An A to Z of Theory | Roland Barthes : The war against myth

In the fifth instalment of his series on the French thinker, political theorist Andrew Robinson explores Barthes' positions on the possibility of non-mythical language.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 21, 2011 4:34 - 2 Comments

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Because of his critique (see part 4) of the dominant discourse, Barthesians sometimes view Barthes’ work as a kind of paradigm-shift. He is associated with the spirit of the 1968 uprising, against the language of the dominant system. He is mapped into a conflict between instrumental and expressive approaches to language. Language is viewed as an autonomous creation instead of a form of representation.

Myth can use anything as its raw material for creating a second-order sign. However, some languages resist better than others. All signifiers can lend themselves to myth, but the violence of the mythical appropriation differs with the distance they have from politics. The political quality of a national identity is stronger than that of a name such as ‘tree’ or ‘the sea’, but the latter are also ultimately political – they come from people’s ways of relating to and experiencing things.

Barthes is torn over whether immersion in ‘guilty’ signs is escapable. At different points in his work, he proposes different ways to resist myth or closure.

Local knowledge and politicised speech

Since myth is depoliticised speech, speech which remains political is necessarily non-mythical. Hence the language of the production of reality, spoken in order to or in continuity with transforming reality, is not mythical. Barthes recognises a certain type of local knowledge. He takes this kind of knowledge to come from interacting with something or someone, usually in the context of work. For instance, a woodcutter has local knowledge of trees. A farmer doesn’t speak mythically about the weather, but relates it to her/his labour.

The distinction between interacting actively with an object, and simply consuming it as an image, seems to be crucial for Barthes. The difficulty, however, is that consumers of myths often talk as if they are deploying local knowledge, or speaking ‘from experience’.

He also argues that, while left-wingers can and do use myths, revolutionary language is necessarily non-mythical. And the oppressed, who make the world, speak a non-mythical language which is active and transitive. The oppressor, seeking to preserve the world as it is, uses a mythical language.

I suspect Barthes is here confusing the left-right dichotomy or the struggle for power with the distinction between authoritarian and libertarian ways of life. Revolutionaries can and do use strongly mythical schemes – if a fascist revolution overthrows a communist regime, or authoritarian communists take power based on the essence of the proletariat, or a revolution is built around ethnoreligious identities conceived in mythical terms.

It is true that they must return to the level of constituent power or the creative social imaginary to generate the new set of myths, and to pit these myths against the fixity, the apparent obviousness and eternity, of the existing social order. But it is not the case that all revolutionaries necessarily view reality as contingent. Revolution can be signified as a restoration of an essential state of being, against a distorted, unnatural present.

Denotation and scientific language

In Literature Degree Zero, he argues for a neutral-sounding, direct style which denotes rather than connotes. Similarly, in Mythologies, Barthes indicates that directly descriptive statements might be able to resist myth. Mathematical language makes itself resistant to myth by resisting differences in interpretation.

Later, he rejects this as impossible: neutrality is also something one can only signify through conventions. Denotation is itself coded; it is simply the last, deepest level of connotation. This issue, as to whether it is possible to step outside language or ideology to an underlying level, is a major difference between structuralism and poststructuralism.

But again, in his last works, Barthes expresses a longing for a pure art-form which expresses something without additional messages, seeking to recover what he remembers as childhood innocence and immediacy. A complete image would exclude myth, since it would prevent the focus on certain features.

In ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes speculates on the possibility of an image cleared of its connotative resonances, which would be utopian and innocent, and radically objective. He argues that such an idea of denotation as utopian is sustainable in theory, but questions if it could be actualised.

Photographs have a certain innocence in carrying an absent past. Yet they can also be used to attach a false innocence to a connotation, as in advertising. A pseudo-truth is put in place of open recognition of signification. A constructed meaning is hidden under images.

Poetic language

Modern poetry resists myth by the rather different strategy of seeking the inalienable meaning of things, separate from their signification. It does this at the opposite extreme to mathematics: it stretches the link between signifier and signified to the greatest possible gap. However, myth tends to find ways round such resistances. It uses mathematical formulae as signifiers of mathematics as such, and unordered speech as a signifier for modern poetry as such.

