Barthes’s Black Soldier: The Making of a Mythological Celebrity (2023)

The 297th discussion of Barthes’s discussion of the photograph of the Black soldier is not an alluring prospect.

Michael Moriarty (1991)

This article originates in my recent reengagement with Roland Barthes’s Mythologies while working with coauthor Étienne Achille on our 2018 book Mythologies postcoloniales, a riff on Barthes’s 1957 detailed analysis of the signs embedded in the quotidian, particularly in popular culture (images, icons, objects, commodities, etc.), which subtly but efficiently communicate ideological values to consumers within a given national culture and at a particular moment. Inspired by Mythologies’s stated aim of applying a semiological lens to the numerous signs that make up our daily landscapes, Mythologies postcoloniales analyzes how race and, in general, signs of imperial history are naturalized within twenty-first-century French culture—a culture still fraught, we claim, with colonial ideology. The premise of the book is that Barthes’s 1957 collection of essays continues to offer a powerful critical tool with which to consider the varied ways in which contemporary popular culture functions as a significant site for the consolidation of—and resistance to—colonial ideology.

Having established this context, what follows might be considered a digression from Mythologies postcoloniales, like one of those footnotes that turn out to be as intriguing as the book itself but that one can only develop upon completion of the broader critical enterprise. A couple of years ago, as I once again picked up my dog-eared copy of Barthes’s familiar book with the telltale Citroën DS on its cover, I was struck by something that I’d been vaguely conscious of for a long time, a sort of troubling detail only vaguely perceived out of the corner of my reading eye. I knew that detail had to do with references to the colonial world in Barthes’s work. Indeed, it turns out, this connection to the colonial has now been documented by several scholars since the 1990s. In 1993, Barthes scholar Diana Knight presented “the early Barthes as an exemplary demystifier of Orientalist discourse,” yet lamented the fact that the author of Mythologies did not “receive the political credit he deserves for the attacks mounted on Paris Match, which in Barthes’ day employed openly racist rhetoric in defense of France’s colonial interests” (619). By the beginning of the twenty-first century, things had changed. As Francophone studies experienced what we might call its postcolonial turn, new engagements with Barthes’s writing on empire emerged alongside those focusing on other French theorists such as Sartre or Derrida, thereby contributing to the Francophone studies field’s legitimacy and connecting it to more canonical French studies the process. In a very convincing article published in Murdoch and Donadey’s 2005 Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies, a groundbreaking volume that marked the institutional advent of Francophone postcolonial studies during the first decade the millennium, Alec Hargreaves presents Barthes as a “neglected precursor” to postcolonialism, identifying Mythologies as a foundational text in which traces of a critique of French colonial discourse can be found. A few years later, in her 2010 study on intersections between postcolonialism and post structuralism, Jane Hiddleston again called our attention to a recurring preoccupation with the (post)colonial in Barthes’s oeuvre, remarking that while the famous French theorist “nowhere writes specifically about postcoloniality [. . .] much of his work is concerned both with cultural otherness and with the identity and belonging of the self in a postcolonial period of migration and intercultural exchange” (99). Pinpointing as they did Barthes’s early preoccupations with French colonial history, Hargreaves and Hiddleston were instrumental in re-situating Mythologies in postcolonial terms, making his critique of French society even more compelling as it revealed the inextricability of bourgeois and colonial ideologies.

Having noted these important reconfigurations of the famous French critic, recasting Barthes as a pioneer of French postcolonial criticism does not mean that the details of his engagement should remain unscrutinized. While also underscoring the cruciality of Mythologies, Lisa Lowe had already signaled the ambivalent status of Barthes’s representation of “the East”: “As early as Mythologies,” she notes in the chapter on Barthes of her 1991 study Critical Terrains: British and French Orientalisms, “French exoticism—and the fascination with the oriental world—is both object and topos in Barthes’ work” (152). Lowe further explains that

[i]n Mythologies French cultural texts and practices that constitute the oriental as exotic and Other are objects of semiological and mythological criticism (as in “Continent perdu”); In the same volume, rhetorical postures that exoticize the East are practiced by the mythologist are part of a critical project or methodology (as in “le monde où l’on catche”). (152)

