Notes on and quotations from Roland Barthes


Lectures pour tous (Barthes on TV)

Elements of Semiology

Barthes, R. 1957 Mythologies Seuil: Paris 1957. Cover shows a picture of the "new Citroen" launched in October 1955

In French fifty-four articles written between 1952 and 1956, mainly for the left-wing magazine Les Lettres nouvelles. These were mostly from Barthe's small mythologies of the month series. The selected articles were followed by a retrospective theoretical article on myth today.

Selections were translated into English by Annette Lavers as Mythologies (Cape) in 1972.

Le monde où l'on catche [The World of Wrestling] appeared in Esprit in October 1952.

Jules César au cinéma was in Lettres nouvelles in January 1954. In Mythologies it was given the English title The Romans in Films

L'écrivain en vacances (The writer on holiday) was in France-Observateur 9.9.1954.

"Petite mythologie du mois" [Small mythologies of the month articles] in Lettres nouvelles

November 1954: - Martiens - La croisière du sang bleu [The 'Blue Blood' Cruise] - Critique muette et aveugle [Blind and Dumb Criticism] - Saponides et détergents [Soap-powders and Detergents] - Le pauvre et le prolétaire [The Poor and the Proletariat].

December 1954: - Mythologie perpétuelle - Les Martiens et la presse - Les Martiens et l'église - Nouvelles mystifications - L'opération Astra [Operation Margarine] - Conjugales - Phénomène de mythe?

23 January 1955: - Dominici ou le triomphe de la littérature [Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature] - Iconographie de l'abbé Pierre [The Iconography of the Abbé Pierre] - Romans et enfants [Novels and Children] - Matisse et le bonheur de vivre

February 1955: - Pour une histoire de l'enfance - Enfants-Vedettes - Enfants-Copies - Jouets [Toys].

March 1955: - Paris n'a pas été inondé - Bichon chez les nègres - La vaccine de l'avant-garde - Comment démystifier - Un ouvrier sympathique.

April 1955: - Le visage de Garbo [The Face of Garbo] - Puissance et désinvolture - Le vin et le lait [Wine and Milk] - Le beefsteack et les frites. [Steak and Chips]

May 1955: - Nautilus et le bateau ivre [The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat] - Publicité de la profondeur - Quelques paroles de M. Poujade - Adamov et le langage

June 1955: - Le cerveau d'Einstein The Brain of Einstein - L'homme-jet [The Jet-man] - Le Group Captain Townsend - Racine est Racine.

July August 1955 - Billy Graham au Vel'd'Hiv'- Le procès Dupriez - Photos-chocs - Deux mythes du jeune théâtre - Suis-je marxiste?

September 1955 Le Tour de France comme épopée

October 1955 Le Guide bleu [The Blue Guide] - Celle qui voit clair - Cuisine ornementale [Ornamental Cookery] - La croisière du Batory

November 1955 - L'usager et la grève - Lexique marocain and Grammaire marocaine [In Mythologies as Grammaire africaine]

December 1955 - Strip-tease [Striptease] - La critique Ni-Ni [Neither-Nor Criticism] - La nouvelle Citroën [The New Citroën]

February 1956: - Photogénie électorale [Photography and Electoral Appeal. Includes only mention of television] - Continent perdu [The Lost Continent] - Astrologie - L'art vocal bourgeois

March 1956 - Le plastique [Plastic] - La grande famille des hommes [The Great Family of Man] - Au music-hall

April 1956 - Poujade et les intellectuels

May 1956 - La Dame aux camélias [The Lady of the Camellias].

The World of Wrestling
Karl Von Hess (USA c.1919 - 12,8.2009)


Félix Miquet (France: 10.10.1908 - 8.3.1987)

1949? Félix Miquet and Ivar Martison wrestling at the Vel D'Hive in Paris.

Roland Barthes

Yes, at one time, I went very often to professional wrestling, especially in a small... popular enough room that is the Elysee Montmartre.
And I have always been very struck by the fact that this show called a "sport", is not.

In reality, it overlaps, for example, with the commedia dell'arte. It is a piece of theatre (scenario) in which the wrestlers improvise episodes.

All these episodes and this scenario have, in my view, an essentially moral sense. They mimic, through their improvisations, the ancestral imagery of any kind of combat, with the figures of justice, of triumph and of defeat, the image of the ordeal and, fundamentally, the payment.

The justice of wrestling is a justice of the payment. One hears very often the public yelling: "Make him pay!. They are calling for the bastard to be made to pay.

Click on the flying
actor to read about
roles in modern sociology

Pierre Desgraupes

Yes, that is, you write in your book that wrestling is made to express a certain idea of justice somehow.

Roland Barthes


Pages 15 to 25 of 1972 printed edition. Pages 13 to 23 of an electronic edition.


The grandiloquent truth of gestures
on life's great occasions.

The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky (a romantic value suited rather to fashionable occasions), it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.

There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.* Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight; this is of no interest. True wrestling, wrongly called amateur wrestling, is performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema. Then these same people wax indignant because wrestling is a stage-managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy). The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him. It is said that judo contains a hidden symbolic aspect; even in the midst of efficiency, its gestures are measured, precise but restricted, drawn accurately but by a stroke without volume. Wrestling, on the contrary, offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In judo, a man who is down is hardly down at all, he rolls over, he draws back, he eludes defeat, or, if the latter is obvious, he immediately disappears; in wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.

This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theater, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one's suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears.

Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theater, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant. Thauvin, a fifty-year-old with an obese and sagging body, whose type of asexual hideousness always inspires feminine nicknames, displays in his flesh the characters of baseness, for his part is to represent what, in the classical concept of the salaud, the 'bastard' (the key-concept of any wrestling-match), appears as organically repugnant. The nausea voluntarily provoked by Thauvin shows therefore a very extended use of signs: not only is ugliness used here in order to signify baseness, but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly repulsive quality of matter: the pallid collapse of dead flesh (the public calls Thauvin la barbaque, 'stinking meat'), so that the passionate condemnation of the crowd no longer stems from its judgment, but instead from the very depth of its humours. It will thereafter let itself be frenetically embroiled in an idea of Thauvin which will conform entirely with this physical origin: his actions will perfectly correspond to the essential viscosity of his personage.

It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest. I know from the start that all of Thauvin's actions, his treacheries, cruelties and acts of cowardice, will not fail to measure up to the first image of ignobility he gave me; I can trust him to carry out intelligently and to the last detail all the gestures of a kind of amorphous baseness, and thus fill to the brim the image of the most repugnant bastard there is: the bastard-octopus. Wrestlers therefore have a physique as peremptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts: just as Pantaloon can never be anything but a ridiculous cuckold, Harlequin an astute servant and the Doctor a stupid pedant, in the same way Thauvin will never be anything but an ignoble traitor, Reinieres (a tall blond fellow with a limp body and unkempt hair) the moving image of passivity, Mazaud (short and arrogant like a cock) that of grotesque conceit, and Orsano (an effeminate teddy-boy first seen in a blue- and-pink dressing-gown) that, doubly humorous, of a vindictive salope, or bitch (for I do not think that the public of the Elysee- Montmartre, like Littre, believes the word "salope" to be a masculine).

