Myth is a type of speech- Some thoughts on Ulysees by James Joyce (replaces exercise on an annotated image)

I was a little uncertain how to approach this annotation based on the given quotation. I therefore decided to replace this exercise with  some ideas about structuralism based on the book Ulysees by James Joyce.

I am currently listening to this book on audible, and thought that the complex nature of the language would make an interesting analysis  with respect to structuralism, myth, and the several layers of meaning which the text might contain……

i.

Joyce1

 

ii.

Joyce2

Joyce3

Epilogue- some worries about structuralism…..

Whilst completing the previous projects, and reading the texts ‘Rhetoric of the Image and ‘Myth today’ (Barthes, 1999 a and b), I realised that I was having some misgivings about the nature of the structuralist arguments. After reading the second half of Don Slater’s text ‘marketing mass photography’ (Slater, 1999), I have realised that I am not alone.

In the text Slater critiques the structuralist-semiotic tradition, and structuralist analysis -a development of structuralist linguistics. He suggests that because  Structuralist theorists in the 1960’s wanted to escape from the overpowering  influence of Marxist theory on texts, they essentially excluded any discussion of external forces when discussing meaning (Slater, 1999 p. 302), and ‘Decoding became an end in itself,…..’ (Slater, 1999 p.303). . They essentially threw the proverbial baby of common sense out with the Marxist bathwater !

Slater argues instead that the task is ‘…. to analyse how the economic, institutional, ideological and political forces, strategies and dynamics have constructed the social relations within which material cultural practices are carried out’ (Slater, 1999 p. 305).

My main concerns during reading resided in just this sort of closed structuralist system of analysis which Barthes was pursuing. For example, he contests that ‘myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the nature of things’ (Barthes, 1999 b; p.52). I wondered if this was true, and that surely concepts are universally important and by their very nature more likely to be mythologised? Slater explains that although based on semiotics, which promised ‘to return the captured moment of reading to its determinations…’ , in structuralist analysis  these determinations have ‘ been indefinitely postponed and then utterly forgotten’ (Slater, 1999: p.302). Barthes unrealistic assertion above seems to be evidence that much of the political, sociological and historical context of Barthes’ debates seemed to operate in a vacuum and that these were never really discussed.

Similarly, after reading the example of Latin grammar as mythical speech (Barthes, 1999 b.: p.54), I wondered whether decisions made during the analysis of meaning were too arbitrary, and whether our conclusions were likely to be affected by other undiscussed factors- not least of which was that the sentence is initially said to be in a latin grammar. Once again the context of the text seemed to have been ignored by  Barthes.

I became even more disquieted during the second example of the language of myth:  a picture on the cover of Paris Match magazine, of a negro boy saluting (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 54). Acknowledging an interesting analysis, my main  thoughts were

  • what right does the author have to analyse the text and conclude that this meaning is dominant?
  • Would all French citizens interpret the image the same way?
  • Might it be more simply interpreted as This black boy is saluting a superior ?
  • Who determines the amount of semiological coding within an image or sentence – is it the author or the viewer, or both?
  • Is this the way the magazine wanted it to be interpreted?

After reading Slater’s text I now realise that this sort of ‘structuralist analysis is ‘hegemonic’ in left cultural theory (Slater, 1999: p. 301), and tends to analyse texts (including images) in a vacuum. I feel somewhat happier to know that I was not being overcritical, though Dick Hebidge in his excellent ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to the Face’ (1999) had already hinted that post-structuralists had many bones to pick with the Bourgoise structuralist method. Surely as well, the answer to any meaning within the text should depend upon how the reader interprets it, which involves both external issues of history, internal issues such as one’s own psyche, and finally (but not exclusively) elements within the text.

In fact here I disagree with Slater, who later remarks in passing that ‘the worst form of empiricist sociology’ is one where we ‘ask what did individual A actually think that film X meant, then aggregate all the individuals surveyed….’ (Slater, 1999: p. 304). On the contrary this seems a very democratic and scientific method and at least a helpful start in textual analysis (akin to Grounded theory in science and social sciences).

I’ll leave this Epilogue with two further reassurances which I gained through Slater’s article. The first is that I have often thought how outdated some of these texts on semiology and photography are, written in an age before the digital revolution, global communications, and a certain amount of democratisation of  communication.  Pierre Bourdieu’s text ‘The social definition of photography’ written in 1965 seemed very outdated in its assessment of mass photography. This view is shared by Slater who finds Bourdieu’s definition ‘outdated’ and ‘local’ (Slater, 1999: p. 289).

