Notes for Roland Barthes Myth Today [1956]

Key concepts: bourgeois ex-nomination, deformation, depoliticized speech, ideographic system, language-object, lexis, myth, rhetorical forms, second-order semiological system, semiology, sign, signified, signifier, stolen language.

Galaxies of meaning embedded in myths versus atomicity of first-order language objects transfers to actual computable supplementarity of encoded contexts dramatically transcending the range of possible semiotic operations, beginning with all the combinations of Landow's ontology of hyperlinks, extending into alien temporalities of everyday machine operations playing their role in posthuman human machine symbiosis cyborg.

Related theorists: Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Hayles, Johnson, Kittler, Sartre, Saussure.

Myth Is a Type of Speech

At the end he gives seven rhetorical aspects of myth: this cannot be of inconsequence to any academic discipline studying texts and technology, of which new (digital) media studies is either a subset, like PHI is to semiology, or intersects.

(79) Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no “substantial” ones.

Myth always has a human narrative context, regardless of medium forming its text.

(80) Ancient or not, mythology can only have a historical foundation, for myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the “nature” of things.

As a message, is myth therefore a subset of texts, are all myths textual?

(80-81) Speech of this kind is a message. It is therefore by no means confined to oral speech. It can consist of modes of writing or of representations, not only written discourse, but also photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, all these can serve as a support to mythical speech. . . . Mythical speech 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 a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance. . . . Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call for a lexis.

Semiology a general science in the sense that he will arrive at an enumeration of rhetorical characteristics of myth; what more could we ask for?

(81) We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual. . . . This does not mean that one must treat mythical speech like language; myth in fact belongs to the province of a general science, coextensive with linguistics, which is semiology.

Myth as a Semiological System

Just as SGML is not popular, whereas HTML and XML are, no semiology yet; make a footnote in dissertation.

Study of myth involves sensitivity to semiology and ideology.

(81) For mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure postulated some forty years ago under the name of semiology. Semiology has not yet come into being.(81-82) Semiology is a science of forms, since it studies significations apart from their content. . . . The important thing is to see that the unity of an explanation cannot be based on the amputation of one or other of its approaches, but, as Engels said, on the dialectical coordination of the particular sciences it makes use of. This is the case with mythology: it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is a historical science: it studies ideas-in-form.

Signifier, signified sign are a triad like Lacan imaginary, symbolic, real.

(83) We must here be on our guard, for despite common parlance which simply says that the signified expresses the signified, we are dealing, in any semiological system, not with two, but with three different terms. For what we grasp is not at all one term after the other but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, the signified, and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms. . . . Naturally, there are between the signifier, the signified, and the sign, functional implications (such as that of the part to the whole) which are so close that to analyze them may seem futile; but we shall see in a moment that this distinction has a capital importance for the study of myth as semiological schema.

(83-84) Here are a few examples: for Saussure . . . Freud . . . Sartrean criticism.

Diagram has Language econmpassing and Myth encompassing indicating the groupings, and second order sign whose signifer is another sign; imagine compared with Saussure and Lacan.

(84-85) In myth, we find 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 a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. . . . Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part.

1. Signifier

2. Signified

3. Sign



Functional equivalence of all media as constitutive of language-objects because myths are second-order semiological systems.

(85) This is why the semiologist is entitled to treat in the same way writing and pictures: what he retains from them is the fact that they are both signs, that they both reach the threshold of myth endowed with the same signifying function, that they constitute, one just as much as the other, a language-object.

Barthes provides such wonderful examples of mythical speech, like Hayles tutor texts.

(85-86) It is now time to give one or two examples of mythical speech. . . . I am a pupil in the second form in a French lycee. I open my Latin grammar, and read a sentence, borrowed from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo. . . . I am a grammatical example meant to illustrate the rule about the agreement of the predicate. . . . there is a signified (I am a grammatical example) and there is a global signification, which is none other than the correlation of the signifier and the signified; for neither the naming of a lion nor the grammatical example is given separately.

If only natural language studies founding early AI work had this depth, the confusion with plans may not have occurred: perhaps that is why I was drawn to Barthes while reading Suchman.

(86) I am at the barber's, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. . . . I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier.

Myth operates upon established systems, meanings become forms, concepts through signs in signification: can this second order character of myth also supply methodology to other second-order systems, such as technological artifacts, including program-generated virtual reality phenomena?

