4357-Mythologies Myth Today

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Myth Today, page 1 of 26 from Mythologies by Roland Barthes [translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984] conceive of very ancient myths, but there are no eternal ones; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language. Ancient or not, mythology can only have an historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the 'nature' of things. Speech of this kind is
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  Myth Today, page 1 of 26  from Mythologies by Roland Barthes [translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984]  MYTH TODAY  What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset afirst, very simple answer, which is perfectlyconsistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech. 1 Myth is a type of speech Of course, it is not any type: language needsspecial conditions in order to become myth: weshall see them in a minute. But what must befirmly established at the start is that myth is asystem of communication, that it is a message.This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it isa mode of signification, a form. Later, we shallhave to assign to this form historical limits,conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it:we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.It can be seen that to purport to discriminateamong mythical objects according to their substance would be entirely illusory: since mythis a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth isnot defined by the object of its message, but bythe way in which it utters this message: there areformal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial'ones. Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this, for the universe is infinitely fertilein suggestions. Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oralstate, open to appropriation by society, for thereis no law, whether natural or not, which forbidstalking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouetis no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which isdecorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a typeof social usage which is added to pure matter. Naturally, everything is not expressed at thesame time: some objects become the prey of mythical speech for a while, then they disappear,others take their place and attain the status of myth. Are there objects which are inevitably asource of suggestiveness, as Baudelairesuggested about Woman? Certainly not: one canconceive of very ancient myths, but there are noeternal ones; for it is human history whichconverts reality into speech, and it alone rules thelife and the death of mythical language. Ancientor not, mythology can only have an historicalfoundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the'nature' of things.Speech of this kind is a message. It is therefore by no means confined to oral speech. It canconsist of modes of writing or of representations;not only written discourse, but also photography,cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, allthese can serve as a support to mythical speech.Myth can be defined neither by its object nor byits material, for any material can arbitrarily beendowed with meaning: the arrow which is brought in order to signify a challenge is also akind of speech. True, as far as perception isconcerned, writing and pictures, for instance, donot call upon the same type of consciousness;and even with pictures, one can use many kindsof reading: a diagram lends itself to significationmore than a drawing, a copy more than ansrcinal, and a caricature more than a portrait.But this is the point: we are no longer dealinghere with a theoretical mode of representation:we are dealing with this particular image, whichis given for this particular signification. Mythicalspeech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose asignifying consciousness, that one can reasonabout them while discounting their substance.This substance is not unimportant: pictures, to besure, are more imperative than writing, theyimpose meaning at one stroke, without analyzingor diluting it. But this is no longer a constitutivedifference. Pictures become a kind of writing assoon as they are meaningful: like writing, theycall for a lexis.We shall therefore take language, discourse,speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photographwill be a kind of speech for us in the same wayas a newspaper article; even objects will becomespeech, if they mean something. This genericway of conceiving language is in fact justified bythe very history of writing: long before theinvention of our alphabet, objects like the Incaquipu, or drawings, as in pictographs, have been  Myth Today, page 2 of 26  accepted as speech. This does not mean that onemust treat mythical speech like language; mythin fact belongs to the province of a generalscience, coextensive with linguistics, which issemiology. Myth as a semiological system For mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast scienceof signs which Saussure postulated some fortyyears ago under the name of semiology.Semiology has not yet come into being. Butsince Saussure himself, and sometimesindependently of him, a whole section of contemporary research has constantly beenreferred to the problem of meaning: psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, somenew types of literary criticism of whichBachelard has given the first examples, are nolonger concerned with facts except inasmuch asthey are endowed with significance. Now to postulate a signification is to have recourse tosemiology. I do not mean that semiology couldaccount for all these aspects of research equallywell: they have different contents. But they havea common status: they are all sciences dealingwith values. They are not content with meetingthe facts: they define and explore them as tokensfor something else.Semiology is a science of forms, since it studiessignifications apart from their content. I shouldlike to say one word about the necessity and thelimits of such a formal science. The necessity isthat which applies in the case of any exactlanguage. Zhdanov made fun of Alexandrov the philosopher, who spoke of 'the sphericalstructure of our planet.' 