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Roland Barthes: The Nature of Myth in the Modern Landscape

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Without myth, who would we be; what would we believe? Myths shape culture and history; they manipulate our beliefs, surround, and transform our lives. Governments, leaders, businesses and advertisers use myths to allow individuals, to live day to day without considering all the true consequences of their actions. They construct myths to provoke or appease emotion. In essence, myths simplify issues, stripping away our critical thinking in order to exploit the desired sentiment. In his work Mythologies, Roland Barthes speaks to the nature of myth as based entirely in semiology. He examines societies tendency to create myths in order to implement social values, placate or persuade people. Applying Barthes’ understanding of myth allows for a critical examination of the semiology, motivations, and distortions that lie behind a message.

Barthes asserts that myth is merely a type of discourse: “a system of communication” (Barthes 107). Myth is the way in which a culture, or a person uses language spoken or visual to signify, and grant meaning to the surrounding world. There can exist no limits on what a myth can be, as it “is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message” (107). Myth is formed from a two-part system, a “language-object” and “metalanguage” (114). The former is solely a linguistic system used to define relationships to the object it represents, while the latter a “second language” which references and then builds upon the original language-object (114). This “second language” adds a cultural and historical worldview, thus creating a “mythical system” (114). Barthes defines the basic building blocks of the linguistic system as the signifier, the signified, and the sign, the sign being the “associative total” of the signifier and the signified (111). The signifier has no further meaning endowed to it than its objective existence, a simple dictionary definition. The signified begins as an intangible concept until such time as it is fused with the signifier and a sign is formed. (111). However, the linguistic system is only the first link in an infinite semiological chain. It is the linguistic fusing with “metalanguage” that facilitates myth (115). Barthes defines metalanguage, or second-language, via the same ternary structure, with two exceptions.

While the three components—signifier, signified, and sign—retain their original definitions, Barthes now refers to the signifier as “form,” signified as “concept,” and sign as “signification” in order to make clear distinctions to the level of language he references (115). In the creation of myth, the form (the sign of the language-object,) becomes stripped of its meaning as it now becomes the signifier of the second system, wherein a revisionist, or “distorted” meaning is created (120). This pattern repeats and builds on itself as the semiological chain of myth progresses. In the linguistic system, the relationship between signifier and signified is “arbitrary” (124), however, if that same relationship is examined in myth one sees that it is motivated by specific cultural histories and “analogies” (124). Barthes maintains that there can exist no myth without this “motivated form” (125). Additionally, myth is built upon “adhomination”: catering to the emotions of a culture, rather than to logic and reason (123). In fact, despite catering to emotion, myth seeks to be interpreted as fact: It “suspends itself, turns away and assumes the look of a generality” (124). This suspension allows it to create an impression of authentication, and “establish” itself as the nature of things (124). Barthes utilizes the following example of a “Paris-Match” magazine cover in order to demonstrate examples of “mythical speech” (114-115). He first describes the sign of the linguistic system, which has now become the form of the mythical system: “a black soldier is giving the French Salute” (115). The concept of the cover is “a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness,” while the signification becomes that France is a nation of tolerance and inclusivity, where even those who live under colonial rule are patriotic. “There is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than… by this Negro serving his so-called oppressors” (115). This simple image hides many truths of colonialism. It sterilizes imperialism and lets society create a myth of the helping imperialists making life better for those living under colonial rule. It is obvious why this manipulation of experiences is advantageous, hence its ubiquitous implementation throughout history.

However, this myth does not permanently exist in history, in fact it is merely temporary as “there are no eternal ones” (108). They are derived from history that is converted into language, and thus reflect the “type of speech chosen by history,” not “the nature of things” (108). In other words, myth exists in a persistent state of metamorphosis, reshaping themselves to adhere to the relevant culture and history they exist in. An examination of a modern day myth, Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, reveals how myth is used to manage and evoke emotions. The form: grainy black and white film images of historical, iconic visionaries rolls across the screen while slow piano music plays in the background, the narrator Steve Jobs reads: Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do (Jobs, Think Different) At the end of the video the words “Think Different” appear on the screen. The concept: the idea of uniqueness, setting yourself apart from the common ones. The signification: The advertisement is as simple as it is profound, proving to be a defining moment for what was then a beleaguered computer company, Apple successfully turned the purchase of a home computer into a character-defining proposition. Using one of myths foundational concepts, adhomination, Apple appeals to the emotions of its audience defining what it means to own a Macintosh: it tells the world that you are bold, a game changer, you can and will challenge the status quo, you are an innovator, and you are not concerned if the ‘ordinary’ people believe you are crazy because you know that you are destined for greatness. Apple self-defines itself as a visionary, analogous to the dreamers, thinkers, and prophets represented in the advertisement. Apple makes you believe that by association with their product you are one with Apple.

As a consequence of the structure of myth, what is not seen is the history and meaning of the first-order sign: it fails to acknowledge the struggles and the hard work that it took these rebels, misfits, and troublemakers to achieve greatness. Myth hollows out their journey, “distorts” and even glamourizes the history of their lives (120). This revisionist history imparts to the viewer that through the purchase of an Apple Product you will become like those in the video; regardless of who you are. Thus, Apple uses the melding of a simplistic form and concept in order to construct a myth that attempts to create the truth that if you purchase from Apple, you too will be one of the great ones. Through the process of writing this essay, I was compelled to ponder how societal patterns and norms are constructed. The American dream, meritocracy, success, freedom, and democracy: concepts such as these are nearly impossible to define without drawing upon the influence of myth. In fact, it is through the use of myth that keeps these definitions ever changing. Myth is extraordinarily powerful, whether one is considering what computer to purchase, or who is deserving of their vote for the presidency of the United States, myth is the architect of that decision.

Myth must not hijack our critical thinking skills; it is imperative given the current state of affairs in America. Recent events have demonstrated the power of myth, and its ability to influence culture and country on the basis of fear. We must as a culture, interrogate the rhetoric of politicians, and persons of influence. Through myth’s linguistic structure, rhetoric and message can be deconstructed, yielding the information left out of their speech, a consequence of myth’s distorted message. Throughout history, there are copious examples of persons, and societies accepting information from politicians without further investigation, producing a society whose emotions and fears are controlled by the motivations and intentions of its leaders. If the propaganda, speech, and ambitions of politicians were scrutinized, uncovering the linguistic structure of myth, perhaps history would have been altered.

Citations

Barthes, Roland. “MYTH TODAY.” Mythologies. N.p.: Granada, 1970. 107-26. Print Think Different. Dir. Steve Jobs. Perf. Steve Jobs. TBWAChiatDay, 1997. Youtube. 1 Feb. 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rwsuXHA7RA&feature=youtu.be>.

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