For Lowe, this paradoxical gesture in Mythologies—both exposing and partaking in exotic discourse—actually announces a more significant shift in Barthes’s oeuvre, what she see as a more blatant “practice of orientalism as a writing strategy” (153) starting in the 1970s. Shifting from the oft-commented Barthesian “Orient,” I would like to consider yet another imperial space featured in Mythologies: Africa. Indeed, if Barthes has been praised as a postcolonial critic, it is in great part because his 1957 study occasionally but forcefully relies on “African” examples to sustain its theories: in the two sections “Bichon chez les Nègres” and “Grammaire africaine,” and, of course, in the “black soldier saluting the flag,” which appears on some of the most famous pages in Mythologies, based on the author’s reading of a June 1955 cover of the weekly news magazine Paris Match. Focusing on the latter, this essay will join an already considerable archive of commentaries on its significance in Barthesian studies, in particular, and in French theory as a whole. However, rather than offering yet another semiotic analysis, I would like to examine instead the status of the black soldier as what I want to call a “mythological celebrity,” that is, as a figure that has acquired an exceptional and long-lasting international visibility as myth, generated by Barthes’s singling it out on the Paris Match cover, by his subsequent theoretical examination in Mythologies, and by its academic circulation for the last sixty years or so. I will ultimately suggest that the “black soldier saluting the flag”—as it has become known—should also be reexamined as a compelling yet troubling example, one where Mythologies surreptitiously signals its own ideological ambivalence, in particular with regard to Africa and the African body.

The black soldier finds its place in Barthes’s writings among a range of innumerable bodies that populate it, from the maternal to the erotic, the cliché, the exotic, and the textual. It is nevertheless striking that one of Barthes’s most famous bodies should be an African body in the form of a black soldier. As I noted, its story has been countlessly retold, following Roland Barthes’s original account in Mythologies. Still, the passage bears repeating here, because I want to begin by locating the origin of what I call the “mythical celebrity” of the black soldier in the almost legendary narrative below:

And here is now another example. I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore faced again with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally there is a presence of the signified through the signifier. (115; original emphasis)1

(Video) An Introduction to Roland Barthes's Mythologies - A Macat Literature Analysis

Beginning with this anecdote, Barthes offers his now-canonical illustration of mythmaking, here exemplified by the naturalization process involved in the mass media’s use of images. Establishing the image of the African as both exemplary of popular culture’s power of connotation and as paradigmatic of a new demythologizing gesture, Mythologies has succeeded in granting the black soldier a visibility that has now greatly surpassed the initial one provided by the Paris Match issue. Thus, at least two levels of visibility intervene in the 1950s’ semiotic trajectory of the black soldier: first in the popular sphere, the site of a rather short-lived fame provided by the cover of a famous mass-media magazine; the second level, which we might call its “academic fame,” unfolds in more elite circles: it is triggered by the anecdotal picking up and subsequent analysis of the photograph, which forever links the signifying potential of blackness to Barthes’s long-standing notoriety as a mythologist, and to Mythologies as his most influential text.

These references to Barthes’s use of the Paris Match image have typically relied on uncritical reiterations of the original barber shop anecdote, confirming the image’s status as a brilliant illustration of the fundamental distinction between literal denotation and ideological connotation. In the process, all the elements of the theory have become part of a doxa of (early) Barthesian criticism, rarely challenged, and certainly not during Barthes’s lifetime. To my knowledge, it is not until the late 1980s that a handful of critics begin to confront Barthes’s description with the actual cover . . . and to slowly uncover important discrepancies. In a 1985 article in Word and Image, art historian Steve Baker identifies two striking differences between the alleged literal description and the original photograph. In “The Hell of Connotation,” he presents his findings as follows:

A comparison of this commentary (and its later glosses by numerous other writers) with the cover itself, or at least with its reproduction here, provokes a number of observations. The black soldier who serves under a French flag cannot be more than ten or eleven years old—Barthes only glanced at the image at the barber’s. The tricolour, mentioned by almost all commentators, is absent—Barthes only said “probably.” (168)

Baker’s 1985 insightful reassessment of Barthes’s analysis against the reality of the actual photograph has surprisingly gone unnoticed, in a context where invocations of “black man saluting the flag” unabatedly maintain its currency in academia. Indeed, I read Steve Baker’s revelations as a demystification of Barthes’s analysis, whereby he unequivocally demonstrates that the famous example just does not work as seamlessly as Barthesian scholarship would have it. Yet in spite of these early critiques, the reiteration of Barthes’s so-called “literal” description—whereby the tricolor becomes a reality, and the pupil-boy becomes a man-soldier—has successfully perpetuated what we might call the Barthesian theoretical myth. In a 1991 text meant as an introduction to Barthes for new readers, Michael Moriarty apologetically introduces his presentation of the “now famous example” by stating, “The 297th discussion of Barthes’ discussion of the Black soldier is not an alluring prospect” (1). While at some point in his presentation, Moriarty does indicates his awareness of an absent flag, he apparently decides to ignore the information, choosing instead to dismiss it as a “shrewd observation” (26) made by another scholar before he goes on to describe the photograph as that of a “black soldier saluting the flag,” thus deliberately duplicating Mythologies’s misreading.2 Another telling example would be a 2009 essay in which the author, cultural historian Stephen Bann, acknowledges the discrepancies—actually referring to Baker’s essay—only to dismiss them as a trivial “misreading,” stating,