(86-87) On the plane of language, that is, as the final term of the first system, I shall call the signifier: meaning (my name is lion, a Negro is giving the French salute); on the plane of myth, I shall call it: form. In the case of the signified, no ambiguity is possible: we shall retain the name concept. The third term is the correlation of the first two: in the linguistic system, it is the sign; but it is not possible to use this word again without ambiguity, since in myth (and this is the chief peculiarity of the latter), the signifier is already formed by the signs of the language, I shall call the third term of myth the signification. This word is here all the better justified since myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.

The Form and the Concept
(88) But the essential point in all this is that
the form does not suppress the meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one's disposal.
(88-89) Let us now look at the signified: this history which drains out of the form will be wholly absorbed by the concept. As for the latter, it is determined, it is at once historical and intentional; it is the motivation which causes the myth to be uttered. . . . Unlike the form, the concept is in no way abstract: it is filled with a situation. Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth. . . . One must firmly stress this open character of the concept; it is not at all an abstract, purified essence; it is a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function.

Galaxies of meaning embedded in myths versus atomicity of first-order language objects transfers to actual computable supplementarity of encoded contexts dramatically transcending the range of possible semiotic operations, beginning with all the combinations of Landow ontology of hyperlinks, extending into alien temporalities of everyday machine operations playing their role in posthuman human machine symbiosis cyborg.

Compare to Bogost unit operations, his invocation of Badiou count-as-one stripped of the human counter: the surplus apparently encoded in signifier via, among other operations, myth touches upon asymptotic approach of human sign system functions (recall parallel discussion of signification in Diogenes Laertius) and symbolic machine control operations; at the shimmering signifier boundary are hyperlinks.

(90) This repetition of the concept through different forms is precious to the mythologist, it allows him to decipher the myth: it is the insistence of a kind of behavior which reveals its intention. This confirms that there is no regular ratio between the volume of the signified and that of the signifier. In language, this ratio is proportionate, it hardly exceeds the word, or at least the concrete unit. In myth, on the contrary, the concept can spread over a very large expanse of signifier.

The Signification

Deformation key operation in literature (McGann) and media studies (Hayles, Kittler).

(91-92) The relation which unites the concept of the myth to its meaning is essentially a relation of deformation. . . . The concept, literally, deforms, but does not abolish the meaning; a word can perfectly render this contradiction: it alienates it.
(93) 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. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the windowpane. . . . The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full. To wonder at this contradiction I must voluntarily interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning, I must focus on each separately, and apply to myth a static method of deciphering, in short, I must go against its own dynamics: to sum up, I must pass from the state of reader to that of mythologist.
(93) Myth has an imperative, buttonholing character: stemming from a historical concept, directly springing from contingency (a Latin class, a threatened Empire), it is
I whom it has come to seek. It is turned toward me, I am subjected to its intentional force, it summons me to receive its expansive ambiguity.
(95) It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look.
(95) We know that in a language, the sign is arbitrary. . . . The mythical signification, on the other hand, is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. . . . Motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form.

Depravity of style?

(95) (footnote 7) From the point of view of ethics, what is disturbing in myth is precisely that its form is motivated.

Myth is pure ideographic system.

(96-97) Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation. And just as historically, ideographs have gradually left the concept and have become associated with the sound, thus growing less and less motivated, the worn-out state of a myth can be recognized by the arbitrariness of its signification: the whole of Moliere is seen in a doctor's ruff.

Reading and Deciphering Myth
(98) We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into Nature.
(100) This is why myth is experienced as innocent speech: not because its intentions are hidden – if they were hidden, they could not be efficacious – but because they are naturalized.
(100) any semiological system is a system of values; now the myth consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system.

Myth as Stolen Language

Think about use of Einstein cartoon in help systems and Greekish names of electronic devices; relate stolen language to puns and Derridean terms.

(101) When the meaning is too full for myth to be able to invade it, myth goes around it, and carries it away bodily. This is what happens to mathematical language. . . . So that the more the language-object resists at first, the greater its final prostitution; whoever here resists completely yields completely: Einstein on one side, Paris-Match on the other.

Traditional literature as voluntary acceptance of myth; how about myth of the personal computer?

(103) A voluntary acceptance of myth can in fact define the whole of our traditional Literature. According to our norms, this Literature is an undoubted mythical system: there is a meaning, that of the discourse; there is a signifier, which is the same discourse as form or writing; there is a signified, which is the concept of literature; there is a signification, which is the literary discourse.

