by Roland Barthes

(Noonday Press) Translated by Annette Lavers $12

In 1957, the French semiotician Roland Barthes published Mythologies, a collection of short essays that, utilizing advanced semiotic theories, examined a variety of ordinary objects, common practices, and images that in total sum constituted the mass culture of his day. Barthes looked at advertisements for chlorine products ("[in ads] the [chlorine] product 'kills' dirt"); the face of Greta Garbo ("her face was not to have any other reality but perfection"); and in one of the greatest essays ever written, "The World of Wrestling," professional wrestling ("in judo, a man is down hardly at all, he rolls over, he draws, he eludes defeat... in [professional] wrestling a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness"). It is a delicious book.

I mention Mythologies not because it has been reissued but because it's useful when looking at the seemingly innocuous photos in the middle of Bob Woodward's new book, Bush at War. What are these black-and-white images of Bush's inner world and circles communicating to us, the American public? In most of the images, Bush and his advisors are oblivious to the photographer; they are hard at work (like millions of other Americans are hard at work), and so cannot register the intrusion. What this means is that the business of the president is no different from the business of, say, a car dealer--with the exception that Bush's decisions just happen to influence the lives of billions.

During European dominance over the world (1500-1945), power was represented in all its glory and inaccessible splendor. The spectacle of American dominance (1945-) is different: American power is imagined as just somebody's job. The latter is more oppressive than the former.