The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight. But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture. The different strata of meaning throw light on each other, and form the most intelligible of spectacles. Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious. Sometimes the wrestler triumphs with a repulsive sneer while kneeling on the good sportsman; sometimes he gives the crowd a conceited smile which forebodes an early revenge; sometimes, pinned to the ground, he hits the floor ostentatiously to make evident toall the intolerable nature of his situation; and sometimes he erects a complicated set of signs meant to make the public understand that he legitimately personifies the ever- entertaining image of the grumbler, endlessly confabulating about his displeasure.

We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy, where the most socially- inspired nuances of passion (conceit, rightfulness, refined cruelty, a sense of 'paying one's debts') always felicitously find the clearest sign which can receive them, express them and triumphantly carry them to the confines of the hall. It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theater. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler's gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true.

Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its represented effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly. Some wrestlers, who are great comedians, entertain as much as a Moliere character, because they succeed in imposing an immediate reading of their inner nature: Armand Mazaud, a wrestler of an arrogant and ridiculous character (as one says that Harpagon** is a character), always delights the audience by the mathematical rigor of his transcriptions, carrying the form of his gestures to the furthest reaches of their meaning, and giving to his manner of fighting the kind of vehemence and precision found in a great scholastic disputation, in which what is at stake is at once the triumph of pride and the formal concern with truth.

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man's suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm- lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pieta, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction. It is obvious, of course, that in wrestling reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which is the very aim of the fight. This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a conjuror who holds out his cards clearly to the public. Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood; a concealed action that was actually cruel would transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers call a hold, that is, any figure which allows one to immobilize the adversary indefinitely and to have him at one's mercy, has precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore intelligible, fashion the spectacle of suffering, of methodically establishing the conditions of suffering. The inertia of the vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of one's powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one's fist with a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle.

There is another figure, more spectacular still than a hold; it is the forearm smash, this loud slap of the forearm, this embryonic punch with which one clouts the chest of one's adversary, and which is accompanied by a dull noise and the exaggerated sagging of a vanquished body. In the forearm smash, catastrophe is brought to the point of maximum obviousness, so much so that ultimately the gesture appears as no more than a symbol; this is going too far, this is transgressing the moral rules of wrestling, where all signs must be excessively clear, but must not let the intention of clarity be seen. The public then shouts 'He's laying it on!', not because it regrets the absence of real suffering, but because it condemns artifice: as in the theater, one fails to put the part across as much by an excess of sincerity as by an excess of formalism.

We have already seen to what extent wrestlers exploit the resources of a given physical style, developed and put to use in order to unfold before the eyes of the public a total image of Defeat. The flaccidity of tall white bodies which collapse with one blow or crash into the ropes with arms flailing, the inertia of massive wrestlers rebounding pitiably off all the elastic surfaces of the ring, nothing can signify more clearly and more passionately the exemplary abasement of the vanquished. Deprived of all resilience, the wrestler's flesh is no longer anything but an unspeakable heap spread out on the floor, where it solicits relentless reviling and jubilation. There is here a paroxysm of meaning in the style of antiquity, which can only recall the heavily underlined intentions in Roman triumphs. At other times, there is another ancient posture which appears in the coupling of the wrestlers, that of the suppliant who, at the mercy of his opponent, on bended knees, his arms raised above his head, is slowly brought down by the vertical pressure of the victor. In wrestling, unlike judo, Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. It is as if the wrestler is crucified in broad daylight and in the sight of all. I have heard it said of a wrestler stretched on the ground: 'He is dead, little Jesus, there, on the cross,' and these ironic words revealed the hidden roots of a spectacle which enacts the exact gestures of the most ancient purifications.

But what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of 'paying' is essential to wrestling, and the crowd's 'Give it to him' means above all else 'Make him pay'. This is therefore, needless to say, an immanent justice. The baser the action of the 'bastard', the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in return. If the villain--who is of course a coward-- takes refuge behind the ropes, claiming unfairly to have a right to do so by a brazen mimicry, he is inexorably pursued there and caught, and the crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken for the sake of a deserved punishment. Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints. For a wrestling-fan, nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play. Naturally, it is the pattern of Justice which matters here, much more than its content: wrestling is above all a quantitative sequence of compensations (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). This explains why sudden changes of circumstances have in the eyes of wrestling habitues a sort of moral beauty: they enjoy them as they would enjoy an inspired episode in a novel, and the greater the contrast between the success of a move and the reversal of fortune, the nearer the good luck of a contestant to his downfall, the more satisfying the dramatic mime is felt to be. Justice is therefore the embodiment of a possible transgression; it is from the fact that there is a Law that the spectacle of the passions which infringe it derives its value.

It is therefore easy to understand why out of five wrestling matches, only about one is fair. One must realize, let it be repeated, that 'fairness' here is a role or a genre, as in the theater: the rules do not at all constitute a real constraint; they are the conventional appearance of fairness. So that in actual fact a fair fight is nothing but an exaggeratedly polite one: the contestants confront each other with zeal, not rage; they can remain in control of their passions, they do not punish their beaten opponent relentlessly, they stop fighting as soon as they are ordered to do so, and congratulate each other at the end of a particularly arduous episode, during which, however, they have not ceased to be fair. One must of course understand here that all these polite actions are brought to the notice of the public by the most conventional gestures of fairness: shaking hands, raising the arms, ostensibly avoiding a fruitless hold which would detract from the perfection of the contest.

Conversely, foul play exists only in its excessive signs: administering a big kick to one's beaten opponent, taking refuge behind the ropes while ostensibly invoking a purely formal right, refusing to shake hands with one's opponent before or after the fight, taking advantage of the end of the round to rush treacherously at theadversary from behind, fouling him while the referee is not looking (a move which obviously only has any value or function because in fact half the audience can see it and get indignant about it). Since Evil is the natural climate of wrestling, a fair fight has chiefly the value of being an exception. It surprises the aficionado, who greets it when he sees it as an anachronism and a rather sentimental throwback to the sporting tradition ('Aren't they playing fair, those two'); he feels suddenly moved at the sight of the general kindness of the world, but would probably die of boredom and indifference if wrestlers did not quickly return to the orgy of evil which alone makes good wrestling.

Extrapolated, fair wrestling could lead only to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport. The ending of a boxing-match or a judo-contest is abrupt, like the full stop which closes a demonstration. The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque confusion. Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee's censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.

It has already been noted that in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the 'bad' wrestler always being supposed to be a Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different, being based on ethics and not on politics. What the public is looking for here is the gradual construction of a highly moral image: that of the perfect 'bastard'. One comes to wrestling in order to attend the continuing adventures of a single major leading character, permanent and multiform like Punch or Scapino, inventive in unexpected figures and yet always faithful to his role. The 'bastard' is here revealed as a Moliere character or a 'portrait' by La Bruyere, that is to say as a classical entity, an essence, whose acts are only significant epiphenomena arranged in time. This stylized character does not belong to any particular nation or party, and whether the wrestler is called Kuzchenko (nicknamed Moustache after Stalin), Yerpazian, Gaspardi, Jo Vignola or Nollieres, the aficionado does not attribute to him any country except 'fairness'--observing the rules.

