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of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1986), pp. 625-639 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709722 . Accessed: 05/07/2011 08:19
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2 Georges Sorel. and Bolshevism. Starting with 1 Roland Barthes." Barthes realized that this historical shift placed intellectuals in a tenuous position. and executives no longer had congenial access to intellectual culture because it called their very existence as a class into question. had he lived beyond 1922. Roland Barthes once argued that in France the bourgeoisie lost its cultural voice during the Dreyfus Affair. today. Reflexions sur la violence(Paris. and in Barthes's case to explain the continued hegemony of bourgeois norms. trans. but grew increasingly ambivalentabout the triumphantbourgeoisie during the nineteenth century. worked successively under the aegis of various systems as ways of dismantling bourgeois ideals. Reflections on Violence. 3 Roland Barthes. senior civil servants." Times Literary Supplement (October 8. Through their intellectual peregrinations both authors developed theories of myth. . 1971). is to maintain and emphasize the decomposition of bourgeois consciousness. particularly for their political implications. in Sorel's case to explain how the transformation of society did and would occur. Hulme and J. With the opening of the twentieth century landowners. 1961). when its writers and intellectuals released it. 1204. Richard Howard (New York. Roland Barthes. "I do not believe I am laboring in vain-for in this way I help to ruin the prestige of middle-class culture. I shall examine those theories of myth. 63. The search for an agent capable of transforming society led Sorel successively toward Marxism. 1908). too. Yet the spread of bourgeois (now "mass") culture to the proletariat largely cut off that way of rapprochement. Indeed. many sought to represent the proletariat.1 In the eighteenth century intellectuals had championed the cause of the bourgeois individual against aristocratic privilege. INC. Roth (New York. Detached from the bourgeoisie. Barthes. the attack on bourgeois culture. employers. nationalism. and finally at the end of the nineteenth century were decisively detached from their native class by the aftershocks of the Dreyfus Affair. settled in the universities so long. 54. 625 Copyright 1986 by JOURNALOF THE HISTORYOF IDEAS. and perhaps on to other stages. itself became an orthodoxy and integrated into the functioning of society. E. "Languages at War in a Culture at Peace. T. That the antibourgeoisimpulse of the French "clerks" has remained quite strong through the twentieth century is suggested by the similarity between the statement of Georges Sorel in the introduction to his most famous work that even if none of his ideas bore fruit."2 and Barthes's claim that "the intellectual's (or the writer's) historical function. syndicalism.MYTH AND POLITICS IN THE WORKS OF SOREL AND BARTHES BY MICHAEL TAGER I. 177).trans.
Sorel and Barthes ironically created two very different dichotomies of myth and politics that reflected their own temperaments. II. which Sorel considered to be a group of images intuitively or viscerally apprehended. Social scientific standards happily did not apply to myth. III. Historical myths surrounding the nation or the resurrection of Jesus provoked heroic individual actions and underlay great social transformations. Sorel hoped that a contemporary myth like that of a general strike might bridge the growing gulf he perceived between thought and action in European socialism."5Sorel defended Marxism from its critics on this basis. changed historical conditions. How could one account for revolutions or empires without positing some superior motive force acting within people? In a more general sense the passage from principles to action always contained the presence of myth. with its archetypes of "Monsieur Capital" and the "Collective Worker.. Sorel moved toward considering Capital." The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 43. they still remained indispensablefor enlightening people about the nature of their exploitation and as a guide for action. A pragmatic rather than an analytical attitude characterized Sorel's study of myth. Myth led to action through the formation of an "imaginary world"4that people placed ahead of the present world. Sorel wrote that "in employing the term myth I believed that I had made a happy choice. While most human activity proceeded from the calculation of selfinterest or evolved from daily routines.626 MICHAEL TAGER a similar revulsion against contemporary society and a desire for radical change. because I thus put myself in a position to refuse any discussion whatever with the people who wish to submit the idea of a general strike to a detailed criticism. Cf. 48. 564. the decreasing of wages to subsistence levels. and created two divergent perspectives on the persistence of capitalism. What concerned him was not whether an event like the resurrection actually occurred but only its capacity to evoke sacrifice and heroism among its believers. Philip Wiener. and who accumulate objections against its practical possibility. Myths produced their effects spontaneously without leading to reflection or a search for precedents. Sorel's interest in myth arose from his belief that "intellectualist philosophy" could not explain why a man would willingly sacrifice his life for an ideal. He eventually concluded that "writers who criticized Marx often reproachedhim with having spoken in symbolic language which they did not consider suitable for scientific investigation. "Pragmatism." and Marxism more generally. 5 Ibid. . or the worsening of periodic crises proved false as scientific propositions. Even if its "laws" like the increasing concentration of capital. myths gripped the mind with a much greater tenacity than self-interest or habit and enabled people to act in radically new ways. 4 Reflections. a myth.
