Understanding Roland Barthes’s “The Great Family of Man”

My first encounter with Roland Barthes was in my previous semester when I took Visual Rhetoric. I remember struggling tremendously with Barthes and becoming frustrated with him, so I will admit that seeing his work in the assigned reading was not something I was looking forward to. However, in reading Barthes’s “The Great Family of Man,” I’ve grown to better appreciate some of the ideas he is trying to get at, even as I continue to struggle with them. Since it was suggested to examine the concept of “difference,” I chose to take a look at Barthes’s essay in an effort to understand what he means when he talks about what he calls “the myth of the human ‘community,’ [and how it] serves as an alibi to a large part of our humanism” (100).  Barthes talks about an exhibition of photographs that have exported from the United States to Paris. He is interested in how the French have translated the name of the exhibition from “The Family of Man” to “The Great Family of Man.” This translation is of great interest to Barthes because it essentially taking a concept that can be found in zoology and creating a type of mythology of human community. He explains that the myth of the human community comes in two stages. The first stage he describes is how the differences in human morphologies is asserted, with the second stage being about how a type of unity among these human morphologies is somehow produced because human experiences are essentially the same. It seems clear that Barthes is criticizing this idea by pointing out that if we were to take out the history, the common experiences of nature become tautological and tell us nothing. It appears that he argues that this kind of photograph exhibition perpetuates this myth in a way that in ignores real concrete differences between human beings. When he touches on the exhibitions display of the supposed unity of the human experience, Barthes makes the point that:

The failure of photography seems to be flagrant in this connection: to reproduce  death or birth tells us, literately, nothing. For these natural facts to gain access to                               true language, they must be inserted into a category of knowledge which means postulating that one can transform them, and precisely subject their naturalism to human criticism. For however universal, they are the signs of an historical               writing. (101)

Barthes’s point appears to be criticizing this idea that the mythologies we have created about the human experience involve ignoring real and distinct differences between human beings. It is not enough to point out the natural cycle of life all humans go through. In other words, to focus on these commonalities as evidence for a unified human “community” is to ignore real differences among communities throughout history.

I was not sure what Barthes was getting at with this essay until I read the Alexander and Rhodes article, “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence.” In the Alexander and Rhodes article, they argue for a more diverse composition pedagogy that takes into account both our shared common humanity, as well as our strongly obvious differences. They claim that having a pedagogy that emphasizes a “shared humanity” is difficult in practice because it makes it difficult to perceive and analyze critical differences. According to Alexander and Rhodes, “Multicultural pedagogies frequently rely on narratives of inclusion, which often seek to contain difference in order to make it legible, identifiable, and thus acceptable to a normative readership. In the process, the “other” is tamed as a knowable entity” (431). When I read this statement, I reflect on what Barthes is attempting to do in “The Great Family of Man” and I start to feel like Barthes is arguing a claim similar to what is presented in the Alexander and Rhodes piece. Barthes is criticizing the photograph exhibition’s insistence on promoting this narrative about a shared human experience that he claims is a myth. This focus on a “shared humanity” creates a mythology about the human experience that ignores (or at least downplays) differences that actually matter.

I will admit though that the final section of Barthes’s essay leaves me confusedwhen he writes: “So that I rather fear that the final justification of all this Adamism is to give to the immobility of the world the alibi of a ‘wisdom’ and a ‘lyricism’ which only make the gestures of man look eternal the better to defuse them” (102). I will admit that I am not entirely sure what Barthes is attempting to do here, but in reading the Alexander and Rhodes piece, I am starting to think that it is possible that, by deconstructing the mythology behind the human “community,” Barthes is advocating for an understanding of humanity that does not downplay distinct differences between humans, but instead takes into account of these differences when describing a “shared humanity.”

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One Response to Understanding Roland Barthes’s “The Great Family of Man”

  1. Pingback: My Rhetoric of Religion: My Views on Religion and Where I’ll Probably Go From Here . . . | Jacob's Dialectic

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