myth as consisting of a dual system at the surface: popular culture and everyday life are ‘mythical’ because they are ‘spoken’ through a naturalization. What is ‘hidden’ in Barthes’ version of myth, and what needs to be revealed by semiology, is the inversion of real relations that has taken place to transform an ideological proposition into common sense. In this respect, then, the perspectives of Barthes and Levi´ Strauss are similar because they suggest that myth is a process of thought. However, these perspectives are at considerable odds when it comes to the issue of whether myth is comparable to science: Levi-Strauss ´ hails the rigor of myth, while Barthes condemns its persistence.
Barthes R (1973). Mythologies. Lavers A (trans.). London: Paladin. Barthes R (1977a). ‘Change the object itself.’ In Heath S (ed.) Image – Music – Text. Heath S (trans.). London: Fontana. Barthes R (1977b). ‘The rhetoric of the image.’ In Heath S (ed.) Image – Music – Text. Heath S (trans.). London: Fontana. Campbell J (1975). The hero with a thousand faces. London: Abacus. Frye N (1982). The great code: the Bible and literature. San Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace. Frye N (1990). The anatomy of criticism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. Levi-Strauss C (1977). Structural anthropology 1. Jacobson ´ C & Grundfest Schoepf B (trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. Levi-Strauss C (1987). The view from afar. Neugroschel J & ´ Hosss P (trans.). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. Ricoeur P (1984). Time and narrative (vol. 1). Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. Vernant J-P (2001). The universe, the gods and mortals: ancient Greek myths. Asher L (trans.). London: Profile.
See also: Barthes, Roland: Theory of the Sign; Greimas, Algirdas J.: Theory of the Sign; Hjelmslev, Louis Trolle: Theory of the Sign; Jakobson, Roman: Theory of the Sign; Mythologies in Pop Culture; Narrative: Linguistic and Structural Theories; Narratology, Feminist; Occitan; Phoneme; Phonology: Overview; Saussure: Theory of the Sign; Significs: Theory; Structuralism.
Mythologies in Pop Culture
P Cobley, London Metropolitan University, London, UK
ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
The notion of a ‘mythology’ as developed by Roland Barthes (1915–1980) is based on an apparently substantial linguistic foundation. For Barthes, a mythology is a phenomenon of everyday life that represents a departure from that which is defined, traditionally, by the term ‘myth.’ In Mythologies (1957; English translation, 1973), Barthes drew together a series of brief articles he had written for French magazines during the period 1954 to 1956. These were his investigations into the nature of contemporary French life, each one a separate ‘mythology.’ Barthes’ aim in drawing attention to these facets of everyday (French) existence was ‘‘to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden’’ (1973a: 11). The mythologies he singles out in this way, then, include wrestling, the haircuts of the Roman characters in Mankiewicz’s film of Julius Caesar, the face of Garbo, steack frites, striptease, the New Citroen, and ¨ the brain of Einstein. Importantly, though, Barthes does not simply expose the power interests underpinning these commonplaces and commodities of
everyday life. In addition, he insists that their existence as myths is dependent on the fact that ‘‘myth is a language’’ (1973a: 11). The magazine essays were therefore supplemented by an essay called ‘Myth today’ in which ‘‘semiological analysis [was] initiated, at least as far as I am concerned’’ (1973b: 9). Fourteen years after the publication of Mythologies in France, Barthes summed up the project of his book as a set of theoretical articulations: 1. Myth, close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation,’ can be read in the anonymous utterances of the press, advertising, mass consumer goods; it is something socially determined, a reflection. 2. This reflection, however, in accordance with a famous image used by Marx, is inverted: myth consists in overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the ‘natural.’ What is nothing but a product of class division and its moral, cultural, and aesthetic consequences is presented (stated) as being a ‘matter of course’; under the effect of mythical inversion, the quite contingent foundations of the utterance become Common Sense, Right Reason, the Norm, General Opinion, in
