Roland Barthes


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 2012. Paperback: 9780809071944.


“'No denunciation without its proper instrument of close analysis,' Roland Barthes wrote in his preface to Mythologies. There is no more proper instrument of analysis of our contemporary myths than this book---one of the most significant works in French theory, and one that has transformed the way readers and philosophers view the world around them. Our age is a triumph of codification. We own devices that bring the world to the command of our fingertips. We have access to boundless information and prodigious quantities of stuff. We decide to like or not, to believe or not, to buy or not. We pick and choose. We think we are free. Yet all around us, in pop culture, politics, mainstream media, and advertising, there are codes and symbols that govern our choices. They are the fabrications of consumer society. They express myths of success, well-being, or happiness. As Barthes sees it, these myths must be carefully deciphered, and debunked. What Barthes discerned in mass media, the fashion of plastic, and the politics of postcolonial France applies with equal force to today's social networks, the iPhone, and the images of 9/11. This new edition of Mythologies, complete and beautifully rendered by the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, critic, and translator Richard Howard, is a consecration of Barthes's classic—a lesson in clairvoyance that is more relevant now than ever.”


I. Analysis

Barthes concerns himself with myth as a particular mode of communication or speech. Myth is of the second-order to language, the ideology over the semiology. Language means in itself, but myth means through language in an ideological way, simultaneously emptying the signs that it has appropriated and infusing them with its own intention, its own motivation. Myth is parasitic, distorting, arresting. At the core of Barthes thought is his notion of “degree zero” writing, writing that speaks things, acts objects, and makes the world. Mythical writing, on the other hand, writing at degrees other than zero, speaks of things, acts names, and makes nothing but itself. His goal, as a mythologist, is to return to or re-establish a language that reconciles man with reality, thus returning language and its meaning to the realm of action, which is also the realm of politics. In resistance to this aim is bourgeois society, the chief propagator of mythologies in Barthes’ world, the force of which appropriates all history to the end of itself and thus erasing reality in all of its contingency and necessity, replacing it with an eternalized, naturalized image of givenness. The trappings of bourgeois culture are constructed, but it is the mythologist’s task to unveil them as such. This Barthes does through the numerous essays preceding “Myth Today” and it is this, we could say, that is our task if we too are to take up the mantle of “mythologist.”

II. Summary

“Myth Today”

1) Myth is a type of speech

  • Myth is a “system of communication” which means that it is a way of conveying a “message” (217). This is to say that myth as communication is a “mode of signification” and as a mode it is thus also a “form” (217).

  • Since myth is a “type of speech” (217), which is to say a form or mode, “everything can be a myth, provided it is conveyed by a discourse” (217). Myth is not a particular content but the “way” a given content is delivered (217).

  • The form of myth allows “[e]very object in the world [to] pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society” (218).

  • Myth takes a bare sign, the “pure matter” of signification, and invests or adapts it with/to a “social usage” (218). This is the sign’s appropriation.

  • So myth, as the investing of a sign with “social usage,” is a “type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the “nature” of things” (218). Social usage is contingent upon the history of a social group.

  • For this reason there are no “eternal” myths, only those which are historically repeated (218).

  • Myth simply takes “material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication” (219). We see then that “all the materials of myth ... presuppose a signifying consciousness” (219). This consciousness is not some abstract, metaphysical consciousness, but the contingencies of history and the acting of humans and human society in it. This must be clear so as to avoid the absolutizing (and also, we could say, absolution or absolving) of certain pervasive (i.e., frequently repeated) mythic structures.

  • Because myth is historical, it is analyzable, and because myth is a form of speech, it is thus analyzable as such. We can “take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis” (219). They all “mean something” (219), and this meaning we can examine through “semiology” (219).

2) Myth is a semiological system

  • Myth is a form of speech and semiology is “a science of forms” (220), the study of meaning or of “significations” (220).

