An A to Z of Theory | Roland Barthes’s Mythologies: Naturalisation, Politics and everyday life
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 7, 2011 16:35 - 11 Comments
Mythology and Naturalisation
Barthes claims that dominant institutions lull us into the belief that the current system is natural. It portrays the way things are as natural and eternal. It also portrays conventional, ‘common sense’ ways of viewing things as natural and obvious.
For instance, old reactionaries in Barthes’s day (and some today) would maintain that it is natural that men and women are attracted to each other, that certain ‘races’ are superior to others, and that a woman’s place is in the home. People who think in ‘bourgeois’ ways assume that everyone has to ‘pay their way’ and that life is a transaction.
For Barthes, all such arrangements and ways of seeing are never natural. They are socially constructed. The way they are constructed is through the use of signs. Furthermore, the appearance that they are natural is also created with signs. People misuse the word ‘natural’ when they mean socially conventional, moral, or beautiful. What seems ‘natural’ or conventional varies with social settings and time-periods.
This is not to say that everything is semiotic. Barthes believes that there is a certain residue to such phenomena as birth, death, sex, sleep and eating which is natural. However, the way people do these things is far more significant than the fact of doing them. Even when dealing with ‘natural’ acts, it is far more important to understand how they are turned into signs.
Naturalisation leads to the silencing of difference. In his article on the Dominici trial, Barthes argues that Dominici, a peasant accused of murder, did not get a fair hearing because he was read through an external frame. His own rural dialect was incomprehensible to the judges. This led to communication problems which expose the contingency of what is taken as ‘common sense’. But this gap between reality and their own myths is invisible to the judges. Instead, they projected onto him a set of motives derived from the bourgeoisie and its literature.
They condemned him, based not on a plausible account of his own motives, but a myth of what his motives might have been, based on speculation drawn from essentialist psychology and bourgeois literature. According to Barthes, we are all at risk of being condemned in this way, deprived of our own language and rigged-out in that of our accusers.
Similarly, in Barthes’s S/Z, a lack of awareness of local norms plays a central role. In one of Balzac’s works, a visitor abducts a singer he believes is a woman, when the singer is actually a castrato. Nobody has told him that women were not allowed to perform on stage in the country he was visiting.
For Barthes, the story is conditioned on a blank, or gap, in others’ speech which created a gap between transmitted and received meanings. Not knowing how others have used the signs of femininity in socially-defined ways, the visitor mistakes the signs for what they represent.
Myth in Politics and Everyday Life
Myth often arises in people’s everyday beliefs, which they view as common sense, apolitical, or experiential. When people say they know something from experience, or from closeness to reality, it can mean one of two things. Sometimes it is actually local knowledge. But myth is often an ossified form of local knowledge, or poses as local knowledge when it isn’t.
When a tabloid reader claims to know about young people or immigrants or crime, this knowledge is primarily constructed through the mythical injunction to recognise certain claims as statements of fact. The way such a person articulates the myth makes it sound like local knowledge. In fact, it isn’t. Even if such a person has experiences of crime or of migrant neighbours, they mediate these experiences through the pre-formed myths.
Myth opens up in a space where active relations to others or to objects are closed down. This is similar to Gramsci’s ideas of good sense and common sense. Both good sense and common sense seem to be experiential, but, whereas good sense involves reflection on actual social relations, common sense is a kind of ideology through which relations are perceived. Like Barthes, Gramsci sees common sense as a kind of ossified version of situated beliefs carried over from the past.
Take for instance the phenomenon of moral regulation in tabloid discourse. A particular incident in everyday life – a child breaking a window, a Muslim youth arrested for terrorism, an asylum seeker being convicted of reckless driving – is stripped out of its context and taken to signify something else. It stands for moral collapse, and ‘what’s wrong with this country’.
Look more closely at the examples and something else might appear. Perhaps the Muslim youth is an innocent victim of repressive policies. Perhaps the child is a bullying or abuse survivor, working through frustration. Perhaps the asylum seeker drove too fast because of the pressures of the underground economy s/he was forced to work in due to a lack of legal work and benefits. All of these things are possible, and would come to mind in a suspension of judgement.
But mythologies are geared towards instant judgements: ‘this means that’. They produce equally instant responses: cracking down, punishing, restoring ‘order’. Consider for instance the effects of the myth of looting which exists to reinforce a Hobbesian frame about human nature. This myth has hurt vulnerable people caught up in crackdowns and criminalises acts of survival . In such cases, crackdowns serve mainly to restore the sense of order which is ruptured by the disaster itself, by finding human scapegoats.
As in the Dominici case, it is a demonstration of how myths ruin lives.
People who consume myths believe that they are acting on what they see, hear or experience. They’re talking ‘clearly’ and ‘directly’ about ‘life’. In fact they’re not seeing what really happened at all, because their myths are getting between themselves and the events they interpret.
Barthes reserves particular ire for the right-wing populist politician Poujade, whose rhetoric is similar to that of the tabloids. He portrays Poujade’s ideology as a kind of moral accountancy or bookkeeping – something has to be counted to be real. Everything comes down to this bottom line.
Poujade’s performance is based on roublardise – a certain kind of hypermasculine swagger. He is viciously anti-intellectual, identifying intellectuals with the essence of ‘air’ or ‘cloudiness’ in contrast to his own solidity. He has an implied racism towards those deemed not part of the mixed but common blood. Poujade is taken to have laid claim to a truth based in mythological essences, and against this truth, defined culture as a disease.
Similar claims are advanced about other aspects of dominant ideologies. Strikes, for instance, are condemned for affecting those they do not concern (when in fact, social issues concern everyone). The striker as concrete actor is counterposed to the ‘taxpayer’ or ‘man in the street’.