In the history of the representations of African Americans. the latter enables the mythical inversion to be righted by breaking up the message into two semantic systems: a connoted system whose signified is ideological (and thus ‘straight. has at its core the moral concept that the villain (or ‘bastard’) will pay for his deeds. are evident. it is a discourse or. and it is a momentous shift toward recognition of the importance of popular culture and the quotidian. mental concept). Barthes transforms the customary understanding of myth. because it is a language that speaks about the first level. Concerning point (1). but leaving – so much more the insidious – the mythical. this kind of representation can be seen to be mythical given the right conditions of analysis. which Saussure envisaged as being connected in the brain to produce a (linguistic) sign. Myth is usually contrasted with ‘history’ (usually a matter of fact tied to the historical record) and the ‘literary’ (frequently a deliberate fictional confection). The first level of this system Barthes calls the languageobject: ‘‘it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system’’ (1973a: 115). Like speech. Stereotypes are a central part of myth as a discourse because they fix the limits of representation: what does and does not fit a cultural phenomenon. ‘‘nothing can be safe from myth’’ (1973a: 131). the myth of the ‘mulatto’ was always bound to stereotypical tragedy because of the mulatto’s abortive attempts to ‘pass’ as ‘white. sound pattern) and signified (signifie. Crucially. but as long as such recognition is not in place. that of language – millennial. deliberately oblivious. is the absolute grounding in the everyday. to the fact that individuals evade justice every minute of every day. especially the most everyday of phenomena. Traditional myths tell of heroes and major identity-founding events. anything is susceptible to myth. Both levels make up a system that Barthes was to elaborate in Elements of semiology (1967) five years after Mythologies. As a type of speech (which was after all the meaning of muthos). is a particularly good example of Barthes’ third point.’ In this period. myth disappears. the representation insidiously sets the boundaries for conceiving what is represented.’ The continuities with Barthes’ notion of myth. This is the level at which straightforward indicating takes place: denotation. put another way. It is no longer expressed in long fixed narratives but only in ‘discourse’. it is a phraseology. it is a (story) form that exists independently of any particular storyteller and relays not fact or fancy but ‘cultural memory. to be clearer – and accepting a moral language – cynical) and a denoted system (the apparent literalness of the image. the doxa (which is the secular figure of the Origin). and Barthes suggests that it is cynical because it is ideological. that myth cannot be fixed as a correspondence between a configuration of signs and a stable meaning.Mythologies in Pop Culture 419
short. sentence) whose function is to naturalize the class proposition by lending the guarantee of the most ‘innocent’ of natures. The cohesion of such utterances is largely what enables them to become. from the end of the Civil War through the first half of the 20th century. maternal. 3. mulatto ¼ tragic) without any conscience. As Barthes argues. a football game is a football game. It is a formulation of justice in mythic guise. demonstrating a clear debt to the work of Louis Hjelmslev (see Hjelmslev. This level is constituted by connotation. it can become a myth invoking all the platitudes associated with this contemporary
cultural icon.. contemporary myth falls within the province of a semiology. The spectacle of wrestling. 2001: x). The main difference in the latter. then. as Barthes insists in point (2). For Barthes. however. What the process of myth carries out (in producing a mythology) is a way of uttering a message. To paraphrase Barthes. Barthes argues in the space of a sentence that it is because of this dominance of the
. an example that opens Mythologies. however. then. it is the framework that makes it possible to remark on and think about various cultural phenomena. 1969). Thus.’ or. It can take almost anything and transform its cultural bearing into a natural one. It puts forth a proposition (for example. a corpus of phrases (of stereotypes). As he argues. scholastic. That is. However. they seem to suggest that there is special material – stock situations and characters – that harbours particular aptitude for mythic status. (1977a: 165–166).’ ‘non-inverted. at most. the work of myth on nearly all cultural phenomena is the work of inversion. a representation of a mulatto without the tragic element would likely be a contravention of the norm and common sense. Interestingly. Wrestling. The second level Barthes dubs metalanguage. myth is a type of speech [point (4)]. of course. object. but when it features David Beckham in a leading role. the norm or common sense. This level is the domain of the signifier (signifiant. concomitantly. through and through. it relies on the level of denotation to naturalize the proposition. Myth is different from both in that it arises ‘‘neither from personal invention but rather from transmission and memory’’ (Vernant. 4. etc. Contemporary myth is discontinuous. convincingly. myth produces two levels of signification. Rather.