The original issue of Paris Match displays no flag, and the “black soldier” of whom he speaks is indeed little more than a cadet, appearing in a military spectacle called “Les Nuits de l’Armée.” This apparent misreading matters little, nonetheless, as Barthes’ point is precisely that myth catches on like wildfire in a contemporary urban arena where a magazine picked up at the hairdresser’s will communicate its second-order meaning in a flash, with no opportunity for further checking. (156)

It is of course a condition of the semiotic analysis that the image be analyzed as a surface, and there is no need for the mythologist to open the magazine in order to produce his theory of signs: as much as all outside context must be, as Barthes states, “put in parentheses” (116) for the myth to function, he himself does not need to consider the historical parentheses for the purpose of his demonstration. If the soldier’s emblematic status continues to function, it is as a sign at both levels.3

This being said, many questions arise, and these should have called for more critical attention, once one is made aware of the obvious and admitted discrepancies.4 Did Barthes also misread other photographs discussed in Mythologies? It would be hard to decide unless one engages in an exhaustive study contrasting Barthes’s narrative description of the original photographs in Mythologies (of Abbé Pierre, Greta Garbo, etc.) and the originals. It is a fascinating project but not mine here. Another set of questions could focus on the reasons why Barthes misread this particular photograph. How closely did Barthes examine the cover? Did he have the curiosity to open the magazine and leaf through its pages? Why didn’t he consider—semiotically—the caption on the cover stating, “Le petit Diouf, enfant de troupes . . .”? Did Barthes deliberately misrepresent the image? If it was not intentional, how can we begin to interpret these lapses?

All this being stated, I am not interested in speculating on Barthes’s intentions, or in trying to find clues that might, for instance, connect Barthes’s theoretical interest in the colonial with elements of his biography.5 Rather, I would like to examine further what I suggest as the origin of the black soldier’s academic fame, that is, the section where Barthes puts forward his theory of mythmaking using the image described in the barber shop anecdote. My hope is to join those voices who have begun to shatter the solidity of a myth crystallized by decades of consensual repetition, and to provide a perhaps less forgiving analysis than my predecessors. I will thus demonstrate the utter relevance of Barthes’s misreadings by embedding them in a wider history of representations of blackness. I will indeed show that these seemingly irrelevant details take on acutely problematic significance when reinterpreted and situated in the context of a Barthesian discourse saturated with French colonial a prioris (the Barthesian ça va de soi). Underlying this project is the following question: to what extent can these lapses potentially jeopardize not only Mythologies’s power as a theoretical model and the “black soldier” as its most outstanding example but also, and perhaps more importantly, the book’s celebrated anti-colonial stance?

In what follows, I would like to dwell further on Barthes’s two “misreadings” as he reconstructs the image in his famous anecdote, and hopefully provide a new critical examination of its status in Mythologies. The first lapse concerns the soldier’s age. The first description of the face on the magazine mentions “un jeune nègre” in the sentence “un jeune nègre vêtu d’un uniforme français” (Mythologies 189). The youthfulness implied by the adjective “jeune” will not be further commented upon. Except for that first mention, then, nowhere in his six-page analysis of the image did Barthes acknowledge the fact that, in that barber’s shop, he was looking at the photograph of a child’s face.6 It seems to me that Barthes’s misreading of the face is, in fact, revealing of a much more insidious power of the colonial myth than even the essay in Mythologies exposes. Having had the material copy in hand, I can vouch for the fact that the close-up of the face on the 35-by-26.3-centimeter cover is unmistakably that of a child or, at the most, a young teenager. Either Barthes fell for the very semiotic trap that Paris Match set up or he did see a child, but in his eagerness to project a theory, he did not bother to properly identify the black body. As Sharon Holland puts it, “Is identifying the body honest work, or is the work of myth so omnipresent that the identifier can’t help but produce its logic, again and again?” (1496).

I would say that, for all his semiotic hyperawareness, and while claiming to operate at the level of denotation, Barthes reveals himself to be caught up in colonial ideology, so preoccupied with the production/projection of a theory that he could not “read” blackness and age other than through the familiar figure of a colonized soldier, which, as Karl Britto reminds us, “occupies a particularly fraught position within the colonial imaginary, both with respect to the production of hierarchies of difference and in relation to imperial practices of memory and disavowal” (145). More precisely, if we consider twentieth-century French popular culture, another famous colonial soldier immediately comes to mind: the West African, age-ambiguous tirailleur, which Peter Bloom actually identifies as a mythology in its own right, arguing that it constitutes “the ultimate cipher of France’s colonial legacy [. . .] etched into the collective imagination as the ‘sentinel’ of France’s colonial Empire” (35).7

(Video) Ronald Barthes's Mythologies

The second element of the misreading concerns the absence of a flag in a photograph famously described as follows: “a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor” (Mythologies 115). Again, this description is supposedly at the level of denotation. Barthes’s use of the locution “probably” (“sans doute”) in the expression “his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour” tellingly signals that he is in the process of modalizing his narration.