'It was thought untilnow', Zhdanov said, 'that form alone could bespherical.' Zhdanov was right: one cannot speak about structures in terms of forms, and viceversa. It may well be that on the plane of 'life',there is but a totality where structures and formscannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about 'life' if it wantsto transform it. Against a certain quixotism of synthesis, quite platonic incidentally, allcriticism must consent to the ascesis, to theartifice of analysis; and in analysis, it must matchmethod and language. Less terrorized by thespecter of 'formalism', historical criticism mighthave been less sterile; it would have understoodthat the specific study of forms does not in anyway contradict the necessary principles of totality and History. On the contrary: the more asystem is specifically defined in its forms, themore amenable it is to historical criticism. To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that alittle formalism turns one away from History, butthat a lot brings one back to it. Is there a better example of total criticism than the description of saintliness, at once formal and historical,semiological and ideological, in Sartre's Saint-Genet? The danger, on the contrary, is toconsider forms as ambiguous objects, half- formand half-substance, to endow form with asubstance of form, as was done, for instance, byZhdanovian realism. Semiology, once its limitsare settled, is not a metaphysical trap: it is ascience among others, necessary but notsufficient. The important thing is to see that theunity of an explanation cannot be based on theamputation of one or other of its approaches, but,as Engels said, on the dialectical co-ordination of the particular sciences it makes use of. This is thecase with mythology: it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, andof ideology inasmuch as it is an historicalscience: it studies ideas-in-form. 2 Let me therefore restate that any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, asignifier and a signified. This relation concernsobjects which belong to different categories, andthis is why it is not one of equality but one of equivalence. We must here be on our guard for despite common parlance which simply says thatthe signifier expresses the signified, we aredealing, in any semiological system, not withtwo, but with three different terms. For what wegrasp is not at all one term after the other, but thecorrelation which unites them: there are,therefore, the signifier, the signified and the sign,which is the associative total of the first twoterms. Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signifymy passion. Do we have here, then, only asignifier and a signified, the roses and my passion? Not even that: to put it accurately, thereare here only 'passionified' roses. But on the plane of analysis, we do have three terms; for these roses weighted with passion perfectly andcorrectly allow themselves to be decomposedinto roses and passion: the former and the latter existed before uniting and forming this thirdobject, which is the sign. It is as true to say thaton the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the  Myth Today, page 3 of 26  roses from the message they carry, as to say thaton the plane of analysis I cannot confuse theroses as signifier and the roses as sign: thesignifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning.Or take a black pebble: I can make it signify inseveral ways, it is a mere signifier; but if I weighit with a definite signified (a death sentence, for instance, in an anonymous vote), it will become asign. Naturally, there are between the signifier,the signified and the sign, functional implications(such as that of the part to the whole) which areso close that to analyses them may seem futile; but we shall see in a moment that this distinctionhas a capital importance for the study of myth assemiological schema. Naturally these three terms are purely formal,and different contents can be given to them. Hereare a few examples: for Saussure, who workedon a particular but methodologically exemplarysemiological system--the language or langue--thesignified is the concept, the signifier is theacoustic image (which is mental) and the relation between concept and image is the sign (the word,for instance), which is a concrete entity. 3 For Freud, as is well known, the human psyche is astratification of tokens or representatives. Oneterm (I refrain from giving it any precedence) isconstituted by the manifest meaning of behavior,another, by its latent or real meaning (it is, for instance, the substratum of the dream); as for thethird term, it is here also a correlation of the firsttwo: it is the dream itself in its totality, the parapraxis (a mistake in speech or behavior) or the neurosis, conceived as compromises, aseconomies effected thanks to the joining of aform (the first term) and an intentional function(the second term). We can see here hownecessary it is to distinguish the sign from thesignifier: a dream, to Freud, is no more itsmanifest datum than its latent content: it is thefunctional union of these two terms. In Sartreancriticism, finally (I shall keep to these three wellknown examples), the signified is constituted bythe srcinal crisis in the subject (the separationfrom his mother for Baudelaire, the naming of the theft for Genet); Literature as discourseforms the signifier; and the relation betweencrisis and discourse defines