“This myth of human ‘condition’ rests on a very old mystification, which always consists in placing Nature at the bottom of History. Any classic humanism postulates that in scratching the history of men a little, the relativity of their institutions or the superficial diversity of their skins (but why not ask the parents of Emmet Till, the young Negro assassinated by the Whites what they think of The Great Family of Man?)

–          Barthes, Roland, 1957, The Great Family of Man, Mythologies[1]

Barthes’s essay The Great Family of Man from Mythologies, discusses Edward Steichen’s photography exhibition, The Family of Man[2], which focused on commonalities that unite mankind like “birth, death, work, knowledge, play” (Barthes) etc. Steichen was the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Photography. His work toured the world for eight years as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II; nine million people viewed it. The collection’s overtones of peace and human brotherhood symbolized a lifting of the overhanging danger of an atomic war for Soviet citizens. This meaning seemed to be grasped especially by Russian students and intellectuals. The French translated it as The Great Family of Man “so what could originally pass for a phrase belonging to zoology, keeping only the similarity in behaviour, the unity of a species, is here amply moralized and sentimentalized” (Barthes).


The Family of Man by Edward Steichen
The Family of Man by Edward Steichen, Exhibition at MoMA https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2429


Barthes is criticizing the photography exhibition’s insistence on the existence of a shared human experience that he claims is a myth. The concept of a “shared humanity” ignores differences of race, economic status, and opportunity for example, creating a mythology about human experience as equal and standard, because of commonalities like birth, death, work and play. However, it downplays the difference between being born a white master and black slave. The history of human experience is scarred with injustices like the killing and mutilation of Emmet Till (merely because he flirted with a white woman); overlooking such differences is “the very old mystification” of human condition. An exhibition like this negates factors like life expectancy and how profitable labour is for different individuals. It is “the final justification of all this Adamism [giving] the immobility of the world the alibi of ‘wisdom’ and ‘lyricism’” (Barthes).

According to Barthes, myth is a special “type of speech”, it isn’t just a genre of stories, rather a way of saying something. The special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact it’s no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician. The myth of shared humanity de-historicizes communities by neglecting their individual struggle and experience, naturalizing injustices like colonisation for example. It became the white man’s burden[3] to civilize the East because it was the heart of darkness[4], as if the Africans had no history of their own, no culture, no literature, nothing. They were erased and their erasure was naturalized because of course they were savage for they were not like the Occident.



Masks Still Life III by Emil Nolde, 1911, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri Courtesy: Tate, Check out the article: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/legacies-empire



Gauri Viswanathan[5] draws inspiration from the Gramscian concept of hegemony[6] for explaining the West’s control of the Orient. Viswanthan notes that the British in India created a linguistic hegemony, ideologically forcing the natives to perceive English as superior to their vernacular. The intention was to homogenize the linguistic diversity that existed in the Indian subcontinent, and this was achieved through conscious language policy enforced with the help of law, education and administration. Viswanathan also points out that the British first befriended the elites of India, adopted their lifestyles and secured their trust in order to expand control. Once the dominant classes within India began seeing the British as intellectually and culturally superior, it was easy to reign over the middle and lower classes as well. For the Indians, it became ‘common sense’ to want to be more like the British; it was ‘common sense’ to learn to speak, read and write in English. Through literature, the East was reaffirmed as exotic, savage, and in need of the West. They developed anthropological sciences that proved the blacks and biologically inferior. There were myths that the skulls of the blacks were significantly smaller than the whites. These myths soon became science and logic and natural. It was only natural then for the white man to take it upon himself to tame these poor beasts, and that is what shaped human history after placing this nature at the bottom of it. Perhaps Barthes is trying to make the point that there is no nature that is natural to human beings. The politician, priest or colonizer becomes the storyteller and the rest is myth.

In his essay Lost Continent from Mythologies, Barthes is critically analysing the award winning documentary film about Maritime Southeast Asia. He criticizes the filmmakers for imposing and projecting Christian values onto Buddhist traditions of the region. He calls them out for their exoticisation of the East and the incorrect romanticised portrayal of it. Taking the example of fishermen in the movie, not presented as a “workman dependent by his technique” but rather “as the theme of an eternal condition”. The same applies to refugees presented as “eternal essences of the refugees […] coming down a mountain”. To identify them is unnecessary because it is in the nature of the East to produce refugees. Enrico Gras Giorgio Moser and Leonardo Bonzi are storytellers feeding into the myths that sanction colonization and naturalise exploitation.


Lost Continent (film poster)


“Faced with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two types of behaviour, which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to difuse it as a pure reflection of the West. In any case, the main things is to deprive it of its history. We see therefore that the ‘beautiful pictures’ of The Lost Continent cannot be innocent: it cannot be innocent to lose the continent which found itself again at Bandoeng.”

–          Barthes, Roland, The Lost Continent, Mythologies[7].

Puppets naturalize domestic violence and human beings make a shrine of their collection of Judy dolls, while Indonesia is colonized by the Dutch in the name of finding a lost continent. An entire continent is as if lost without the white man, lost without any culture or history. That is the history that the Dutch made natural through myth. These myths are the result of signifiers like the science of anatomy that relegates African skulls or the logic behind Conrad’s demonization of Africa in Heart of Darkness. Ferdinand de Saussure explained that a sign was not only a sound-image but also a concept. Thus he divided the sign into two components: the signifier (or sound-image) and the signified (or concept). For Saussure, the signified and signifier were purely psychological; they were form rather than substance[8]. Today, the signifier is interpreted as the material form (something which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted) and the signified as the mental concept. Words, he says, are only sounds without the meaning that human beings have assigned to each sound. Thus, words become first grade signifiers and language a tool that can be used to perpetrate a concept. In Decolonizing the Mind[9], Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that language is more than just a means of communication; it is the essence of our being. He believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memory. “Further he says that people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture.”[10] The British established English as a superior language and soon enough we were colonized, walking and talking in their language, speaking their truth.