Even more interesting is the gradual disappearance of the modalizing expression as the anecdote gets retold over the years, both by Barthes and by his countless commentators. This is how Barthes, then the director of studies at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), described the image in a 1968 interview with France Culture a decade after the publication of Mythologies as he answered a journalist’s prompt:

Il y a dix quinze ans, alors que la question coloniale n’était pas réglée en France, un grand hebdomadaire avait publié en première page, et en couleur, une photographie d’un soldat noir habillé avec l’uniforme français et saluant, n’est-ce pas, avec un air extrêmement martial, un drapeau français. Eh bien, si l’on essaie d’analyser cette photo, on voit, si vous voulez, qu’il y a effectivement sur le premier plan un message, donc, que nous avons appelé littéral ou dénoté et qu’on pourrait simplement exprimer par des mots extrêmement neutres: Un soldat nègre . . . euh . . . habillé avec l’uniforme français salue le drapeau français. Un point c’est tout. Ça, c’est, si vous voulez, l’information littérale, l’information dans sa pureté en quelque sorte, son aseptie mythologique. (“Roland Barthes”)

In this new narrative of the barber shop anecdote—in which, incidentally, the barber shop has disappeared—the theory of denotation remains intact. However, a number of shifts have taken place with regard to the description, such as the addition of the expression “avec un air extrêmement martial” (“with an extremely martial air”) or the absence of any mention of age. Here, Barthes reiterates for the audience the paradigmatic denotated image that has now been inscribed in the history of French theory and in Barthesian studies, as generations of critics have contributed blindly to the notoriety of the nègre-soldat as a postmodern index: “Un soldat nègre habillé avec l’uniforme français salue le drapeau français” (“Roland Barthes”).

While it is tempting to go on analyzing the details of the narrative above, I would like to stop for a moment at one significant change from the original to the 1968 version, which is the dual use of noir/nègre. While the soldier is ultimately described as a “soldat nègre,” as in the sentence above, a few sentences earlier Barthes speaks of “un soldat noir,” an adjective he did not use in Mythologies. This discrepancy calls for a comment on Barthes’s representation of the soldier’s blackness, and especially his problematic use of the word “nègre.” Indeed, while the misreadings in themselves reveal a certain casualness, the representation of blackness becomes more radically troublesome when compounded with a third lapse, this time at the lexical level. The word “nègre” appears thirty-two times in Mythologies, including twenty-nine times in the section “Myth Today,” where the discussion of the black soldier occurs. Twenty-nine times is a lot, I think. In fact, I cannot think of any other theoretical text contemporary to Mythologies that would be equally saturated with this word. Indeed, I believe most of Barthes’s contemporaries would have stayed away from the term when referring to an African person or body.

To put these remarks in context, it should be noted that by the mid-1950s, and while it certainly continues to be used in common language, the racist connotations of the word “nègre” (noun and adjective) when applied to people had been largely exposed by anti-colonial intellectuals, including Aimé Césaire as early as 1939, Jean-Paul Sartre in Orphée noir (1948), and Frantz Fanon in Peau noire masques blancs (1952), to name just a few. It is actually very rare, if not exceptional, for French intellectuals in left-wing circles in the second half of the twentieth century to use the term as insistently as Barthes does in Mythologies. Of the twenty-nine occurrences, some, of course, should be understood as citational, as part of a free indirect speech anticipating mythical interpretation. Still, most instances, including the first one—“un jeune nègre”—indicate that Barthes uses the word literally, supposedly while communicating the denotated level. Again, most of his contemporaries would have chosen the expression “un jeune noir.” As Steve Baker understatedly writes, in “an example whose purpose is at least partly to demythologize the stereotypes of colonialism, it is a little surprising that Barthes favors what may have been seen as a rather pejorative term” (171).

Yet, in his 1968 interview, Barthes considers the word “nègre” to be among the “mots extrêmement neutres” of his denotation, and still uses it in his definitive, one-sentence description of the image in its “aseptie mythologique.”8 Upon closer analysis, however, one hears a self-conscious hesitation in the tone of his voice as he lowers it when he pronounces “nègre,” as if suddenly uncomfortable upon realizing the term’s racist charge. To put it another way, the interview functions as a revelatory moment, as if something happened in the oral repetition of the anecdote whereby Barthes actually caught himself (heard himself) using the term not as a neutral word (mot neutre) but as the racist term that it already was in 1957. Even if arguably ambiguous in the 1950s, by 1968, there is no doubt about the racist nature of the use of “nègre.” The trouble with the description of the black soldier, then, does not lie in one single element of its composition; rather, it is in the accumulation of oddities and lapses that the representation of blackness ultimately reveals itself as fraught. When taken together, the misreadings of the black face, the mention of a flag, and the profusive and unproblematized use of the word “nègre” amount to a disturbing—not to say exploitative—use of blackness to formulate a theoretical paradigm.