Much more importantly though, is that Slater reassures us of the ultimate vision he has for social photography, and one that has proved prescient I think.

In contrast to the restrictive practice of social photography in both Pierre Bourdieu’s and his own day (writing in 1985), he sees that it will need to break away from the  exploitative capitalist control of  the photographic industries, and instead look towards ‘feminism and other movements within politics, in collective practices of photography, and alternative social relations such as  community groups, campaigns, community arts, etc……’ (Slater, 1999: p. 305).

Testament to the way that social photography (and visual culture more generally) has moved on is found in the Visual Culture Reader (Mirzoeff,  2013). This book discusses many contemporary examples of how the battle between the controllers and the politically controlled is being fought out using Visual methods in the present world of global communications, includeing the use of photography and Facebook during the Arab Spring uprising.

More generally one can read about the use of Architecture used for the good of both the Oppressor and the oppressed, for example by the Israeli colonisers in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and in a more democratic way in Mexican neighbourhoods.  It also includes analysis of how ‘differences’ are represented in Virtual Reality games, and in visualising ‘queerness’ (Mirzoeff, 2013).

References

Barthes, R (1999 a.).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Barthes, R (1999 b).  ‘Myth Today’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p 51-58

Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography’ in visual culture: a reader.    Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 162-180

Hebidge, D (1999 b) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to the face’ in  visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 99-124

Mirzoeff, N. (ed.)  (2013) The Visual Culture Reader Third edition. Routledge, OXON.

Slater, D (1999) ‘Marketing mass photography’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p.289-306

Myth Today- ‘Questions for your BLOG… ‘

 1. Minou Drouet was a child poet in the 1950’s. she was so young that people thought her poems must have been written by an adult. But the Chicago tribune thought these were unmistakably written by a child (Engel, 1957). She describes objects in a very honest and child-like way- and with a completely different take to how adults might see them eg. a tree bereft of leaves ‘..seems like a tree drawn by a clumsy child who is too poor to buy coloured crayons and so drew it just with the brown chalk left over from making maps at school.’ (Drouet quoted in Engel, 1957).  These descriptions are so different to how an adult would interpret the world that they nicely illustrate Barthes’s view that there are no limits or rules as to how human societies should describe objects.

2. Other elements within images that can signify passion, emotions or other objects or events…

I. "He's surprisingly good at small talk." 

Fig. 1 Condron, T (no date)

This joke hinges partially on the idea that  the man with a pipe, bald head, dirty jacket, and scruffy hair is an academic and will therefore be nerdy and not good at small talk!

ii. Fig. 2 Cameron enjoys the Sun

the sun

The Sun newspaper has a reputation for being dominated by its titillating page 3 nude girl, and having no news-worthy value.

 iii.

·        Physis- material existence

·        Anti-physis- natural existence

·        Pseudo-physis- links to ideology

 _8734435stakhanov

Fig. 3 Kotliarov, L (1935)

Here the miner becomes a symbol for  Soviet-Communist increases in productivity.

iv.

furlongs- ravilious.jpg 

Fig. 4 Ravilious, E (20th C)  

This artist painted many pictures of the English countryside which seemed to symbolise the idyllic purity and calm that was being threatened by the Nazis throughout world war 2.

5.

‘The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning’

·        Chomsky suggests innate elements to language- eg baby wants milk- mu, ma……

·        Structuralist linguistics says the opposite (meaning causes language)

·        or is meaning the result of language?

Lets take an example which I vaguely remember being discussed by Leonard Bernstein in ‘The Unanswered Question’ TV series.

Language begins after birth and when a baby need s things from its mother to survive- all developments in language might be said to continue to serve as a human proceeds through life and needs to meet the requirements to survive.

When a baby wants attention (eg for warmth or security) the simplest sound he can make is probably one of the vowels- perhaps a prolonged ‘AAAAA’ ! It seems that the meaning comes before the language here- how can a baby decide what he wants to say ? It’s innate sound.  When a baby wants milk he may use a different vowel sound to distinguish the meaning from say AAAA (meaning warmth and security)- say ‘eeee’ (vowel i). Perhaps ‘eee’ become ‘milk’ due to another added sound- say an approximate ‘m’ and ‘k’ before and after the i. This sort of process seems a bit like Darwins theory of natural selection for words…. Words appear to some extent at random but with an underlying systematic process-eg ease of enunciation?? , and are fixed with meaning if they suit the purpose……and the words are ‘maintained as a species’  by recurrent use – other words never develop beyond an initial point.