  • Mythology is itself a semiology, “inasmuch as it is a formal science” (221). This means that mythology is the study of the meanings of myth.

  • Mythology is also the study of ideology, “inasmuch as it is a historical science” (221). This means that mythology is also the study of “ideas-in-form” (221).

  • Semiologically, then, mythology is concerned with the given content of the form; ideologically, mythology is concerned with the indicated content, the content of the form in its socio-historical appropriation.

  • But first, the semiology must be understood, and as Barthes lays out, “any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified” (221).

  • The relation is itself the third term, and this term is the “sign,” the “associative total of the first two terms” (221). The sign is what signifies; the sign is the signification.

  • Barthes is sure to clarify the distinction between the signifier and the sign proper: “the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning” (222).

  • Further, Barthes reminds us that “these three terms are purely formal” (222). In the basic semiological system—which we can say is the most basic mode of the sign-form—signs are words. For instance, in Saussure, the form in question is “language or langue” and so the “signified is the concept, the signifier is the acoustic image ... and the relation between concept and image is the sign” (222). But this semiology is not restricted to language. Freud has a semiology of the psyche in which the formal terms (signified-signifier-sign) are invested with “different contents” (222).

  • Semiology, in all its iteration, has “its unity only at the level of forms, not contents; its field is limited, it knows only one operation: reading, or deciphering” (223).

  • This is to say that semiology is concerned with interpretation insofar as interpretation is the reflective process of the mind abstracting from reality into a finite symbol-set, with the intent of solving a problem in reality through the application of this abstracted schema (Macmurray, Interpreting the Universe).

  • Mythology, then, is the study of linguistic-ideological forms, because myth, as an instance of human speech is a symbolic representation of the world, and is thus semiological in nature.

3) Myth is a second-order semiological system

  • Myth is a “second-order semiological system” (223) because it presupposes a “semiological chain which existed before it” (223). This is to say that bare meaning or the “pure matter” of signification must have already existed for mythological meaning or signification to occur.

  • Thus we see that in the myth, as a semiological unit, the form of “signifier” is filled with a sign and emptied of its content, which is to say, detached from the original relation of signifier and signified that was its meaning.

  • Myth “shift[s] the formal system of the first significations sideways” (223)

  • In Barthes’ diagram we see that the original sign or “language object” (224), and by extension language itself, is appropriated by and assimilated into myth so that myth can “build its own system” (224). Thus myth is “metalanguage” (224).

  • Metalanguage takes “the final term of the linguistic system ... as the first term of the mythical system.

  • “We now know that the signifier can be looked at, in myth, from two points of view” (226), and so the mythological signifier is thus doubled. “On the plane of language” the signifier is meaning because it is a sign; “on the plane of myth” the signifier is form because the originally meaningful sign is emptied so as to point to a new signified, which remains as concept on both planes (226).

  • The third term, the “correlation” (226), Barthes refers to as the “signification” to distinguish the mythological sign from the linguistic sign, and also to highlight the function of pointing and notifying that the myth “imposes on us” (226).

4) The self-presentation of myth is ambiguous

  • This ambiguity is seen in the doubling of the signifier, its simultaneous being as form and concept, “full on one side and empty on the other” (226). Sometimes the mythical signifier indicates the content of the linguistic sign, and sometimes the mythical signifier is emptied of its content so as to indicate something other than itself.

  • “As a total of linguistic signs, the meaning [the sign] has its own value, it belongs to history ... in the meaning, a signification is already built, and could not very well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not turn it suddenly into an empty, parasitical form” (226). The meaning is tied to its history and is only made self-sufficient by force. “When it becomes form, the meaning leaves it contingency behind; it empties itself ... [and] only the letter remains” (227).

  • “the form does not suppress the meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance” (227).

  • This is because “the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment” (227). The form distances itself from the contingency of the meaning so as to fill it with its own content, but then always returns to the meaning that was hidden for its justification. Thus Barthes sees myth as a “constant game of hide-and-seek” (227).

