In response to: The section “Myth Today” from the book “Mythologies” by Roland Barthes
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
In reading French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician Roland Barthes’ “Myth Today” from his book “Mythologies,” I found myself more open to the nature of cinema as a theoretical discussion. In presenting the groundwork for semiology and its relationship to myth, I got to the starting point of examining current forms of existence and revealing the ideological nature of culture and people’s fondness for mythmaking. From how I understood it, myth is interestingly both strong and fragile – it can be easily destroyed or changed based on how culture signifies and grants meaning to it. The development of myth is driven by social forces where reason, intention, and a sense of attraction affect people’s sensibilities on contemporary social value systems and cultural associations.
As Barthes looked at the semiology of the process of myth creation, noting Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure’s insights on the connections between an object (the signified) and its linguistic representation (the signifier) and how the two are connected, as well as de Saussure’s system of sign analysis, the addition of a second level where signs advance to the level of myth came in and he acknowledged how the sign itself is used as a signifier to create a new meaning, which is then the signified.
Barthes expressed that “Myth is a type of speech.” At the same time, myth is bound to language to build its own system. He established from the start that “myth is a system of communication, that it is a message.” Yet, “everything can be a myth provided that it is conveyed by a discourse.” It helped me understand it more when he elaborated that myth is not an object, a concept, or an idea. Instead, it is a form of signification. In this form, the way it presents its message is key to say it is a “myth.” As I moved towards deeper introspection, I started to relate myth with how artists put value to an object, a concept, or an idea and expressing it as art. Indeed, myth can come in different faces, especially when using art as a medium of expression.
As not everything gets expressed at the same time, I agree with Barthes when he said that myths come and go. Myths of the past may not necessarily resurface, but some do, if the present time would find value to it, or perhaps some people, event, or phenomenon would lead to it. Perhaps, mythologies are formed to perpetuate an idea of society anchored in the current ideologies of the ruling class. From my understanding, attaining the status of myth requires the society putting it out there. He also expressed how there is no eternal myths because “it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language.” He further articulated how myth is a type of speech chosen by history and “it cannot possibly evolve from the nature of things.” However, this made me think for a bit because I consider social evolution and the interaction of people, groups, and institutions in historical events as “natural tendencies” – to become what they are in the process that involves a certain dynamics, clashing, uniting, and playing neutral in the society’s encounter with the internal and external forces around.
The beauty of mythical language comes from its diversity and unbiased take on things – where black doesn’t always equate to darkness nor suggest evil and white doesn’t always suggest radiance nor exude goodness. With mythology as a study of a type of speech, it shows how materials of myth “presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance.” Barthes said, myth “belongs to the province of a general science, coextensive with linguistics, which is semiology.” This particularly led to de Saussure’s postulation of this one fragment of the vast science of signs called semiology, the science of forms studying significations apart from their content. Semiology “postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified.”
I found it quite interesting to realize how Barthes described myth as depoliticized speech, specifically when trying to complete the semiological definition of myth in his description of the bourgeois society. He said, “Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” Here, myth promotes the celebration of things instead of acting on it, which is supported by his statement: “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 that we are condemned 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.”
I agree with Barthes that semiology is necessary but not sufficient in the world of art. In systematizing mythology, I would be able to better understand the dynamics of cultural artifacts and canonized works and how they evolve in the complexities of the modern society. The articulations in this reading allowed me to reflect on the abstract process involved in the creation of myths and making ruminations from them.
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today,” Mythologies, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984.