For Barthes, these figures are theatrical or literary. They come from a reactionary mentality of disaggregating collectives into individuals and individuals into essences. This mentality allows reality to be dodged while maintaining an illusion of causality grounded in essences.
Another text in Mythologies deals with French imperialist rhetoric during the Algerian and Moroccan wars of independence. He argues that a particular vocabulary is used to deny the existence of an enemy actor, of just claims, and even of a war. Its devices include portraying conflict as pain or lacerations (Morocco divided against itself), war as ‘pacification’, guerrillas as ‘bands’, and a number of what Barthes terms ‘mana-words’, which are empty words into which specific values can be inserted as needed.
Barthes argues that this grammar destroys or redefined verbs, and inflates substantive nouns referring to abstract ‘notions’. Most of the verbs are either used to express the myth (what ‘is’ or ‘would be’) or displaced into the future. This rhetoric is primarily a kind of naming of the imperial actor by making assertions. This often seems forced, because words resist the kind of distortion this exercise imposes. It is as if such myths have to mark their implausibility by overstating, or warding off disbelief (I’m not a racist but…)
Mythology and Capitalism
According to Barthes, capitalist society is especially prone to mythical signification. This is because the bourgeoisie does not want to be named, especially at the level of ideology and everyday life. This is a fundamental part of capitalist functioning. In particular, it is the way a particular arrangement of the world is turned into an image of the world.
The bourgeois move of refusing to name oneself occurs by moving from an ‘anti-physis’ – the refusal of engagement with a real world of praxis – to a ‘pseudo-physis’ – an appearance of a real world which is actually a world of signs. ‘Pseudo-physis’ denies to people their ability to remake the world by setting narrow limits on how people are to live so as not to upset the dominant order. It amounts to a prohibition on inventing oneself because such an invention would go against what is taken to be reality, or ‘life’. It demands that everyone recognise themselves in a single image of ‘man’, deemed eternal but really constructed at a certain time and place. Today this would consist on the ways the neoliberal frame , and ideas of ‘responsibility’ and ‘choices’, refuse recognition of anything which exceeds the frame.
Myth here has a particular political use, on which it is based. Capitalism needs myth in order to stop the transformation of society. The injection of the appearance of permanence, of a fixed and eternal order, prevents social relations from being challenged. The special role of writing in capitalism is associated with its construction of myth. Capitalism is a civilisation of writing, not images. The meaning of images is itself reduced to a written referent.
Hence, ‘bourgeois man’ is signified as ‘man as such’. People are assumed to always think and act as homo oeconomicus, the capitalist type of subject. The historical and social constructedness of this particular type of human being is disguised. ‘Bourgeois man’ is named instead as ‘eternal man’ – as in rational-choice theory, game theory, transactional analysis and so on. This renaming requires the functioning of myth to strip the bourgeoisie of its history.
In politics, Barthes argues, the equivalent is the nation. The bourgeoisie merges its own political forces with the signifier of the nation. In this way, it can attract the support of the petty-bourgeoisie and the intermediate and shapeless classes. This analysis is similar to Laclau’s theory of hegemony, but with more critical implications.
In everyday life, signifiers are nearly all dependent on bourgeois ideology, anonymised in the form of myth. They carry a particular perspective on humanity’s relationship to the world which coems from the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois norms are wrongly viewed as those of natural order. Bourgeois man seems to be eternal man. This is partly because these norms are practiced nationwide, and come to seem self-evident.
This process particularly affects the shapeless intermediate classes or petty-bourgeoisie (the middle-class, ‘middle England’ or ‘middle America’). The petty-bourgeoisie usually picks up outdated residues of bourgeois culture, mistaking them for nature. They pick up what were once the living ideas of the bourgeoisie, and turn them into something dead. They are absorbed ideologically into the bourgeoisie, despite not having its social status or standard of living. Since they can live up to the bourgeoisie only through the imagination, their own consciousness tends to be impoverished and unreal. According to Barthes, the petty-bourgeoisie is the main source of fascism.
For example, today’s petty-bourgeoisie (think Daily Mail readers) are attached to bourgeois norms from sixty years ago, or over a century ago – ideas of self-abnegation, explicit authoritarianism, hatred of nonconformity and strict moral regulation.
Today’s bourgeoisie are smarter – they’ve moved on to new forms of managerialism which seek to shape environments, produce compliance through micro-management and graded rewards and punishments, and command in a way which seems inclusive, while making their own framing role unconditional and invisible.
The two visions are similar but distinct – think of corporal punishment versus classroom management, authoritarian parenting versus ‘authoritative’ parental management, monolithically harsh prisons versus the stratifications of the Earned Privileges Scheme and Situational Crime Prevention, repression of difference versus neoliberal pseudo-empowerment, straitjackets and confinement versus forced drugging, evidence-based therapies, and responsibility for health, or ‘authoritarian’ versus ‘democratic’ management at work.
The petty-bourgeoisie harks back to what was once the cutting-edge of bourgeois ideology, but in a dumbed-down, archaic and commercialised way, outside its historical context. The bourgeoisie, seeking to recuperate the last wave of struggles, has already moved on, but relies on the petty-bourgeoisie as its electoral basis and as its wedge in the door of mass culture.
Myths vary in their social strength and distribution. Some are spoken only in particular social regions. For instance, the myths of mass-market and middle-market tabloids are rather different. Some are common to both, some are not. They are, however, socially important. People’s categories are often constructed through the arts, and cause them to see the world in particular ways. Hence the importance of issues such as racism in cinema, literature and television.
Even if people do not consciously look to a text as a source of meanings, they may unconsciously consume myths which become part of the code they use to understand the world.