Spring 2019–Winter 2020

Barthes the Smark

The worlds of wrestling

Luke Healey

“As an adolescent,” Roland Barthes recalls in his 1975 quasi-autobiography, “I went swimming one day at Malo-les-Bains, in a cold sea infested with the kind of jellyfish we call medusas.”[1] The recollection soon shudders into theoretical speculation: 

It was so ordinary to come out of the water covered with stings and blisters that the locker-room attendant phlegmatically handed you a bottle of potassium chloride as soon as you left the beach. In the same way, one might conceive of taking a (perverse) pleasure in the endoxal products of mass culture, provided that when you left the immersion of that culture, someone handed you on each occasion … a little detergent discourse.[2

These reflections appeared eighteen years after Mythologies (1957), Barthes’s most sustained critique of mass culture. The essays collected in this volume attempt to disentangle the ideological maneuvers at play in seemingly benign objects of contemporary life: a margarine commercial, a Citroën car, a Paris Match cover. The critical framework that Barthes sought to elaborate in these pages is one whose legacy he would question with the benefit of fourteen years of hindsight. In his 1971 essay “Change the Object Itself,” Barthes announced that the now widespread practice of “demythification” had begun to take on a “catechistic” air, and asserted that it was no longer enough for advanced critical thinkers to “reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, of a trait, of a narrative,” when “any student can and does denounce the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois character of such and such a form (of life, of thought, of consumption).”[3] A notoriously restless thinker, Barthes had moved on to pursue alternative trajectories in the intervening decade. In his jellyfish tableau, he ironizes the later writers and thinkers that had contented themselves with taking on the task of demythification only at its most reductive level, rendering the latter-day reader of everyday mythologies as an individual stung by popular culture and salved by the intellectual labor that begins after “immersion.”

Barthes had, of course, been cognizant even from the moment of Mythologies’ publication of the inescapability of living within the phantasmagoria of the present. But it was also the case that some aspects of his own moment were less apt to produce “stings and blisters” than others. There are certain objects examined in Mythologies that Barthes approached quite voluntarily, even enthusiastically. Of these, perhaps one of the most surprising is professional wrestling.

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