some media studies versions of Mythologies are not so clear. Saussure: Theory of the Sign. itself. but one that picks up existing signs and their
Barthes R (1967). Louis Trolle: Theory of the Sign. the soldier’s behaviour is ‘only natural’. nature on the surface and class interest deep down. Thus. mechanistic relation whereby connotations are conspiratorial supplements working upon simple denotations. Given the focus of Barthes’ concept of ‘myth’ on popular culture. ‘‘denunciation.’ Barthes suggests that the pictorial advertisement for Panzani food products. As such. Sign Theories. Fiske.’ Denotation. this is the very crux of contemporary semiotics. There is a tendency to assume that denotation and connotation exist in a linear. (1977a: 169). Barthes locates this ‘very principle of myth’ in the relations between his two orders of signification. and orders them purposefully to play a social role (1997: 16–17). The example that Barthes uses in ‘Myth today. has served numerous commentators as a prime example of the pervasive nature of myth.’ The task of semiology was
No longer simply to upend (or right) the mythical message. especially by Anglophone media and cultural studies from the 1970s to the 1990s. Dyer. point of departure for a new science . Barthes R (1973a). myth is not an innocent language. 1982: 128). that French imperial rule is fair and egalitarian’’ (1997: 23).). Weedon et al. according to Barthes. demystification (demythification)’’ (1977a: 166) of the bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois has become. to stand it back on its feet. Algirdas J. it allows myth to be innocently consumed (1980: 180).’ he claimed. denotation – a system devoted to establishing the literalness of the object – executes the key part of ideological work for connotation. Putting the cart before the horse in this way is characteristic of a great deal of the writing on mythologies in Anglophone media studies (cf. as with all photographs. The denoted signified establishes the reality of the ideology. ‘Preface to the 1970 edition. In his 1971 retrospective on Mythologies. Barthes therefore recommended that work should proceed on the identification of ‘sociolects. Hjelmslev. London: Paladin. Semiology’s task. with denotation at the bottom and connotation at the top. in a sense. in his often quoted essay on ‘The rhetoric of the image. This would not simply entail unraveling the connection of denotation and connotation but a more thorough assault on the mechanics of meaning. even though she or he may be critical of its connotations. Lavers A & Smith C (trans. Bignell attempts to explain myth with the following:
It is as if myth were a special form of language which takes up an existing sign system and makes a new sign system out of it. and.
See also: Barthes. Structuralism. he had already shifted the emphasis of his analysis.). London: Cape. to produce a new object. Ironically. then. For many. Barthes argued that the identification and uncovering of myths were no longer sufficient in the post-1968 world. They write:
Barthes’ principal aim in Mythologies was to provide a basis for a critique of the ‘naturalizing effect’ of ideology. Mythologies. a mythological doxa. ‘‘A set of iconic signs which already possess a meaning (‘a black soldier is giving the French salute’) becomes the basis for the imposition of an important social message.
For Barthes. 1990: 85–91. Myths had become easily recognizable and their exposure a routine exercise.: Theory of the Sign. Lavers A (trans. deal with Barthes’ version of myth better than most. the reader of Paris-Match nevertheless believes its denoted ‘truth’: this event took place. Greimas. from Coward and Ellis (1977: 27–29) to Deacon et al. to a slightly lesser extent. foregrounds its connotation overwhelmingly and from the outset of viewing (1977b: 36–37).
He adds. .
connotations. it was hardly surprising that his work was taken up with great fervor. ‘Mythoclasm’ was succeeded by ‘semioclasm. its quality of vraisemblance. As we shall see. might vitiate the more fanciful conceptual leaps of connotation by placing the object and anchoring the myth system in a language that appears to be dominated by mere indication. For example. . is to recognize the operations of these systems and to reveal the invertion that has taken place in the process of a mythology being uttered.420 Mythologies in Pop Culture
two-level schema (language/metalanguage) in myth that semiology is licensed to treat writing and pictures in the same way: their signs both partake of denotation/connotation. it has a real history and so. but rather to change the object itself. Elements of semiology. and what was needed was a far-reaching interrogation of all sign systems and a challenge to their very basis. (1999: 144–145).’ In Barthes R. Mythologies. London: Paladin.