This sort of process makes most sense to me- meaning before words during development. How do we explain the development of language  in similar ways in similar geographical areas ? Perhaps this is originally one language, then due to movement of different peoples the one language is modified in certain ways and becomes similar but different in different geographic areas.

Of course this is only one possible mechanism, and perhaps many may exist. Certainly adult language is very complex, and there may be some words which come first and are then fixed with a meaning (but I can’t think of any immediately).

Of course there may be an element of ‘we understand to be true that which tells us to be true’ but only to a certain extent. For example if you said to me,

‘my cat is called ‘The Bard of Pocklington’ and he has just completed a round the world yacht race whilst singing Nessum Dorma by Puccini’

I would know that your meaning was in some way ‘false’, but my imagination may make a funny image or story or reality out of the information. It’s about different shades of reality-as Althusser said, ‘the material existence of the ideology in an apparatus and in practices does not have the same modality as the material existence of a paving stone or  a rifle’ (1999).

Illustrations

Fig. 1 Condron, T (no date)‘He’s surprisingly good at small talk’ [cartoon] online at https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/e/emotional_intelligence.asp  [accessed 19th May 2017]

Fig. 2 Scarfe, G (2009) ‘Cameron enjoys the Sun’  [print] online at

[accessed 19th May 2017]

Fig. 3 Kotliarov, L (1935) ‘Alexei Stakhanov’ [photograph] online at  

[accessed 19th May 2017]

Fig. 4 Ravilious, E (20th C) ‘Furlongs’ [watercolour] online at

 

References

Althusser, L (1993). ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall,,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications. p317-324

Engel, P (1957) Minou Drouet’s poems [online at] http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1957/11/24/page/179/article/minou-drouets-poems [accessed 18th May 2017].

 

 

Myth today- Roland Barthes

The author begins by asking the question , what is myth today? He replies that simply put ‘myth is a type of speech’ (Barthes, 1999 b; p.51).  It’s not just any type though, it has a specific form and  is a way of communicating. It follows that myth is not an object (the term mythical objects is, for example,  meaningless); anything can be a myth – it is the language that is key. Barthes now introduces the tree expressed by Minou Drouet, which is both matter and substance, but also contains a social usage (Barthes, 1999 b; p. 51)

Objects can come and go as myths at different epochs in history, because ‘myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the nature of things’ (Barthes, 1999 b; p.52). I wonder if this is completely true? Are not some concepts universally important in our human history, and therefore, by their very nature more likely to be mythologised?

For example the myth of an omnipotent god who can supernaturally explain strange phenomena, and has the power to punish bad behaviour thereby keeping society in order. This myth seems to have been continually expressed by human kind, in different cultures independently and simultaneously. Also, the myth of creation (Britannica, 2017), or of the cleansing  of humanity through flood (Britannia, 2017), seems common to many cultures and civilisations.  These myths may be subtly different from Barthes’s definition, but he himself equates myth with ideology (see later), and from ideology one may soon arrive at religion (Althusser, 1999). More generally the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser describes several ‘world outlooks’ such as religious, ethical, legal and political ideologies suggesting that these ‘….. as the ethnologist examines the myths of a ‘primitive society’ are largely imaginary……’ (Althusser, 1999: p.317)

As an introduction to the semiological arguments still to come, Barthes first introduces the equivalence of the signifier and the signified (they are of different class therefore cannot be equal).  Using an example of a bunch of ‘passionfied’ roses, we are led through the analysis which consists of the signifier (roses), the signified (passion), and a third term the sign (the passionfied roses). The sign better reflects how we see the end product, not as consecutives, but as a combination. Barthes distinguishes between these roses  analysed from the point of view of experience (where there is just the sign) and analysis  (where all 3 terms exist).  The distinction of the 3 terms is crucial to the discussion of myth as ‘a semiological schema’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p.52).

Barthes now introduces Saussure’s la langue  as a  particular  example of this schema, one which relates to written language. Here we have signifier (the acoustic (or visual?) image – the sound (or sight?) of a word (like dog for example), the signified (the concept of the object which we understand as a dog) , and the sign ( the combination-hearing or seeing the word dog signals the object dog) (Barthes, 1999 b: p.52).

