culture and its appeal to a very modern theoretical apparatus that it claimed anchored those reflections in rigorous methodology that has made the book a canonic work of mass culture analysis. This combination pulled me to it immediately.
Close Reading
One of the most-famed mythological analyses, “The Great Family of Man,” which comes toward the end of Mythologies, can serve as a useful condensation of many of the operations and arguments that Barthes brings to bear on contemporary mass culture. Often singled out in studies on Barthes—rightfully so, since it does capture his ideological critique at its sharpest—the piece takes as its target a traveling exhibit by the American photographer Edward Steichen that originally bore the name The Family of Man but was retitled The Great Family of Men (la grande famille des hommes) when it came to Paris in 1956. The exhibit offered images of humans from around the globe, being birthed, laboring, sustaining themselves, loving each other, and dying.

In Barthes’s analysis, the exhibit’s intent is to deny specific human situations (for example, the differences in the ways diverse populations come into the world and live and die within it) for the sake of a generalization about a supposed universal human condition. In his sardonic summary of the exhibit’s ideology, “man is born, works, laughs and dies in the same fashion everywhere; and if in these actions some ethnic particularity subsists, there is now some understanding that there is deep inside each one of us an identical ‘nature,’ that their diversity is merely formal and does not belie the existence of a common matrix” ([1957] 2012, 196–197). The effects of this universalization are several. First, the human adventure (along with the very idea that there is one single such adventure) is rendered in sentimental terms (we all are born, we all die; that’s what human existence is all about). Second, by assuming we are all put on the earth in the same way and to the same ends, the exhibit can easily slide beyond mere sentiment toward religiosity—what Barthes terms a “pietistic intention” that readily imagines we are all here for one purpose: in Barthes’s words, “God is reintroduced into our Exhibition: the diversity of mankind proclaims his richness, his power; the unity of its actions demonstrates his will” (197).
            Finally, and most importantly, the assumption of a universal human condition—across time, across cultures—encourages passivity: if this is our fate, if this is our nature, then there is no reason to try to change things. But, as Barthes counters, even if we all are born, live, and die, we don’t always do so in equivalent ways, and we don’t necessarily have to do so in the ways that this or that society has tried to determine for us. As Barthes proclaims, “Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not he causes his mother suffering at birth, whether the child lives or dies, and, if he lives, whether he accedes to some sort of future—this, and not the eternal lyric of birth, should be the subject of our Exhibitions. And the same applies to death: Are we really to sing its essence once again and thereby risk forgetting that we can still do so much against it?” ([1957] 2012, 198). Thus, in a blunt example, Barthes cites the savage lynching at the hand of Southern white racists of the African American boy Emmett Till the year before the Family of Man exhibit came to Paris: yes, Till died, and we all will, but his early, horrific death had fully historical, fully social causalities behind it—ones that shouldn’t have existed in a society that declares itself democratic, ones that should no longer exist and that one might fight to make sure no longer exist.

The great resonance of Mythologies within the history of mass-culture study derives first of all from the sheer mass, the very diversity, of commodity practices that Barthes draws on from across a vast range of modern everyday life. To the extent that dominant ideology operates by means of the grafting a set of very specific (and circumscribed) values onto the objects and practices of the world, semiology becomes interlinked with ideology critique: the mythologist studies bourgeois acts of signification—especially in their internal workings in the construction of socially tendentious meanings—in all sort of things, from words and pictures to gadgets and gizmos to comestibles. As Barthes himself asserts, “The whole of France is steeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theater, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversation, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representations which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between the man and the world” ([1957] 2012, 252). That every practice of the social world could be read as ideological was a first attraction of Mythologies for a budding theorist like myself.

But Barthes continues, “It is through its ethic that the bourgeoisie pervades France: practiced on a national scale, bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order—the further the bourgeois class propagates its representations, the more naturalized it becomes” ([1957] 2012, 252), and here we see a second, consequential aspect of Barthes’s volume. It is not just that he analyzes lots of different phenomena from modern French life but that he incessantly brings them back to a common core: whether foods or cars or faces in mass periodicals, the objects of French middle-class life, when consumed, endlessly convey a common and circumscribed set of significations. Whatever the diversity of things that embody it, the dominant system of French values is an insistent, even overwhelming, repetition of the same (of the same values, that is, and of the same ideological operations).

Although Mythologies appeared more than a decade earlier than the famous argument by the French Marxist Louis Althusser (1971)—that ideology operates by means of an interpellation of social subjects, a hailing by which they are made to assume proper position in the dominant order of things—Barthes’s work anticipates Althusser’s in viewing mass culture as a set of insistent intentions that work effectively on social subjects in ways that are hard to resist. As Barthes puts it, “Myth has an imperative, buttonholing character. . . . It is I who it has come to seek. It has turned toward me, I am subjected to its intentional force, it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity. . . . [T]his interpellant speech is at the same time a frozen speech” ([1957] 2012, 234–235).