. Barthes R (1973b). Roland: Theory of the Sign. saying ‘this is how it is. years before Barthes’ initial conception of myth was being taken up by cultural critics and media theorists in Britain and North America.’ that of a photograph on the cover of Paris-Match of a black Algerian soldier saluting the French flag.
God sent into the world a perfect man. Among the Burun and Meban people of Sudan. Amma. fashioned a man of stone and a man of iron. The universe. He took feathers. broke out of the placenta and attempted to create his own universe.’ In Heath S (ed. so he gave him a mouth. Bignell J (1997). a man built a house in a remote place and then heard numinous noises.) Image – music – text. The egg became two placentas.) Culture. according to the mystics of Islam. He looked through a knot hole and saw the Xwexwe dancing. All rights reserved. the Dogon creator of Burkina Faso and Mali.). Juon. Now. Ogo. Every path that a human takes leads back to God. with their tails striking the ground and making the noise the man had heard. London: Profile. the gods and mortals: ancient Greek myths. The earth in a California Wappo myth was flooded. are alone at the beginning of time. Lucian tells of the Celtic Ogmios and the Roman Hercules depicted as gods followed by men. ‘Change the object itself. one that owes its existence to the Word. the creator. so he gave him a tongue. (eds. When a certain word was uttered in the song they were singing. University of Wisconsin–Madison. Thought. WI. He knew that man must eat. Researching communications: a practical guide to methods in media and cultural analysis. placed them in a sweat-house that he had created. Vernant J-P (2001). He searched and found the house from which the sounds came: sparks were flying from the roof. God is both seer and seen. London: Arnold.) Image – music – text. is a manifestation of God and the life of the spirit of the universe. A man’s essence is the essence of God. but those men did not speak. Salampandai.’ In Hall S et al. When the water disappeared. the man spoke. the creator of humans.
Myths about Language
H Scheub.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ‘The rhetoric of the image. and Amma then sent Nommo and the spirits to earth in an ark. Some creator gods. when he created a man of clay. each containing a set of twins. His counterpart. and
. Madison and London: University of Wisconsin Press. language. they fell. Language and materialism: developments in semiology and the theory of the subject. In the creation myth of the Dyaks of Sakarra from British Borneo. which establishes the prismatically mirrored image of God in man. Man must be able to dance. the words of the song were foreign to the man. Deacon D et al. parts of his body were cast in all directions. who is simultaneously creation and creator. the speeches of great men. media. was killed by Amma. male and female. so that the world that results is in fact the shadow of god. London: Methuen. London: Fontana. bringing a sense of order to the world. London: Fontana. Among the Kwakiutl of Canada. A man is a copy of the perfection of God. and Nommo became ruler of the universe. Coward R & Ellis J (1977). Coyote told Chicken-hawk that he would create people. & trans. Hjelmslev L (1969). One of the males.). tenor and vehicle in place. the world a mirror of him. Asher L (trans. (1999). Prolegomena to a theory of language. the men are attached to God by gold chains. (1980). a world comes into being. the ancestors of the Dogon people. But he was unable to say the words that would bring such a universe into being. Then God conceives in himself a thought. He created four spirits. transforming into red cod. Introduction to communication studies (2nd edn. God knew that man must be able to hear the sound of the dance. and the thought takes shape. to speak. Nommo.
The Tongue of God
A mythic riddle is solved when God creates the other side of a metaphor. and he became the ancestor of all humans.’ In Heath S (ed. But because of a flaw. & trans. such as Awonawilona of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico. Dyer G (1982). planted a seed within herself and a man was the result. The thought or the word of the creator god becomes an externalization of the creator. London: Routledge. Along the way. Media semiotics: an introduction. Advertising as communication. and the sacred words that create were made available to humans. Barthes R (1977b). Its basis is
man. to sing. Nommo uttered the words of Amma. Manchester: Manchester University Press. so he gave him two ears. modeled humans out of clay.Myths about Language 421 Barthes R (1977a). ‘Introduction to language studies at the centre. Whitfield F J (trans. Fiske J (1990). linking their ears to the tongue of God. Weedon C et al. London: Hutchinson. the universe contained within it the possibilities of incompleteness. Amma brought pieces of Nommo’s body together and restored him to life. USA
ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd. just as Awonawilona himself changes into the sun. Madison.