What then is a 'bastard' for this audience composed in part, we are told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society ? Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes. He is unpredictable, therefore asocial. He takes refuge behind the law when he considers that it is in his favor, and breaks it when he finds it useful to do so. Sometimes he rejects the formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he reestablishes these boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a few minutes earlier. This inconsistency, far more than treachery or cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in its morality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of arguments as the basest of crimes. The forbidden move becomes dirty only when it destroys a quantitative equilibrium and disturbs the rigorous reckoning of compensations; what is condemned by the audience is not at all the transgression of insipid official rules, it is the lack of revenge, the absence of a punishment. So that there is nothing more exciting for a crowd than the grandiloquent kick given to a vanquished 'bastard'; the joy of punishing is at its climax when it is supported by a mathematical justification; contempt is then unrestrained. One is no longer dealing with a salaud but with a salope--the verbal gesture of the ultimate degradation.

Such a precise finality demands that wrestling should be exactly what the public expects of it. Wrestlers, who are very experienced, know perfectly how to direct the spontaneous episodes of the fight so as to make them conform to the image which the public has of the great legendary themes of its mythology. A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the public expects of him. In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively. Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is nothing but the popular and age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.

When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.

*In Moliere's L'Ecole des Femmes and Racine's Andromaque.

**In Moliere's L'Avare.

In the war, the US Navy sought artificial soaps that could lather and wash in seawater, creating synthetic detergents. Most of France has hard water so that soap produces insoluble calcium deposits. France was, therefore, a natural market for foamy detergents. "Especially as in 1952, its chemical industry was able to provide the basic elements of these products."

Soap-powders and Detergents

The first World Detergent Congress (Paris, September 1954) had the effect of authorizing the world to yield to Omo euphoria: not only do detergents have no harmful effect on the skin, but they can even perhaps save miners from silicosis. These products have been in the last few years the object of such massive advertising that they now belong to a region of French daily life which the various types of psycho-analysis would do well to pay some attention to if they wish to keep up to date.

Chlorinated water
One could then usefully contrast the psycho-analysis of purifying fluids (chlorinated, for example) with that of soap-powders (Lux,... ) or that of detergents (Omo).

The relations between the evil and the cure, between dirt and a given product, are very different in each case.

Soap powder

Chlorinated fluids, for instance, have always been experienced as a sort of liquid fire, the action of which must be carefully estimated, otherwise the object itself would be affected, 'burnt'. The implicit legend of this type of product rests on the idea of a violent, abrasive modification of matter: the connotations are of a chemical or mutilating type: the product 'kills' the dirt.

Powders, on the contrary, are separating agents: their ideal role is to liberate the object from its circumstantial imperfection: dirt is 'forced out' and no longer killed; in the Omo imagery, dirt is a diminutive enemy, stunted and black, which takes to its heels from the fine immaculate linen at the sole threat of the judgment of Omo.

Products based on chlorine and ammonia are without doubt the representatives of a kind of absolute fire, a saviour but a blind one.

Powders, on the contrary, are selective, they push, they drive dirt through the texture of the object, their function is keeping public order not making war. This distinction has ethnographic correlatives: the chemical fluid is an extension of the washerwoman's movements when she beats the clothes, while powders rather replace those of the housewife pressing and rolling the washing against a sloping board.

But even in the category of powders, one must in addition oppose against advertisements based on psychology those based on psycho-analysis (I use this word without reference to any specific school). 'Persil Whiteness' for instance, bases its prestige on the evidence of a result; it calls into play vanity, a social concern with appearances, by offering for comparison two objects, one of which is whiter than the other. Advertisements for Omo also indicate the effect of the product (and in superlative fashion, incidentally), but they chiefly reveal its mode of action; in doing so, they involve the consumer in a kind of direct experience of the substance, make him the accomplice of a liberation rather than the mere beneficiary of a result; matter here is endowed with value-bearing states.

"Omo, des montagnes de mousse, un vrai miracle pour votre lessive" [Omo, mountains of foam, a true miracle for your laundry].

[I think this was the original packaging]

Omo uses two of these, which are rather novel in the category of detergents: the deep and the foamy. To say that Omo cleans in depth (see the Cinéma-Publicité advertisement) is to assume that linen is deep, which no one had previously thought, and this unquestionably results in exalting it, by establishing it as an object favourable to those obscure tendencies to enfold and caress which are found in every human body. As for foam, it is well known that it signifies luxury. To begin with, it appears to lack any usefulness; then, its abundant, easy, almost infinite proliferation allows one to suppose there is in the substance from which it issues a vigorous germ, a healthy and powerful essence, a great wealth of active elements in a small original volume.
Finally, it gratifies in the consumer a tendency to imagine matter as something airy, with which contact is effected in a mode both light and vertical, which is sought after like that of happiness either in the gustatory category (foie gras, entremets, wines), in that of clothing (muslin, tulle), or that of soaps (filmstar in her bath).
Foam can even be the sign of a certain spirituality, inasmuch as the spirit has the reputation of being able to make something out of nothing, a large surface of effects out of a small volume of causes (creams have a very different 'psychoanalytical' meaning, of a soothing kind: they suppress wrinkles, pain, smarting, etc.). What matters is the art having disguised the abrasive function of the detergent under the delicious image of a substance at once deep and airy which can govern the molecular order of the material without damaging it. A euphoria, incidentally, which must not make us forget that there is one plane on which Persil and Omo are one and the same: the plane of the Anglo-Dutch trust Unilever.

Omo: le linge le plus propre du monde
OMO: the cleanest laundry of the world
Est un produit Lever

Avec Persil votre linge est plus blanc parce qu'il est plus propre
With Persil your linen is white because it is cleaner
Est un produit Lever

Le premier Congrès Mondial de la Détergence (Paris, septembre 1954) a autorisé le monde à se laisser aller à l'euphorie d'Omo : non seulement les produits détergents n'ont aucune action nocive sur la peau, mais même ils peuvent peut- être sauver les mineurs de la silicose. Or ces produits sont depuis quelques années l'objet d'une publicité si massive, qu'ils font aujourd'hui partie de cette de la vie quotidienne des Français, où les psychanalyse, si elles se tenaient à jour, devraient bien porter un peu leur regard. On pourrait alors utilement opposer à la psychanalyse des liquides purificateurs (Javel), celle des poudres saponidées (Lux, Persil) ou détergentes (Rai, Paic, Crio, Omo). Les rapports du remède et du mal, du produit et de la saleté sont très différents dans l'un ou l'autre cas.

Par exemple, les eaux de Javel ont toujours été senties comme une sorte de feu liquide dont l'action doit être soigneusement mesurée faute de quoi l'objet lui-même est atteint, " brûlé " ; la légende implicite de ce genre de produits repose sur l'idée d'une modification violente, abrasive de la matière : les répondants sont d'ordre chimique ou abrasive de la matière : le produit " tue " la saleté. Au contraire les poudres sont des éléments séparateurs ; leur rôle idéal est de libérer l'objet de son imperfection circonstancielle : on " chasse " la saleté, on ne la tue plus ; dans l'imagerie Omo, la saleté est un petit ennemi malingre et noir qui s'enfuit à toutes jambes du beau linge pur, rien qu'à la menace du jugement d'Omo. Les chlores et les ammoniaques sont sans aucun doute les délégués d'une sorte de feu total, sauveur mais aveugle ; les poudres sont au contraire sélectives, elles poussent, conduisent la saleté à travers la trame de l'objet, elles ont une fonction de police, non de guerre. Cette distinction a ses répondants ethnographiques : le liquide chimique prolonge le geste de la lavandière battant son linge, et les poudres remplacent plutôt celui de la ménagère pressant et roulant la lessive le long du lavoir incliné.