. John and Edith Stanley (Berkeley. Only the effects. 125. it is these symbolic portions which were formerly regarded of dubious worth that constitute the definitive value of his work. motive power took precedence over predictive accuracy.. 1968). 6 . Le Systeme historiquede Renan (Paris. Rather than examining the psychological or sociological aspects of myth. 8 See Jules Monnerot. 251. "Georges Sorel ou l'introduction aux mythes modernes. mythcharged movements would reverse the decline of France into mediocrity by overturningthe enervatedbourgeoisie. "The Advance Toward Socialism" (Paris. Science et Conscience de la Societe (Paris. viz. This produced a state that Sorel. 1905). 148. 0Reflections. mysterious region that held man's strongest impulses. in Irving Horowitz. "The Decomposition of Marxism" (Paris.SOREL AND BARTHES 627 On the contrary."6 Sorel came to regard the myth of the general strike as embodying the essence of Marx's doctrines of class conflict and revolution in their most explosive form."7Myth operated in this obscure."9The only escape lay in myths that enclosed "the strongest inclinations of a class. This class of rational calculators were completely incapable of sustaining any mythic beliefs. and they squashed the vital drives underlying society. Sorel's interest in the intuitive. . Even the myth of the general strike. . utopia. trans. The Illusions of Progress. In his revision of Marx. Ill." in Jean Claude Casanova.8 These dynamic.. 211. Georges Sorel. 73. 379-412. inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts . Radicalism and the Revolt Against Reason (Carbondale. borrowing from Proudhon. and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action. Myths arose throughout history imperceptibly through concentrations of chance1 that defied analysis. And so he intended it to be. 'Reflections. 1969). They had no higher ideal than the peaceful making of money and would compromise with the proletariat endlessly to maintain it. the most fully elaborated of any of the myths he studied. and Monnerot. 1971). Sorel insistently asked a more immediate question: can it provoke a reformation of man and society? His descriptions of the myths associated with various movements therefore rarely contained any extended theoretical treatment because praxis interested him more than etiology.. Georges Sorel. remained a somewhat mysterious creature. Sociology and Psychology of Communism (Boston. 1920). In a sense Sorel hoped that myth would tap some of the unconscious energy of society and channel it into revolutionary movements. called "the most atrocious period in the existence of societies. nonrational comprehension of images paralleled developments occurring in the psychological study of personality. 1907). 9 Georges Sorel. 1953).. He wrote that "it is possible to distinguish in every complex body of knowledge a clear and obscure region and to say the latter is perhaps more important."10 Sorel contrasted myth with a more commonly used category in political theory. 144.
viewed language as a weapon of domination in the hands of those who had a facility with it. 50). Parliamentary politics essentially ensured the subjugation of workers. 50. Language made man the only "political animal" because politics implied communication or a process of persuasion between people seeking to resolve common problems. and in 1897 the socialist leader Jean 12 Reflections. whereas myths were "expressions of a determination to act. Utopia. they merely described possibilities. could be studied. and as long as socialism remained "a doctrine expressed only in words" (ibid. was clearly an intellectual product. As an intellectual product. Myth had the pragmatic function of forestalling the machinations of ambitious socialist leaders and functionaries."12 In addition. The sudden success of parliamentary socialism in France (forty socialist representatives were elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1893) worried Sorel greatly. In 1896 the socialist deputy Alexandre Millerand called for the nationalization of several large industries. no matter which party governed. An emphasis on myth implies a concomitant devaluation of language and politics.628 MICHAEL TAGER not the origins of myth. Like Marx. who lacked this facility. It did not offer an abstract utopian picture of the future. Myth directed men to destroy the existing state of affairs. Sorel attacked the trend toward utopianism (related to reformism in Sorel's mind) in the socialist movement.. though attainable. 46). future and thereby encouraged relatively passive attitudes and behavior among its believers. He considered language the instrument of professors and politicans. . he claimed that he created nothing and that myths did not arise from works of social criticism. Usually utopias offered visions of a super-rational order that neglected customs and historical traditions and relied on psychological reductionism to fit all people into an eternal ideal. workers would eventually lose control of the revolution made in their name. utopias lacked the motive force of myth. whereas "the effect of utopia has always been to direct men's minds towards reforms which can be brought about by patching up the existing system" (ibid. and it generally sprang from a self-interested motive to gain followers and ultimately some kind of state office. representing the work of a theorist who developed an ideal model of society in order to criticize existing society. however. it can only be judged as a means of present action. Aristotle had noted the connection between the latter two concepts when he wrote that only man could use language and settle disputes through dialogue.. Utopia compared the present to an imaginary. All other animals lived either through instinct or fighting. Even though he wrote at length about the myth of the general strike in Reflexions sur la violence. however. Sorel. since myth kept people's attention centered on the present moment and the impending revolutionarycataclysm.
