Roland Barthes’ 1957 book Mythologies develops Ferdinand de Saussure’s system of semiology that words – or ‘signs’ – are comprised of a ‘signifier’ (physical form) and ‘signified’ (the concept it represents), and posits that there is in fact a further level of meaning, which Barthes refers to as ‘myth’. Barthes takes an already constituted sign, and turns it into another signifier, examining how it is received within particular societies, its final signified varying between cultural ideologies. In doing so, Barthes examines various social, historical and cultural narratives that affect how we perceive concepts and objects.
Mythologies looks at a range of phenomena, from steak and chips to wrestling, and while his work has been a crucial forerunner of cultural studies, it is arguable that some of these mythologies, laid out almost seventy years ago, are inevitably dated (for example, essays like ‘The New Citroën’ lose their immediacy to modern readers, who have to do some homework in order to fully grasp the cultural significance of the Citroën DS 19).
In his recent BBC Radio 4 series 21stCentury Mythologies, Peter Conrad applies Barthes’ formula to mythologies of the present day, showing the Barthes framework remains relevant. His 15 minute segments could be seen as a continuation of Barthes’ work another series of short essays that bring the book up to date though Conrad actually presents the series as a challenge to Barthes’ claim that ‘anything can be a Myth’, declaring that it would test this claim throughout its run.
The first 15 episodes are currently available on BBC iPlayer as a podcast, the scope of each immediately seeming to support Barthes’ argument: everything from small, specific objects such as E-cigarettes, to abstract cultural fascinations like the selfie.
What becomes apparent in these mythologies is the grand drama unfolding just below the surfaces of our humdrum, everyday lives. In ‘Nando’s’, Conrad sets up a reversed (reversal being a state that Barthes’ Myths always thirst for, he reminds us) semibiblical mythology. The plates of the restaurant chain are a “battleground”, where the chicken, a cultural symbol of life and rebirth, has to be tamed by the Devil himself in the guise of a red, fiery chilli marinade and a hellish flaming grill before it can be defeated.
Conrad is also clearly aware in the subtle shift in the meaning of the word ‘myth’ since Barthes’ time; through events like the War on Terror, it is now commonly associated with urban myths and conspiracy theories. As such, he devotes a few episodes to these more obvious types of myths exploring various theories about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in one episode, and suggesting how each fits established cultural narratives (like good vs. evil, the uprising of machinery and fear of flying), and why these provide us with satisfaction or terror. To tackle a much larger mythology, he fixes his focus upon the 9/11 attacks down to their memorial museum at Ground Zero, focusing on how curators have moulded their national tragedy into various narrative Myths in order to help Americans cope, understand, and move on from the attacks.
While 21stCentury Mythologies does give a reasonably wide spanning cross section of popular culture, it does not fully diverge from Barthes. Several of the episodes could easily be seen as modern analogues to the French theorist’s work ‘Oscar Pistorius’ looks at the hero/villain dichotomy of murder trials just like ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ does in Mythologies, adding the modern celebrity mythology into the mix, and the nature of beauty and celebrity worship itself is tackled both in Barthes’ ‘The Face of Garbo’ and Conrad’s ‘The Kardashians’, where the latter explicitly contrasts Greta Garbo’s snowlike complexion, admired for its delicacy, with Kim Kardashian’s inconceivable fame on the back of statements like “my makeup was like concrete yesterday!” to illuminate the way a Myth can change and invert itself over time.
‘The Kardashians’ overall provides what is probably the series’ most fascinating (and hilarious) analysis, going through the family’s selfdeclared ownership of the letter K (representing both Kelvin heat measurements and shorthand for ‘thousand’ or hot lust and lots of money) and Kim’s wedding to Kanye West, who said he just wanted to “do something awesome and change the world” a change, Conrad somewhat ironically suggests, that the world has indeed been powerless to resist.
For those interested in how Barthes’ work transfers into the present day, the first episode, ‘ScrewTop Wine Bottle’, contains fruitful contrast between Barthes’ mythologies of the ‘50s and ours today. He discusses the shifting state of Marxism and consumerism as key proponents of the differences; once, corked red wine embedded French people deeper into their own society, allowing them the myth of becoming “honorary peasants”. These mythologies have now progressed to a point where corked wine drinkers mark themselves as middleclass, and in modern society, through massproduction and capitalism, we are “all the bourgeois”, which presents further ramifications and mythologies still.
21stCentury Mythologies is a remarkably well-thought-out series, of great value to anybody interested in the cultural systems underpinning our society. Conrad is effective at making the series engaging, by explaining his educated references succinctly, and picking modern and relatable episode titles and examples. His discussions are driven with enthusiasm and humour enough to alleviate the deceptively dense content. On this note, the main criticism that could perhaps be levied is how short the episodes are – Conrad breezes through his examples rapidly, racing the clock to an extent, and touches briefly upon ideas that some listeners (I, for one, anyway) might like to be developed further. However, this may just be a matter of personal tastes. Or perhaps it can be viewed as encouragement to think more analytically about the world, and read into the likes of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Claude Lévi-Strauss.