The Bourgeoisie as a Joint-Stock Company

Mythical significations epiphenomena of consumer capitalism; tie to Johnson cultural studies cycle.

(106) Myth lends itself to history in two ways: by its form, which is only relatively motivated; by its concept, the nature of which is historical. One can therefore imagine a diachronic study of myths, whether one submits them to a retrospection (which means founding an historical mythology) or whether one follows some of yesterday's myths down to their present forms (which means founding prospective history). If I keep here to a synchronic sketch of contemporary myths, it is for an objective reason: our society is the privileged field of mythical significations.
(106-107) Whatever the accidents, the compromises, the concessions and the political adventures, whatever the technical, economic, or even social changes which history brings us, our society is still a bourgeois society. . . . As an ideological fact, it completely disappears: the bourgeoisie has obliterated its name in passing from reality to representation, from economic man to mental man.

Clear Foucault connection; later he refers to the insignificant ideology of the right: does bourgeois culture include classification systems as studied by Bowker and Star?

(108-109) This anonymity of the bourgeoisie becomes even more marked when one passes from bourgeois culture proper to its derived, vulgarized, and applied forms, to what one could call public philosophy, that which sustains everyday life, civil ceremonials, secular rites, in short, the unwritten norms of interrelationships in a bourgeois society. . . . These “normalized” forms attract little attention, by the very fact of their extension, in which their origin is easily lost. . . . practiced on a national scale, bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order – the further the bourgeois class propagates its representations, the more naturalized they become.

Bourgeois ex-nomination.

(110) The bourgeoisie is constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination, that is, at the cost of an immobilization and an impoverishment of consciousness. . . . it is as from the moment when a typist earning twenty pounds a month recognizes herself in the big wedding of the bourgeoisie that bourgeois ex-nomination achieves its full effect.
(110) The flight from the name “bourgeois” is not therefore an illusory, accidental, secondary, natural, or insignificant phenomenon: it is the bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature. And this image has a remarkable feature: it is upside down.

Myth Is Depoliticized Speech
(111) If our society is objectively the privileged field of mythical significations, it is because formally myth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society: at all the levels of human communication, myth operates the inversion of
anti-physis into pseudo-physis.
(111) The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences.

Depoliticized speech permanently embodying defaulting.

(111) It is now possible to complete the semiological definition of myth in a bourgeois society: myth is depoliticized speech. . . . one must above all give an active value to the prefix de-: here it represents an operational movement, it permanently embodies a defaulting.

Language-object speaks things; clear Influence of Barthes method on Latour science studies.

(112-113) One could answer with Marx that the most natural object contains a political trace, however faint and diluted, the more or less memorable presence of the human act which has produced, fitted up, used, subjected, or rejected it. The language-object, which “speaks things,” can easily exhibit this trace; the metalanguage, which speaks of things, much less easily. . . . what is more natural than the sea? And what is more “political” than the sea celebrated by the makers of the film The Lost Continent?

Zizek humor.

(113) But it is enough to replace the initial term of the chain for an instant into its nature as language-object, to gauge the emptying of reality operated by myth: can one imagine the feelings of a real society of animals on finding itself transformed into a grammar example, into a predicative nature! . . . 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 prey 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.

Myth on the Left
(114-115) There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, metalanguage is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible. This is why revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical. . . . Just as bourgeois ex-nomination characterizes at once bourgeois ideology and myth itself, revolutionary denomination identifies revolution and the absence of myth.

Left-wing myth inessential.

(115-116) Left-wing myth is inessential. . . . Left-wing myth never reaches the immense field of human relationships, the vary vast surface of “insignificant” ideology. Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in a bourgeois society, there are no “left-wing” myths concerning marriage, cooking, the home, the theater, the law, morality, etc. Then, it is an incidental myth, its use is not part of a strategy, as is the case with bourgeois myth, but only of a tactics, or, at the worst, of a deviation; if it occurs, it is as a myth suited to a convenience, not to a necessity.
(116) Finally, and above all, this myth is, in essence, poverty-stricken.
(116-117) This imperfection, if that is the word for it, comes from the nature of the “left”: whatever the imprecision of the term, the left always defines itself in relation to the oppressed, whether proletarian or colonized. . . . One can say that in a sense, left-wing myth is always an artificial myth, a reconstituted myth: hence its clumsiness.