It is important to specify at this point that the black soldier is not stricto sensu a mythology in the context of the book. Instead, it appears in the section “Myth Today,” known as the theoretical part of the book, where it serves as an illustration of a semiotic system. As a supporting example, unlike the French myths listed in the first section, the discussion of the black body in the second section gives blackness an exceptional and paradoxical marginality: situated outside of the French society that Barthes examines, as if in a realm separate from Abbé Pierre, the new Citroën, steak-frites, Minou Drouet, or “The Writer on Holiday,” yet still paradigmatic of how myth works in contemporary France.

This is in great part the reason for the title I have given the article and the black figure’s mythological celebrity; as we have seen, it relies on two distinct levels of visibility, itself establishing a double exemplarity: the colonial exemplarity signified by the “soldier saluting the flag,” and the semiological exemplarity as the author’s best illustration—that is, as a paradigmatic performance of demythologization in the essay “Myth Today.” In the play between these two exemplarities, however, the signifier “nègre” retains its colonial and racist power. As such, it joins other bodies whose blackness have been discussed in order to support theories of Western considerations of race. One is reminded, here, of Zine Magubane’s comments on what she has called the “theoretical fetishization” (818) of the so-called Hottentot Venus, from object of popular voyeurism and scientific experiment in the nineteenth century to object of post-structuralist theory in the twentieth century in the wake of Sander Gilman’s essay in the now-canonical Race Writing and Difference.

Yet the trajectory of the Paris Match soldier, interestingly, does not stop at Barthes, nor does it remain crystallized in the history of Western post-structuralist theory. More than sixty years after the publication of Mythologies and several decades after decolonization, the twenty-first century marks another important moment in what I have described as the trajectory of the black soldier, with the production of a twenty-six-minute documentary by Belgian filmmaker Vincent Meessen in 2009. Aptly called Vita Nova, the documentary offers us a new incarnation of the black soldier, with his literal return, or reterritorialization, to Africa. A reader of Barthes struck like so many of us by the reference to the “nègre-soldat,” Meessen set out on a search for the “Petit Diouf” in 2006, first sending out a public call for “survivors/witnesses” in Burkina Faso (formerly Haute Volta). In the documentary, Meessen ultimately learns that Diouf has died. However, he is able to find Issa, one of the three boys featured in the Paris Match story. An old man living in the capital Ouagadougou, Issa willingly takes on the role of the soldier in the absence of the now-deceased Diouf. One of the most striking scenes shows the older Issa leafing through the 1955 magazine that has just been handed to him.

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The image of an old man’s hands grazing the surface of the magazine while reminiscing offers a beautiful visual juxtaposition of the two bodies (the boy’s face and the man’s hands), which, contrary to Barthes, allows us to see age in blackness. Also, in an extraordinary temporal telescoping and reversal of agency, it is now the African who is “picking up” the Paris Match, telling, of course, a different story: Vita Nova literally transfigures the 1950s’ “black soldier saluting the flag” into a reader and spectator of his own photographs, staging a tactile re-reading not only of his past experience in France as a child but, actually, of himself as a French (living) myth. In the process, Meessen takes the so-called black soldier not only out of its ahistorical status but also, by extension, out of the Barthesian “mythology” itself and into a material postcolonial world. Critics have called Meessen’s film a “performative documentary,” praising its political agenda as a “redemptive return whereby archival material” allows for the production of new mythologies and for the “unfinished afterlife of the colonial relation” (Demos).9 By virtue of the documentary, Meessen’s visual archiving gesture gives the black soldier another symbolic status as a postcolonial icon, thus contributing to its celebrity in another way.10

