This book has become such a classic that it is quite difficult to write about in a number of ways. For one, it has garnered so much attention and analysis that it is difficult to say anything new about it. From another point of view it may be seen as dated and surpassed by post-structuralist theory and so is considered by some to be passé. Yet, we still find many people misunderstanding language, form and meaning. The book is known in design circles but not always read or studied. In advertising it is a standard text, the starting point for understanding their discipline, even if they then move on to more sophisticated techniques and theories. The book is a collection of reprints of a series of monthly essays with a theoretical overview (Myth Today) tacked on to the end. I’ve taught the book fairly often – it’s an ideal book for this for many reasons. The essays are very short, most are two to three paperback sized pages long (only one exceeds this at 11 pages, still rather short). The essays can be read in at least two ways, as critiques of their subject matter and as examples of a theory at work (semiotics). Their length makes them easy to re-read and examine his arguments and theory step by step, sentence by sentence. They are amazingly efficient essays and they have to be given their size. The only way in which I think the book is dated is in some of their references, common in their day (the mid-1950s) but obscure today. Each essay untangles the structure of a piece of writing, advertisement, film or object to demonstrate how its specific form means more than its surface message contains. Essays can be taken individually or as a whole. As a whole it is interesting in that the idea that myth construction – hidden or smuggled meanings – exist not just in texts but in designed objects. The idea of things as signs goes beyond those things we might normally see as signs, like advertisements, and extend into objects not normally assumed to be part of a sign system. It is also interesting to see the range of meanings that can be constructed, from militaristic ideology (Soap-powders and detergents) to cultural myths (Steak and Chips) to rhetorical sleights of hand (Operation Margarine) to race (Myth Today).
From a design standpoint it was significant to learn that forms can mean something beyond their visual content – what they look like or evoke visually – but that it is also how things are structured that constructs and communicates meaning. Here I’ll stick with simpler understanding of the 1950s and 1960s and say ‘constructs’ rather than ‘situates’ or ‘suggests’ and also use the singular ‘meaning’ rather than ‘meanings’. We know that meaning doesn’t reside entirely in the form with a passive interpreter and we also know there are multiple meanings (interpretations) rather than author determined single meaning. We too often pick up on the postmodern twist to all this and mistake it for a structure-less fog of meaning and interpretation. There is something useful in understanding the underlying structure that Barthes reveals in his little book – more, I think it is essential. The more complex language and meaning models we have at our disposal (e.g. deconstruction) make no sense if you don’t understand the basics. The recent history of architecture has proven what happens when ‘new’ theory is ingested without proper understanding of context and background (e.g the deconstructivist architecture that architects are too embarrassed to refer to now).
Barthes book is important in this way – as an entry level text – but it is also important in that it shows that these operations that construct meaning cut across many disciplines (even if the mechanisms must change). It therefore becomes a simple way of starting to connect design with ideology, economy, politics, culture, and so on. It is, as I say, an entry level text that too many people entering the field of design, unfortunately, never read.
I should say that this book was only the starting point, but maybe the most important starting point, for a journey into a whole set of other readings, not least of which were Barthes other wonderful books (Camera Lucida, Empire of Signs, The Eifel Tower). From here I could understand Eco, from there Derrida and Panofsky and on to Clement Greenberg, Alan Colquhoun, Hubert Damisch, Fredric Jameson and Henri Lefebvre, just to name a few. This is not to say that these authors are connected theoretically (some are) but that Barthes also taught me to read and to write (though that remains a struggle to this day).