5) The form of myth is not a symbol

  • With a symbol the signifier is empty. It points to a particular content. But in a myth there is “too much presence” (228) because the signifier itself is full.

  • The emptying out of the meaning by myth is therefore the process by which “this presence is tamed, put at a distance, made almost transparent” (228).

6) The concept reconstitutes the history of the meaning

  • In myth, the “history which drains out of the form will be wholly absorbed by the concept” (228). The concept of the myth becomes itself “historical and intentional” (228), that which “drives” the myth, a “chain of causes and effects, motives and intentions” (228).

  • This is to say that the concept is “filled with a situation” (228).

  • Thus, just as the concept of the word “tree” is the thing we know as tree, a mythical appropriation of the tree, for instance, as the “world-tree,” empties out any “reality” from the signifier (i.e., any correlation with a real tree), and uses this now empty sign to point to a concept of order, connection, and structure that is supposed (imagined or ideated) to be present in the world.

  • So “what is invested in the concept is less reality than a certain knowledge of reality” (228).

  • To cite Macmurray again, we could say that the myth, in its ideological capacity, becomes a sort of “unity-pattern” that is mapped onto the world as a “certain knowledge” of it. All thoughts demands to be referred back to reality. The myth is a particular form of this referral, which is the reconstitution of the sign’s meaning in a new form. The tree perceived in immediate experience is emptied out of its reality and becomes a “myth” or “idea,” signifying something other than itself, but all the while tying that “something other” back to the original meaning.

7) Mythical concepts appropriate socio-historico-linguistic meanings

  • Put otherwise, myths excise signs from their socio-historical contexts and invests them with new content

  • For this reason Barthes writes that “the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated” (229)

  • Structurally, we see that “quantitatively, the concept is much poorer than the signifier” but that there is “qualitative poverty of form” (229). There are quantitatively few concepts in comparison to the ubiquity of forms; conversely, the concept is qualitatively richer than the forms which represent it.

8) Myths are deciphered through their repetition

  • If the “quantitative abundance of the forms ... corresponds [to] a small number of concepts” (229), then the mythologist can “decipher a myth” in perceiving the “repetition of the concept through different forms” (229). So the myth of the “world tree” is represented in many different forms, but in recognition of the concept which is referred to in each case the mythologist is able to isolate the mythic content or idea itself.

9) Myths are not eternal or fixed

  • As Barthes already argued above, myths are not, however, eternal. Nietzsche’s idea of the “eternal repetition of the identical” is not truly at play here.

  • Mythic concepts are certainly repeated, but this does not mean that they are metaphysically pre-existent forms.

  • Myths are appropriations of language, and because language (the prime semiological structure) is historically contingent, metalanguage (the secondary semiological structure) is also subject to such contingency.

  • Thus, “mythical concepts ... can come into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely” (230). All of this is to say, in other words, that the production and reproduction of myths is not dependent on some external, eternal model, but on the motives and conditions of particular historical moments.

  • To this end, the mythologist often employs “ephemeral concepts, in connection with limited contingencies” (230). Every new appropriation of language by myth is a potential site for the mythologist’s scrutiny. The mythologist must identify what signification has occurred and is occurring.

10) Signification is the myth itself

  • To reiterate, signification is the pointing of an emptied sign at something other than what it originally referred to in reality, and this pointing is myth. It is thus the mythologist’s task to examine the historical impetus for such an appropriation of the sign-function.

  • The myth is thus congruent with the sign (or word) on the plane of language. The myth and the word are the “concrete unit[s]” of their planes (231).

  • Myth does not hide either of its “first two terms” (231); they are both “perfectly manifest,” both “given here” (231). This is to say that the form and the concept and the concept of the myth are both present: “myth hides nothing” (231).

  • But although both terms are present, the “function” of the myth “is to distort” (231).

