Reading Roland Barthes in the Age of Misinformation

March 21, 2021   •   By Carolyn Biltoft

WE DON’T OFTEN GET a true catharsis — that release of feeling born of a decisive resolution, whether euphoric or tragic. Most lives look (from the outside) and feel (from the inside) like a bundle of frayed nerves, loose ends that never tie.


The dramaturgy of professional wrestling, by contrast, offers the catharsis-like effects that life lacks. Again and again, a caricaturized combatant, after much choreographed struggle, eventually pins another to the ground. Yet unlike other sporting events, whose pleasures and pains can linger, the existential impact of wrestling is both more short-lived and also somehow more transcendental. In his 1957 book Mythologies, the French critic Roland Barthes speaks of wrestling (“le catch”) in precisely these terms. Barthes claims that, in the United States, the formulaic violence of such spectacles offers audiences an Armageddon in miniature — the ultimate battle between good and evil neatly confined to a ring and fought by muscular, costumed proxies. As Barthes argues: “What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice.” The contest works as a living, breathing form of disambiguation, a series of gestures whose meanings are perfectly clear. In Barthes’s words,


In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at least intelligible.


This delivery of physical justice raises no additional questions and produces no ambiguous emotional aftershocks for the spectator. It is total and totalizing.


The point for Barthes, however, is not only to understand the beating heart of wrestling. Rather, he sets out to decipher that spectacle as part of a broader effort to reveal the continued presence and power of myth in the modern world. By using the term myth, Barthes is not referring to acts of fabricating or believing in lies. He never presents mythology as the opposite of fact. Rather, Barthes argues, “myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.” In other words, myth constructs principles and categories whose purpose is to abolish “the complexity of human acts” and so provide an escape from the fragile complexities of human experience. Myth, he claims, “organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity; things appear to mean something by themselves.”


Barthes’s concept of myth is particularly relevant for our own era of misinformation, which has a tendency to feed and foment conspiracy theories of all kinds. Yet, as noted, myths do not traffic in “lies” per se; indeed, they actually move us away from simplistic true/false binaries and toward the more complex psychological terrain of credulity and incredulity. Straightforward “fact-checking” might not be sufficient to dispel the structures of myth or account for why people come to hold certain beliefs and deny others.


Once again, the mythos of wrestling offers a fertile lens for understanding the particular enchantments of some forms of misinformation. Early on in the essay, Barthes reminds his readers that the authenticity of the wrestling match is irrelevant, since the fans are themselves indifferent to the question of whether the contests are “rigged” or not. Instead, Barthes argues that the audience lives through the characters as they enact and embody passion, conceit, cruelty, suffering, and then, too, victory and defeat. These performances, however deceptive, allow the spectator to take part in a clear and simple world, where tensions are evoked so that they can be resolved. In other words, the “truth” of the match is less important than the gratifications it offers: a cut-and-dried moral universe whose possible outcomes are limited to two.


What sense are we to make of this willingness to suspend disbelief for the pleasures afforded by that suspension? It is not only that fans (or voters) are willing to be duped, but also that mythic narrative arcs serve better the desire for existential certainty than do the messy ambiguities that make up most of our days. And so, through Barthes’s reading of wrestling, we catch a glimpse of the more profound reasons that misinformation sticks, freezing into doctrine, impervious to any efforts to call its veracity into question. Through staged pile-drives and head-butts, we can perceive a shadow of the conspiracy theorist’s desire to reduce the world — if even for an instant — down to a single, immutable scheme, enacted by a perfectly legible cast of characters, representing a crystal-clear set of values.


There are lessons here even for those who find wrestling uninteresting, or for those who believe themselves to be avid advocates of unadorned truth. Myths are sneaky opiates: they can take hold as table manners, party politics, social mores, gender roles, subtle stereotypes, and all manner of secular or spiritual precepts. Barthes offered a rather striking metaphor of how and why we are all susceptible to myth’s allure:


Just as the cuttlefish squirts its ink in order to protect itself, it cannot rest until it has obscured the ceaseless making of the world, fixated this world into an object which can be for ever possessed, catalogued its riches, embalmed it, and injected into reality some purifying essence which will stop its transformation, its flight towards other forms of existence.


In other words, myth is capable of quieting our anxieties by halting the work of questioning at its root.


Even those of us who have been educated to within an inch of our lives sometimes still fall for a spin on a story that appeals to our own sensibilities, and which can devolve without our noticing into rigid tropes and vacant clichés. This hunger for stories that ascribe order to the disorderly world can lead us to adopt outright fables or even just to extrapolate from data in a way that confirms our ideological preferences. These tendencies are only abetted today by the social media algorithms that amplify and reinforce our credulities.


According to Barthes, myth is a force that works by turning the confusion of subjective histories into the clear and objective eternities of nature. By naturalizing our own worldviews, it squirts ink into the water so that we do not have to face the true nature of our fears and desires. It is for these reasons that Barthes reminds us that the age of myth is not some bygone era but very much alive and well.


Being what Barthes calls a good mythologist — a decoder of myths — is thus not primarily a matter of learning how to spot and dismiss untruths. Rather, it involves acquiring and continually using the tools of analysis, of reading and interpreting the meaning of signs.


There is no rest for the weary mythologist. But, before you despair, consider Barthes’s thoughts on the pleasures of intermittence: “Skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater) between two edges (the open necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces.” Though the task of decoding may be strenuous, it also holds its rewards. The ample if labor-intensive pleasures of discovery lie waiting, just beyond the (false) security of our mythological fortresses.


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Carolyn Biltoft is an assistant professor in the department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. She received her PhD in Global Intellectual History from Princeton University in 2010. Her forthcoming book A Violent Peace: Media, Truth and Power at the League of Nations presents the League of Nations as global center for the production and contestation of “truth claims” in an era of totalitarian politics. Her current book projects deal with questions of mythmaking, fear, and desire in the age of global capitalism.


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Featured image: “QAnon in red shirt” by Marc Nozell is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.


Banner image: “WWE Smackdown Wrestlemania Revenge (8662060802)” by Brian Hargadon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped.