Roland Barthes in the NYT

This past Sunday, the first day of Shavuot, Sam Anderson did a fine piece in the NYT on Roland Barthes, the critic. The article presents Barthes as the antecedent of bloggers.

Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one… Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths.

He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk.
(“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning.

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

[W]hat angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent.The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
Read the rest here.

Pretend that complex things are simple. Assert that the puzzling is obvious. Infer that the local is universal. Who does this? The next time you hear that some visible or invisible order of things is “universal” “eternal” or “natural,” remind yourself of Barthes.

And the article closes with a great example of the post-ironic.

Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

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