In Roland Barthes' semiology, myth is termed a "second-order" signification. Myth is an extension or appropriation of the "first-order" of signification, bare language, language that is as close to the world and to immediate action as possible. For Barthes the sign TREE, for instance, is of the first-order to the woodsman who purposes to cut it down. For him, TREE is not just a name; it is a thing with which he interacts, to which he has a meaningful relation. The necessity of his condition, the labour of his task, and the speaking of the thing, together constitute an experience, and in this way the sign TREE becomes the signification of an event. To borrow a phrase from Heidegger, the tree itself is ready-to-hand in the speaking of it. The woodsmen, the tree, and the word are entangled with each other, caught up in a meaningful presence.
On the contrary, second-order signification exists at a remove and in absence. Second-order signification takes for its content a previously established signification and attaches a new and different signification to it. The original, experiential signified is occluded (made absent) by an intentional, ideological one. Where in bare language words are used out of convention and utility, mythic language distorts the simple functionality of the word with its ideological aims. Mythic language feeds off the actual, vital energy of the connection between word and thing, coopting the essential arbitrariness of the signifier to indicate, and thus instantiate, a particular understanding of the world. So, to return to our example, TREE becomes a myth when it is appropriated as a signification of a “natural order” and “structure,” as “rootedness” and “stability,” becoming such iconic manifestations of itself as the world-tree or the family-tree or the tree of life. The tree itself is no longer ready-to-hand but is abstracted into an idea or ideology, while the original signification is used to validate the mythic signification as given, made an alibi for the appropriation that has taken place.
In petit bourgeois society, then, the society Barthes constantly takes to task, the tree as structure and order and progress becomes a means of control. Organizational hierarchies are tree structures, and therefore natural. Man is the culmination of the tree of life, and therefore his rule over the world is natural. The state is the trunk of society, and therefore its law and its justice are natural. Myth takes an innocuous meaning, a thing as it is symbolically represented, and makes it an ideological tool; as Barthes demonstrates, petit bourgeois society has proven itself the supreme wielder of it. Myth has been taken to such a point that petit bourgeois society, which we can more broadly refer to as the capitalist west, has concluded that it is itself given, the natural culmination of history. Indeed, such mythologizing erases history so as to justify the eternalizing of the present outside of all the contingencies and accidents that have shaped it.
But let us look to a more concrete example. A myth, or rather, a mythic structure, that particularly interests me today is the sequel. We live in the era of the sequel, the reboot, the adaptation, and of any genre, it is perhaps the super-hero movie that most pristinely encapsulates this cinematic climate. We are told a decade in advance what films to expect (the next Avengers; the new Justice League), presented with clever retellings of tired origin stories (Tony Stark discovers Spider-man; Aunt May is young, and played up as attractive), and baffled by the excess of comic book materials forced into a single movie (who is Darkseid?; what are the infinity stones?). We are overwhelmed with content.
This is to be expected. As Barthes writes, one of the hallmarks of myth is its excess. Because myth takes for its signifier a previously meaningful sign, the space that would normally be empty (the signifier; the letters T-R-E-E) is full. Meaning is not simply ready-to-hand but refers to a prior meaning, an absent meaning, drawing the banal significance of everyday being and speaking into the abstraction of myth. Batman is the myth of extrajudicial necessity, wherein a broken system implicitly validates a force external to it to restore order, and thus eternalizes itself as the natural state of things. Iron-Man is the myth of technological mastery, the maverick billionaire playboy who learns to harness his resources (i.e., his capital) for good so as to combat the forces of chaos and darkness that threaten to undermine society. Vigilante and hero both are myths that reinforce particular ideologies of our culture.
It should be noted that the mythology of the sequel is not only at play in super-hero films. The sequel as a mythic form is ubiquitous, and one sequel in particular is worth noting for its radical reappropriation of the sequel myth itself and its resistance to dominant ideologies of our day. 22 Jump Street (2014) is a hilariously absurd, totally unnecessary sequel to 2012’s 21 Jump Street, itself a re-telling of the late-80’s television series of the same name. What makes 22 Jump Street so effective is its conscious use of the sequel mythology, becoming a sort of “meta-mythology.” Throughout the film characters constantly refer to how the plot is “exactly the same as last time,” only this time with a “bigger budget.” 22 Jump Street gleefully welcomes its viewers to acknowledge its artifice, to see things how they really are, to denominate the film as pure money-grabbing entertainment. Indeed, 22 Jump Street audaciously challenges the entire institution of film, reveling in the blatant appropriation of its own myth. Rather than occlude its prior meaning, 22 Jump Street puts it front and centre, refusing the alibi of the sequel and acknowledging its being as an entirely commercial endeavor. And as the credits roll 22 Jump Street makes absolutely sure that its viewers get the joke, playing ad after ad after ad for further Jump Street sequels, further reappropriations of the myth. 22 Jump Street is keenly aware of the ideology from which it was produced.
This has been only a cursory sketch of the sequel as myth, but my hope is that in reading this you can recognize the myths, the ideologies, that shape your own life, the myths that you are presented with on a daily basis. Our present condition is not a given. We are historical beings, and our society, our culture, as the field of our collective being, is congruently historical in nature. Myths are simply the way in which society validates the present. So when you see the next Marvel or Nicholas Sparks or Star Wars movie, remember your historicity, remember your contingency, and reflect upon the myths that may be hiding your past, in all of its richness and complexity and difference, from your sight.