At this moment in his writerly trajectory, Barthes was very much inspired by a Marxist theory of alienation in which, under capitalism, the meaningfulness of human labor is taken away from the laborer to return to him or her in alienated form (for example, a separation of the worker from any real say in the making of the products of his or her labor or the uses to which they are to be put). Contrasting such capitalist alienation, Barthes asks the reader to imagine what he claims is the unalienated labor of a “woodcutter”: “If I am a woodcutter and I am led to name the tree I am felling, whatever the form of my sentence, I ‘speak’ the tree, I do not speak about it. This means that my language is operational, transitively linked to its object; between the tree and myself, there is nothing but my labor, that is to say, an action." (One inspiration for Barthes might be the famous encounter in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea of the existentially questioning protagonist-narrator Roquentin with a tree that comes to stand for him as ultimate fact of the primal, fundamental being of the world, beyond all sociality, beyond all humanly imposed meanings.)

Where I found Barthes’s targeting of the ideological operations of everyday culture eye-opening, I couldn’t help but find the idea of a realm supposedly outside ideology, like that of the woodcutter off in some idyllic communion with nature, quite troublesome. In Marxist terms, the claim here is that the woodcutter engages in a direct, unmediated, unalienated, and, therefore, authentic praxis. Needing to intervene directly in the world, the woodcutter, for Barthes, moves in a realm outside ideology. But we might well question whether such a realm of supposedly pure and pristine labor as the woodcutter’s exists, at least in any substantial, meaningful way after the mid-1950s. Perhaps there were such pure woodsmen here and there within the space of modernity, but the image seems out-of-date, mythicized in its own manner.

As became clear to me as I read more semiological theory, much of the problem in Barthes’s approach derived from the very semiological model that Barthes employed in the 1950s in Mythologies and into the 1960s; specifically, Barthes took from the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev an opposition between denotation as the literal, first meaning in a signification and connotation as new values added in particular situations to primary meaning and sending it in new directions. Barthes then grafted this opposition onto the theorization of ideology defined as the adding of tendentious, unnatural signification to a more primary, more primal relation to the natural. To take the most famous example from Mythologies, a photograph of a young black man in a French uniform saluting the flag appears on the cover of an issue of Paris-Match, which Barthes comes across in a barber shop. The photograph uses a first level of truth—insofar as he was photographed, it would seem true that this black man actually did salute the flag—to build up and shore up a tendentious, underlying message that goes something like “Being part of the imperial nation of France is natural, even for a colonized subject” ([1957] 2012, 225).

The conceptual (and political) problem here is not in the assumption that social connotations are always being added to existing significations but in the idea that the latter are somehow initially free of connotation and start out from some level of pure denotation. In the example of the young, saluting black man, Barthes wants to argue that there are meanings to this figure (for instance, the irreducible details of his life) that exist prior to his embodiment on the Paris-Match cover, some of which the cover needs to gloss over in order to do its ideological work. This glossing over is necessary, since if the viewer focuses too much on the details of the first level of meaning—for instance, on contingent details in the photo or wondering too much about those irreducible life details—it becomes harder for the image to abstract away from it to make generalizable ideological assertions. A photograph appears to capture more of the surface truth of the world than, say, a verbal phrase or a drawing, and that is both its power and its weakness when marshaled in the cause of broad arguments. But in using a before-after model (connotation builds on denotation and thus comes after it), Barthes risked the implication that there was a first realm that could have ever been free of social meanings, that somehow signified the world directly and not through context. Quite the contrary, the young black man certainly gains new social meanings when he is put on the cover of a mass-market periodical, but he already would have had social meanings in the contingency of his life: how he came into French imperiality and what that says about the life he has been able to lead is already social, through and through.
By the time Barthes had completed his book S/Z, at the beginning of the 1970s, he was still insisting on the theoretical value of the concept of connotation, as well he should have, but he was also beginning to reject the power of the concept of denotation, as well he also should have. As he now put it, “Denotation is not the first meaning but pretends to be so; . . . it is ultimately the last of connotations . . . , the superior myth by which the text pretends to return to the nature of language, the language of nature” ([1970] 1975, 7, 9). In other words, all meanings, all human acts, are social and contextual. There is no presocial meaning that would be literal and free of connotation.

I read S/Z in my senior year in a graduate seminar devoted just to it, and it soon became the decisive Barthes text for me. We might contrast the short and pithy readings Barthes enacts in Mythologies, finding the recurrent operations of bourgeois everywhere, to his slow-motion dissection of a single Balzac story over hundreds of pages in S/Z: there, Barthes uses close reading to capture Balzac’s text as caught between realism and modernism, between representation and its delirious breakdown, and between depiction of an older social order’s stability and the invocation of the new, unfixed social relations of an expansive capitalism geared to creative destruction. I had taken to heart Barthes’s insistent demonstration in Mythologies of the incessant operations of ideology in mass culture, but S/Z offered nuance, detail, a concern with contradiction, and a deeper sense of history (not all texts across time are ideological in the same way and to the same degree).

Roland Barthes has stayed with me as an inspiration (although I generally find his writings after S/Z up to his death in 1980 much less useful to the project of historical and ideological analysis that I continue to engage in). I’ve taught seminars on him over the years, and each time I see the spark that occurs when students engage with works like Mythologies and S/Z. But I also feel the spark anew myself, as I find myself learning again and remembering why Theory mattered—and continues to matter.
Althusser, L. 1971. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by B. Brewster, , 85–126. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Barthes, R. (1957) 2012. Mythologies. Translated by R. Howard and A. Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
———. (1970) 1975. S/Z. Translated by R. Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.
Kael, P. 1968. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Boston: Little, Brown.
Kracauer, S. 1960. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

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