I have recently been completely fascinated by Roland Barthes. I was reading his biography during winter break before I had my gallbladder removed and spent the next few weeks in pain and trying to figure out what to eat. Though I think a hospital is a nice introduction to Barthes and Mythologies. Why do we trust a doctor in scrubs and a white lab coat? Barthes and Saussure have the answer. It is this relevancy, as well as Barthes being one of the first thinkers to make the leap from structuralism to poststructuralism (as is better illustrated, I believe in “Death of the Author” which we will read later), that fascinates me so much.

In this selection, Barthes takes political photography for his analysis. He outlines the manner in which photography captures a signification; it is through photographs that a candidate can, not show his audience his plans for office, but show the audience who he is,

“What is transmitted through the photograph of the candidate are not his plans, but his deep motives[…] all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example and the bait” (1320).

Barthes is explaining how photography manipulates the sign system that Saussure outlines. Saussure points out how signifiers (the sound image, specifically, let’s say– the letters) are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds (the actual concept out in the world). The way that we know what a signifier means is only through society. There is no inherent value, there is nothing concrete that says the letters c.a.t. have any actual relation to the furry little domesticated animal out in the world, other than society’s agreement that it does; hence, “The relation between the signifier and the signified is “arbitrary,” not “motivated” (by natural resemblance)” then later, “the sign is a convention that has to be learned and is not subject to individual will.”

What is wonderful about Barthes is the way he explores these concepts and takes them further. Barthes, more than being a semiologist that makes the move to postmodernism, is an acute analyzer of society. In Barthes there is the beginning of the move from hermeneutics (what does something mean) to semiology (how does something mean).

The way things mean has to do with the cultural context, and photography has the ability to capture cultures attitudes (this still goes on in political campaigns today; all we have to do is remember how much press Obama got for not wearing his flag pin). Photography offers not just the cultural context that the candidate is trying to capture, photography offers this context in a “pure” way, “a photograph is a mirror, what we are asked to read is the familiar, the known; it offers to the voter his own likeness, but clarified, exalted, superbly elevated into a type” (1320). The photograph offers up a mirror of ourselves as we wish to be, and shows us the candidate to us as ourselves–how many times do we hear during an election, “He is the sort of person you can sit and have a beer with” ?

Furthermore, there is an underlying Marxist critique going on in this analysis. The audience exposed to these pictures (we can extend this today to FoxNews) relate to them in some way: “Photography constitutes here a veritable blackmail by means of moral values,” so society votes for posters that promise change, but don’t really know what the change is, and hence Marx’s definition of ideology, “They do not know, but they are doing it.” Photography also becomes a fetish object in that it holds a power that we assign it “magically.” This is why Barthes is so great; because we should all be aware of the ideology around us everyday, and the best way to be aware of it is to realize how it means by way of Barthes’s analysis. By realizing that all these things we take as natural are really just mythologies.

Advertisements