Mythologies, Roland Barthes

By Roland Barthes
Hill & Wang, New York
©1957; Translation ©1972 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.

In my acceptance letter to the low-residence MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Art this book was recommended. About 2/3rds of the book is composed of a series of short stories or myths. The final 50 pages titled, “Myth Today” is Barthes definition, description and explanation of what a myth is. I could read and appreciate most of the stories, but “Myth Today” I found virtually impenetrable.

Absorbing French philosophy and a discussion of semiology may simply take a smarter person than I to fully appreciate or understand.

The following are a few verbatim quotations which I don’t completely understand, but they surfaced with some small sense of comprehension.

From “Myth Today”

Page 109;
“Myth is a type of speech: Of course, it is not any type: language needs special conditions in order to become a myth: we shall see them in a minute. But what must be firmly established at the start is that myth is a system of communication, that it is a message. This allows one to perceive that myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form. Later, we shall have to assign to this form historical limits, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it: we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.”

“It can be seen that to purport to discriminate among mythical objects according to their substance would be entirely illusory: since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. 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. Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this, for the universe is infinitely fertile in suggestions. Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.

Page 110; “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 materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presupposes a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance. This substance is not unimportant: pictures, to be sure, are more imperative than writing, thy impose meaning at one stroke, without analyzing or diluting it. But this is no longer a constitutive difference. Pictures become a kind of writing as soon as they are meaningful: like writing, they call of a lexis.”

Page 111; “Myth as a semiological system: 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. But since Saussure himself, and sometime independently of him, a whole section of contemporary research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning: psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new type of literary criticism of which Bachelard has given the first examples, are no longer concerned with facts except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance.”

Page 128; ” … I can produce three different tpes of reading by focusing on theone, or the other, or both at the same time.

    1) If I focus on any empty signifier, I let the concept fill the form of the myth without ambiguity, and I find myself before a simple system, where the signification becomes literal again. … This type of focusing is, for instance, that of the producer of myths, of the journalist who starts with a concept and seeks a form for it.
    2) If I focus on a full signifier, in which I clearly distinguish the meaning and the form, and consequently the distortion which the one imposes on the other, I undo the signification of the myth, and I receive the latter as an imposture. … this type of focusing is that of the mythologist: he deciphers the myth, he understands a distortion.
    3) Finally, if I focus on the mythical signifier as on an inextricable whole made of meaning and form, I receive an ambiguous signification: I respond to the constituting mechanism of myth, to its own dynamics, I become a reader of myths.

The first two types of focusing are static, analytical; they destroy the myth, either by making its intention obvious, or by unmasking it; the former is cynical, the latter demystifying. The third type of focusing is dynamic, it consumes the myth according to the very ends built into its structure: the reader lives the myth as a story t once true and unreal.

Page 143; “It is now possible to complete the semiological definition of myth in a bourgeois society: myth is depoliticized speech. One must naturally understand political in its deeper meaning, as describing the whole of human relations in their real, social structure in their power of making the world; one must above all give an active value to the prefix de-; here it represents an operational movement, it permanently embodies a defaulting.

Page 156; “Necessity and limits of mythology: I must, as a conclusion, say a few words about the mythologist himself. This term is rather grand and self-assured. yet one can predict for the mythologist, if there ever is one, a few difficulties, in feeling if not in method. True, he will have no trouble in feeling justified: whatever mistakes, mythology is certain to participate in the making of the world. Holding as a principal that man in a bourgeois society is at every turn plunged into a false Nature, it attempts to find again under the assumed innocence of the most unsophisticated relationships, the profound alienation which this innocence is meant to make one accept. The unveiling which it carries out is therefore a political act: founded on a responsible idea of language, mythology thereby postulates the freedom of the latter. It is certain that in this sense mythology harmonizes with the world, not as it is, but as it want to create itself.”


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