domingo, 18 de diciembre de 2011
Death of the Author
Many of Barthes’s works focus on literature. However, Barthes denied being a literary critic, because he did not assess and provide verdicts on works. Instead, he interpreted their semiotic significance. Barthes’s structuralist style of literary analysis has influenced cultural studies, to the chagrin of adherents of traditional literary approaches.
One notable point of controversy is Barthes’s proclamation of the ‘death of the author’. This ‘death’ is directed, not at the idea of writing, but at the specifically French image of the auteur as a creative genius expressing an inner vision. He is opposing a view of texts as expressing a distinct personality of the author.
Barthes vehemently opposes the view that authors consciously create masterpieces. He maintains that authors such as Racine and Balzac often reproduce emotional patterns about which they have no conscious knowledge. He opposes the view that authors should be interpreted in terms of what they think they’re doing. Their biographies have no more relevance to what they write than do those of scientists.
In ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes argues that writing destroys every voice and point of origin. This is because it occurs within a functional process which is the practice of signification itself. Its real origin is language. A writer, therefore, does not have a special genius expressed in the text, but rather, is a kind of craftsman who is skilled in using a particular code. All writers are like copywriters or scribes, inscribing a particular zone of language.
The real origin of a text is not the author, but language. If the writer expresses something ‘inner’, it is only the dictionary s/he holds ready-formed. There is a special art of the storyteller to translate linguistic structures or codes into particular narratives or messages. Each text is composed of multiple writings brought into dialogue, with each code it refers to being extracted from a previous culture.
Barthes’s argument is directed against schools of literary criticism that seek to uncover the author’s meaning as a hidden referent which is the final meaning of the text. By refusing the ‘author’ (in the sense of a great writer expressing an inner brilliance), one refuses to assign an ultimate meaning to the text, and hence, one refuses to fix its meaning.
It becomes open to different readings. According to Barthes, the unity of a text lies in its destination not its origin. Its multiplicity is focused on the reader, as an absent point within the text, to whom it speaks. The writer and reader are linguistic persons, not psychological persons. Their role in the story is defined by their coded place in discourse, not their specific traits.
A text cannot have a single meaning, but rather, is composed of multiple systems through which it is constructed. In Barthes’s case, this means reading texts through the signs they use, both in their structure in the text, and in their wider meanings.
Literature does not represent something real, since what it refers to is not really there. For Barthes, it works by playing on the multiple systems of language-use and their infinite transcribability – their ability to be written in different ways.
The death of the author creates freedom for the reader to interpret the text. The reader can recreate the text through connecting to its meanings as they appear in different contexts.
In practice, Barthes’s literary works emphasise the practice of the craft of writing. For instance, Barthes’s structuralist analysis of Sade, Fourier and Loyola emphasises the structural characteristics of their work, such as their emphasis on counting and their locations in self-contained worlds. He views the three authors as founders of languages (logothetes).
The Structure of Narrative
In ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, Barthes explores the structure of narrative, or storytelling, from a structuralist perspective. Narrative consists of a wide variety of genres applied to a wide variety of substances – for example, theatre, film, novels, news stories, mimes, and even some paintings. We can see what Barthes terms ‘narrative’ whenever something is used to tell a story. People using this theory will often refer to the way people live their lives as narratives, and some will talk about a right to tell our own story.
Narrative is taken to be humanly universal – every social group has its own narratives. Barthes models the analysis of narrative on structuralist linguistics. The structure or organisation is what is most essential in any system of meaning.
The construction of a narrative from different statements is similar to the construction of a sentence from phonemes. Barthes argues that there are three levels of narrative: functions, actions, and narration. Each has meaning only in relation to the next level.
Functions refer to statements in narratives. Every statement or sentence in a novel, for example, has at least one function. Barthes gives examples like: ‘James Bond saw a man of about fifty’ and ‘Bond picked up one of the four receivers’.
For Barthes, every statement has a particular role in the narrative – there are no useless statements, no ‘noise’ in the information-theory sense.
But statements vary in their importance to the narrative, in how closely or loosely it is tied to the story. Some are functions in the full sense, playing a direct role in the story. For instance, a character buys a gun so s/he can use it later in the story. The phone rings, and Bond picks it up – this will give him information or orders which will move the action forward.
Others are ‘indices’ – they index something which establishes the context of the story. They might, for instance, convey a certain atmosphere. Or they might say something about the psychology or ‘character’ of an actor in the story. The ‘four receivers’ show that Bond is in a big, bureaucratic organisation, which shows that he is on the side of order. The ‘man of about fifty’ indicates an atmosphere of suspicion: Bond needs to establish who he is and which side he is on.