I would like to conclude with yet another consideration of visual history. In the critical literature on Barthes’s essay that has contributed to reaffirming the black soldier’s fame decade after decade, I have not come across references to the photographer who took the original photo. It would appear that he, too, is another anonymous presence, or an absence, in the theoretical reiteration of the myth that I have discussed throughout this article. But in fact, his identity is not an enigma, and it did not take much effort to find his name. As it did with all its images, Paris Match actually gave the photographer’s name in the credits: Willy Rizzo. It is worth pausing to comment briefly on Willy Rizzo’s status as a photographer, as I believe a consideration of his notoriety potentially further complicates the issue of fame in the trajectory of the black soldier as I have described it thus far. The name “Willy Rizzo” is in fact quite famous in some circles. The photographer’s notoriety is due in part to his work as a media photographer for magazines such as Paris Match, which bought his photographic coverage of the war in Indochina in the 1950s. Rizzo’s focus on the visit of the African enfants de troupe from the former Upper Volta as part of the coverage of the June 1955 Nuits de l’Armée thus follows his professional interest and expertise in war and colonial photography. But Rizzo’s art—he actually had many talents—is in the domain of celebrity portraits. Rizzo is known for his images, from the 1950s to the 1980s, of Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Willis and of numerous European actors and artists, from Brigitte Bardot to Pablo Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, and Françoise Sagan.11 A Google image search with the key words “Willy Rizzo” will yield an impressive number and range of portraits of famous people. Among those, none is of “le petit Diouf.”

Barthes’s “black soldier” should continue, of course, to be understood and to be read as a tremendously efficient signifier of colonial ideology—that is, as a mythology. At the same time, given the new insights that we have gained in past decades, I believe it should also be released from the confines of its Barthesian mythological fame in order to be critically reinterpreted as a global icon, that is, as an emblematic figure whose meaning is produced in the circulation of bodies, written texts, and visual objects, from Paris to Ouagadougou and back; from popular culture to elite spheres; from the colonial to the postcolonial. To be fair to Barthes, the vicissitudes of the black soldier as I have described them illustrate an essential lesson from Mythologies: the essential plasticity of myth. Myth is not stable; myth is always open to further historical appropriation. As Barthes writes in Mythologies: “As I said, there is no fixity in mythical concepts: they can come into being, alter disintegrate, disappear completely. And it is precisely because they are historical that history can very easily suppress them” (119).


1 Quotations from Mythologies in English are from the 1972 translation; quotations in French are from the 1957 original text.

2 Moriarty acknowledges an earlier essay by Eve Tavor Bannet.

3 For a brief discussion of the problematic ahistoricity of the black soldier, see Holland.

4 Among those who have acknowledged the discrepancy is Peter Bloom; see chapter 2, “Mythologies of the Tirailleur Sénégalais: Cinema, Shell Shcok, and French Colonial Psychiatry” (35–64).

5 T.J. Demos argues that one there is a “colonial hauntology” characterizing Barthes’s work.

6 To my knowledge, the children such as the one featured on the Paris Match cover were not trainees systematically destined to enter the military. Rather, as children of tirailleurs, or sons of the country’s traditional chiefs, they had access to special schools (prytanées) as a privilege.

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7 Pushing this a bit further, and going back to the barber shop’s narrative, one should also interrogate the rather magic appearance of the Paris Match (“on me tend”) in front of Barthes’s eyes, as opposed to Barthes’s eyes being attracted to the cover. See Meessen’s documentary and Demos’s subsequent theory of “colonial hauntology” in Barthes’s work.

8 Therefore, it is not only the choice of words but also sounds that matter in this interview.

9 To my knowledge, only two critics have paid attention to Meessen’s Vita Nova. One is T.J. Demos in the essay “A Colonial Hauntology,” and another is the critic Kobena Mercer in a brief presentation, “Vincent Meessen.”

10 The documentary is as much about Diouf and Issa as it is about Barthes: Vita Nova’s purpose is also to provide elements for a new Barthesian biography and to connect the Africa in Mythologies to African elements in Barthes’s life—more precisely, to connect it to the historical fact that Barthes’s maternal grandfather, Louis-Gustave Binger (1856–1936), was a high-ranking official in the French colonial administration, most notably as governor of Côte d’Ivoire and also famous for providing France with the first ever photographs of Côte d’Ivoire in 1895.

11 See “Willy Rizzo” and “Willie Rizzo Photographie Portraits.”

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What is Barthes theory of mythology? ›

According to Barthes, myth is based on humans' history, and myth cannot naturally occur. There are always some communicative intentions in myth. Created by people, myth can easily be changed or destroyed. Also, myth depends on the context where it exists. By changing the context, one can change the effects of myth.

How does Barthes decode myth in popular culture? ›

To decipher a myth, one simply needs to reflect over the form and meaning as read in relation to the context in which they were generated and communicated, keeping in mind the question as to its motivation.

What does Barthes mean by inoculation? ›

Barthes lists seven common techniques or figures of myth: 1) Inoculation – admitting a little bit of evil in an institution so as to ward off awareness of its fundamental problems.

What is myth today? ›

As the concluding chapter in Mythologies, "Myth Today" combines the various cases into a unified theoretical idea. Here, Barthes conceptualizes myth as a system of communication, that it is a message cannot be possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form (Barthes, 1972, p.