Punch and Judy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punch_and_Judy


Nilanjana Gupta talks about the intermingling of ideology and semiotic analyses in Barthes’s work[11]. She says that Barthes deconstructs the effect of toys[12] which “prefigure the world of adults” making war Nature in the minds of children, through figures of soldiers for example. Thus media, entertainment et cetera become second grade signifiers of the dominant ideology or hegemony. Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser developed the concept of Interpellation wherein ideology begins to belong to the masses after they start belonging to it. A concept that’s beneficial to the Bourgeois is perpetrated and by the means of signifiers, it is made ‘common sense’. Both Gramsci and Althusser realize that ideology is not purely a matter of thought, but consists of a material quality in the social practices, relations and institutions. And both understand that the bourgeois hegemony consists of multiple layers of consent or multiple practices within numerous institutions. “Through this process of appellation… the State ensures that individuals become willing subjects of the capitalist system and work, labour, exploitation seem to be “natural”.”[13]

Media, language, education and even religion serve as tools of ideological state apparatus. They are signifiers of the hegemonic ‘common sense’. People are born into an ongoing system of interpellation. Thus, simply unifying mankind on grounds of commonalities like birth is fallacy because Emmet Till was born into inferiority while his assassins were able to mutilate him because of signifiers which signify his inferiority. His death then becomes a symbol of hegemony like the ongoing police brutality against blacks in USA is. Similarly, when a Yogi is elected CM of UP in India, it not subtly but outright screams of BJP’s hegemonic support of the Hindu majority against concepts of inclusivity in a ‘secular’ nation. The Bourgeois across centuries have made their ideology Nature, further placing this Nature at the fundament of history. These are the myths they create. In accepting these myths as history, human beings are ‘interpellated’. There is no Nature that is natural, because human beings are already interpellated before even being born. Literature, entertainment and journalism thus are only an outcome of this interpellation. Richard Brody[14] says that Barthes’s Mythologies might as well be titled, “You’re Being Brainwashed!”

Brody further points out that Barthes took on the mass media in the age of its rise, and reclaimed the subject as a matter of quasi-philosophical thought, all the while repudiating its actual productions. The book offers no appreciation of any artistic or aesthetic quality delivered by mass media (with the exception of pro wrestling, which, in the book’s first essay, he views with lenient fascination). There’s no dynamism in his analyses—he turns their “signifiers” and their “signifieds” into fixed objects—and there’s no psychology either—no agency and no motives, other than the eternal one of “bourgeois” society’s self-perpetuation. In Striptease[15], Barthes deconstructs the act of the striptease as he does institutions in Operation Margarine[16]. “To instil into the Established Order the complacent portrayal of its drawbacks has nowadays become a paradoxical but incontrovertible means of exalting it” (Barthes). He explains with the example of the army which leads to tyranny, death and destruction but at the last minute is glorified with triumph and nationalism in the image of a bewitching waving flag. Similarly he says, the striptease inoculates the public with a touch of evil plunging it afterwards into a permanently immune Moral Good. The woman is desexualised as soon as she is naked, i.e. after shedding artificial clothing while still keeping the barrier of exoticism and the alibi of art, “nakedness [thus] as a natural vesture of which accounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of flesh.” Like the alibi of wisdom and lyricism serves as the ultimate justification for the immobility in this world, the alibi of art and aesthetic exorcises the fear of immobility. The faint rhythmic undulation is another barrier instead of being erotic, which separates the stripper from the evil so as to keep the form alive.

These methods, Barthes calls their science and so we are left with a system of sciences at play only to further hegemony. Barthes saw through the masks of such alibis constantly being put on by institutions of culture, religion, objective journalism and every other signifier as well as symbol. He is thus relevant in a world where these masks are still at play, creating myths of human condition.


[1] Barthes, Roland, 1957, The Great Family of Man, Mythologies. Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[2] Steichen, Edward, 1955, The Family of Man, Online.


[3] Kipling, Rudyard. 1929. The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands. Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. 1899. Heart of Darkness.

[5] Viswanathan, Gauri. 1987. The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India. Literary Theory, Worldview Critical Edition.

[6] Gramsci, Antonio. 1916-35. Prison Notebooks. Online.

[7] Barthes, Roland, 1957, The Lost Continent, Mythologies. Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[8] Sausseure, Ferdinand de, 1916, Course in General Linguistics, Online.

[9] Thiong’o, Ngugi. 1986. Decolonising the Mind. Online.

[10] Warah, Rasna. 2007. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: still decolonising the mind.

[11] Nilanjana, Gupta, 2014, Roland Barthes, Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[12] Barthes, Roland, 1957, Toys, Mythologies. Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[13] Nilanjana, Gupta, 2014, Roland Barthes, Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[14] Brody, Richard, 2012, Uses of Myth, Online.

[15] Barthes, Roland, 1957, Striptease, Mythologies. Cultural Studies, Worldview Critical Edition.

[16] Barthes, Roland, 1957, Operation Margarine, Mythologies, Online.