November 5, 2013

Hard to read for interesting reasons: Reading Barthes's "Mythologies"

I found these kind of hard to read.  Not hard in the way that a lot of philosophical texts are in that they drop a lot of jargon on you that the author created to define terms that other authors have already defined but that you are unaware of because you had not gone through your first round of reading the whole of philosophy yet; more like hard to read because of boredom.  I couldn’t figure out why.  They are short little texts, no more than ten pages.  The premise is sound, basically pulling apart the mythos behind everyday objects.

Doing some thinking led me to think of a couple of major reasons.  First off, the essays in the book are a touchtone for some very mid-century French objects and ideas.  If I was familiar with most of what Barthes writes on, it is only in passing and some of my favorite writers are his countrymen from this period.  It felt disconcerting, but it is what I image it will be like to read a Chuck Klostermann book fifty years hence – familiar but uncanny.  Basically, my only context for what he is writing about is what I am reading at the moment.  That fact does not allow me to see anything from a new angle; it is only from Barthes’s angle that I see it.  By not being able to create my own interpretation of the validity of Barthes’s ideas, I am left alone to trust that he knows what he is talking about.

And I’m pretty sure he does, because in the texts that are unmediated solely by a Barthes’s eyes, he does have some unique insight that I have not thought about on everyday objects.  There is an essay on cleaners that is rightly noted, and I think my explanation earlier serves a reason that it is noted.  There is a later essay on cars that rings the same bell.

The other reason that this felt hard to read is that what he is doing is no longer new, if it ever was.  The edition I had ends with a long theoretical essay on “Myth Today” that explains his approach, which is adding another layer to Sausseaurain semiotics.  The problem with reading such an essay and the derivative works is that now Barthes’s influence is such that it doesn’t feel new at all, and is part of the discourse.  Overall, I’m glad I read it, and I am happy that I read it now instead of back in graduate school as an assigned text.