Mais dans l'ordre même des poudres, il faut encore opposer à la publicité psychologique, la publicité psychanalytique (j'entends ce mot sans y attacher une signification d'école particulière). Par exemple, la Blancheur Persil fonde son prestige sur l'évidence d'un résultat ; on met en mouvement la vanité, le paraître social, en donnant à comparer deux objets dont l'un est plus blanc que l'autre. La publicité Omo indique aussi l'effet du produit (sous une forme d'ailleurs superlative), mais surtout découvre le procès de son action ; elle engage ainsi le consommateur dans une sorte de mode vécu de la substance, le rend complice d'une délivrance et non plus seulement bénéficiaire d'un résultat ; la matière est ici pourvue d'états-valeurs.

Omo en utilise deux, assez nouveaux dans l'ordre des détergents : le profond et le mousseux. Dire qu'Omo nettoie en profondeur (voir la saynète du Cinéma-Publicité), c'est supposer que le linge est profond, magnifier, l'établir comme un objet flatteur à ces obscures poussées d'enveloppement et de caresse qui sont dans tout corps humain. Quant à la mousse, sa signification de luxe est bien connue : d'abord, elle a une apparence d'inutilité ; ensuite sa prolifération abondante, facile, infinie presque, laisse supposer dans la substance dont elle sort, un germe vigoureux, une essence saine et puissante, une grande richesse d'élément actifs sous un petit volume originel ; enfin elle flatte chez le consommateur une imagination aérienne de la matière, un mode de contact à la fois léger et vertical, poursuivi comme un bonheur aussi bien dans l'ordre gustatif (foies gras, entremets, vins) que dans celui des vêtement (mousselines, tulles) et dans celui des savons (vedette prenant son bain). La mousse peut même être signe d'une certaine spiritualité, dans la mesure où l'esprit est réputé pouvoir tirer tout de rien, une grande surface d'effets d'un petit volume de causes (les crèmes ont une tout autre psychanalyse, d'ordre sopitif : elles abolissent les rides, la douleur, le feu, etc.). L'important, c'est d'avoir su masquer la fonction abrasive de détergent sous l'image délicieuse d'une substance à la fois profonde et aérienne qui peut régir l'ordre moléculaire du tissu sans l'attaquer. Euphorie qui ne doit d'ailleurs pas faire oublier qu'il y a un plan où Persil et Omo, c'est tout comme : le plan du trust anglo-hollandais Unilever.

Le visage de Garbo

The Face of Garbo

[Greta] "Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre," [something that excites love] "when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of" [Rudolph] "Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition." [spiritual destruction]

15.8.1926 Death of silent-movie star Rudolph Valentino

Le vin et le lait - Wine and Milk

Wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its very own, just like its three hundred and sixty types of cheese and its culture. It is a totem-drink, corresponding to the milk of the Dutch cow or the tea ceremonially taken by the British Royal Family.

this is well known and has been said a thousand times in folklore, proverbs, conversations and Literature. But this very universality implies a kind of conformism: to believe in wine is a coercive collective act. A Frenchman who kept this myth at arm's length would expose himself to minor but definite problems of integration, the first of which, precisely, would be that of having to explain his attitude. The universality principle fully applies here, inasmuch as society calls anyone who does not believe in wine by names such as sick, disabled or depraved: it does not comprehend him (in both senses, intellectual and spatial, of the word). Conversely, an award of good integration is given to whoever is a practising wine-drinker: knowing how to drink is a national technique which serves to qualify the Frenchman, to demonstrate at once his performance, his control and his sociability.

The mythology of wine can in fact help us to understand the usual ambiguity of our daily life. For it is true that wine is a good and fine substance, but it is no less true that its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of the private distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread. There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation.

Myth Today

Pages 181 to 233 in the original French edition. Pages 108? to 162? in the 1972 printed English edition. Pages 106 to 160 of the electronic edition paginated below.

Page: 107 - 108 - 109 - 110 - 111 - 115 - 116 - 118 - 122 - 124 - 125 - 126 - 127 - 129 - 130 - 131 - 137 - 138 - 140 -

MYTH TODAY: Myth is a type of speech - Myth as a semiological system - The form and the concept - The signification - Reading and deciphering myth - Myth as stolen language - The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company - Myth is depoliticized speech - Myth on the Left - Myth on the Right - Necessity and limits of mythology

Myth is a type of speech

What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech.

Qu'est-ce qu'un mythe aujourd'hui ? Je donnerai tout de suite une première réponse très simple, qui s'accorde parfaitement avec l'étymologie : le mythe est une parole. [Parole can mean a word or speech]

... it is not any type: language needs special conditions in order to become myth ... But what must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it: we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.

... since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial' ones.

Everything... can be a myth. ... every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet [A controversial eight year old poet] is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of [p.108] consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.

"Tree that I Love"
by Minou Drouet

Tree that I love,
tree in my likeness,
so heavy with music
under the wind's fingers
that turn your pages
like a fairy tale,
knowing like me
the voices of silence
that sways
the depth of your green locks
the quiver of your living hands
that I love
my all alone
lost like me
lost in the sky
lost in the mud
lacquered in the dancing light
by the rain
echo of wind's grief
and birds' joy
tree undressed by winter
for the first time I watch you.

Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexis. [a way of being written? or an interpretation?]

We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech , etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something. This generic way of conceiving language is in fact justified by the very history of writing: long before the invention of our alphabet, objects like the Inca quipu , or drawings, as in pictographs, have been accepted as speech...

Myth as a semiological system

... mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure. postulated ... under the name of semiology...

since Saussure ... a whole section of contemporary research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning: psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new types of literary criticism of which Bachelard has given the first examples, are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance.

Now to postulate a signification is to have recourse to semiology. I do not mean that semiology could account for all these aspects of research equally well: they have different contents. But they have a common status: they are all sciences dealing with values. They are not content with meeting the facts: they define and explore them as tokens for something else.

Semiology is a science of forms, since it studies significations apart from their content...

La sémiologie est une science des formes ; elle étudie des significations indépendamment de leur contenu.

Less terrorized by the spectre of 'formalism', historical criticism might have been less sterile; it would have [p.111] understood that the specific study of forms does not in any way contradict the necessary principles of totality and History.

The important thing is to see that the unity of an explanation cannot be based on the amputation of one or other of its approaches, but, as Engels said, on the dialectical co-ordination of the particular sciences it makes use of. This is the case with mythology: it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it studies ideas-in-form.

Let me therefore restate that any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified. This relation concerns objects which belong to different categories, and this is why it is not one of equality but one of equivalence.

We must here be on our guard for despite common parlance which simply says that the signifier expresses the signified, we are dealing, in any semiological system, not with two, but with three different terms. For what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms.

Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion. Do we have here, then, only a signifier and a signified, the roses and my passion? Not even that: to put it accurately, there are here only 'passionified' roses. But on the plane of analysis, we do have three terms; for these roses weighted with passion perfectly and correctly allow themselves to be decomposed into roses and passion: the former and the latter existed before uniting and forming this third object, which is the sign. It is as true to say that on the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the roses from the message they carry, as to say that on the plane of analysis I cannot confuse the roses as signifier and the roses as sign: the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning.

Or take a black pebble: I can make it signify in several ways, it is a mere signifier; but if I weigh it with a definite signified (a death sentence, for instance, in an anonymous vote), it will become a sign.
In myth, we find again the tri-dimensional pattern which I have just described: the signifier, the signified and the sign. But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second.
We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language. Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part.
It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language-object , because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call
metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first. When he reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask himself questions about the composition of the languageobject, he no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic schema; he will only need to know its total term, or global sign, and only inasmuch as this term lends itself to myth. This is why the semiologist is entitled to treat in the same way writing and pictures: what he retains from them is the fact that they are both signs, that they both reach the threshold of myth endowed with the same signifying function, that they constitute, one just as much as the other, a language-object.
here is now [an]... example: I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris- Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture.

But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier.

Before tackling the analysis of each term of the mythical system, one must agree on terminology. We now know that the signifier can be looked at, in myth, from two points of view: as the final term of the linguistic system, or as the first term of the mythical system. We therefore need two names. On the plane of language, that is, as the final term of the first system, I shall call the signifier: meaning (... a Negro is giving the French salute); on the plane of myth, I shall call it: form.

In the case of the signified, no ambiguity is possible: we shall retain the name concept . The third term is the correlation of the first two: in the linguistic system, it is the sign ; but it is not possible to use this word again without ambiguity, since in myth (and this is the chief peculiarity of the latter), the signifier is already formed by the signs of the language. I shall call the third term of myth the signification.

This word is here all the better justified since myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.

The form and the concept
knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations. One must firmly stress this open character of the concept; it is not at all an abstract, purified essence; it is a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function.

In this sense, we can say that the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated: ... French imperiality must appeal to such and such group of readers and not another. The concept closely corresponds to a function, it is defined as a tendency.

This cannot fail to recall the signified in another semiological system, Freudianism. In Freud, the second term of the system is the latent meaning (the content) of the dream, of the parapraxis, of the neurosis. Now Freud does remark that the second-order meaning of behaviour is its real meaning, that which is appropriate to a complete situation, including its deeper level; it is, just like the mythical concept, the very intention of behaviour.

The signification

myth is a type of speech defined by its intention ... much more than by its literal sense... in spite of this, its intention is somehow frozen, purified, eternalized, [p.133] made absent by this literal sense (The French Empire? It's just a fact: look at this good Negro who salutes like one of our own boys).

Myth has an imperative, buttonholing character: stemming from an historical concept, directly springing from contingency (... a threatened Empire), it is I whom it has come to seek. It is turned towards me, I am subjected to its intentional force, it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity.

this interpellant speech is at the same time a frozen speech: at the moment of reaching me, it suspends itself, turns away and assumes the look of a generality: it stiffens, it makes itself look neutral and innocent. The appropriation of the concept is suddenly driven away once more by the literalness of the meaning. This is a kind of arrest , in both the physical and the legal sense of the term: French imperiality condemns the saluting Negro to be nothing more than an instrumental signifier, the Negro suddenly hails me in the name of French imperial ity; but at the same moment the Negro's salute thickens, becomes vitrified, freezes into an eternal reference meant to establish French imperiality. On the surface of language something has stopped moving: the use of the signification is here, hiding behind the fact, and conferring on it a notifying look; but at the same time, the fact paralyses the intention, gives it something like a malaise producing immobility: in order to make it innocent, it freezes it. This is because myth is speech stolen and restored . Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look.

One last element of the signification remains to be examined: its motivation. We know that in a language, the sign is arbitrary: nothing compels the acoustic image tree 'naturally' to mean the concept tree: the sign, here, is unmotivated. Yet this arbitrariness has limits, which come from the associative relations of the word: the language can produce a whole fragment of the sign by analogy with other signs (for instance one says aimable in French, and not amable, by analogy with aime). The mythical signification, on the other hand, is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. ... for French imperiality to get hold of the saluting Negro, there must be identity between the Negro's [p.125] salute and that of the French soldier. Motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form.
Motivation is unavoidable. It is none the less very fragmentary. To start with, it is not 'natural': it is history which supplies its analogies to the form. Then, the analogy between the meaning and the concept is never anything but partial: the form drops many analogous features and keeps only a few...
a complete image would exclude myth, or at least would compel it to seize only its very completeness.
in general myth prefers to work with poor, incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its fat, and ready for a signification, such as caricatures, pastiches, symbols, etc.

French Charity Postcard 1910-1920

Finally, the motivation is chosen among other possible ones: I can very well give to French imperiality many other signifiers beside a Negro's salute: a French general pins a decoration on a one-armed Senegalese, a nun hands a cup of tea to a bed- ridden Arab, a white schoolmaster teaches attentive [p.126] piccaninnies: the press undertakes every day to demonstrate that the store of mythical signifiers is inexhaustible.

Enfin la motivation est choisie parmi d'autres possibles : je puis donner à l'impérialité française bien d'autres signifiants que le salut militaire d'un nègre : un général français décore un Sénégalais manchot, une bonne soeur tend de la tisane à un bicot alité, un instituteur blanc fait la classe à de jeunes négrillons attentifs : la presse se charge de démontrer tous les jours que la réserve des signifiants mythiques est inépuisable.

The nature of the mythical signification can in fact be well conveyed by one particular simile: it is neither more nor less arbitrary than an ideograph. Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation. And just as, historically, ideographs have gradually left the concept and have become associated with the sound, thus growing less and less motivated, the worn out state of a myth can be recognized by the arbitrariness of its signification: the whole of Molière is seen in a doctor's ruff.

Historically the ideograph (picture writing symbol) moves from association with the concept (paddy field, hand, mouth, moon) to association with the sound used to express them (in French: riziêre, main, bouche, lune)
See article on Japanese
Marie-Christine Collard

Reading and deciphering myth

How is a myth received? We must here once more come back to the duplicity of its signifier, which is at once meaning and form. I can produce three different types of reading by focusing on the one, or the other, or both at the same time.

1. If I focus on an empty signifier, I let the concept fill the form of the myth without ambiguity, and I find myself before a simple system, where the signification becomes literal again: the Negro who salutes is an example of French imperiality, he is a symbol for it. This type of focusing is, for instance, that of the producer of myths, of the journalist who starts with a concept and seeks a form for it.

[symbol of: it just represents in order to communicate?

2. If I focus on a full signifier, in which I clearly distinguish the meaning and the form, and consequently the distortion which the one imposes on the other, I undo the signification of the myth, and I receive the latter as an imposture: the saluting Negro becomes the alibi of French imperiality. This type of focusing is that of the mythologist: he deciphers the myth, he understands a distortion.

[alibi: something designed to prove the innocence of?

3. Finally, if I focus on the mythical signifier as on an inextricable whole made of meaning and form, I receive an ambiguous signification: I respond to the constituting mechanism of myth, to its own dynamics, I become a reader of myths. The saluting Negro is no longer an example or a symbol, still less an alibi: he is the very presence of French imperiality.