  • Barthes moves to examine the manifestation of form and concept in myth

11) The mode of presence of the form is spatial

  • Form (mythic signifier) has “a literal, immediate presence ... it is extended [as in space” (231). The extension of the form “stems ... from the nature of the mythical signifier ... since it is constituted by a meaning which is already outlined [because the form is a sign emptied of meaning, and thus in outline]” (231). Thus the form “can appear only through a given substance” and it “extension is linear”; the “elements of the form therefore are related as to place and proximity” (231).

  • Therefore: “the mode of presence of the form is spatial” (231)

12) The mode of presence of the concept is memorial

  • The concept “appears in global fashion” and is “a kind of nebula, the condensation, more or less hazy, of a certain knowledge” (232).

  • “Its elements are linked by associative relations” (232).

  • “it is supported not by extension but by depth” (232).

  • Therefore: “its mode of presence is memorial” (232).

13) The concept of the myth distorts the meaning of the sign

  • This is a tricky bit of thinking.

  • “in myth the meaning is distorted by the concept” (232).

  • “this distortion is possible only because the form of the myth is already constituted by a linguistic meaning [a sign]” (232).

  • In a linguistic sign the “signified cannot distort anything at all because the signifier, being empty, arbitrary, offers no resistance to it” (232).

  • But because in myth the signifier is itself a meaningful sign, there is a prior concept which resists the new concept of the myth. The signifier is “full” in myth where in language it is empty.

  • Thus, for myth to function, for myth to signify something, the signifier (the original sign) must be “deprived of memory” but “not of existence” (232). The sign is still necessary to provide a “form” to the myth, but its content must be hidden.

14) Myth is a double system

  • Myth’s “point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning” (233).

  • For this reason “myth is constituted by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternately the meaning of the signifier and its form” (233). Myth is simultaneously language and metalanguage.

  • Because myth is doubled in this way, both empty and full, it “always [has] an “elsewhere” at its disposal” (233), what Barthes refers to as an “alibi” (233).

  • “The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place” (233).

15) It is the mythologist’s task to interrupt the system

  • Because the form uses the meaning as its alibi, the myth tends to be received as apparent in the same way as language. The mythologist’s task is to demonstrate the “intention” that is behind the myth (234).

  • The “myth is a type of speech defined by its intention ... much more than by its literal sense” (234)

  • But, “its intention is somehow frozen, purified, eternalized, made absent by this literal sense” (234).

  • The mythologist must demonstrate the historical contingency of the myth, the conditions of its existence in time and in the world, so as to resist the eternalization of it.

  • The myth is not eternal. This cannot be said enough. The myth, as speech, is historically conditioned and dependent.

16) Myth is imperative

  • Myth demands.

  • The demand of myth “stem[s] from a historical concept, directly springing from contingency” (234).

  • “it is I whom it has come to seek. It has turned toward me, I am subjected to its intentional force, it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity” (234).

  • The myth demands that I recognize it as a meaning “because the concept appears to me in all its appropriative nature: it comes and seeks me out in order to oblige me to acknowledge the body of intentions which have motivated it and arranged it there as the signal of an individual history, as a confidence and a complicity” (235).

  • The myth “is a real call” and thus it is an “interpellant” form of speech (235). The I is “hailed” (as Althusser writes), the text makes a “claim” on the I (as Gadamer writes, following Kierkegaard), and this is the mythical function.

  • “The appropriation of the concept is suddenly driven away once more by the literalness of the meaning. This is a kind of arrest” (235)—the meaning, the original sign, “thickens, becomes vitrified, freezes into an eternal reference meant to establish” the meaning of the myth.

  • In this way the myth insists on its meaning (its intention) by appealing to the movement of linguistic signification (which is the arbitrary linking of signifier and signified), while simultaneously arresting that movement, keeping the signification from sliding (that is, recognizing the arbitrariness of the linkage).

17) Myth is motivated

  • “We know that in a language the sign is arbitrary: nothing compels the acoustic image tree “naturally” to mean the concept tree: the sign, here, is unmotivated” (236).