Only myths could move men across the threshold between speech and action by transcending politics based on rational calculation. Sorel believed these socialist proposals reflected a misreading of Marx's original texts and derided their vision of the socialist future as "a gigantic factory managed by technical perThe performance of socialist sonnel enjoying unchallenged authority. He wrote that "it is not necessary to be a very profound philosopher to perceive that language deceives us constantly as to the true nature of the relationships between things" (ibid. Yet Sorel's antipathy toward language and politics went deeper still. garrulous. He used the adjectives "noisy.." in Richard Vernon. he felt that language inherently possessed those attributes. Commitment and Change: Georges Sorel and the Idea of Revolution (Toronto. 1978).. 5Reflections. It carried the "picture of complete catastrophe. Under these circumstances Georges Sorel. in John Stanley (ed. The myth of the general strike suffused workers with a conception of socialism.). 123). Sorel moved gradually toward The myth advocating the direct action strategy of radical syndicalism. 122) to characterize parliamentary socialism and.SOREL AND BARTHES 629 Jaures toured France promoting his vision of a socialist society given unity and direction by the state. 91. 135."13 confirmed Sorel's fears about Marxism's encounter with parpoliticans liamentary politics: it did not transform the conduct of politics but instead altered its own purpose and character.. 128). thus the power of the deputies would be reduced to nothing" (ibid. the use of language inhibited action. [T]his idea is so effective as a motive force that once it has entered into the minds of the people they can no longer be controlled by leaders. and ."'5which made gains achieved through reform and compromise seem inconsequential. 71-93. and also created feelings of military solidarity. "which language cannot give us with perfect clearness" (ibid. 134... and lying" (ibid.. "Preface to Formes et essence du socialism by Saverio Merlino (1898). Sorel based his philosophy of action on the violent revolt of oppressed classes made possible by myths that united and incited individuals.. Revolution would not erupt through the use of ordinary language but through "a body of images capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which corresponds to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by Socialism against modern society" (ibid. From GeorgesSorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy (New York. "The Socialist Future of the Syndicates" (1898). 14 Georges Sorel. rather than representing the worst excesses of language. 125). He argued that the myth of the general strike "drags into the revolutionary track everything it touches..14 of the general strike was no mere syndicalist propaganda tactic but the most powerful means for the syndicates to resist cooption.. 251).. 13 . 1976). Partially due to its innate deceptiveness. Without myths one could talk indefinitely of revolts without ever provoking one.