The first two types of focusing are static, analytical; they destroy the myth, either by making its intention obvious, or by unmasking it: the former is cynical, the latter demystifying. The third type of focusing is dynamic, it consumes the myth according to the very ends built into its structure: the reader lives the myth as a story at once true and unreal.

If one wishes to connect a mythical schema to a general history, to explain how it corresponds to the interests of a definite society, in short, to pass from semiology to ideology, it is obviously at the level of the third type of focusing that one must place oneself: it is the reader of myths himself who must reveal their essential function. How does he receive this particular myth today

If he receives it in an innocent fashion, what is the point of proposing it to him? And if he reads it using his powers of reflection, like the mythologist, does it matter which alibi is presented? If the reader does not see French imperiality in the saluting Negro, it was not worth weighing the latter with it; and if he sees it, the myth is nothing more than a political proposition, honestly expressed. In one word, either the intention of the myth is too obscure to be efficacious, or it is too clear to be believed, In either case, where is the ambiguity?

This is but a false dilemma. Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion. Placed before the dilemma which I mentioned a moment ago, myth finds a third way out. Threatened with disappearance if it yields to either of the first two types of focusing, it gets out of this tight spot thanks to a compromise-it is this compromise. Entrusted with 'glossing over' an intentional concept, myth encounters nothing but betrayal in language, for language can only obliterate the concept if it hides it, or unmask it if it formulates it. The elaboration of a second-order semiological system will enable myth to escape this dilemma: driven to having either to unveil or to liquidate the concept, it will naturalize it.

We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination [making personal?] of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason. If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an [p. 129] instrument. Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the obviousness of its motivation. But for the myth-reader, the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.

Here is a new example which will help understand clearly how the myth-reader is led to rationalize the signified by means of the signifier. We are in the month of July, I read a big headline in France-Soir:


Let us quickly sketch the semiological schema: the example being a sentence, the first system is purely linguistic. The signifier of the second system is composed here of a certain number of accidents, some lexical (the words: first, begins, the [fall]), some typographical (enormous headlines where the reader usually sees news of world importance). The signified or concept is what must be called by a barbarous but unavoidable neologism: governmentality, the Government presented by the national press as the Essence of efficacy. The signification of the myth follows clearly from this: fruit and vegetable prices are falling because the government has so decided. Now it so happens in this case (and this is on the whole fairly rare) that the newspaper itself has, two lines below, allowed one to see through the myth which it had just elaborated whether this is due to self-assurance or honesty. It adds (in small type, it is true): 'The fall in prices is helped by the return of seasonal abundance.' This example is instructive for two reasons. Firstly it conspicuously shows that myth essentially aims at causing an immediate impression - it does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it. This means that the reading of a myth is exhausted at one stroke. I cast a quick glance at my neighbour's France-Soir: I cull only a meaning there, but I read a true signification; I receive the presence of governmental action in the fall in fruit and vegetable prices. That is all, and that [130] is enough. A more attentive reading of the myth will in no way increase its power or its ineffectiveness: a myth is at the same time imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not make it better or worse.

Secondly, the naturalization of the concept, which I have just identified as the essential function of myth, is here exemplary. In a first (exclusively linguistic) system, causality would be, literally, natural: fruit and vegetable prices fall because they are in season. In the second (mythical) system, causality is artificial, false; but it creeps, so to speak, through the back door of Nature. This is why myth is experienced as innocent speech: not because its intentions are hidden - if they were hidden, they could not be efficacious - but because they are naturalized.

In fact, what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one. Where there is only an equivalence, he sees a kind of causal process: the signifier and the signified have, in his eyes, a natural relationship. This confusion can be expressed otherwise: any semiological system is a system of values; now the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system.

Myth as stolen language

What is characteristic of myth? To transform a meaning into form. In other words, myth is always a language-robbery. I rob the Negro who is saluting ... not to make [him] into ..[a symbol].. but to naturalize through [him] the Empire...

The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company

Myth lends itself to history in two ways: by its form, which is only relatively motivated; by its concept, the nature of which is historical. One can therefore imagine a diachronic study of myths, whether one submits them to a retrospection (which means founding an historical mythology) or whether one follows some of yesterday's myths down to their present forms (which means founding prospective history). If I keep here to a synchronic sketch of contemporary myths, it is for an objective reason: our society is the privileged field of mythical significations. We must now say why.

Whatever the accidents, the compromises, the concessions and the political adventures, whatever the technical, economic, or even social changes which history brings us, our society is still a bourgeois society. I am not forgetting that since 1789, in France, several types of bourgeoisie have succeeded one another in power; but the same status - a certain regime of ownership, a certain order, a certain ideology - remains at a deeper level. Now a remarkable phenomenon occurs in the matter of naming this regime: as an economic fact, the bourgeoisie is named without any difficulty: capitalism is openly professed.

Note 14: "The fate of capitalism is to make the worker wealthy," Paris-Match tells us.

As a political fact, the bourgeoisie has some difficulty in acknowledging itself: there are no 'bourgeois' parties in the Chamber. As an ideological fact, it completely disappears: the bourgeoisie has obliterated its name in passing from reality to representation, from economic man to mental man.


Politically, the haemorrhage of the name 'bourgeois' is effected through the idea of nation. This was once a progressive idea, which has served to get rid of the aristocracy; today, the bourgeoisie merges into the nation, even if it has, in order to do so, to exclude from it the elements which it decides are allogenous (the Communists).
in a bourgeois culture, there is neither proletarian culture nor proletarian morality, there is no proletarian art; ideologically, all that is not bourgeois is obliged to borrow from the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois ideology can therefore spread over everything and in so doing lose its name without risk: no one here will throw this name of bourgeois back at it.

This anonymity of the bourgeoisie becomes even more marked when one passes from bourgeois culture proper to its derived, vulgarized and applied forms, to what one could call public philosophy, that which sustains everyday life, civil ceremonials, secular rites, in short the unwritten norms of interrelationships in a bourgeois society. It is an illusion to reduce the dominant culture to its inventive core: there also is a bourgeois culture which consists of consumption alone. The whole of France is steeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our theatre, our pulp literature, our rituals, our justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, 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 representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world. These 'normalized' forms attract little attention, by the very fact of their extension, in which their origin is easily lost. They enjoy an intermediate position: being neither directly political nor directly ideological, they live peacefully between the action of the militants and the quarrels of the intellectuals; more or less abandoned by the former and the latter, they gravitate towards the enormous mass of the undifferentiated, of the insignificant, in short, of nature. Yet it is through its ethic that the bourgeoisie pervades France: practised 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 they become. The fact
[p.140] of the bourgeoisie becomes absorbed into an amorphous universe, whose sole inhabitant is Eternal Man, who is neither proletarian nor bourgeois.

