Published in 1957, Mythologies is a collection of individual essays linked by a common theme: the study of meaning that can be interpreted from signs. Highly influenced by the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes’ essays seek to apply those academic models to the real world interpretation of pop culture. The result is one of the foundation documents of the social science known as semiotics.
The essays that make up Mythologies (certainly one of the shortest texts to ever make such a profound influence upon the world) were originally published as magazine articles in French between 1954 and 1956. The subject of the essays are invariably prosaic obsessions of modern culture which often verge on seeming to possess no possibility of any kind deeper meaning: professional wrestling, photograph of food to accompany article about cooking in glossy magazines, French travel guides and even advertising for washing detergents. Except for an essay on the representation of Romans in Hollywood movies, there is precious little reference to mythology in Mythologies.
That, of course, is the entire point. Barthes takes this everyday images that millions consume without thought and digs and probes at them to find the meaning in order to remind the reader that the mythology of anything is part legend, part illusion and part truth. And, underlining it all, is the contention on the part of Barthes that myths are ancient examples of media manipulation; the purpose was to create a universally-shared point of view for the purpose of constructing shared values, tradition, beliefs and conventions.
Perhaps the most famous example from the book is the way that Barthes deconstructs a simple image of foam to reveal how it has been manipulated by modern mythmaker into a symbol of luxury and wealth. Reduced to its natural properties, foam is simply water loaded with bubbles of air. It only through association and a purposeful directive of the meaning intended to be interpreted by the receiver of the message that foam is endowed with symbolism of indulgence. Ultimately, throughout Mythologies, Barthes succeeds in revealing how any object (sign) that exists naturally without inherent meaning can be endowed with ideological import through a social construction of its meaning. This even applies to objects that have already attained a purpose as meaning: the purpose of foam is a cleaning agent, but its socially constructed ideological meaning situates it as a sign of the leisure class.
Mythologies was almost instantly one of the most influential texts for cultural theories of types. Barthes remains a landmark figure in the evolution of critical theories ranging from Marxism to feminism, and from Postmodernism to Deconstruction.