Clearly Sorel hoped that the violence inspired by the myth of the general strike would render parliamentary politics insignificant. It would rebuff the strategy of liberals and parliamentary socialists by reestablishing the hostility between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.630 MICHAEL TAGER workers acted without speech. Violence perhaps constituted the discourse of the proletariat. the creation of bourgeois intellectuals. or rational calculation. Norman Jacobson claims that political theory begins precisely "at the moment when things become. Violence emphasized the present moment and militated against gradual reforms. 10. 1978). If politics involves people persuading each other about alternative courses of action. violence is "mute" because it destroys the efficacy of political discourse. . 91). He envisioned a kind of pure violence without hatred or revenge. Socialism. Pride and Solace (Berkeley. beyond the control of intellectual discourse. It reflected the clearest manifestation of action motivated by myth. As Hannah Arendt noted in The Human Condition. To make things whole again required nothing less than the scrapping of politics. so to speak. and through concessions they enervated the proletariat as well. At the same time syndicalist violence would revitalize the bourgeoisie by reawakening its class interest."16and certainly Sorel had a strong sense of things coming unglued. and reply by blows to the propagators of social peace" (ibid. The French bourgeoisie had lost the conquering spirit that still animated American capitalism (which Sorel much admired). Sorel wrote that the syndicates must "repay with black ingratitude the benevolence of those who would protect the workers. argument. then violence rejects such techniques. Violence would energize both classes and create a revolutionary situation (an idea practiced by the Red Brigades without much success). Like myth. Myth could impel revolution even during a period of pervasive mediocrity.. unglued. needed a firmer foundation in myth to prevent it from succumbing to the twin dangers of utopianism and reformism. violence had a pragmatic function in maintaining the integrity of the socialist revolution. Sorel's emphasis on the centrality of violence in social transformation reflected his preference for myth over political discourse. the linguistic construction of complex and highly discursive arguments. Sorel's animus against language and politics reflected his hope that myth could change the world in a way that the words and elections of the Third Republic never would. Yet where did the emphasis on myth leave Sorel himself? He implicitly condemned his own work. to meet with insults the homilies of the defenders of human fraternity. actually a not uncommon impulse in political theory beginning with Plato's Republic. to irrelevance (he perhaps carried the prac16 Norman Jacobson. Sorel compared the violent syndicalist strikes to the early Christian martyrdoms in their positive effect on their respective movements. almost a spiritual weapon in the hands of the proletariat.
Barthes launched his literary career after World War II in a period that marked the beginnings of French consumer culture. it is an impulse and a hope.. it substituted a connoted system of meanings for the denoted system already present. Mussolini said "we have created a myth. Annette Lavers (New York. An impulse toward demystification underlay Barthes's study of myth which he thought prerequisite to the political advance of socialism. Barthes found myth consisted of groups of images and ideas emanating from a wide variety of sources including the press. trans. Myths occurred in fragments.SOREL AND BARTHES 631 tical mentality of his first career as a civil engineer into his subsequent career as a social critic). Wherever myth appeared. 122-23. 131. Our myth is the nation. a noble enthusiasm. By exposing these myths he continued in the spirit. Barthes detected a plethora of new myths emerging that legitimated the existing order. The new locus of myth in the bourgeoisie instead of the proletariat gave Barthes's work an indirect. This myth is a faith. At least this constituted the denoted system of meanings. it seems that the anti-political. 53. that all her sons. short-circuited reasoned discourse with disastrous effects. 1968). In a speech made shortly before his march on Rome. 19 Roland Barthes. and indeed almost anything capable of conveying meanings to people. exemplified by Mussolini's fascism. if not the letter of Sorel's work. particularly from the perspective of someone who hoped for a socialist revolution led and controlled by workers themselves. He exhibited a more aesthetic. III. 1972). belief. Ideology and Utopia (New York. consumer goods."19 used the example of a Paris Match cover that showed a young black officer crisply saluting the French flag in the foreground. It does not have to be a reality. cultural or athletic events. Mythologies. 18 Karl Mannheim. Barthes conceptualized myth as "language robbery. advertising. not in long fixed narratives. "Myth and Violence: The Fascism of Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist. "18 Myths of the nation. 48 (Spring 1981). without any colour discrimination. movies." Social Research. . This paradox appeared even more starkly in Luigi Pirandello's statement after he signed a fascist manifesto in 1925: "I have always fought against words. But a connoted system of meanings slipped in that put the black man's biography in very small parenthesis. courage. The photograph presented the myth that "France is a great empire. less pragmatic sensibility than Sorel. faithfully 17 Thomas Sheenan. Myth emptied phenomena of their literal meaning and added its He own meanings. anti-rational doctrines he expressed were resolved historically by moving to the right. and in Germany of race. rearguardquality: he attempted to pick holes in the ruling class's legitimacy rather than to advocate a frontal assault against its position."17And although Sorel generally stayed on the left and certainly considered himself a socialist when he elaborated the myth of the general strike. In what was nominally a time of economic rationality. .
