In Mythologies, Roland Barthes takes up the challenge posed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics: to elaborate “semiology” as what Saussure terms “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (15). Or to put this another way: Barthes takes the world around him as a social text, which can be read more or less like any other and in which the elements that compose it are almost as arbitrary as any other.

But the social text is only almost as arbitrary as any other; for Barthes, we also need “to pass from semiology to ideology” (128), that is, to recognize that the myths that structure the text of everyday life are politically motivated. To adapt a line from Marx: the ruling myths of each age have ever been the myths of its ruling class. There is therefore often a rather complex play between arbitrariness on one level and necessity (or, at least, political motivation) on another.

Wine is a perfect instance of this combination of extreme malleability and narrow determination. As Barthes observes, in France wine “supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions” (58). For example, “in cold weather it is associated with all the myths of being warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling” (60). Indeed, Barthes notes that the fundamental characteristic of wine as a signifier is less any particular content or signified to which it is attached than that it seems to effect a function of conversion or reversal, “extracting from objects their opposites–for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative” (58). And yet however much Barthes makes hay of this chain of associations and contradictions, there is a point at which the arbitrary play of significations ends. For wine is still, fundamentally, a commodity; in fact, it is big business. The analysis therefore concludes with a sort of determination in the last instance by the economy:

There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation. (61)

Hence for this reason, if no other, Barthes is far from suggesting some kind of interpretative free play: there is clearly a right way to read the myth of wine, and a wrong way; if we leave out the fact of expropriation, we have ultimately not understood the myth or its social function.

Elsewhere the moment at which interpretation comes to an end is rather more complex, and perhaps more interesting. Take the essay on “Toys.” This is basically a critique of realism. Let us be clear: the problem with conventional French toys, Barthes argues, is not so much that they are gender-stereotyped, that for instance girls are to play with dolls and boys are given toy soldiers. It is, rather, that toys are almost always loaded with meaning: “French toys >always mean something, and this something is almost always entirely socialized” (53).

Toys constitute, in other words, what Barthes elsewhere terms a “work” in contradistinction to a “text”; they limit the range of uses to which they can be put. Indeed, they limit children’s activity and expectation of the world to one predicated on use, rather than pleasure; on interpretation, rather than creation. And for Barthes use and meaning are both forms of tyranny, and they are both essentially dead. As he says of modern toys that are “chemical in substance and colour,” they “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).

What’s curious, however, is the reading that Barthes provides, by contrast, of wooden blocks. Such toys are closer to a text than a work: they have no pre-set meaning; they are not premised upon representation, and so do not depend upon interpretation; the child who plays with them “creates life, not property” (54). So far, so good. But the strange moment comes when Barthes associates the open textuality facilitated by such open-ended play with wood. In a sort of poetic reverie, he praises the many characteristics of a substance that is “an ideal material because of its firmness and softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal” (54).

It’s not obvious, after all, that wood is any more “natural” (or indeed, any less “chemical”) than metal. Here, the point at which the play of signification stops depends less upon a political analysis of exploitation and expropriation, and rather more on a very familiar contrast between nature and industry, tradition and modernity. In short, here at least Barthes seems to be caught in a myth that he has merely made his own.


[Some notes on Althusser, taken from Posthegemony.]

The everyday, routine, and almost invisible politics of habit contrasts with the often spectacular display that characterizes politics as it is more usually understood. The politics of habit is not the clash of ideologies within a theater of representation. It is a politics that is immanent and corporeal, that works directly through the body. Yet habit is primary; it is not an effect or a consequence of political processes that take place elsewhere. Rather, other forms of politics depend upon the dispositions and attitudes that habit inculcates. If we were to think of habit as ideology (and I agree with Bourdieu that we would be better off calling it something else), it would be closer to Louis Althusser’s “ideology in general” than to ideology as the “system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” Ideology in general precedes and underwrites specific ideologies, in that it constitutes the subjects who then conform to or recognize a system of representations. For Althusser, ideology in general consists in the mechanism of interpellation whereby Ideological State Apparatuses such as the school or the family call subjects into being, subjects whose condition of existence is that they recognize the power of some other, transcendent Subject (capitalized by Althusser) that is reciprocally produced in the same operation. Hence, although interpellation is material, in that it takes place in institutions and through practice (in his illustration, the subject comes into being by turning to face a police officer who hails him or her, and who comes to incarnate the Subject), what it produces is ideal. Physical gestures and attitudes such as kneeling at mass or standing at school assembly construct a doubled subjectivity, in which many subjects turn to face the one, transcendent Subject that appears to be mediated though ideas and representations. But the display, the theatrical (or cinematic) separation of Subject from subjects, is a product of the process that it subsequently appears to have produced. It is an effect that is taken to be cause; a quasi cause that arises through habit.

