Text: 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.
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]