(Feature) The Utter Reality of Myth

The French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes developed an extension of Saussure’s semiotics that he aptly called mythology, where strictly speaking ‘-ology’ means ‘study of’ rather than ‘collection.’ For Barthes, the semiological system of signifier/signified/sign, which parses text, was itself collectively another signifier that could be parsed, second-order, into a meta-language: myth, the context behind words and symbols that gives them meaning.

He gives the example of a cover from a French magazine. On it is a photo of an African man in French military uniform giving the French salute, his stern gaze lifted toward some object we cannot see — presumably the tricolor, the French flag. At the time (circa 1960), France was politically consumed with the question of empire, and the magazine, being bourgeois — something like Time or People — was making a very particular point, vaguely statist and militaristic, that the empire was vigorous and noble and worth preserving because it turned Africans into French patriots. ‘Nuff said!

I experienced something similar in 2002, at the start of the second Iraq war, when the US broke out ‘spontaneously’ in ‘patriot rallies,’ where people gathered on street corners and waved yellow ribbons at passers-by. History records that the war was predicated on a lie, a fact some of us recognized at the time, despite that moderates like General Powell and liberals like Senator Clinton joined the conservative administration in telling us the opposite. There was a whole deep meaning to these rallies — to the yellow ribbons, to their very publicity. These weren’t patriot parties, where people gathered with like-minded persons in private celebration. Rather, they congregated in public spaces and practically threw ribbons at people. The name itself, patriot rally, disguised the truth — that these were in fact pro-war rallies — by subtly suggesting that if you were against the war, a war predicated on a lie, you simply weren’t a patriot.

Interpreting myths, Barthes’ said, requires deep knowledge of their milieu. If I handed an average American that magazine cover from 1960 and asked them what, if anything, it was supposed to mean, they might get the opposite result entirely, something almost satirical of the original message — something anti- rather than pro-empire — given that in America today France is jokingly synonymous with “runaway liberalism.”

For Barthes, myth is entirely bourgeois, where the bourgeoisie are a class rather than an ideology and includes not just political conservatives but liberals as well. Only the Left-wing, the radical revolutionaries, he claims, are free from myth since, as the embodiment of revolution, they are constantly remaking them. (Whether that was true in his time, I couldn’t say, but it strikes me as naively behavioralist today.)

There are two points. First, although Barthes doesn’t mention it, that system of interpretation, the means by which myths derive meaning from a text, is genre, which is nothing but a set of conventions for interpreting acts, symbols, and language. Genre is to Barthes’ mythology what grammar is to semiotics. Genre is the grammar of myth. In fact, the book on genre I read a couple years ago used an example almost identical to Barthes’s magazine cover: in that case, a newspaper handbill posted in repetition to a roadside wall in the UK which only made sense if you were familiar with a whole set of cultural and political conventions.

All — or at least almost all — images and discourse have this kind of deep meaning, even (and perhaps especially) the photograph in that a photograph can pretend to be the truth in ways that a painting or novel can’t. This is true even when we are ignorant of the original genre — the system under which the work was created. When we look at a medieval illustration in an illuminated manuscript — or rather, when we see a photograph of the illustration, since very few of us see real objects anymore — we are immediately aware of its age. We recognize it as medieval by the style in the same way that every Big Band song sounds quaint, even when recent. With that recognition of time and place comes an entire set of impressions. Instantly.

Second, our genres, the multitudinous sets of conventions that we operate under when looking at medieval illustrations or hearing Big Band songs or reading the English translation of a work by the 8th century Chinese poet Li Bai, are entirely different than those held by people for whom those works were created. There is a whole set of meanings that medieval illustration was meant to convey about which we are ignorant — unless of course we’ve had specific training and education. Learning to interpret the past is learning the genres that existed then.

Indeed, if you study art history — and I wish someone had told me this as a younger man — you aren’t just studying paint, or whatever. You’re studying the social and historical context of the work and how that changed over time, how the meaning changed over time. People reacted a certain way to a Vermeer when he was painting in the 17th century. That reaction changed in the Victorian era, and again after. Meaning derives from context, from genre, and context changes.

This is not relativism, by the way. A middle finger has a specific intended meaning today, and just because it didn’t always have that meaning doesn’t mean you’re crazy for assuming it does. Myths are not relative. Myths are very real to the people who believe them.

Today, when we see a Vermeer, we mostly see money — an interpretation facilitated by the genre of ‘the masterpiece,’ which tells us, among other things, that for something to be a masterpiece, for us to experience it as such, it needs to be framed ornately and hanging by itself on a drab white wall inside a tomb-like museum with guards and heavy gates, exactly as one might find inside a bank vault. A Vermeer is dead. It is entombed. It has ceased to be about what it represents, except as a kind of afterthought. People don’t generally gather to gasp at scenes from 17th century middle class Dutch life. They might, if they are very aware, marvel at the construction of the painting: the brush strokes and the like. But what most people gasp at is how such a little thing could be worth so much god-damned money. And how they don’t ‘get it.’

“Getting it” requires a common convention to parse meaning and intent, but that convention, the genre, is different than the meaning, and we analyze it, not to be pedantic, but because common conventions that compose genre constrain our view of the world without us even realizing.

This activity is the exact opposite of pedantry. The pedant deliberately ignores myth. The pedant of grammar, for example, pretends not to understand the real meaning of your utterance (when you say ‘can’ instead of ‘may’) in order that she may correct your grammar, whereby what she’s really enforcing is not good grammar but her power as a grammarian. It’s the same with politicians, like Senator Clinton or the President, who are the pedants of genre (which we have seen is the grammar of myth). Their art is convincing others that there’s nothing to be seen, or if there is, that the meaning is different than intended — that some part of what appears real is actually fake — in order that they might assert power over you.

I’m not sure we ever get free of it, but I’m certain that the only people who have a chance are those who interrogate their myths in this way.