The habits that structure ideology in general constitute the state and its institutions, and also establish a relation to those institutions that appears to be ideological. The subjects that emerge through interpellation act as though they were following their consciences, as though ideas governed actions. Hegemony theory discloses that these ideas are not free, that they are orchestrated elsewhere. But it still stresses belief and consent. This does not go far enough: it does not recognize that belief arises from habit. Althusser cites the dictum of seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.” A Catholic will go to mass, a school pupil sing in assembly, a citizen enter the voting booth, and it can appear as though these practices were an effect of free will or, alternatively, of willing if deluded consent to a hege- monic project. Althusser insists, by contrast, that interpellation is a practice, and therefore already corporeal: always already acted out or performed, a subject’s ideas are “material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” The ideal is at best contingent: its con- tent irrelevant, it is effect rather than cause. Belief in the power of ideology is itself ideological; ideology is at best a quasi cause in that everything happens (only) as though ideology were in fact determinant. Hence “the ideology of ideology” is the conviction that ideology matters, that our actions follow on from the ideas that we hold or even from the ideas that hold us and so from the ruses of some hegemonic project. And when this ideology of ideology wanes, when it becomes apparent that subjects “know very well what they are doing” but are still doing it, we have entered posthegemonic times. (pp. 181-82)

[. . .]

Social reproduction is never truly flawless. It is always somewhat hit and miss. Philosopher Judith Butler’s theorization of performativity as the embodied enactment of identity roles stresses the ways in which such roles can be “queered”: bent out of shape if not fully avoided. She takes issue with Althusser’s notion of inter- pellation, insisting on the possibilities of failed interpellation (only glimpsed in Althusser’s brief reference to “bad subjects”) to show that the voice of power, the state’s “hailing,” and the order of bod- ies are not fully synchronized. The body always falls short of or exceeds the voice. Hence she argues that “useful as it is, Althusser’s scheme . . . attribut[es] a creative power to the voice that recalls and reconsolidates the figure of the divine voice in its ability to bring about what it names.” Although Althusser’s essay is a critique of the fetishism that imagines that the state alone authorizes subjectivity, Butler suggests that he remains within precisely this paradigm. For Althusser, not only is “ideology in general” necessary and eternal; so therefore is the state that acts as the essential lynchpin of the double circuit of ideology, command, and habit. Butler points, on the one hand, to interpellation’s citational quality: the fact that the state endlessly has to return to previous instances of interpellation so as to legitimate its attempts to constitute subjects reveals that it can never fully establish its claim to originality; the fact that it continually has to repeat itself shows that it is forever incomplete. On the other hand, Butler is also concerned with what remains unvoiced and unspoken. Censorship, for instance, “produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable,” and more generally the gap between what may and may not be spoken determines “the conditions of intelligibility” of any regime of power. “This normative exercise of power,” she argues, “is rarely acknowledged as an operation of power at all. Indeed, we may classify it among the most implicit forms of power. . . . That power continues to act in illegible ways is one source of its relative invulnerability.” Here, then, Butler turns to Bourdieu, theorist of “a bodily understanding, or habitus” that does not depend upon the voice or upon speech. For habit describes what exceeds interpellation, whether that be the state’s biopower or an insurgent biopolitics. (pp. 214-15)


Guy de Maupassant’s “The Little Cask” (“Le Petit Fût”) is a short, cautionary narrative of unequal exchange at the border between two economic systems.

In brief, an innkeeper has his eye on his neighbor’s farm. But the owner, an old woman who has spent her entire life there, stubbornly refuses to sell: “I was born here, and here I mean to die,” as she puts it. But the two eventually come to an agreement, that the innkeeper will pay the old woman an annuity of fifty crowns a month (which she, on the advice of a lawyer, has bargained up from a mere thirty) and he will inherit the property on her death. With the transaction agreed, life continues as before, and the innkeeper notes despairingly that as the years pass the old woman remains as hale and hearty as ever. He then invites her over to dinner and discovers her weak spot: a preference for fine brandy. So in an outpouring of generosity he arranges for her to receive a constant supply of the fine liquor. Soon enough, she begins to decline, people start talking, and she dies a reviled drunk. When her neighbor comes by to take possession of her farm, in accordance with their agreement, he intones the tale’s sad moral: ” It was very stupid of her; if she had not taken to drink she might very well have lived for ten years longer.”

The joke is the disconnect between the moral and the tale itself, even if the conclusion that the innkeeper draws is literally true. For what is stupid is the old woman’s trust in her neighbor’s generosity, not realizing the economic motives that underlie it.

But in some ways the joke is also on the innkeeper, though he doesn’t notice it and indeed presumably wouldn’t even mind. For if, as I say, the crux here is the clash between a relationship to land and property based on habit and affect on the one hand, and the introduction of rational calculation of profit, loss, and risk on the other, we see how the dispassionate logic of capital in fact has to be supplemented by an appeal to the senses. The innkeeper’s despair arises from the apparent failure of his actuarial calculations: he is forced to intervene by calling on the rather more traditional gestures of hospitality, neighborliness, conviviality, and the gift economy. It just so happens that his gift is (almost literally) a poisoned chalice.

So the hypocrisy of the final judgment rebounds on the innkeeper (again, however little he might ultimately care about the fact). It is as though everything could indeed be explained by the old woman’s unwise choices, her failure to make a rational account of her situation and to act prudently to ensure her continued health and so continued enjoyment of the property and annuity alike. But in fact the story tells us that in origin it is the innkeeper’s risk assessment that fails, and that his reputation as a “very knowing customer” or “smart business man” depends on his acceptance of other modes of dealing that are not, in the end, entirely businesslike.

Thus ideology: everything can happen as though the tale’s moral were correct, because of course it can’t be denied. (The old woman may indeed have lived much longer had she not taken to drink!) One is reminded of the many justifications for the recent bank bail-outs, each of which is on its own terms incontrovertible. But this occludes the continued effectivity of another economy, which apparently rational accounts of profit, risk, and loss can never fully escape.