How do you cite Roland Barthes mythology? ›

  1. APA (7th ed.) Citation. Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies: Roland Barthes. Hill and Wang.
  2. Chicago Style (17th ed.) Citation. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies: Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
  3. MLA (8th ed.) Citation. Barthes, Roland. Mythologies: Roland Barthes. Hill and Wang, 1972.

How is myth a type of speech? ›

Ancient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the 'nature' of things. Speech of this kind is a message. It is therefore by no means confined to oral speech.

Who Analysed the significance of myth in the narrative technique? ›

Eventually Barthes advanced his interpretation of Saussure's denotative and connotative structures to suggest myth as another level of signification where the "semiological system is a system of values" (1972: 131). Myth builds upon the same process that composes the first and second order of signification.

What is the double function of myth? ›

This word is here all the better justified since myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.

How do you say Barthes in French? ›

How to Pronounce Roland Barthes? (CORRECTLY) - YouTube

What did Roland Barthes study? ›

In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he studied lexicology and sociology.

What role did Roland Barthes play in the development of structuralism? ›

Structuralism allowed Barthes to examine writing as culture, as being embedded in society. Indeed he replaced a rather passive “method” for a more active examination of literature in which the reader intervened in the text.

What is the definition of mythologies? ›

Definition of mythology

1 : an allegorical narrative. 2 : a body of myths: such as. a : the myths dealing with the gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people. b : mythos sense 2 cold war mythology. 3 : a branch of knowledge that deals with myth.

What is myth in media studies? ›

Myth in media analysis refers to how words and images are systematically used to communicate cultural and political meanings, in texts such as advertisements, magazines, films, or TV programs.

What are the 4 types of mythology? ›

Introduction. There are four basic theories of myth. Those theories are: the rational myth theory, functional myth theory, structural myth theory, and the psychological myth theory. The rational myth theory states that myths were created to explain natural events and forces.

Is Harry Potter a myth? ›

The stories of Harry Potter most far reaching match Ranks pattern and their structure is similar to that of other hero myths, such as that of Romulus and Remus. Therefore Harry can be seen as an archetypal hero and his stories as a modern hero myth.

What are the 3 types of mythology? ›

The Three Types of Myths: Aetiological, Historical, and Psychological
  • Aetiological Myths. Aetiological (sometimes spelled etiological) myths explain the reason why something is the way it is today. ...
  • Historical Myths. ...
  • Psychological Myths.

What type of noun is myth? ›

A traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc.

What is a semiological chain? ›

'Semiotic chain' refers to a process of sign-making in which the meaning is materialized in a range of different but linked texts. It is based on the assumption that meaning-making is ongoing and continuous rather than limited to one moment in time.

What is critical theory in mythology? ›

A myth-critical approach generally uncovers or identifies manifestations of mythology in a literary work--whether as the creation of an original myth, as the appropriation of a traditional mythological figure, story, or place, or in the form of allusions--and uses these mythological elements to aid interpretation of ...

What did Levi-Strauss see as the key to getting at the meaning of myths? ›

A clear enunciation of the principle that the elements of myths gain their meaning from the way they are combined and not from their intrinsic value, leads Levi-Strauss to the position that myths represent the mind that creates them, and not some external reality.

What is myth according to Northrop Frye? ›

“Myths,” Frye says, “are the [sacred] stories that tell a society what it is important for [us] to know.” A unified mythology can be a powerful instrument of social authority. What Frye calls a civilization's canon of “concerned knowledge,” transmitting a heritage of shared allusion, creates a cultural history.

What is a semiotic myth? ›

Intro to Semiotics Part 2: Sign, Myth and #AllLivesMatter - YouTube

Why myth is called a metalanguage? ›

Barthes writes that "the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning." Myth requires a "second-order" system "constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it." Barthes calls myth a "metalanguage" because it transforms a sign into a new signifier and initiates a second language containing the ...

How do you pronounce Jacques? ›

How to Pronounce Jacques? (CORRECTLY) - YouTube

How do you pronounce bartes? ›

How to Pronounce Barthes? (CORRECTLY) - YouTube

How do you pronounce Umberto Eco? ›

How to pronounce Umberto Eco (Italian/Italy) -

What did Roland Barthes believe? ›

According to Barthes, signs had both a signifier, being the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses and the signified, or meaning that is interpreted. Barthes also believed that every ideological sign is either a Denotative sign system or a Connotative sign system.

Why was Barthes a Marxist? ›

Was Barthes a Marxist? According to him he had been a Marxist for a long time: when he left the sanatorium at the end of the war he had deemed himself “a Marxist and a Sartrean”; in Bucharest he had told Rebeyrol that as far as politics went, he could only think in Marxist terms.