could not argue women. 116). Statistically. The significance of myth stemmed from its capacity to convert historically determined outcomes into natural phenomena. Revolution. bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order-the further the bourgeois class propagates its representations. and in this case the myth of French imperialism condemned "the saluting Negro to be nothing more than an instrumental signifier" (ibid.. so that its language remained essentially political. Barthes wrote that myth "abolishes the complexity of human acts. With its anonymous universal representations.the more naturalized they become. more than anything else. Not surprisingly. Since 1789 myth had operated to erase the name of the bourgeoisie from culture and politics and instead substituted more universal concepts like the "nation. Not only did the bourgeoisie need to appropriate myth to justify its dominance. and aesthetic consequences became a matter of course. and workers appeared eternally sanctioned-one obliterated the memory that peoples were once conwith nature. who is neither proletarian nor bourgeois. quality of reality. myths helped shape the forms and norms that sustained everyday life. cultural. and objects once made. but the proletariat existed in the realm of production.). which also taught subordinate people to obey and to accept (even if only vicariously) the status quo. Politics implies that alternatives exist and that people make their own world by choosing between them. and therefore changeable." things that went beyond the received wisdom)..632 MICHAEL TAGER serve under her flag. whose sole inhabitant is Eternal Man. The fact of the bourgeoisie becomes absorbed into an amorphous universe. Things produced by class hierarchy and its moral.. Barthes argued that revolutionary language could not be mythical. Through myth the subordination of colonials. 125). buttonholing character according to Barthes. Myth prevented rather than stimulated action. It denied the fabricated. demonstrated the historically contingent character of human institutions . Myth quered. hierarchies once imposed. or what Barthes liked to call the "doxa" (when demystifying he looked for "paradoxa. Barthes wrote: the bourgeoisie pervades France: practised on a national scale. 143). The dominant class purified its history and motives through myth. Myth had an imperative. yet its mythology produced images of unchangeable solidity.. Barthes saw myth on the right rather than on the left. and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors" (ibid. Barthes called myth "depoliticized speech" (ibid. (ibid. it gives them the simplicity of essences" (ibid. Thus Barthes reversed Sorel's categories. capitalist wealth and power relied on constant technological progress." In this way France became awash in an anonymous. but myth embodied a "defaulting" on any such process. 140) Ironically. In direct contrast to Sorel. disingenuous mythology that implicitly posited class rule.
" Poujade's campaign rhetoric emphasized his rugged past. symptoms of an anti-intellectual movement tending toward fascism." thereby negating the communicative value of language and." intellectuals had their heads in the clouds. However. that "his place (his milieu) is language: that is where he accepts or rejects. did socialist myths emerge. . and he titled his autobiography "J'ai choisi le combat. Only when revolution changed into "the Left." or an established order seeking to distort itself into nature. He openly declared his intellectual identity. Hence he has felt himself to be the object of a kind of racism: they excluded his language" (ibid. Alby implication though Sorel and Barthes shared an understanding of the implications of violence. The mechanics of making an advertisementor the class imperativesbehind the production of mass consumer goods did not interest him. Barthes restricted his attention to France and its bourgeois myths. He wrote that "public opinion does not like the language of intellectuals. Roland Barthes. not standing on firm ground like the "little people."20 tended to interpretall behavior or aesthetically. connoted meanings. 1979). 103). It revealed "the political load of the world" (ibid. who presented themselves as strong and virile men of "common sense. leader of a reactionary petty bourgeois movement in the 1950s. by extension. intellectuals." Barthes wrote that in the myths surrounding that Poujade. As one who lived for and through language. The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (New York. "physical plentitude establishes a kind of moral clarity"21 intellectuals. showed that he frequently used tautologies like "business is business. not because. He instead focused only on immediate. but rather because the implications of a statement or appearance of an object constituted its 20 Roland 21 Barthes. 146) by remaking that world. His analysis of the rhetoric of Pierre Poujade. He stressed the latent violence of Poujade and his followers.. their respective dichotomies of myths and politics led them to evaluate its effects differently. Like "helicopters. myths contained an impenetrable element of mystery. Barthes's approach to myth resembled Sorel's in that he chose not to delve into the historical genesis or development of myth. Any attack on academic or specialized linguistically language he considered part of a broader attack on intellectuals. as Sorel had it. Barthes recognized that violence threatened to render him superfluous. 131.SOREL AND BARTHES 633 and practices. He that is where his body can or cannot. 53." Implicit in Poujadism Barthes found physical and racial claims to superiority. without the aura of violence. and indeed defined himself by writing in the third person about himself.. He admitted he disliked the subject and therefore did not give it extended treatment like Sorel. Other reversals of Sorelian categories included Barthes's attitudes toward language and violence. lacked.