Another example of a semiological sytem is Freud’s interpretation of the human psyche through dreams. Here we have the manifest behaviour in the dream (the signifier), the latent meaning of the dream (the signified), and the dream as a combination of both, in toto (the sign) (Barthes, 1999 b: p.53). These analyses also have echos of the authors analysis of advertising images, where he discusses linguistic and visual messages, from the point of view of denotation, connotation, and in terms of signifiers, signifieds and signs (Barthes, 1999 a.).

Barthes now moves on to describe myth as a ‘second-order semiological system’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p.53) saying clearly, and almost (ignoring his parentheses) poetically ‘That which is a sign (namely the associated total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second’(Barthes, 1999 b: p. 53).

Barthes lists the wide range of  materials which can be used as mythical speech which include language, paintings, photos, and rituals. All these materials are reduced to ‘mere language’ or  ‘a mere signifier’  for the purpose of myth (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 53), but to my confusion at least, also suggests that ‘myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs….’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 53).  Surely myth wants to see in these materials a signifier only ?- one that he can put to his own use ? Perhaps this confusion exists and is acceptable because of the inherent latency and abstraction surrounding the possible messages myth communicates.

Barthes proceeds to the two semiological systems at work in the form of myth’s communication. The first system is the language-object (the message which seems most visible?) and the second the meta-language (in which the first language is put to another use) (Barthes, 1999 b : p. 53).

His first illuminating example of mythical speech is well explained and quite easy to follow. In it he takes the sentence ‘quia ego nominor leo’ from a latin grammar. This is analysed first with reference to the language- object; the meaning being simple – ‘my name is lion’ (Barthes, 1999 b : p. 54); though one page later he conjures up the possible richness of this simple message – ‘I am a lion, I live in a certain country, I have just been hunting, they would have me share my prey with a heifer,…….’ (Barthes, 1999 b : p. 54).  According to Barthes the more intelligible mythical semiological system  interprets the text as a sentence which proves a universal grammatical rule (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 53).

One question sprung to mind over the latin grammar example. The first is whether the system of communication is also influenced by the fact that the sentence is initially said to be in a latin grammar. Does this make it more likely to be an example of a grammar rule? I think this must be so, but it is not certain, as it does not have to be an illustrative sentence; it could be a few words of the author’s introduction for example. The question here is what are the factors which determine the order of the precedence here? Barthes does not discuss any examples where the mythical is overcome by the simple interpretation.

A second example of the language of myth is given; a picture on the cover of Paris Match magazine, of a negro boy saluting (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 54). Barthes’ analysis is interesting and powerful once again, but again I wonder- would all French citizens interpret the image the same way?  Might it be more simply interpreted as This black boy is saluting a superior ? Who determines the amount of semiological coding within an image or sentence ? is it the author or the viewer, or both? Is this the way the magazine wanted it to be interpreted?

 

This argument about analysis feels like the argument set up in Hebidge’s essay ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to the face’ (Hebidge, 1999), where John Berger’s (planet one) rigorous analysis of the symbolism of consecutive images in a magazine, is compared to a way of (planet 2) viewing which allows a ‘nutty conjunction’ and a ‘symbolic fissure’ to exist between (and I think therefore within) images without traditional  analysis (Hebidge, 1999: p. 113). This post-structuralist/post-modern view acknowledges the ‘withering signified’ (Hebidge, 1999: p. 110), and a flattening of the depth of analysis and traditional historic readings and  conventions (ironically Barthes asserts that to the contrary, in some way  ‘myth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p.58). But isn’t the tyranny of Barthes’s layered interpretation (the first system is latent but present nonetheless) a little like ‘the old bourgoise obligation to ‘speak for’ truth and liberty or to ‘represent the repressed , The Third World, the ‘downtrodden masses’ or the marginaux’ ( Hebidge, 1999: p. 109)- in this case the young negro boy in the picture…..? .

Returning from this digression, Barthes now modifies the terms of  the two staged mythical analysis from the Sausserian triad of signifier/signified and sign,  adding the new terms signification and form, preventing the ambiguity  possible if identical terms  in the two systems were allowed to carry different meanings . His final set of terms becomes signifier, signified, and meaning in the first-order system, and form, signified and signification in the second (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 54).

This paragraph on terminology is rather difficult to follow, and the explanation of why certain terms needs to change and not others seems a little unclear and arbitrary. Why for example if we are allowed to keep the term Signified for the (equivalent but not identical) concept in both systems, are we not allowed to keep the term Sign too, as this is also equivalent but not identical in both systems ?