It is therefore by penetrating the intermediate classes that the bourgeois ideology can most surely lose its name. Petit-bourgeois norms are the residue of bourgeois culture, they are bourgeois truths which have become degraded, impoverished, commercialized, slightly archaic, or shall we say, out of date? The political alliance of the bourgeoisie and the petite-bourgeoisie has for more than a century determined the history of France; it has rarely been broken, and each time only temporarily (1848, 1871, 1936). This alliance got closer as time passed, it gradually became a symbiosis; transient awakenings might happen, but the common ideology was never questioned again. The same 'natural' varnish covers up all 'national' representations: the big wedding of the bourgeoisie, which originates in a class ritual (the display and consumption of wealth), can bear no relation to the economic status of the lower middle-class: but through the press, the news, and literature, it slowly becomes the very norm as dreamed, though not actually lived, of the petit-bourgeois couple. The bourgeoisie is constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination, that is, at the cost of an immobilisation and an impoverishment of consciousness.

Footnote 19: To induce a collective content for the imagination is always an inhuman undertaking, not only because dreaming essentializes life into destiny, but also because dreams are impoverished, and the alibi of an absence

By spreading its representations over a whole catalogue of collective images for petit-bourgeois use, the bourgeoisie countenances the illusory lack of differentiation of the social classes: it is as from the moment when a typist earning twenty pounds a month recognizes herself in the big wedding of the bourgeoisie that bourgeois ex-nomination achieves its full effect.

The flight from the name 'bourgeois' is not therefore an illusory, accidental, secondary, natural or insignificant phenomenon: it is the bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature.

Roland Barthes appeared on French Television discussing Mythologies in "Lectures pour tous" on 29.5.1957 You Tube

"Lectures pour tous" (on French television) described by Vincent Casanova

A television show created in 1953 by Pierre Desgraupes and Pierre Dumayet, seeking to give the public a taste of the books it discused. Television was then considered an invitation to culture...

The small screen's mission was to educate as well as entertain. Often led by men from the resistance who sought to make art an instrument of emancipation, television gave the floor to the great writers and intellectuals of the time.

Pierre Desgraupes presents Mythologies in a way that makes the work accessible and clarifies the intentions of the author. He opens with a very general question: "How could you define your job?" and what follows appears therefore as the explicitation of the concise answer of Barthes.

In the manner of a Professor (the camera angle accentuates the address to the Viewer), Desgraupes outlines the first part of the Mythologies putting aside part two as more theoretical and likely to be more difficult to understand. He also chooses a very evocative example (wrestling) to present to the public.

The beginning of what they said:

Pierre Desgraupes

How could we describe your work?

Roland Barthes

I am a little embarrassed because as it finally presents itself it is only a collection of articles analysing myths of modern daily life for us in France. All of that crowned by a more theoretical text on what can be a little more abstractly, the notion of myth today.

Pierre Desgraupes

OK. So let us take the first part, this catalogue of materials on which you have done analyses. They are obviously very different from a simple inventory, but just the subjects are striking.

I think the viewers, the future readers of your book, will be struck by the fact that the chapter headings, the subjects of your analysis, are topics which are generally very familiar.

Here is one on a soap product that the viewers are reminded about every day in advertisements, here is one on the professional wrestling they [now] see on television, and one on the Abbé Pierre who they so often read about in the newspapers.

I think you could say that, there is initially a census of some of the major myths that weave our everyday life, is that not so?

Roland Barthes

But yes, indeed, that is exactly how I saw them. They were part of my reality as they were part of the reality of every other French person at the time.

Pierre Desgraupes

But at this point, clearly, things get more complicated, for it is the moment where you have to explain what work you have done on these materials. How you are trying to elucidate them, in what sense?

Roland Barthes

In a nutshell, I try to see what they contain of large collective representations, recalling within themselves something mythical of the past, but despite that, being of our time. These collective representations are produced by our society and our history.

Pierre Desgraupes

That is well said. I think, if you agree, we could take some of the chapters of your book as illustrations of it. There are many and I have chosen only a few.

What would you say characterises wrestling, or perhaps even explains, in a sense, the success of wrestling for the public?

Roland Barthes

Yes, at one time, I went very often to professional wrestling, especially in a small... popular enough room that is the Elysee Montmartre.
And I have always been very struck by the fact that this show called a "sport", is not.

In reality, it overlaps, for example, with the commedia dell'arte. It is a piece of theatre (scenario) in which the wrestlers improvise episodes.

All these episodes and this scenario have, in my view, an essentially moral sense. They mimic, through their improvisations, the ancestral imagery of any kind of combat, with the figures of justice, of triumph and of defeat, the image of the ordeal and, fundamentally, the payment.

The justice of wrestling is a justice of the payment. One hears very often the public yelling: "Make him pay!. They are calling for the bastard to be made to pay.

Pierre Desgraupes

Yes, that is, you write in your book that wrestling is made to express a certain idea of justice somehow.

Roland Barthes


commedia dell'arte: Comedy of art or of the profession. An unwritten or improvised drama that flourished in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

images ancestrales: ancient and universal images that constitute a permanent legacy in the history of humanity (for example, myths, symbols). Jung (1919) called these archetypes.

Elements of Semiology


In his Course in General Linguistics, first published in 1916, Saussure postulated the existence of a general science of signs, or Semiology, of which linguistics would form only one part. Semiology therefore aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification. There is no doubt that the development of mass communications confers particular relevance today upon the vast field of signifying media, just when the success of disciplines such as linguistics, information theory, formal logic and structural anthropology provide semantic analysis with new instruments. There is at present a kind of demand for semiology, stemming not from the fads of a few scholars, but from the very history of the modern world.

The fact remains that, although Saussure's ideas have made great headway, semiology remains a tentative science. The reason for this may well be simple. Saussure, followed in this by the main semiologists, thought that linguistics merely formed a part of the general science of signs. Now it is far from certain that in the social life of today there are to be found any extensive systems of signs outside human language. Semiology has so far concerned itself with codes of no more than slight interest, such as the Highway Code; the moment we go on to systems where the sociological significance is more than superficial, we are once more confronted with language. it is true that objects, images and patterns of behaviour can signify, and do so on a large scale, but never autonomously; every semiological system has its linguistic admixture. Where there is a visual substance, for example, the meaning is confirmed by being duplicated in a linguistic message (which happens in the case of the cinema, advertising, comic strips, press photography, etc.) so that at least a part of the iconic message is, in terms of structural relationship, either redundant or taken up by the linguistic system. As for collections of objects (clothes, food), they enjoy the status of systems only in so far as they pass through the relay of language, which extracts their signifiers (in the form of nomenclature) and names their signifieds (in the forms of usages or reasons): we are, much more than in former times, and despite the spread of pictorial illustration, a civilisation of the written word. Finally, and in more general terms, it appears increasingly more difficult to conceive a system of images and objects whose signifieds can exist independently of language: to perceive what a substance signifies is inevitably to fall back on the individuation of a language: there is no meaning which is not designated, and the world of signifieds is none other than that of language.

Thus, though working at the outset on nonlinguistic substances, semiology is required, sooner or later, to find language (in the ordinary sense of the term) in its path, not only as a model, but also as component, relay or signified. Even so, such language is not quite that of the linguist: it is a second-order language, with its unities no longer monemes or phonemes, but larger fragments of discourse referring to objects or episodes whose meaning underlies language, but can never exist independently of it. Semiology is therefore perhaps destined to be absorbed into a trans- linguistics, the materials of which may be myth, narrative, journalism, or on the other hand objects of our civilisation, in so far as they are spoken (through press, prospectus, interview, conversation and perhaps even the inner language, which is ruled by the laws of imagination). In fact, we must now face the possibility of inverting Saussure's declaration: linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part, it is semiology which is a part of linguistics: to be precise, it is that part covering the great signifying unities of discourse. By this inversion we may expect to bring to light the unity of the research at present being done in anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis and stylistics round the concept of signification.

