Roland Barthes, “Mythologies”

1957

My readings of 10 of the sections of Mythologies:

“Blind & Dumb Criticism”: Barthes interrogates the false “inability to understand” of critics as a mode of being so sure of one’s own intelligence and so willing to downplay cultural products as “rhetorical effusion” that the work in question is revealed as abstruse or lacking, rather than the mind of the critic.

“Soap-powders & Detergents”: Barthes examines the advertisement of corrosive but purifying cleansing agents. The marketing of “deep and foamy” creates a paradox of how to make things white: by penetrating a depth fabrics do not seem to have with a proliferation of luxurious and airy foam. This builds trust in the consumer, argues Barthes.

“Novels & Children”: Here Barthes argues that women novelists are allowed to “play” at being writers as long as they maintain maternal and household duties – thus, they must pay for a dose of writerly “bohemianism” with that which will prevent it – conventionality. The world of “double parturition” – children and novels – is a “free space” circumscribed by the male gaze pressing in all around (a womb and prison).

“The Face of Garbo”: Garbo is part of a lost age of cinema when the spectator would lose himself inside a face. The thick, masklike plaster of makeup and unemotional black eyes are like Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality” argument. In Garbo’s face, “the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.” Garbo is an essence, an Idea, whereas Barthes says we are “now” (in the 50s) in the face of Audrey Hepburn – a specificity, an Event.

“Wine & Milk”: Barthes argues that wine is a social collective in France, a class equalizer, present at all social occasions, a sign of fire and vitality, too, though it also signifies expropriation and capitalist exploitation. Milk is its opposite – soothing, dense, strong, “the equal of reality” – it is America.

“Steak & Chips”: An odd sequel to “Wine & Milk,” here steak & chips are also put forth as quintessentially French, the rare steak being the sign of strength and maturity.

“The Nautilus & the Drunken Boat”: the boat, especially that of Jules Verne’s fiction, is a habitat, an enclosed space (relate this to public transport in Benjamin). The opposite of it would be an open boat, “freed from its concavity,” no longer a cave but a mode of true exploration.

“Ornamental Cookery”: The “smooth coating” and “glaze surfaces” of food in Elle magazine express the dialectical bourgeois conflict between “fleeing from Nature” (having ideas, making new) and artificially “reconstituting” the natural (bourgeois realism) in the presentation of food. Food is shot from overhead and eroticized as “at once near and inaccessible,” almost like women in the male gaze, or like Benjamin’s concept of the auratic – seeming distant, however near (vs. the trace – seeming near, however distant).

“Striptease”: The paradox of the striptease is that “Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” Striptease negates the flesh and innoculates sexuality (much as the prostitute is sanctioned for the good of the family). The woman is an exoticized “object in disguise,” making her nudity the natural state to which she returns by stripping. The bedazzled underpants at the end of the striptease make woman a precious stone, surface, or jewel – “the absolute object, that which serves no purpose.” Only amateur stripteases are erotic; by making striptease public, household, and bourgeois, it is nationalized and sterilized.

“Plastic”: Plastics are alchemical, Barthes argues, turning “greenish crystals” into “fluted dressing-room tidies” by means of a tube. Plastic is among other “imitiation materials,” but the earlier ones sought to mimic cheaply diamonds, silk, “all the luxurious brilliance of the world,” whereas in plastic, “artifice aims at something common, not rare” that will take over the world and the body in its many forms. (Recall advice on “the future of plastics” in The Graduate!)

“More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation… the trace of a movement… transforming the original crystals into a multitude of more and more startling objects… a spectacle to be deciphered… the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels… the singular of the origin and the plural of the effects.”

“But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, hardly exists as substance. Its reality is a negative one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a ‘substantial’ attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding. In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal… powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.”

“What best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at once hollow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colors, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones… only concepts of colors.”

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