‘Mythologies’: a 60th anniversary invitation

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

‘Small mythologies of the month’

In 1957, the French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) published Mythologies (Seuil, 1957), his most influential book, and perhaps one of the best-known books written by a 20th century French thinker. The book is, in fact, a collection of fifty-three essays that Barthes had, for the most part, published regularly in the journal Les Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1956 under the title ‘Petite mythologie du mois‘ (‘small mythology of the month’). In addition to the individual essays, the book included a lengthy afterword that was meant to elucidate the theoretical vision that had informed all the foregoing texts.

The essays themselves dealt with a wealth of phenomena of modern life ranging from advertising, consumption, and mass media to cinema, sports, and popular culture. Barthes’s main claim in these short vignettes was that the phenomena that the essays dealt with were generally imposed on us in a ‘mythological’ manner. The typical characteristic of such modern myths, so Barthes explained, was that they explained something with a deceptive self-evident ‘naturalness’ that rid the individual phenomenon of any inherent richness of meaning. We are in the realm of myth as soon as we are tempted to reduce something to the simplicity of proverbial conciseness: ‘That’s just how x-or-y is.’

The social and historical context in which the essays were written also gave them a very particular flavour. The politics of the Fourth Republic was dotted by recurrent cabinet crises, and the period was also affected by the painful decline of the French colonial empire. In that context, Barthes is an explicit and relentless critic of middle-class and lower middle-class positions and values. As language, myth is both ahistorical and depoliticised. Hence ‘natural’. The political tone of Barthes’s ‘semioclasm’, as he will later call his analyses, is easily audible in, for example, the following well-known passage about French colonial imperialism:

‘In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.’

‘New mythologies’?

This blog symposium marks the 60th anniversary of the original publication of Mythologies. Ten years ago, a group of French authors and scholars came together under Jérôme Garcin to publish an edited volume called Nouvelles mythologies (Seuil, 2007). These ‘new mythologies’ were meant to revisit Barthes’s original idea of ‘everyday myths’, as the German edition calls his mythologies, half a century after the publication of the original book.

But in ten years the world around us has changed so much that whatever may have looked like a witty update in 2007 hardly seems relevant anymore. The mythological character of, for example, the mobile phone, Google or the euro no longer seems to capture what is essential about our contemporary existence.

So what are the ‘new mythologies’ of our ‘post-truth’ world? Are they different? Or are we still dealing with the same themes that Barthes identified as meaningful? What form do myths take in an openly anti-intellectual environment? Are mythological analyses and semioclasm even possible anymore? Or are today’s myths too politically resistant, like the MDR microbes that have become such a menacing part of our everyday lives?

Consider this an invitation to wonder about these and other related questions in the spirit of Barthes’s book.

The blog symposium

This site will hopefully offer a forum for a variety of analyses from a variety of ‘new mythologists’. There are no proper deadlines. So accepted entries will be posted over the year as they come.

You may either submit an original piece, or provide a short abstract for a piece that you have published elsewhere (e.g. an article, an entry on a blog site of your own) in which case a URL link should also be provided. Original pieces can be essays proper à la Barthes, or you may write in a more academic style (in which case cite, if applicable, using MLA). Length is, again, mainly up to you, but as these are blog entries, a recommended maximum length would be 3.000 words. Please send your entries through the blog entry submission form. Unfortunately, due to the personal limitations of the ‘site manager’, we can only control the quality of English language entries for now. But we are looking into the possibilities of a more polyglot symposium.