A Mythologist Reads the Papers

December 20, 2015 § 8 Comments


MythologiesMythologies (Barthes, Roland)

I had an epiphany last Thursday while watching the Republican Party presidential debate on TV. It was that the fundamental political conflict of our times around the world is not the one between the supporters of big business and those of big government, or between the forces of conservatism and liberalism. It isn’t (as Sanders believes) between the rich and the 99 percent, or, taking a more global view, between democracy and autocracy, or even, as the Republican candidates claimed, between radical Islam and the rest of the civilized world. It is a war of extermination, fought with implacable fury, extreme prejudice and a diabolical, deliberate covertness by extremism against intellectualism. By intellectualism I mean scientific temper, historical even-handedness and compassionate moderation. By extremism, I mean the ideological opposition to intellectualism, from every corner of the political spectrum. It is a war for hearts and minds, and it is one that the extremists seem to be winning in most parts of the world.
This is the war described with brilliant clarity and clairvoyance in 1957, in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. How is this war waged? When Barthes says, “the war on intelligence is always waged in the name of common sense”, he might have been talking about Donald Trump. Or Vladimir Putin. Or Marine Le Pen. Or al-Baghdadi, for that matter. Science, literature, and the nuances of history are waved away airily as a complicated hallucination of no significance, while they themselves, armed “with a divine innocence”, claim to cut straight through the clutter and arrive at the so-called essence of the matter with a single, shockingly blunt statement. This is a knack that their supporters adore them for, because it dispenses with the hard work necessary in sifting facts, verifying sources or evaluating theories from multiple angles. It means one can be lazy and yet be the equal of a scholar, that one need no longer be intimidated by those whose considered opinions were earned through years of study. We do not hide fearfully behind political correctness, they say; instead, they take pride in treating people as stereotypes. This is anoutbreak of essentialism‘, says Barthes, an epidemic that is ‘the basis of all mankind’s bourgeois mythology‘.
Barthes’ biggest insight is in recognizing the principles at play here. They are the same ones at the origin of ancient legends and mythologies. Myth reduces history into a simple narrative, after stripping reality of all ambiguity and regurgitating it as something purified, innocent and utterly lacking in contradictions and complications. While many of us are able to see how this process might have worked in the Trojan War or the Ramayana, Barthes is able to see the same processes take place all around us. He is an urban 20th century mythologist, who reads magazines, sees TV, pays attention to  advertisements, and dissects the lazy thinking and devious myth-making inherent in them.

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The Anti-Barthes (picture from Wikimedia Commons)


Here I am, before the sea,” Barthes declares, “it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages for me!” He immerses himself in society and media, and it is little wonder therefore, that he remains as relevant today as when he wrote the book. Because social media is the primary weapon employed in this ruthless war against intellectualism today. Myths like “the dangerousness of all refugees”, “the merits of carrying guns as protection”, “the imminent threat to a nation’s existence”, or (on other sides) “the evil Wall Street banker”, “decadent Western civilization” or “foreign NGOs out to destabilize our nation” wend their way across the world on the wings of the internet; lazy and prejudiced opinions with sensationalist half-truths from dodgy sources are the lifeblood of clickbait sites and Facebook shares, and are soon accepted as indisputable common knowledge; as for Twitter, a medium that allows for no more than 144 characters to express an argument and in which success is defined by popularity rather than by quality, it is at the very forefront of this conflict.
Roland Barthes is difficult to read. It is necessary for the reader to put in effort, to follow him closely, to get something out of his book. He takes simple, everyday things, facts and words, and exposes a hidden world of hypocrisy and history inside each of them. Why is this so difficult to read? Because of the most powerful myth doing the rounds today: that smartness lies only in simplifying the complex; we are accustomed, not to thinking but to being spoonfed pre-digested simplicity. This is the seductive ideology behind ISIS recruitment campaigns, and the very basis of Trump’s appeal. Often intelligence lies in doing the exact opposite, in unearthing the complexity behind over-simplified presumptions. Behind every complex question of our time, there lies a simple solution that is intuitive, easy to communicate… and utterly wrong. In showing us this, Barthes is the ultimate anti-anti-intellectual.

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§ 8 Responses to A Mythologist Reads the Papers

  • theotheri says:

    I am not familiar with Barthes’ writing, but I greatly appreciate your review. As a scientist, I keep reminding myself and everyone else who will listen that science cannot give us absolute certainty – that there is always the possibility of our learning something else that turns our world upsidedown. But science (using the term broadly) is the best we have. We need to make our decisions with the best evidence we have wshile always remaining open to other possibilities.

    But so many people, as your review suggests Barthes seems to saying, don’t want uncertainty. They want absolute certainty, and are willing to pay the price of great ignorance in order to hold on to it.

    The other outcome of this need for certainty seems to be the inevitable creation of an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us,” of course, is right, which makes us superior and gives us rights over “them,” even to the point of wiping “them” from the face of the earth. Historically this has resulted in millions of deaths. But with globalization, it could be lethal to us all.

    Do you think we as a species can overcome this fear of uncertainty in order to survive?

    • psriblog says:

      Thank you for your comment. Yes I think you hit the nail on the head – I think it was in a Carl Sagan book that I first came across the Latin phrase ubi dubium ibi libertas (where there is doubt there is freedom), which scientists understand so well. Sadly, some people are willing to barter away their freedom in exchange for some certainty.
      I would start by reforming the way science is taught in schools.

  • tskraghu says:

    Am guilty of the same sin enjoying simply the essence from you instead of reading the book:-)

    I’m realting this in my mind to my profession’s job of simplifying complex math/physical model to simpler models amenable to solution.

    As always I end up learning new perspectives from ur posts.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks for the compliment! And models are a great analogy.
      Perhaps all I am saying is that math / scientific models are simpler than reality by definition – they ignore the inconvenient parts of reality and draw attention on a few significant aspects which are amenable to analysis. But reality is bigger than the model itself, and by deliberately choosing ONE of the several models that could potentially fit it, and ignoring the rest, the myth-makers of today are over-simplifying. And their followers blindly believe that the model is the only possible model, or even that the model is reality itself.
      What Barthes sort of does, is takes these simplistic models and reverses the modeling process, and tries to arrive at the problem statement itself. Does that make sense?

      • tskraghu says:

        I undrstand what you’re saying.

        Luckily in engineering the objective function or the problem variable is known and is single valued in most cases. And you head towards its solution.

        in other disciplines, as you say, things are not so sharply clear.

  • tskraghu says:

    Information asymmetry could also be a reason to resort to simpler stereotyping?.

    • psriblog says:

      In a sense. But it isn’t because the information isn’t available to us. Today, information is pretty much freely available to those who seek it. We take the pieces of information that fit our preconceived notions and we disregard / disbelieve the ones that don’t suit our purpose!

  • […] too raw, not put together with finesse and artistry. It was Roland Barthes, in a book I reviewed recently, who said that mythology was a second order system, that derived from and built on metaphors and […]

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