  • “The mythical signification, on the other hand, is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy” (236), an “identity” that motivates the connection between form and concept (236).

  • Myth “plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form” (236).

  • “What is sickening in myth is its resort to a false nature, its superabundance of significant form ... myth is too rich, and what is in excess is precisely its motivation” (236).

  • Myth is always excessive, using that which is full in the space that is usually empty and arbitrary.

  • “Motivation is unavoidable” (237).

18) Mythological motivation is fragmentary

  • Mythological motivation “is not “natural”: it is history which supplies its analogies to the form” (237).

  • So, the “analogy between the meaning and the concept is never anything but partial: the form drops many analogous features and keeps only a few” (237).

  • A “complete image would exclude myth, or at least would compel it to seize only its very completeness” (237).

  • “myth prefers to work with poor, incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its fat, and ready for signification, such as caricatures, pastiches, symbols, etc.” (237).

  • “Finally, the motivation is chosen among other possible ones” (237). Other signifiers can be used to represent the chosen concept.

19) Myth is ideographic

  • The myth is “a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by concepts which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation” (238).

  • Just as ideographs generally detach from the concept they indicate and become “less and less motivated” (238), a “worn out” myth can “be recognized by the arbitrariness of its signification” (238). The more tenuous the motivating bond, the more worn the myth.

20) There are three ways to read a myth

  • i) “focus on an empty signifier” and “let the concept fill the form of the myth without ambiguity” (238). This is the “producer of myths” (238).

  • ii) “focus on a full signifier” and “clearly distinguish the meaning and the form” (238). This “un[does] the signification of the myth” (239), recognizing the form as the “alibi” for the meaning (239). This is the “mythologist” (239).

  • iii) “focus on the mythical signifier as on an inextricable whole made of meaning and form” and so “receive an ambiguous signification” (239). This is the “reader of myths” (239).

21) The reader of myths reveals their function

  • The “essential function” of the myth is to lay claim to or arrest the reader. “How does he receive this particular myth today?” (239). The ideological component of myth can only be explained in this way. The motivated content of the myth is “live[d]” by the reader “as a story at once true and unreal” (239).

  • Thus, Barthes claims, “myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion” (240), a modification.

22) Myth naturalizes the concept

  • The inflective capacity of myth, the modification of signs that it undertakes, is to perform this naturalization.

  • in the eyes of the myth consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without, however, appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit” (240).

  • Thus the cause of a naturalized myth “is not read as a motive but as a reason” (240).

  • “everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified” (240).

  • Myth “is speech justified in excess” (240).

  • Myth is thus “experienced as innocent speech” (242).

  • Myth is not seen as “a semiological system but as an inductive one. Where there is only an equivalence [an analogy between form and concept], he seems a kind of causal process: the signifier and the signified have, in his eyes, a natural relationship” (242)

  • When the “myth consumer takes the signification for a system of facts” myth is naturalized (242).

23) Myth is stolen language

  • In “transform[ing] a meaning into form” myth is a “language robbery” (242).

  • “Articulated [spoken] language” is most susceptible to this robbery because it “contains in itself some mythical dispositions,” an “intention” which is the “expressiveness of language” (242).

  • This is to say that language means to mean. Thus there is already a mythic quality to language. I think Barthes desire for a “degree zero” language, language without mythical intention, is problematic in light of this.

  • “Language lends itself to myth in another way: it is very rare that it imposes at the outset a full meaning which it is impossible to distort” (243).

  • Language “lends itself to multiple contingencies” (243).

  • In language “there always remains, around the final meaning, a halo of virtualities where other possible meanings are floating: the meaning can almost always be interrupted” (243).

  • Thus Barthes claims that “language offers to myth an openwork meaning” (243).

24) The field of myth is society

  • “our society is the privileged field of mythical signification” (249).

  • As the present instance of a history society is the concrete object of the mythologist’s study.