Though it will doubtless be required some day to change its character, semiology must first of all, if not exactly take definite shape, at least try itself out, explore its possibilities and impossibilities. This is feasible only on the basis of preparatory investigation. And indeed it must be acknowledged in advance that such an investigation is both diffident and rash: diffident because semiological knowledge at present can be only a copy of linguistic knowledge; rash because this knowledge must be applied forthwith, at least as a project, to non-linguistic objects.

The Elements here presented have as their sole aim the extraction from linguistics of analytical concepts, which we think a priori to be sufficiently general to start semiological research on its way. In assembling them, it is not presupposed that they will remain intact during the course of research; nor that semiology will always be forced to follow the linguistic model closely.' We are merely suggesting and elucidating a terminology in the hope that it may enable an initial (albeit provisional) order to be introduced into the heterogeneous mass of significant facts. In fact what we purport to do is to furnish a principle of classification of the questions.

These elements of semiology will therefore be grouped under four main headings borrowed from structural linguistics:

1. Language and Speech.
2. Signified and Signifier.
3. Syntagm and System.
4. Denotation and Connotation.

It will be seen that these headings appear in dichotomic form; the reader will also notice that the binary classification of concepts seems frequent in structural thoughts as if the metalanguage of the linguist reproduced, like a mirror, the binary structure of the system it is describing; and we shall point out, as the occasion arises, that it would probably be very instructive to study the pre-eminence of binary classification in the discourse of contemporary social sciences. The taxonomy of these sciences, if it were well known, would undoubtedly provide a great deal of information on what might be called the field of intellectual imagination in our time.


1.2.6. Problems (I) - the origin of the various signifyings systems: The semiological extension of the language/speech notion brings with it some problems, which of course coincide with the points where the linguistic model can no longer be followed and must be altered. The first problem concerns the origin of the various systems, and thus touches on the very dialectics of language and speech. In the linguistic model, nothing enters the language without having been tried in speech, but conversely no speech is possible (that is, fulfils its function of communication) if it is not drawn from the 'treasure' of the language. This process is still, at least partially, found in a system like that of food, although individual innovations brought into it can become language phenomena. But in most other semiological systems, the language is elaborated not by the 'speaking mass' but by a deciding group. In this sense, it can be held that in most semiological languages, the sign is really and truly 'arbitrary"' since it is founded in artificial fashion by a unilateral decision; these in fact are fabricated languages, 'logo-techniques'. The user follows these languages, draws messages (or 'speech') from them but has no part in their elaboration. The deciding group which is at the origin of the system (and of its changes) can be more or less narrow; it can be a highly qualified technocracy (fashion, motor industry); it can also be a more diffuse and anonymous group (the production of standardised furniture, the middle reaches of ready-to-wear). If, however, this artificial character does not alter the institutional nature of the communication and preserves some amount of dialectical play between the system and usage, it is because, in the first place, although imposed on the users, the signifying 'contract' is no less observed by the great majority of them (otherwise the user is marked with a certain 'asociability': he can no longer communicate anything except his eccentricity); and because, moreover, languages elaborated as the outcome of a decision are not entirely free ('arbitrary'). They are subject to the determination of the community, at least through the following agencies:

i) when new needs are born, following the development of societies (the move to semi-European clothing in contemporary African countries, the birth of new patterns of quick feeding in industrial and urban societies);

ii) when economic requirements bring about the disappearance or promotion of certain materials (artificial textiles);

iii) when ideology limits the invention of forms, subjects it to taboos and reduces, so to speak, the margins of the 'normal'.

In a wider sense, we can say that the elaborations of deciding groups, namely the logo-techniques, are themselves only the terms of an ever- widening function, which is the collective field of imagination of the epoch: thus individual innovation is transcended by a sociological determination (from restricted groups), but these sociological determinations refer in turn to a final meaning, which is anthropological.


2.4.2. The arbitrary and the motivated in linguistics: We have seen that all that could be said about the signifier is that it was a (material) mediator of the signified. What is the nature of this mediation? In linguistics, this problem has provoked some discussion, chiefly about terminology, for all is fairly clear about the main issues (this will perhaps not be the case with semiology). Starting from the fact that in human language the choice of sounds is not imposed on us by the meaning itself (the ox does not determine the sound ox, since in any case the sound is different in other languages), Saussure had spoken of an arbitrary relation between signifier and signified. Benveniste has questioned the aptness of this word: what is arbitrary is the relation between the signifier and the 'thing' which is signified (of the sound ox and the animal the ox). But, as we have seen, even for Saussure, the sign is not the 'thing', but the mental representation of the thing (concept); the association of sound and representation is the outcome of a collective training (for instance the learning of the French tongue); this association - which is the signification - is by no means arbitrary (for no French person is free to modify it), indeed it is, on the contrary, necessary. It was therefore suggested to say that in linguistics the signification is unmotivated. This lack of motivation, is, by the way, only partial (Saussure speaks of a relative analogy): from signified to signifier, there is a certain motivation in the (restricted) case of onomatopoeia, as we shall see shortly, and also every time a series of signs is created by the tongue through the imitation of a certain prototype of composition or derivation: this is the case with so-called proportional signs: pommier, poirer, abricotier, etc., once the lack of motivation in their roots and their suffix is established, show an analogy in their composition. We shall therefore say in general terms that in the language the link between signifier and signified is contractual in its principle, but that this contract is collective, inscribed in a long temporality (Saussure says that 'a language is always a legacy'), and that consequently it is, as it were, naturalised; in the same way, Levi-Strauss specified that the linguistic sign is arbitrary a priori but non-arbitrary a posteriori. This discussion leads us to keep two different terms, which will be useful during the semiological extension. We shall say that a system is arbitrary when its signs are founded not by convention, but by unilateral decision: the sign is not arbitrary in the language but it is in fashion; and we shall say that a sign is motivated when the relation between its signified and its signifier is analogical (Buyssens has put forward, as suitable terms, intrinsic semes for motivated signs, and extrinsic semes for unmotivated ones). It will therefore be possible to have systems which are arbitrary and motivated, and others which are non-arbitrary and unmotivated.

Top of Page

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site

3,000BC - French Empire 2 - 1926 - 1933 - threatened Empire

Myth today headings lower down

October 1952

Small mythologies of the month

November 1954

December 1954

January 1955

February 1955

March 1955

April 1995

Face of Garbo

Wine and milk

June 1955


[June 1955 Jean Paulhan's criticisms]

[June/July 1955 Diouf, Issa and Santoura]

Group Captain Townsend

February 1956

Electoral photography

Myth Today

Myth is a type of speech

Myth as a semiological system

Form Content

"Take a bunch of roses:"

Myth systems (diagram)


The form and the concept

The signification

jeunes négrillons attentifs

Reading and deciphering myth

emprunt Pinay

Myth as stolen language

The bourgeoisie as a joint-stock company

typist's wedding