Roland Barthes published Mythologies in 1957, it was a collection of articles he wrote for ‘Les Lettres Nouvelles’. The articles covered contemporary commodities of cultural significance. In this article I will concentrate on ‘Myth Today’. I will explore Barthes conception and understanding of myth. I will argue that Barthes’ myth is a metalanguage through which the dominant power communicates its ideological standpoint and attempts to naturalise it. Barthes sees myth as the system through which the historical has become perceived as the universal. In this article I will argue that advertising is a prime example of ‘the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature’.(1.) I will use Baudrillard to augment this position. I will then examine a text, an iPod advert, and explore the values the advert communicates.(2.) I will explain that the advert offers individualisation and happiness through the purchase of the iPod. Using Barthes’ theory of myth I will indicate how the advert attempts to naturalise it’s inherent values; the values of the dominant commercial culture.
Barthes explains that ‘myth is a type of speech’.(3.) What Barthes means by this is that myth is a system of communication. Myth is not a particular object but rather the ‘the way in which [an object] utters [a] message’.(4.) Barthes explains that myth ‘is a second-order semiological system‘.(5.) Barthes is arguing that myth is a metalanguage; an overarching language which rationalises and organises thought and perception. Myth is the system of communication which naturalises the political nature of a products’ consumption and production; myth is a system of communication which naturalises dominant cultural and historical values and attitudes. Barthes explains ‘myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification’.(6.) The dominant power, to Barthes the petit-bourgeois, naturalises its outlook by making its message, or ideology, seem self-evident and true; myth is the system used to communicate that which the power wishes to be accepted as common-sense and universal. Just like Gramsci’s hegemony, myth produces ‘an internalised form of social control which makes certain views seem natural or invisible so that they hardly seem like views at all, just the way things are‘.(7.) If we take “dog” as an example of mythic speech in-action we would note that at the most basic representative level dog denotes a four-legged animal (Canis lupus familiaris). A connotation of dog is loyalty: communicated in the maxim “Man’s best friend”. The myth that this maxim augments is of patriarchal or masculine power. Man, and not woman, is that which loyalty to is seen as natural.(8.) The denotation, the basic representative level of dog, becomes implicitly linked to the mythic connotation.(9.) The sign dog, and the maxim “Man’s best friend”, comes to communicate the values of a patriarchal ideology: simultaneously naturalising the position of patriarchal dominance as universal.
Barthes asserts that myth is a system of signification and connotation which circulates the dominant powers’ values. This system of signification is found in everyday objects and signs. Adverts are an important discourse and an important vehicle in the communication of a contemporary cultures’ myth. As Jean Baudrillard notes in The System of Objects ‘Advertising… is pure connotation’: and connotation is the realm of myth.(10.) Baudrillard explains that advertising ‘contributes nothing to production or to the direct practical application of things, [advertising] becomes an object to be consumed’.(11.) Advertising is not an attempted sale of products – evidence shows that consumers are able to resist ‘advertising in the imperative'(12.) – but a ‘clear expression of a culture’ and cultural beliefs.(13.) Baudrillard, influenced by Barthes, comes to the conclusion that advertising is a system of signification and connotation; advertising is a discourse on objects and a discourse which speaks in myth.(14.)
The iPod is an internationally known product from the Apple company. A portable media player capable of playing music files, video files, and the new iPod Touch, video games [New at the original time of writing this paper]. The text I have chosen to analyse is an advert for the iPod Classic. The Apple website explains ‘iTunes automatically fills up your iPod classic with everything you need to be entertained’.(15.) The iPod is a personal portable entertainment machine – the iTunes programme is the organising system which allows to download and personalise your track choice. Barthes explained, in his exposition of soap-powders and detergents, that adverts ‘involve the consumer in a kind of direct experience of the substance… [the object] is endowed with value-bearing states’.(16.) The iPod poster is a representation of euphoric dancing, simulating the experience you gain from possession of an iPod. The poster refers back to the televised adverts. The televised adverts, sharing the same aesthetic design as the poster, are assigned popular songs. The black figure dances in time with the music in several distinctive styles. The poster, and television advert, attribute the state of happiness and euphoria to ownership of the iPod. The form of the black figure is set against a homogeneous singularly-coloured mass of pea-green. Only the black figure, activated by the white iPod, can move – the figure is individualised by ownership of the, and interaction with, the iPod.
The iPod does not individualise you; your experience may be different from others indicated by a different selection of music, but you plug yourself into the same interface as others. An interface of a homogeneous mass which retains a consistent form and style: the electrical goods market. The myth of the iPod communicates and naturalises the stance that only through the consumption of commodities can you achieve happiness; a state of simulated ecstasy. While “individualising” oneself through the iPod you plug yourself into another homogeneous mass; the culture industry. With a potential “10,000” songs in your pocket the ability for individualisation of your hard drive is immense. You can download any song you want and therefore represent any personality you wish; as long as it is from and through the culture industry. This amounts to the mythic discourse saying “you can have any song you want as long you choose it from our library of songs”. Exploring the structure of advertising discourse we realise that the iPod myth attempts to naturalise the ideological position which asserts that we construct we construct our individuality through commercial culture and that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities.
Myth is a type of speech, a form of connotation. Myth is not a particular object – though it can be any object – it is rather an utterance above and beyond the representative level of things. Barthes argues that myth is a language-structure which transforms the historical into the natural or timeless; myth transforms ideology into the common-sense. As I indicated which the phrase “Man’s best friend” myth transforms a certain set of beliefs and world-views into the timeless and self-evident; myth naturalises the historical. Baudrillard noted that advertising is an expression of a dominant culture’s beliefs. Advertising is the discourse of commodities; a discourse which speaks in mythological terms. I looked at an advert for the iPod classic. I noted that through connection with the iPod the black figure is individualised and separated from the single-toned background. The iPod is also endowed with the expression and attainment of happiness and ecstasy. The iPod is endowed with value beyond its physical elements. I argued that the iPod, rather than produce individuals, asserts the market economies dominance over the personal sphere; the discourse of the iPod naturalises a capitalist ideology by asserting that individualism is brought and obtained through the market and through commodities. The iPod myth naturalises both the position that we construct our personality through commercial culture – pop music – and the position that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities. Barthes theory of myth provides a framework through which to analyse contemporary connotation. The study of myth is concerned with the precisely contemporary and does not need to concern itself with eternal truths; in fact it exposes the ideological motives behind common-sense and the natural. Barthes’ myth is particularly well suited to analysing advertising and commercial culture as they are, as Baudrillard noted, purely connotative. Advertising becomes something above and beyond the physical object they promote; advertising is a metalanguage – advertising is purely mythological.
1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, London: Vintage, (2000), p. 9.
2. Advert displayed in the bibliography section.
3. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.
4. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.
5. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 114.
6. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 142.
7. Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1995), pp. 164-165.
8. The tamed beast that is dog locates the site of power – the provider – and is loyal to it: masculinity. And as the dog is nature then it’s perception cannot be anything other than natural.
9. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 131.
10. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, London: Verso, (2005), p. 178.
11. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 178.
12. Resistance to ‘Advertising in the imperative’ means resistance to the commands that advertising makes such as; “buy this particular product”.
13. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, pp. 179-180.
14. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 179. p. 214.
15. Apple United Kingdom, http://www.apple.com/uk/ipodclassic/itunes.html, [Accessed 23rd November 2008]
16. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 37.