25) Bourgeois society exnominates itself so as to naturalize itself

  • Because myths are constructed and artificial, for the bourgeois ideology to become total it must “exnominate” itself and thus deprive its myths of their history, making them, in this way, “natural” phenomena.

  • Ideologies are promulgated through mythologies—indeed, I think it is accurate to say that ideologies are the motivation behind mythologies—and it is the “double system” of myth that naturalizes the ideology. Thus, Barthes says earlier that the study of semiology and ideology ideally would be combined, but we should be careful not to confuse them, because each has its own methods (249).

  • Barthes is very much caught up in his own history, and so bourgeois society is made the exemplar of his theorization of myth. I believe, however, that in his political motivation Barthes vision is too narrow.

  • The mythical quality of language referred to above, its openness to appropriation by the myth, is, I think, not just accidental but essential to language. This I will need to work out further elsewhere.

26) Myth depoliticizes speech

  • The “political” is “the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their power of making the world” (255).

  • The political is thus, for Barthes, closer to the ideal “degree zero” mode of language than myth.

  • Natural objects “contain[] a political trace” (256), which is to say, they contain or presence some sort of memory of or potentiality for human action-in-relation to them. The “trace” is the “presence of the human act which has produced, fitted up, used, subjected, or rejected it” (256).

  • “The language object, which speaks things, can easily exhibit this trace; the metalanguage, which speaks of things, much less easily” (256).

  • This is because myth, metalanguage, which draws its vitality from a “historical reality,” covers over this reality so as to naturalize the image of it (255).

  • In language objects the “halo of virtualities” is always there; in myth, this “halo” is condensed, and thus concretized and frozen, into the image in its excess.

27) The left does not have myths

  • Barthes thinks that myths live “[s]tatistically ... on the right,” that myth is “essential” for the right (262). I cannot argue with that.

  • But Barthes claim that the left has no myths, and if it does they are weak, accidental, and/or transitory. I’m not sure about this.

  • Now, Barthes does recognize that insofar as the Left becomes the Left, it is no longer revolutionary and thus no longer truly political (i.e., concerned with human action).

  • Truly political language “speak[s] the tree”—it is “operational, transitively linked to its object; between the tree and myself, there is nothing but my labor, that is to say, an action” (258). Political language “act[s] the object” (258). In such language the “tree is not an image for me, it is simply the meaning of my action” (258).

  • The depoliticizing force of myth makes the tree “no longer the meaning of reality as a human action, [but] an image-at-one’s-disposal” (259), and thus one “shall henceforth not “act the things” but “act their names”” (259).

  • So, political language, the language of the true left, the revolutionary left, is the “language of man as a producer” (259).

  • This revolutionary language “makes the world; and its language, all of it, is functionally absorbed in this making” (259).

  • Revolutionary language denominates, whereas as bourgeois/mythic language exnominates. Revolutionary language “announces itself openly as Revolution and thereby abolishes myth” (259).

  • So Barthes conclusion that the left has no myths is essentially true, at least in his terms. But I think in his polarization of left and right, Myth and Revolution, he loses the functional quality of myth at the level of language, the insistence of language, which is its ideological quality. I think the work of those like Lacan or Voloshinov might shed some light here, but I need to do some further work on that before I can think it through.

28) The mythologist cuts himself off so as to unveil

  • The mythologist’s speech is “a metalanguage, it “acts” nothing; at most, it unveils—or does it? To whom?” (271). Barthes recognizes that the mythologist’s task “remains ambiguous” (271), like the myth it scrutinizes.

  • The mythologist must “cut oneself off from those who are entertained or warmed up by [the myths]” he examines.

  • For instance, he says, “wine is objectively good, and at the same time, the goodness of wise is a myth: here is the aporia” (273). The mythologist deals with this “goodness” (274), the myth or the form, and not with the thing “itself” (274). Regardless of any particular affection for the thing the mythologist is concerned with revealing the intent or motivation of its form.