In some works, Barthes goes as far as to argue for unreadability. He argues that unreadable texts undermine the illusory clarity of knowledge, showing the contingency of signs. The task is not to destroy but to subvert narratives. This is done by increasing the ‘permutational play’ of signification, the different combinations and meanings which can be created. By doing this, structure is able to slip away from the inside out.

This is not necessarily to say that people should wilfully obscure things. But people should be open-minded about unfamiliar signs. These signs may express forms of life which are excluded from the familiar order. Or they may relate to the familiar order in unusual, nonconformist ways. The discussions of the self-contained worlds of Sade, Fourier and Loyola also point to this kind of defamiliarising function.

Mythifying myths

Another strategy Barthes proposes is to add a third order of signifiers onto myths, mythifying them in turn. Parodying myths strips them of their false reality, showing them to be contingent and absurd. He particularly praises Flaubert for this approach. Today, shows such as Brass Eye parody the idiocy of tabloid myths and their consumers, while South Park is known for taking on media myth-construction.

Jouissance and Pleasure

Barthes’ work also has a hedonistic side. Pleasure partially escapes signification because it allows an emphasis on sensations rather than meanings. However, Barthes distinguishes between different types of pleasure. In ‘The Pleasure of the Text’, he argues that readerly texts give a type of pleasure which does not challenge the reader’s subjectivity. In contrast, writerly texts provide jouissance (enjoyment or bliss), which takes a reader beyond her/his subjectivity.

Barthes sometimes sees the direct emotional experience, prior to its linguistic comprehension, as an outside to language. For some readers, this gives Barthes a particular importance for theories of affect and cognition. However, his theory never returns to ideas of pre-linguistic thought. Rather, the bliss-in-emptiness of jouissance is closer to that of psychoanalysis or holistic thought.

This theory is constructed against theories such as Bloch’s, which refer to utopian hope. Barthes is sceptical of the power to change the world through imagination, because imagination carries the marks of absence. Rather, it is loss of subjectivity which conveys jouissance.

Reflexivity

Barthes also calls for drawing overt attention to the constructedness of one’s own writing. Since nothing can escape signification, one should never pretend anything one says or does is more than part of a semiotic code.

According to this approach, the problem is not that people live through fictive narratives. This is fine, as long as people realise that they are creating their experiences in this way. The danger, for Barthes, is that people take these fictions to be real. They read actual events as if they were events in literature. For instance, George W Bush acted out a Western script with his ‘dead or alive’ hunt for Bin Laden. The bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie are criticised by Barthes for their propensity to naturalise reality and to take fictions as real. By doing this, they lose their freedom, being subordinated to dominant signs.

Barthes has no objection to the ‘honest’ use of signs known to be chosen and artificial. But he loathes the ‘dishonest’ use of signs which are pretended to be natural or obvious. Language should not try to represent reality, but to signify it.

For example, someone may wear clothes which signify that they are religiously devout, a hedonist, or a rebel. If this is misperceived as an outgrowth of someone’s underlying personality, the effect is dishonest. Similarly if the person convinces her/himself that she/he has an attribute because of their dress, or because of the way she/he is seen by others, due to her/his dress. The choice of clothes should be seen as a deliberate or unconscious attempt to give this impression.

If a person wears clothes as a conscious gesture of signifying that they have an attribute, and is aware and makes clear to others that this is simply an appearance, they’re being honest. Being aware of, and admitting, the semiotic significance of one’s actions – being reflexive – becomes a crucial ethical imperative from this point of view.

Next week: Barthes and activism.
For previous entries in the series, visit the In Theory page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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Walter Benjamin: Critique of the State | Ceasefire Magazine
Jan 6, 2014 20:58

[…] could think of ‘fate’ in terms of naturalisation, Barthesian myths, essentialism, the slogan ‘there is no alternative’, a generalised sense of […]

Walter Benjamin: Critique of the State (and resistance) | ΕΝΙΑΙΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΣ
Feb 12, 2014 13:51

[…] could think of ‘fate’ in terms of naturalisation, Barthesian myths, essentialism, the slogan ‘there is no alternative’, a generalised sense of powerlessness, or […]

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