mythologies

Disclaimer and Reflections on Essays

I did not follow the recommended reading directions for reading Mythology Today first, since Barthes’ essays were too provocative to “ruin” with a long theoretical piece as the starting point. My observations are thus presented in the order I read the pieces (chronologically with the book). Then I try to tie them together theoretically in the end, emphasis on try.

I will begin with a quote from the second to the last paragraph of the “World of Wrestling”:

The grandiloquence is nothing but the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.

Barthes builds to this conclusion after dissecting the physicality, theatricality, and reception of French “amateur” wrestling in addition to defining what this flavor of pugilism is and isn’t.

The contrast wrestling plays to boxing is crucial. Boxing has an end, a clear winner, a goal. Wrestling on the other hand, is pure causality stripped from narrative and context. The excerpt above states this fact in a nearly biblical tone and the conclusion to the essay that follows continues with the religious undertones by describing the transmutation of men to gods while in the ring. And what exactly is godly to Barthes?

Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible.

Intelligibility and nature are two themes that keep appearing in Barthes’ essays. In “Soap-powders and Detergents” the intelligible forms of detergents are psychoanalyzed in their media representations and their contradictory nature exposed and challenged. For how could abrasives meant for cleaning be simultaneously light, fluffy, and ethereal while remaining stain fighters? The punchline for this essay (Unilever owns both Persil and Omo) slowly begins the process of uncovering the deeper insights Barthes will talk about in “Myth Today.”

The punchline to “Operation Margarine” is very similar to “Soap-powders and Detergents” in the sense that they both nod towards exposing the way “Established Orders” are reinforced. In “Operation Margarine” Barthes describes the process by which airing grievances serve as “inoculations” for further resistance, starting with two examples from the army and one from the church, and ending with advertising’s take on margarine. These examples start as grievances but end asserting the inevitability of an established order and the ultimate foolishness of a true rebellion in resistance to this “natural order”.

Barthes expands in “Myth Today” how bourgeois foster an illusion of camaraderie with the petite bourgeois through their dissemination of bourgeois representations. “The New Citroen” is a moment of apotheosis for that process wherein “the object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petite bourgeois advancement.” The New Citroen was the piece that profited most from reading “Myth Today” given Barthes’ exposition on bourgeois/petitee bourgeois dynamics.

Reflections on Myth Today

This piece is a bit confusing given the levels of recursion Barthes demands along with several instances of recycled etymologies like signifier, signified, sign, and signification. Nonetheless, if one keeps in mind the linguistic undertones of the descriptions, “Myth Today” gives social scientists a very useful toolkit for exploring semantic systems and ideologies.

There are strong linguistic undertones to this piece. Barthes lays the foundation for mythical analysis by describing first order semiotic systems, consisting of three dimensions: signifier, signified, and sign. Barthes uses roses representing passion to a basic semiotic system, with rose serving as signifier, passion as signified, and the relationship between these two as the sign.

Barthes describes myth as a second order semiotic system, made from chains of first order symbols and resembling the first order schema. In contrast with the first order dimensions of signifier, signified, and sign, second order dimensions include meaning, concept, and signification. If first order semiotic systems are language, second order semiotic systems are metalanguage, serving a descriptive function to language. Herein begins the recursive move in mythical understanding, since first order symbols are nested within second order symbols and both rely on a very similar three-dimensional relationship.

This three/dimensional relationship at both language/metalanguage levels begins with the binary relationship between signifier and signified or meaning and concept. The third dimension is the relationship between these binaries, whether sign or signification.

Signification takes the binary process between meaning a concept and abstracts it to a naturalistic causal relationship at the metalanguage level. This doesn’t happen at the language level, since the relationship between signifier and signified are already much simpler than between meaning and concept. Why is this the case? First level semiotic systems are at the scope of the sentence and grammar; they are limited in the complexity they can convey given how small a function they play. Second order semiotic system are scoped at a much larger level and can reference our history and experience as social beings. Nevertheless, the relationship between binaries expressed in second order semiotic systems irons out the complexities suggested by this semantic richness. This simplification process happens through the building of a narrative that suggests a naturalistic causality between meaning and concept, in other words, the construction of a myth.

Myth then, hides ideology and the semantic processes that scaffold this ideology. What is then is the motivation behind becoming a “mythologist” and learning all these discursive moves?

The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation: we constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it, but we restore it to a state which is still mystified. It would seem for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality. This is probably because ideologism and its opposite are types of behavior which are still magical, terrorized, blinded and fascinated by the split in the social world. And yet this is what we must seek: a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge.

In other words, mythical processes permeate the fiber of our society in the service of ideologies. However, to be aware of this is to deconstruct the myth and thus remove its power. A powerless myth, though “liberated” is devoid of its discursive power. To understand a myth’s discursive power, then, one is forced to tolerate its “mystified” state thus yielding to the myth’s power again. This cycle, though frustrating, is the only way to grasp the totality of a myth and is the heuristic the mythologist must follows to study myth.

Speaking about myth in these overly general, linguistically rigorous modes hides the value of mythological analysis. Examples do a much better job at explaining these linguistic relationships and the larger implications these processes suggest. As such, the structure of Barthes’ book makes a lot of sense, since he provides a bank of narrative references over the course of the text before explaining the rationale for these examples through “Myth Today.”

My favorite quote from this piece, by far, is the psychoanalysis of the grammar example with the lion:

There is no doubt that if we consulted a real lion, he would maintain that the grammar example is a strongly depoliticized state, he would qualify as fully political the jurisprudence which leads him to claim a pray because he is the strongest, unless we deal with a bourgeois lion who would not fail to mythify his strength by giving it the form of a duty.

This passage almost takes the form of a parable. A “real” lion would see through the artifice of the grammatical example and assert its political nature, lest it were a bourgeois lion. In that case the lion would hide behind mythmaking to reframe its political action as “duty,” fitting it within an ideological framework that supports bourgeois values.

In terms of social science, Barthes’ piece serves as a compass and a reminder. To navigate a complex topic, keeping the language and metalanguage processes of myth in mind assures the researcher will remain on task and not accidentally serve the ideology that is held up by myth. Similarly, Barthes’ warns the researcher to not lose the ideology through the process of deconstructing the semantic process of the discourse altogether. By oscillating between both semantic and ideological registers of a myth a social scientist achieves a more holistic version of truth.

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