  • Thus, ultimately, the mythologist seeks “a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge” (274).

III. Critique

Barthes is a dazzling thinker, and his essay “Myth Today” (to concentrate here rather than the myriad of topics that comprise the text of Mythologies proper) certainly does not disappoint. I agree with Barthes in most cases and find his reading of culture compelling. But there are certain aspects of his argument that trouble me, or rather, that I find less compelling than the essay overall. Myth, Barthes tells us, can appropriate all signs: “nothing can be safe from myth, myth can develop its second-order schema from any meaning” (242). Yet, in this assertion Barthes presumes to be safe, that his “writerly,” “degree zero,” “political” writing somehow avoids this problematic. Indeed, he does recognize that the mythologist’s “speech is a metalanguage, it “acts” nothing” (271), but he seems too caught up in his own mythologies to be able to see certain outcomes of his thought that stretch beyond the binary of Conservatism and Revolution that he operates within.

[A note here. I read “Myth Today” and wrote this response before reading the rest of the text. In the “Preface to the 1957 Edition” Barthes does in fact recognize that he “had no intention of abandoning that general semiology of our bourgeois world” (XI), that “[his] significations” doubtless functioned in the same way as myths, and that there is, in fact, “a mythology of the mythologist” (XII), or at least there could be. He back peddles after saying so, however, writing that that is not “the right way to frame the question” (XII), still believing his position to be different in some way. So perhaps my original critique stands. Regardless, Barthes is not naïve.]

First of all, to summarize the function of myth, we can say that myth is a mode of communication, and thus a mode of meaning, and that it takes for its form prior meanings. In this way myth is “second-order,” it begins where bare language leaves off. Myth takes these prior meanings and empties them, which is to say detaches them from their historical contingency, and imputes to them a new concept, something other than the bare meaning of the sign, a concept which distorts the sign and uses the energy of its history, the original signified, to generate a new signification, the myth, covering over the original history with a new content of motivation and intention. Thus we see that myth is a “double system” and that it is always in “excess.” There is always another meaning that is appropriated and hidden away, only to be brought out as an “alibi” when the signification of the myth is challenged. In this way the myth is simultaneously grounded and ungrounded, validating itself with the “bare” meaning of its signifier while denying the fundamental historicity of that meaning. Myth is naturalized, eternalized, frozen. The “halo of virtualities” that always accompanies semiological meaning is condensed and stilled, the dialectical movement of the sign “arrested.” We too, then, as hearers of the myth, are “arrested” by it, called to validate its intent and affirm it as given.

But here we must examine Barthes’ reasoning and his prejudices, which I would venture to say are conjoined in myth. Barthes holds an ideal of “degree zero” language, language that “speaks” and “acts” things, rather than names, language that is acquainted with reality and with labour, with human action. Myth, which Barthes sees in its purest form in bourgeois culture, is the means by which bourgeois ideology interpellates society, which is thus the way bourgeois society is itself perpetuated. The alienation of man from his conditions of existence, the separation of his labour from its ends (which, in a capitalist society, is the generation of capital), has culminated in the bourgeois ideology of consumption. Consumption is the ideology which perpetuates the system. The continual growth demanded by capitalists requires continual consumption, and so the bourgeois society propagates its myths of success and value and gratification so that its constituents will continue to consume, and so that its ideology (its intention, its motivation) will be naturalized. Everything is quantified, valuated, including the person himself, so that every relation can be reified and thus made consumable. Against this Barthes’ degree zero language presumes to revolt. Where bourgeois myth “exnominates,” revolutionary language “denominates.” He calls things how they are. And yet, in his revolutionary motivation, Barthes misses an almost banal implication of his thought.

Regardless of political inclination, meaning insists. Mythological language is not the only language that is intended, that is motivated. Barthes’ language certainly is. This is not, however, to try and deconstruct Barthes’ ideological position, but rather to say that ideology is an intrinsic part of language. The superstructure which orders the base, the ideological state apparatus which authorizes the repressive state apparatus, these are mediated by language, indeed, given presence in language. Interpellation itself depends upon the insistence of meaning.

