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Published by ruth6831026

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Published by: ruth6831026 on Nov 03, 2008
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With examples from advertisements on TV or in print, discuss Barthes’idea of the term ‘myth’.
In Barthes’ terms ‘myth’ refers not to the classical mythology of the ancientGreeks or Romans as such, but rather to a more contemporary promotion of ideology. It concerns an understanding of the world which is entirely constructedand yet is read as ‘natural’, as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ (Barthes, 1993:11).Building on Saussure’s science of semiology, Barthes introduces us to myth inhis most famous work
([1956] 1993) and develops the idea further in
Elements of Semiology 
([1973] Tudor, 1999:76) and
Rhetoric of the Image
([1964] 1977). This essay will locate Barthes’ work within the Structuralisttradition and describe his use of the term ‘myth’ and its ideological function.Through analysis of a number of contemporary advertisements this essay will goon to discuss the strengths and limitations of the theoretical frameworkdemonstrated and described in Barthes’
and other works.Published in 1956 and translated into English in 1972,
representeda new and exciting direction for cultural criticism (Masterman, 1986:4-5). Thebook collects together a series of essays, originally appearing in the Frenchpublication
Les Lettres Nouvelle
between 1954-56, each focusing on an aspectof everyday, 1950’s French life. With topics as diverse as ‘The world of wrestling’and ‘Soap powders and detergents’, Barthes intuitively began to ‘track down, inthe decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, that ideological abuse which… is hidden there’ (Barthes, 1993:11). The second half of the book, in an essayentitled ‘Myth today’, Barthes ‘appropriates and extends Saussure’s theories [of 
Ruth Phillips MESC03 23/03/0720007592 1
semiology], giving the analysis of myth a framework and structure which theearlier essays could only feel for’ (Brooker, 1998:42-3)The Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, proposed a system of languagewhereby ‘signsare produced through the arbitrary relationship between a‘signifier’ and a ‘signified’. In other words, while a picture of a tree is directlylinked to an actual tree in that it resembles a tree, within language the word ‘tree’ – the signifier – has no inherent relationship to an actual tree – the signified –other than within the socially agreed structure of language (Hawkes, 1977:129).Language, then, is a system within which we have agreed that the word ‘tree’stands for a ‘thing’ with a big, wooden trunk and leafy branches. Barthes extendsthis system so that the sign produced by the relation of the signifier (the word‘tree’) to the signified (the actual tree), becomes merely the signifier of a ‘second-order system’ - the idea of a tree as, for example, ‘solid, deep-rooted, stable,enduring’ - and so represents something entirely other than a tree. Here wehave, as Barthes (1993:109) states
‘a type of social
which is added topure matter’ (Authors italics)Barthes’ classic example of myth in action is the cover photograph of a magazine which shows a Negro in militaryuniform, proudly saluting the French flag. Underlying thisfirst-order semiological system, which is simply a Negrosoldier saluting the flag, is a deeper meaning, a myth:
‘that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination,faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors
Ruth Phillips MESC03 23/03/0720007592 2
of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors’ (Barthes, 1993:116).
Now we begin to get at the root of Barthes’ idea of myth. In this second-order system ‘the sign reflects major culturally variable concepts underpinning aparticular world view(Chandler, 2002:145). This ‘particular world view’,according to Barthes, is that of the dominant bourgeoisie who maintain the statusquo by presenting a ‘message’ which deliberately confuses nature and history(Barthes, 1993:11). Rylance (1994:47) illustrates this with Barthes’
essay ‘Wine and Milk’ and states
Myths are based on a concealment of some meanings and the interestedpromotion of others: wine is good; the facts of Algerian wine production remain asecret … Barthes objects not to the pleasures of wine … but to the convenientforgetting which sustains consumption-driven myths about the world
 In this way, mythological signs ignore history and ‘pass themselves off as depthor truth, possessing the substance of reality itself’ (Rylance, 1994:48). Here weencounter what Hawkes (1977:133) describes as
an extremely powerful, because covert, producer of meaning at a level where animpression of ‘god-given’ or ‘natural’ reality prevails, largely because we are notnormally able to perceive the processes by which it has been manufactured
Whilst ‘the bourgeoisie is the villain of 
’ (Sturrock, 1979:62), their dominance and control of language, and therefore of myth-production, isassumed by Barthes – perhaps we can take this to be the ‘mythology of themythologistto which Barthes readily concedes (1993:12). In ‘Myth today’(1993:137) Barthes states that
Whatever the accidents, the compromises, the concessions and the politicaladventures, whatever the technical, economic or even social changes whichhistory brings us, our society is still a bourgeois society … The same status – acertain regime of ownership, a certain order, a certain ideology – remains at adeeper level
Ruth Phillips MESC03 23/03/0720007592 3

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