Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) is often seen as a founding father of Media Studies, as many of his books look at the way in which media texts hold meaning. For example, Mythologies (1957) looks at wrestling, Roman films, soap powders and detergents, steak and chips, striptease, plastic . . .

Roland Barthes is often seen as a structuralist in other words, he was interested in tracing the relationship between significant societal structures, like the media and popular culture and identifying how they made an impact on society and individuals. In particular, he was interested in the ways in which dominant structures created dominant ideologies. To that end, he was keen to encourage a reading of cultural texts from an analysis of what they were (analysing the object), which operates at a denotative level (think for examples elements and signs that are in a newspaper, or radio programme, film, television, advert or web-page), to what they might mean, which is at a connotative level.

Beyond this Barthes felt that by understanding a range of meanings (connotations) from a range of similar texts (paradigms) it was possible to develop an understanding of an overarching dominant ideology or at a point that Barthes identifies as a myth. In other words, an argument is presented that suggests that the mass media contribute to a dominant ideology around gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class and status, which are actually are myths. It could be then argued that these myths are actually in-line with the dominant ideology (attitudes, values and beliefs) of the dominant groups in society.

This aligns his views to a Marxist interpretation of society (one based on the ideas of Karl Marx), where the dominant ideology of society is actually the ideology of the dominant groups in society, which may not necessarily be in everybody’s interest or benefit.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.

Marx, German Ideology (1845)

Following this line of thought, cultural texts that appear to support the dominant ideology can the therefore referred to as ‘reactionary’ as opposed to texts which challenge the dominant ideology which can be referred to as ‘radical’. Although, what soon becomes apparent in any textual analysis is that most texts usually appear to have elements that are both radical and reactionary. As such, it may be necessary to think further about where meaning comes from, because if we think about it with reference to the theory of symbolic interactionism, then we need to consider the role of the audience in constructing meaning, as well as thinking about the role of the author of a text, or even the institution that made it. This idea can again be referenced to Barthes in his proposition of the ‘Death of the Author‘ and will be explored in another post follow this link if you want to find out a bit more.

For now here are some excellent animated videos that help to explore some of the ideas that I have put forward.

The best way forward I would suggest is to take these ideas and make them your own! For example, you could make some revision notes using the key words in ‘bold’ and then try to apply them to some of your set texts that you have been looking at in your course, or that you know you will be examined on. Try writing short, separate individual paragraphs.

Feel free to send me your work, ask a question or let me know how I could improve this post. Leave a comment or contact me via twitter or email.

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