What do I mean by this? When I say that meaning insists, I could also say, tautologically, that meaning means. This is the banality of language, that its basic function is to mean, which is to signify in relation to others. The reconciliation between “object and knowledge” that Barthes’ desires takes place in language, and his degree zero language is just the simplest way in which language can mean. If there were only one individual in all the world, what use would he have for language? His mind would still be capable of conceptualization, he still would be able to act and make things apart from language, would still be able to conceive of and purpose things without words. The intimate language Barthes imagines, the language in which action and word are virtually one, would not exist, because language itself would not exist. One individual has no need for words, because words are occasioned by personal relation. Words allow us to access, in a way, the concepts of other minds, to align our actions and purposes with others. The infant, in his total need, cries for, then points to, and finally speaks the things that he desires but is unable to obtain for himself, with each advance becoming more capable through his ability to invoke (or “arrest”) his relations. Indeed, the theorized existence of a single individual is simply that—a theorization. There is no truth in reality of it, because human being is always in relation.

Language is, at its core, our primary technology of relation. Furthermore, language derives its motivation from need. We first indicate things as humans—with cries, and then gestures, and then speech—because we need them. The infant cries for comfort and for nourishment without words because he does not have words but he still has need. Need is the wordless concept that undergirds the tabula rasa of the mind. This is true degree zero, but to it there can be no return. From the moment of birth, in fact, degree zero is lost. The only degree zero is perfect union between a mother and the child in her womb. The child does not need to mean anything, to intend or to motivate anything, because the child is part of, one with, his mother. Meaning, in fact, is precipitated by the gap between bodies, the gap between “reality and men,” the gap that is the beginning of independent life. The child loses his mother but finds language. Lacan says as much, and more. A reading of Barthes through Lacan’s thought would be productive. Meaning insists. This is Lacan’s claim as well.

Now, all of this is not to discount the truth claims of Barthes’ critique of bourgeois society. His work is necessary and incredibly valuable. But the degree zero language he attains to is a myth, just like those he critiques. The language of mythology is an effective vehicle for critique. It allows him to enclose certain cultural artefacts as such, making them into objects for examination. But such a stance neglects the necessary entanglement of subject and object, self and other, language and world, reinforcing that originary gap that practically begs to be traversed and deconstructed. Again, I must emphasize, that my desire is not to undermine Barthes’ thought. The thrust of his work agrees with my own thinking. His reading of bourgeois society is accurate and powerful, and I feel the same desire to expose or unveil the mythologies which motivate our culture. But to presume to remove myself, as the mythologist must, would be to presume to remove myself from the world, from my others, and thus from my language, making my task, in the process, impossible. The reader of mythology, the one who inhabits the space between producer and mythologist, who receives the myth as it is spoken to him, is the one who can truly apprehend the signification of the myth. There is no degree zero. But this does not cripple critique. Rather, critique must operate from within (a position which Barthes himself finds untenable), because there can be no unmediated language. Language is mediation. We must inhabit the play of meaning, as Derrida, if we are to unveil what lies beneath. Indeed, as Derrida, the “beneath” is itself a myth, the “outside-text” that cannot be, the original point of significance which cannot be exposed because it does not, in fact, exist. The historicity which is so important to Barthes is not a unity but an infinitely complex field. Bourgeois society cannot be reduced to a quantity, an object that one can stand over against and thus expose. Bourgeois society is simply a name around which language structures the field of being. It would be just as easy to pick a different name, a different point, and say that the field is simply so. Barthes is just too thoroughly stuck in his frame to cede the point. But again, this is not reason for hopelessness. Rather, in the insistence of language we find an infinity of meanings and actions and potentialities, a boundless complexity that is not just the ground of destruction but creation.

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