which Barthes referred to as "Operation Bichon. the piece perpetuated racial sterotypes.22So that even though Barthes recognized that myths arose instrumentally because men "depoliticize according to their this insight had little effect on his work. 24 The Eiffel Tower. Barthes wrote: Destiny exists only in a linked form.The link is declaredindissolublein the very period which cannotbe concealed. traveled to paint "cannibal country. Adorno. Mythologies (published in English under two titles. The rise of African liberation movements threatened these myths by abruptly converting natural relations into undeniably contingent ones. Barthes aimed only at exposure and demystification." Words like "dishonor. "Lowenthal. thus negating the demystification of primitive cultures undertaken by ethnologists and anthropologists. 144.it is a conjunction has united two destinies." The article stressed the heroism of the family and described their trip with the language of conquest. accompanied by their baby Bichon. War and peace underwent strange changes. 35."24 addition.634 MICHAEL TAGER essential reality." "destiny.. The article. It is not militaryconquestwhich has which by performed Providence subjected Algeriato France. Several myths recurred through the work. It drained all the complexity from African life and transformed the native into an exotic totem that reflected the Frenchman's contrasting virtues. without seeking to place myth in its larger historical context." Telos. In the main text under needs. Barthes: Three Perspectives on Popular Culture. "god" became a sublimated form of the French government. In his essay "African Grammar" Barthes analyzed popular descriptions of the Algerian crisis reminiscent of Orwell's examples in "Politics and the English Language. see David Gross." and "mission" became prominent in the phraseology of French leaders. The reader received a vision of the original explorers in a setting "where the code of feelings and values is completely In detached from concrete problems of solidarity or progress. In "Bichon and the Blacks" Barthes analyzed a Paris Match story about a young professional couple who. 45 (Fall 1980). and rebels struck in "bands" representing "elements" of the native "population. One justified the subordination of Africans to Frenchmen." To bridge the rift between French norm and African fact required that words diverge from their usual meanings. 23 Mythologies."23 study here. opposing "primitive" and "civilized" cultures in a way that encouraged the colonial relationship. 122-40. 22 ."(ibid. when it is dissolvingwith an explosiveness 104-05) For a comparison of Barthes with two more historically and theoretically inclined authors. Mythologies and The Eiffel Tower)." succeeded in presenting the black world through a white child's eyes.
signaling the restoration of order with the worker giving himself willingly into the hands of his employer. death. In his essay "Novels and Children" Barthes noted that an article in Elle introduced its female subjects by the quantity of their children and novels.is to play at a kind of domestic enclosure:"psychological" schedules. did not escape mythological reduction.householdappliances. As one example Barthes pointed to the movie "On the Waterfront. 24-25) Even women novelists. let them decorate their condition. Rather than modeling or acting. accompanied by Old Testament proverbs." which tried to show the universalities in the daily lives of different peoples. let them not depart from it. etc.. while the state representedabsolutejustice and the workers' only recourse against exploitation." which depicted workers as a feeble group exploited by corrupt union leaders. While admiring their literary accomplishments. He wrote: sustainsthe moraleof the social status quo: it is here love-stronger-than-glory not sensibleto leaveone'scondition.. love. In "Conjugations" Barthes explored the reasons why the media so intently covered Sylviane Carpentier's (Miss Europe '53) marriage to an electrician. Barthes asked rhetorically how the parents of Emmet Till or the North African workers in the slums of Paris might feel about 25 Mythologies.puttering. At the end a beaten Marlon Brando presentedhimself to the boss. play. This relationship assumed the aura of naturalness because the audience identified powerfully with the Brando character.. The photographs appeared under abstract categories like birth. This myth of the "human condition" attempted to submerge relevant differences into a larger human community.. She was a modern bourgeois heroine. which her title surely allowed her to do. but above all.the whole gadgets. Another example concerned the exhibition of photographs called "The Family of Man. but their presence and authority clearly loomed large..SOREL AND BARTHES 635 A vast effort at naturalization combatted the tide of current events.. Barthes outlined the myth involved"Women are on earth to give children to men. let them write as much as they want. Happiness. of this utensil paradiseof Elle or l'Express glorifiesthe closing of the hearth . Another myth justified the subordination of women to men by promoting the naturalness of domestic obligations.. the article implied that women must always define themselves in terms of their family."24Men did not appear in the article. . Women. compensate for your books by your children.. work... (ibid. A third myth justified the subordination of workers to owners. in this universe. she renounced it all for the anonymity of a bourgeois household. 50. who presumably established independent careers. questionnaires.it is gloriousto returnto it. as the media implicitly recognized.