Myth on the Right
(117) The oppressed
makes the world, he has only an active, transitive (political) language; the oppressor conserves it, his language is plenary, intransitive, gestural, theatrical: it is Myth. The language of the former aims at transforming, of the latter at eternalizing.

Micro-climates in myths: does Barthes single out the petit-bourgeoisie if not to situate the scholar mythologist on myth of the right?

(117) Does this completeness of the myths of Order (this is the name the bourgeoisie gives to itself) include inner differences? Are there, for instance, bourgeois myths and petit-bourgeois myths? . . . some myths ripen better in some social strata: for myth also, there are micro-climates.
(118) I have not been able to carry out any real study of the social geography of myths. But it is perfectly possible to draw what linguists would call the isoglosses of a myth, the lines which limit the social region where it is spoken. As this region is shifting, it would be better to speak of the waves of implantation of the myth. . . . The social geography of myths will remain difficult to trace as long as we lack an analytical sociology of the press.

Rhetorical forms of bourgeoisie myth that help constitute modernist, liberal subject: innoculation, privation of history, identification, tautology, neither-norism, quantification of quality, statement of fact.

(118) Since we cannot yet draw up the list of the dialectical forms of bourgeois myth, we can always sketch its rhetorical forms. One must understand here by rhetoric a set of fixed, regulated, insistent figures, according to which the varied forms of the mythical signifier arrange themselves.
(119) 1.
The inoculation. . . . One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion.
(119) 2.
The privation of History. . . . it can only come from eternity: since the beginning of time, it has been made for bourgeois man, the Spain of the Blue Guide has been made for the tourist, and “primitives” have prepared their dances with a view to an exotic fantasy. We can see all the disturbing things which this felicitous figure removes from sight: both determinism and freedom.
(119) 3.
Identification. The petit bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other.
(120-121) 4.
Tautology. . . . Tautology is a faint at the right moment, a saving aphasia, it is a death, or perhaps a comedy, the indignant “representation” of the rights of reality over the above language.
(121) 5.
Neither-Norism. . . . Here also there is magical behavior: both parties are dismissed because it is embarrassing to choose between them; one flees from an intolerable reality, reducing it to two opposites which balance each other only inasmuch as they are purely formal, relieved of all their specific weight.
(121) 6.
The quantification of quality. . . . By reducing any quality to quantity, myth economizes intelligence: it understands reality more cheaply.
(122) 7.
The statement of fact. . . . Popular, ancestral proverbs still partake of an instrumental grasp of the world as object. . . . Bourgeois aphorisms, on the other hand, belong to metalanguage; they are a second-order language which bears on objects already prepared. Their classical form is the maxim.
(123) Bourgeois ideology continuously transforms the products of history into essential types. . . . And these riches, thus fixated and frozen, will at last become computable: bourgeois morality will essentially be a weighing operation, the essences will be placed in scales of which bourgeois man will remain the motionless beam. . . . bourgeois pseudo-physis is in the fullest sense a prohibition for man against inventing himself. . . . For the Nature, in which they are locked up under the pretext of being eternalized, is nothing but a Usage. And it is this Usage, however lofty, that they must take in hand and transform.

Necessity and Limits of Mythology
(125) It is forbidden for him to imagine what the world will concretely be like, when the immediate object of his criticism has disappeared. Utopia is an impossible luxury for him: he greatly doubts that tomorrow's truths will be the exact reverse of today's lies.

Users speak the object; mythologist condemned to metalanguage, simulacra.

(125-126) The mechanic, the engineer, even the user, “speak the object”; but the mythologist is condemned to metalanguage. This exclusion already has a name: it is what is called ideologism. . . . The mythologist gets out of this as best he can: he deals with the goodness of wine, not with the wine itself, just as the historian deals with Pascal's ideology, not with the Pensees in themselves.
(126) It seems that this is a difficulty pertaining to our times: there is as yet only one possible choice, and this choice can bear only on two equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely permeable to history, and ideologize; or, conversely, to posit a reality which is
ultimately impenetrable, irreducible, and, in this case, poetize. In a word, I do not yet see a synthesis between ideology and poetry (by poetry I understand, in a very general way, the search for the inalienable meaning of things).
(126) It would seem that we are condemned for some time yet always to speak
excessively about reality.

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 2009. Print.