Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Barthes Comments

Myth Today 

Trying to unravel the complexity of Barthes’s language, a mythology in itself, finally read it backwards, and was able to pull out a few more ideas. Still plenty to grasp in this, but feel I’m making progress. 

Some key ideas “Myth is a type of speech.” (109) thus myth is a system of communication, it’s a message. It’s not an object, concept or idea – it’s a mode of signification, a form, therefore anything can be transformed into myth “provided it is conveyed by a discourse.” Barthes writes, because “the universe is infinitely fertile in suggestions. Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things.” Myths aren’t eternal (110) as they are attached to human history “which converts reality into speech…”

Following from Saussure, Barthes writes, “Myth is a semiological system.” (111) Defines Semiology – as science of forms – studies significations apart from their content, and postulates “a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified.” (112) Rose example: roses (signifier); passion (signified); passionified roses (sign), in Saussure’s terms: “signifier = concept, signified = acoustic (mental) image; the relation between concept and image is the sign (the word, for instance) which is a concrete entity.” (113)  Mythology is thus “a second order semiological system.” (114) And this is key“Myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological system. That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth” (114) Myth is staggered in relation to the linguistic system it is built, it’s a metalanguage which one speaks about the first. (115) In language plane, Signifier = meaning; signified = concept; sign. In mythological plan: Signifier = form; signified = concept; sing=signification. (117) Key phrase: “Myth has a double function – it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

The point of all of this terminology is here (117) “signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.” “As meaning, the signifier already postulates a reading… there is richness in it … history. … taken hold of by myth – “empty, parasitical form. The meaning is already complete, it postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions.” “When it becomes form, the meaning leaves its contingencies behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains. There is here a paradoxical permutation in the reading operations, an abnormal regression from meaning to form, from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier.” He continues on (118) “form does not suppress meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal. … the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment. The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tamed richness.” And finally on (119) the “fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated….”

For me, this connects to ideas of postmodernism, and appropriation leads to ideas of sampling. We borrow from the past (made that much more possible by means of mechanical reproduction) and use things that have recognizable meaning as part of our new mythologies. The appropriation retains some part of the signs original meaning, but only just, it’s drained of its richness, and remains as an icon. This is why Barthes suggests that “myth prefers to work with poor, incomplete images, where the meaning is already relieved of its fat, and ready for a signification, such as caricatures, pastiches, symbols, etc. Finally, the motivation is chosen among other possible ones…” (127) Che comes to mean some hipster cool idea of revolution, of out of the box, just like Apple computers, and we buy into the myth without looking into the meaning it originally was infused with. Along these lines Barthes writes: “myth is speech stolen and restored.” “only speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place. It is this brief act of larceny, this moment taken for a surreptitious faking, which gives mythical speech its benumbed look.” (125) Che stolen, looks like Che, may even sound like Che, but is no longer quite Che. This has been the basis of ads featuring Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire dancing – the likeness is there, but meaning is gone.

Barthes defines connection between myth and meaning as a “relation of deformation.” (122) And continues: “this distortion is possible only because the form of the myth is already constituted by a linguistic meaning. In a simple system like the language, the signified cannot distort anything at all because the signifier, being empty, arbitrary, offers no resistance to it. but here, everything is different: the signifier has, so to speak, two aspects: one full, which is the meaning (history…) one empty, which is the form….” Calls myth a “double system” (123) Offers analogy of turnstile, alternating between signifier and form, a language object and metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness.” Continues with window pane example – can look beyond glass or focus on it, “glass is at once present and empty” thus “landscape unreal and full” “The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full.” (123-4)

Final notes, in language sign is arbitrary, however, “mythical signification on the other hand, is never arbitrary: it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy.”  (126) “Motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth: myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is not myth without motivated form.” “Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.” (127) Returning to sampling, we can take things that once have meaning, and give them whatever meaning – or really non-meaning – more image, that we choose. This leads to his mythologies that make up the book.

In the “World of Wrestling” for instance, he opens with “Wrestling is not a sport, it’s a spectacle” (15) This speaks to a removal from reality, where “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself.” (18) Wrestling is not competition or sport, but it offers theater, and “what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of ‘paying’ is essential to wrestling…” (21) and it “…. Unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” (25) This makes me think of superheroes, of black and white morality in their 4-color costumes.

The Blue Blood Cruise is the height of absurdity. Kings pretending to live like commoners for a day. It thus points out how lacking our own lives are. This is the apex of advertising, demonstrate need by artifice, and how our lives are less without it. The Face of Garbo “is an idea” – mask rather than human.

In The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat, Barthes gets us to think of the ship as an enclosure, as habitat before transport (66) that is self-sufficient, and has an “egg-like fullness.” (65) With no occupant, ship becomes an eye. He contrasts this with Rimbaud’s drunken boat: The “boat which says “I” and, freed from its concavity, can make man proceed from a psycho-analysis of the cave to a genuine poetics of exploration.”

The Brain of Einstein has become myth. Barthes talks about it becoming height of thinking machine and also magical at the same time. And “Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to formula. Paradoxically, the more the genius of the man was materialized under the guise of the brain, the more the product of his inventiveness came to acquire a magical dimension, and gave a new incarnation to the old esoteric image of a science entirely contained in a few letters. There is a single secret to the world, and this secret is held in one word; the universe is a safe of which humanity seeks the combination: Einstein almost found it, this is the myth of Einstein.” (69) Calls him “at once magician and machine.”

A little more on Striptease (covered in earlier post): How most prominent display of sexuality becomes desexualized “at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” (84) Disguise and dance all distance her from sexuality, as this becomes business. All the accoutrements of the striptease become illusion, mythology, still retaining some meaning, but only just.

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