What are the key ideas associated with Barthes theory? ›

Barthes identifies two interrelated theoretical perspectives: 1. Semiotics​- the study of individual signs 2. Structuralism​- the study of the relationships between those signs He argues that the organisation of these relationships ​encodes particular ideologies.

Was Barthes a Marxist? ›

By the time Barthes left the sanatorium in 1946, he was, in his own words, “a Sartrian and a Marxist.” He had fallen under the influence of another patient, a Trotskyist survivor of Buchenwald who had impressed him as much for his personal qualities—“the moral freedom, the serenity, the elegant distance,” as Samoyault ...

What are the ideas R Barthes introduces into the theory of structuralism? ›

As far as Barthes' structuralism is concerned it is his Elements of Semiology that is the seminal text. Barthes begins by claiming that signs exist only in language and not outside it. It is a complex idea that means there is nothing outside or without language.

What is the main difference between structuralism and post structuralism? ›

Structuralism is a theoretical approach that identifies patterns in social arrangements, mostly notably language. While poststructuralism builds on the insights of structuralism, it holds all meaning to be fluid rather than universal and predictable.

Is mythology a religion? ›

The term religion defines a system of formally organized beliefs and practices typically centered around the worship of supernatural forces or beings, whereas mythology is a collection of myths, or stories, belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition used to explain a practice, belief, or natural ...

How many types of mythology are there? ›

There are over a hundred different world mythologies that we know of today. Among these are the Greek, Roman, Norse, Etruscan, Celtic, Slavic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Arabian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, and many more myths.

How do myths start? ›

Myths and legends began to be recorded just as soon as humans mastered the technology of writing. Often the very first texts were hymns to the gods or collections of mythological stories that became organised into cycles, explaining how the world was created, how humans came into existence or why Death is necessary.

What did Roland Barthes do in his book Mythologies? ›

In Mythologies (1957) Barthes undertook an ideological critique of various products of mass bourgeoise culture such as soap, advertisement, images of Rome, in an attempt to discover the “universal” nature behind this. Barthes considers myth as a mode of signification, a language that takes over reality.

What is the definition of mythologies? ›

Definition of mythology

1 : an allegorical narrative. 2 : a body of myths: such as. a : the myths dealing with the gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people. b : mythos sense 2 cold war mythology. 3 : a branch of knowledge that deals with myth.

What is myth in media studies? ›

Myth in media analysis refers to how words and images are systematically used to communicate cultural and political meanings, in texts such as advertisements, magazines, films, or TV programs.

What is the double function of myth? ›

This word is here all the better justified since myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.

How do you say Barthes in French? ›

How to Pronounce Roland Barthes? (CORRECTLY) - YouTube

What are Barthes codes? ›

Barthes identifies five different kinds of semiotic elements that are common to all texts. He gathers these signifiers into five codes: Hermeneutic, Proairetic, Semantic, Symbolic, and Cultural.

What are the main ideas of Barthes in from work to text? ›

Barthes believes that the work brings a consumptive pleasure by offering certain meaning, the pleasure is concerning discovery; while to read the Text arouse a jotrissance of participating the “weaving process”, which is the interaction between the reader and the work, this unlimited reproduction can construct an ...

What are the 4 types of mythology? ›

Introduction. There are four basic theories of myth. Those theories are: the rational myth theory, functional myth theory, structural myth theory, and the psychological myth theory. The rational myth theory states that myths were created to explain natural events and forces.

What are the 3 types of mythology? ›

The Three Types of Myths: Aetiological, Historical, and Psychological
  • Aetiological Myths. Aetiological (sometimes spelled etiological) myths explain the reason why something is the way it is today. ...
  • Historical Myths. ...
  • Psychological Myths.

Is mythology a religion? ›

The term religion defines a system of formally organized beliefs and practices typically centered around the worship of supernatural forces or beings, whereas mythology is a collection of myths, or stories, belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition used to explain a practice, belief, or natural ...

What is myth semiotics? ›

So myth is a perceived cultural reality among potential layers of signification. Barthes theorizes that myth carries an order of cultural signification where semiotic code is perceived as fact (1972: 131), therefore assuming a degree of power and authority.

How is myth a type of speech? ›

Ancient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the 'nature' of things. Speech of this kind is a message. It is therefore by no means confined to oral speech.

Why myth is called a metalanguage? ›

Barthes writes that "the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning." Myth requires a "second-order" system "constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it." Barthes calls myth a "metalanguage" because it transforms a sign into a new signifier and initiates a second language containing the ...

What is a semiological system? ›

Semiology is a science discipline that studies sign systems such as language, codes, signals, etc. F. de Saussure envisaged semiology as a science which would “study the life of signs within society” (Guiraud, 1994). For Peirce, a sign is a thing that stands for something else in all respects (Vardar, 1998).


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