Positive critics

Introduction to Semiotics of Cultures, 2010
Ronald Barthes
Vesa Matteo Piludu
University of Helsinki
Positive critics: writing style
 Writing stile: clear in the first part of the book
 Use of irony: an important rhetoric quality since antiquity
 Great capacity to create neologisms.
Positive critics: contents
 The phenomena described by Barthes are still present in popular
culture after 50 years, even if they are presented in a different way
 Commercials and propaganda’s text are even more idiot, and even
more dangerous
 Today we need desperately critical studies about the media
 Barthes has “opened the way” to media criticism
Positive critics
 The book of Barthes was one of the first on popular culture, so it has
opened the way to a new field of study
 Barthes applied concepts generally used only in Classical or
Ethnologic studies to popular culture
 He demonstrated that our “rational” and modern culture is full of
irrational elements: popular culture is mythological as an ethnic
Negative critics: methods
 In all the book there the scientific references are very few
 The last chapter, the theoretical one, is written later
 The writing stile is somewhat obscure and sometimes is not very
easy to connect the speculation with the previous example of popular
 The text is theoretically poor: Barthes seems to be inspired only by
De Saussure, structural linguistics, Marx and the existentialist
 The ideas of Barthes seems to be strongly self-referential, even if
they are strongly connected to the intellectual environment of the
 Reference to previous cultural studies are minimal, compared to the
texts of Lévi-Strauss written in the same period
The Barthes’ paradox
 Barthes is writing all the time about the importance of history, but in
Mythologies there is few history
 He is not describing the origin of the modern myths in detail
Balanced critics: theory
 The myths of Barthes works well for simple texts of popular culture
(commercial, political propaganda, blockbuster films)
 Not all in popular culture is mythological
 And what about polyphony?
 Not all in popular culture is so simple and schematic: a song of
Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen doesn’t fit well in the model, a comic
of Corto Maltese, with references to history and esoterism is much
more complicate that Spider Man or Batgirl
 Intertexuality (reference to other texts) exist in popular culture:
in Sympathy for the Devil, the Rolling Stones refers to Bulkakov’s
Master and Margarita
 Of course, good and well documented journalism exists, even in
Something that fit in the wrestling-villain model
Something that doesn’t fit in the model:
Corto Maltese’s intertextuality
Corto Maltese’s intertextuality?
Corto Maltese: ethnologic attitude and precision
Reference to Danakil tea culture / vs. coffee
Hugo Pratt’s sketches
Actors and interpretation cancelled
 The myths of Barthes are cancelling the authors and the
 Who is writing commercials? Why?
 Who is receiving them? In what way?
 We react to commercial and propaganda in the same way?
 Obviously not!
 Some propaganda texts failed completely
 The media power is obviously strong, but not absolute
 Popular myths are oppressive, but sometimes ephemeral: pop
icons (singers, actors) changes continuously, they aren’t so strong
and fixed as ancient Greek heroes
 There is also dynamism, not only the repetition of the same slogans
Even so…
 The negative critics doesn’t cover the value of a classic, that
have inspired other scientists both in positive and negative ways
 We are learning also understanding the methodological mistakes of
our predecessor
 All the scientific classic are heavily criticized and is a positive
think, part of science: it’s normal
 If the relevant scholars aren’t criticized, we step into
religious/scientific sects: a scholar, as Barthes or Lévi-Strauss
became divinized (a myth itself) and the next generation aren’t
producing nothing new
 In the ‘70 the blind admiration for Lévi-Strauss has created some
dangerous sects (many scholars has tried to apply his theories to the
most different fields)
The ideological or theoric
background have changed
 Of course, it is not necessary to have the same political ideas or
theoretical background to read Barthes
 Obviously, is not required to be a member of the local MarxistExistentialist-Structuralist party (if something like that has ever
existed) to understand the text
 Is not necessary be a fox to study a fox, or a French to study
French literature, or an anthropologist to read Lévi-Strauss
 If we read only what fit to our ideals, there is the risk of became
member of scientific sects
 the analysis of classics requires, first of all, an open mind and
 A true scholar masters all scientific literature of his field,
including all that is considered surpassed
 It’s difficult to write something new without a deep knowledge
of previous scientific literature
Correct attitude toward a classic
 It’s necessary to read, first of all, the essay itself, not just a basic
commentary on the text with a ready-made interpretation
 After that, different critics (both positive, negative and balanced)
about the book and the methodology
 Comparison with other authors and theories (similar and very
different ones) is always useful
 Formation of your own point of view, that should be motivated
seriously, using correctly the bibliography available
 The personal point of view should be different from a “personal
opinion” or a “currently accepted opinion”
 It too easy to judge an author considering only the last critics: it
leads to scientific conformism (I say so … because all the others,
or the most appreciate scholars are saying so) or scientific fashion
(now the theoretical background is so … let’s follow the river)
Science isn’t Spring-Summer fashion 2010:
Fresh air and all the previous models in the trash!
Science is no inquisition or censorship …
… nor a Society for the Suppression of Vice
And remember … no one is perfect, including us