Rather than discussing objects themselves. to be truthful: his utmost sociality dwells in his utmost morality. for him. he always discussed their implications. 27Mythologies.157. Thus Barthes compared the new Citroen models to Gothic cathedrals in that they represented the supreme creation of the era done by unknown artists. Consuming goods not only had intrinsic value but it embodied an entire experience or state of mind as well." Partisan Review. But myths kept that hidden and instead flooded the consumer with images of eternal states of mind unlocked by consumption. "The Myths of Roland."27 And although in the introduction Barthes suggested that in a consumer culture sarcasm may well be "the condition of truth" (ibid. Barthes wrote that "we constantly drift between the object and its demystification. he still felt distant from political reality. Also. Barthes felt removed from the people entertained by the event.636 MICHAEL TAGER "the great family of man. it is not surprisingthat he could not envision how to go beyond demystification." In it Barthes reviewed his earlier theory of myth and concluded that nothing about French society had fundamentally changed. Of course these myths were not innocent-behind them lay the exploitation of workers that made their production possible." By making the gestures of man look eternal the exhibit emptied them of political content and thereby defused them. 159). to be in society is. Undoubtedly this stemmed from Barthes's ahistorical method of analysis-without probing beneath the surface. The car signified more than a mere instrument of transportation. This became more evident in a later essay titled "Change the Object Itself. at best. so that For a critique of Barthes along these lines see Eugene Goodheart. Although he believed that demystification carried political implications for the freeing of public discourse. 26 .. the myth-making apparatus seemed to have an unlimited productive capacity. powerless to render its wholeness" (ibid. By conceiving of an event like the Tour de France as a complex mythological event. However. One final recurring myth involved consumption. the consumption of wine went beyond reasons of taste or alcoholic content because it embodied an essence of the French character mythologically. Similarly. Besides. 199-212. The focus on myth led to an undue pessimism and an inability to imagine a better future.26 In addition. Barthes eventually chafed at the limitations of his own theory of myth. 47 (1980).. Barthes unveiled only a fraction of the myths to a fraction of their potential audience. 12). he excluded himself from the society of myth-consumers. in his conclusion he clearly saw its limitations. His connection with the world is of the order of sarcasm. the study of myths increased Barthes's sense of alienation. He wrote that "the mythologist is condemned to live in a theoretical sociality.