the work, which is asignification. Of course, this tri-dimensional pattern, however constant in its form, isactualized in different ways: one cannot thereforesay too often that semiology can have its unityonly at the level of forms, not contents; its fieldis limited, it knows only one operation: reading,or deciphering.In myth, we find again the tri-dimensional pattern which I have just described: the signifier,the signified and the sign. But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from asemiological chain which existed before it: it is asecond-order semiological system. That which isa sign (namely the associative total of a conceptand an image) in the first system, becomes amere signifier in the second. We must here recallthat the materials of mythical speech (thelanguage itself, photography, painting, posters,rituals, objects, etc.), however different at thestart, are reduced to a pure signifying function assoon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees inthem only the same raw material; their unity isthat they all come down to the status of a merelanguage. Whether it deals with alphabetical or  pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them onlya sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of afirst semiological chain. And it is precisely thisfinal term which will become the first term of thegreater system which it builds and of which it isonly a part. Everything happens as if mythshifted the formal system of the firstsignifications sideways. As this lateral shift isessential for the analysis of myth, I shallrepresent it in the following way, it beingunderstood, of course, that the spatialization of the pattern is here only a metaphor: [the following is a stripped-down representationof Barthes's srcinal diagram] It can be seen that in myth there are twosemiological systems, one of which is staggeredin relation to the other: a linguistic system, thelanguage (or the modes of representation whichare assimilated to it), which I shall call thelanguage-object, because it is the language whichmyth gets hold of in order to build its ownsystem; and myth itself, which I shall call  Myth Today, page 4 of 26  metalanguage, because it is a second language, inwhich one speaks about the first. When hereflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist nolonger needs to ask himself questions about thecomposition of the language object, he no longer has to take into account the details of thelinguistic schema; he will only need to know itstotal term, or global sign, and only inasmuch asthis term lends itself to myth. This is why thesemiologist is entitled to treat in the same waywriting and pictures: what he retains from themis the fact that they are both signs, that they bothreach the threshold of myth endowed with thesame signifying function, that they constitute,one just as much as the other, a language-object.It is now time to give one or two examples of mythical speech. I shall borrow the first from anobservation by Valery. 4 I am a pupil in thesecond form in a French lycee. I open my Latingrammar, and I read a sentence, borrowed fromAesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. I stopand think. There is something ambiguous aboutthis statement: on the one hand, the words in itdo have a simple meaning: because my name islion. And on the other hand, the sentence isevidently there in order to signify something elseto me. Inasmuch as it is addressed to me, a pupilin the second form, it tells me clearly: I am agrammatical example meant to illustrate the ruleabout the agreement of the predicate. I am evenforced to realize that the sentence in no waysignifies its meaning to me, that it tries very littleto tell me something about the lion and what sortof name he has; its true and fundamentalsignification is to impose itself on me as the presence of a certain agreement of the predicate.I conclude that I am faced with a particular,greater, semiological system, since it is co-extensive with the language: there is, indeed, asignifier, but this signifier is itself formed by asum of signs, it is in itself a first semiologicalsystem (my name is lion). Thereafter, the formal pattern is correctly unfolded: there is a signified(I am a grammatical example) and there is aglobal signification, which is none other than thecorrelation of the signifier and the signified; for neither the naming of the lion nor thegrammatical example are given separately.And here is now another example: I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris- Match is offered tome. On the cover, a young Negro in a Frenchuniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All thisis the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies tome: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfullyserve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an allegedcolonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro inserving his so- called oppressors. I am thereforeagain faced with a greater semiological system:there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving theFrench salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness andmilitariness); finally, there is a presence of thesignified through the signifier.Before tackling the analysis of each term of themythical system, one must agree on terminology.We now know that the signifier can be looked at,in myth, from two points of view: as the finalterm of the linguistic system, or as the first termof the mythical system. We therefore need twonames. On the plane of language, that is, as thefinal term of the first system, I shall call thesignifier: meaning (my name is lion, a Negro isgiving the French salute); on the plane of myth, Ishall call it: form. In the case of the signified, noambiguity is possible: we shall retain the name
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