Barthes continues flesh out his analysis stating that the difference between the meaning and the form (he calls them both signifiers in passing) is that the first is full of meaning (..of history, memory, ideas, facts…), and the second has been emptied of its former meaning, and is now at the disposal of myth. He also usefully differentiates the quality of a linguistic signifier and an image signifier, the former being a mental form only, and the latter having ‘a sensory reality’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 55).

The form of myth does not completely remove the meaning held behind it. It is simply ‘put at a distance’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 56). It is both there but also hidden (under the power of myth). Barthes states that the signified is absorbed by the concept of the myth, which has a whole new history and richness at its disposal. Returning to the example of the dictionary extract for example, we have glimpses of the elements of time, history, pedagogy, and personal habits (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 56). Myth is now compared to an alibi. The meaning of the phrase is somewhere undecided……‘I am not where you think I am, I am where you think I am not’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 57), but unlike the alibi which is judged true or false, myth is a value ; it is not correct or incorrect, and is ‘perpetual’.

Now the myth is likened to looking at the landscape through a car window, and interpolating glances at the window itself-back and forth we glance. Myth is described as ‘giving a historical intention a natural justification’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 57) a process indistinguishable from Bourgoise ideology. Here, surprisingly Barthes admits to the Bourgoise aspects of myth, but we are unsure of his feelings towards it.

His next sentence may help to clarify- myth is the best instrument to operate the inversion which ‘defines our society’ -that from ‘anti-physis into pseudo-physis’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 57). My reading of this inversion is from an ‘anti-natural’ society, one that works against the powers of nature (Robinson, 2011), into a pseudo-natural society-one that uses ideologies to  function. This still doesn’t tell me what Barthes really thinks of myth though.

In the final page of the essay I was hoping to find the answer to how Barthes really feels about myth. He continues, that the world supplies an ‘historical reality’ to myth, and he completes his ‘definition of myth in a bourgoise society: myth is depoliticised speech  (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 57) where political describes real human relations, social structures, and power, and the prefix de is very active (it’s not that political is not there- its actively hidden or abstracted). Barthes also suggests that myth purifies, and that myth ‘passes from history to nature’ (Barthes, 1999 b : p. 57), and allows a flatter world  where ‘…things appear to mean something by themselves…..’ (Barthes, 1999 b: p. 57).

Does myth then flatten not complicate, in contrast my earlier argument? At the end of the text I’m still not sure- it depends how you look at it! Is myth good or bad? Again it depends upon how you look at it.

There is a lot of  embellishment and revisiting of  concepts in this text, some of which seems a little wordy and repetitive. Perhaps though the subtlety of the different examples, and the almost but not quite saying the same thing feel to this text reflects the nature of these ideas, some of which are described as ‘impenetrably dense’ (Haveland, 2009: p.55). This whole essay explores what on the surface looks a relatively straightforward concept (mythical speech as a second order semiological system).  However, the argument is subtle and different parts of it regularly assume shades of meaning which are very close, but may not identical to one another. The author views things from here (for example the first-order system), and now there (for example the second-order system), uses numerous examples, often restating areas of the argument using different (but similar) words. This might sometimes be in the pursuit of subtly different meanings, but often borders on hyperbole for effect  (see p 58 where myth has emptied, turned (reality) inside out, emptied (again)… removed…. a haemorrhage, a flowing out …., an evaporation, …..an absence .. all to describe in some way that myth has hidden the meaning of the first-order sentence.)

At the end of the text I’m still unsure of the author’s feelings about myth- his judgements about its use. Perhaps he remains neutral. The piece asks as many questions as it answers, and perhaps further readings will elucidate these uncertainties.

References

Althusser, L (1993). ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall,,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p317-324

Barthes, R (1999 a.).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Barthes, R (1993 b).  ‘Myth Today’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p 51-58

Britannica, 2017  creation myth [online at] https://www.britannica.com/topic/creation-myth [accessed 18th May 2017]

Britannica, 2017  flood-myth [online at] https://www.britannica.com/topic/flood-myth  [accessed 18th May 2017]

Hebidge, D (1999 b) ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to the face’ in  visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 99-124

Robinson, A (2011) Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: Naturalisation, Politics and everyday life [online at] https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-barthes-3/ [accessed 18th May 2017]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog structure

Today I m setting up my BLOG contents structure, according to the OCA BLOG guide.