Stephen Heath (New York. Both Sorel and Barthes ultimately arrived at an impasse. The decipherment of myths no longer represented an adequate strategy."29 Here Barthes's eloquence hardly disguised his inability to visualize how to progress from demystification to a more positive program for the nonmythological reconstruction of culture. "Myth and Ideology in Modern Usage. To some extent the contradiction between Sorel's and Barthes's formulations of myth rested in the semantic use of the terms "ideology" and "myth. although he provided no clue as to how this might be done. Both sons of the bourgeoisie. 129-49." History and Theory. Sorel and Barthes lived uneasy careers as intellectuals. first with an ambivalent association with integral nationalism and the Action Frangaise before World War I. He explained that "the problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance. 29Ibid. which he misinterpreted as a movement establishing soviets.SOREL AND BARTHES 637 "the mythical still abounds. realized by the 1970s that his earlier study of myth no longer bore the weight of his original anti-bourgeois impulse. IV. Barthes. or self-governing groups of producers. under the charismatic leadership of Lenin. and in his last decade he concentrated on more literary and aesthetic subjects. they vigorously attacked the bourgeoisie throughout their work."28Yet in the intervening years he perceived that demystification itself had become a "common sense" orthodoxy and indeed had developed its own mythology. of a narrative. By 1908 or 1909 Sorel realized the myth of the general strike did not have the effect he once attributed to it. Barthes did not exhibit this powerful double alienation (from society and from himself). Image-Music-Text. too. of a trait. 166. 28 . Instead he suggested that the object itself must be transformed. His subsequent search for myth carried him to the far right and left ends of the European ideological spectrum. as opposed Roland Barthes. one over finding a truly revolutionary myth. The appearance of universality. nor did the syndicates maintain a purely apolitical orientation. Sorel presented the case of an anti-intellectual intellectual fascinated with myth and violence as a means of overcoming the stranglehold intellectuals exercised on politics and culture. available both for ideological criticism and semiological dismantling. An ideology articulated these justifications into a reasonably coherent system of thought that had an appearance of universality.2 (1961). 167. just as anonymous and slippery. but to fissure the very representation of meaning. the other over dismantling bourgeois myth. 30 Ben Halpern. and then as an ardent defender of Bolshevism. fragmented and garrulous."30Sorel used "ideology" to refer to the justification for the activities of a particular group or class.. but he did recognize what the estrangementresulting from his emphasis on myth cost him in terms of his ability to enjoy the world. 1977). trans.
myth also reflected the different intellectual climates of the late nineteenth and midtwentieth centuries. This more than anything else differentiated their theories of myth. Thus historians have placed Sorel in the broader "revolt Barthes." The authors claim that these myths distort reality and hinder people's understanding of politics. and of myth by the European fascist movements. Rouanet. 1958). Sorel reacted against the extreme version of positivism that dominated French intellectual life for much of the nineteenth century. Horowitz. which generally uses the term "myth" to refer to a widely held illusion. "by the time Stuart Hughes. P.31 could not ignore the glorification of the irrational.638 MICHAEL TAGER to arguments from pure self-interest. . Sorel followed Marx's argument that the ideology of the dominant class functioned as the society's ideology. "Irrationalism and Myths in Georges Sorel. Other thinkers throughout Europe revolted against the idea that an exact science of society could account for all human actions and began to reevaluate the importance of irrational motivations and practices heretofore ignored. banished but always waiting for a opportunity to subvert the rational organization of society. A popular introductory college textbook on American politics begins by listing several myths such as "the American way is the only democratic way" or "a ruling few dictate policy in America. S. While Barthes considered contemporary myth a very sophisticated rather than primitive phenomenon and not at all an anachronism." Review of Politics. however. 26 (1964).32Barthes saw Poujade as a lightening rod for contemporary myth and the potential leader of a revivified fascist movement. he too perceived it negatively. Barthes implied that myths helped solidify bourgeois ideology and gave it the appearance of uncontestability. against reason" afoot in the late nineteenth century. ideology simply lacked the motive force of more intuitively apprehended myths. and Barthes's antipathy toward. Consciousnessand Society (New York. 1946). In Sorel's work. Barthes's preoccupation with demystification placed him closer than Sorel to the concerns of current American political science. 4569. helped legitimate the group's activities and also reflected the level of self-confidence of the group. Though Barthes found the projection of universality not in an ideology of progress but in more fragmentary messages that erased the history of objects and relationships. however. Sorel's fascination with. 32 Ernst Cassirer. Ernst Cassirer reflected the shift in attitudes toward myth in a book published just after World War II in which he described myth as a primitive anachronism. one can see the parallels between Sorel's concept of ideology and Barthes's concept of myth. of violence. 279-80. They conclude their brief survey of political myths by writing. His book Les Illusions du Progres examined the ideology of progress that accompanied the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Myth of the State (New Haven. 31 H.
The Politics of American Democracy (Englewood Cliffs.J. 8. as Barthes might advise the political scientists. This study has attempted to show that myths are a more complex and significant entity than sometimes assumed. Richard Richardson. they are also. 1977). much more intractable. we hope the reader will be able to replace a misconception with an understanding more rooted in reality.C.SOREL AND BARTHES 639 we have examined the actual conduct of American government. N. then myths would lose their force. Charlotte. and gradually disappear."33The textbook implies that if every citizen received a proper introduction to politics. N. Political activity would become more rational and more susceptible to further logical analysis by political scientists. 33 Marian Irish. Queens College. . James Prothro. and.