Among the former – the true functions – these can be central aspects of the narrative, on which it hinges (‘cardinal points’ or ‘nuclei’), or they can be complementary (catalysers). To be cardinal, a function needs to open or close a choice on which the development of the story depends. The phone ringing and Bond answering are cardinal, because the story would go differently if the phone didn’t ring or Bond didn’t answer.
But if Bond ‘moved towards the desk and answered the phone’, the phrase ‘moved towards the desk’ is a catalyser, because it does not affect the story whether he did this or not. Stories often contain catalysers to provide moments of rest from the risky decision-points.
Barthes sees true functions as forming pairs: one initiates a choice and the other closes it. These pairs can be close together, or spread out across a story. The choice is opened by the phone ringing, and closed by Bond answering it.
Indices are also divided into true indices, which index things like an actor’s character or an atmosphere, and informants, which simply identify something or situate it in time and space. A character’s age is an example of an informant. True indices are more important to the story than informants.
All moments of a narrative are functional, but some more so than others. Functions and indices are functional in different ways. Cardinal functions and true indices have greater functionality than catalysers and informants. At root, however, a narrative is structured through its nuclei. The other functional elements are always expansions on the nuclei. It is possible, as in folk-tales, to create a narrative consisting almost entirely of nuclei.
Functions are arranged into narratives by being attached to agents – characters in the story who engage in actions. Every narrative necessarily has agents. The actions of an agent connect the nuclei of the narrative to particular ‘articulations of praxis’ – desire, communication and struggle.
The third level, narration, occurs between the narrator (or writer) and the reader. The narrator compiles the narrative in a way which is addressed to the reader, and ‘produces’ the reader as a particular position in the narrative. The positions of narrator and reader are clearest when a writer addresses a factual statement directly to the reader: ‘Leo was the owner of the joint’. Narrator and reader are largely empty positions within the narrative.
Narratives also have a kind of logical time which is interior to them and is barely connected to real time. This logical time is constructed by the series of nuclei (which open and close choices), and their separation by other nuclei and by subsidiary elements. It is held together by the integration of the pairs of nuclei.
Narratives implicitly receive their meaning, however, from a wider social world. Barthes maintains that narratives obtain their meaning from the world beyond them – from social, economic and ideological systems.
Barthes criticises the narratives of his day for trying to disguise the process of coding involved in constructing a narrative. As in Mythologies, he again argues that this naturalisation of signs, and denial of the process of social construction of meaning, is specifically bourgeois. Both bourgeois society and its mass culture ‘demand signs which do not look like signs’. They are reluctant to declare their codes.
Narrative also contains other potentials. Like dreaming, it alters the familiar in ways which show different possibilities. Although what is ‘known’ or ‘experienced’ is constantly re-run through narratives, the narratives do not simply repeat what is re-run through them. They open a ‘process of becoming’. In other words, things can run differently when run through narrative. Narrative shows that other meanings are possible. Familiar things can be given different meanings.
What happens in narrative has no referent. It doesn’t refer to something in the real world. Rather, what happens in narrative is language itself – the celebration of its many possibilities. However, it is also closely connected to monologue (which follows in personal development from dialogue).
Barthes is highly critical of realist and naturalist views of writing. For Barthes, literature is built on emptiness: it represents something which is not really there. All the arts of fiction, including theatre, cinema and literature, are constructed based on signs. They function by the suspension of disbelief. They function by calling certain desires or structures into play, causing people to feel various emotions. They are not representations of reality, but rather, a way to induce feelings in the audience.
The attempt to convince the audience that the story is real is a way of reproducing the naturalisation of signs. A supposedly realistic or naturalistic art or literature never really ‘tells it like it is’. It represents through a set of conventional signs which stand for ‘reality’.
Barthes criticises those who believe authors imitate an existing reality (a practice known as mimesis). He is in favour of an emphasis on the creation of a discursive world (semiosis) rather than mimesis. Hence his interest in Sade, Fourier and Loyola. Instead of conventional views of the world, alternative presentations can denaturalise the present and provide utopian alternatives.
Barthes also criticises the idea of clarity in literature, for similar reasons. Clarity is simply conventional. It is relative to a particular regime of signs. It amounts to a criterion of familiarity. Therefore, it has conservative effects. Barthes views clarity as a class attribute of the bourgeoisie, used to signify membership of this class (this contrasts sharply with the more common claim in activist circles that speech should be clear so as to be working-class or inclusive).
However, this is not strictly an expressive view either. The actor or author doesn’t necessarily induce sympathy for their own feelings. Such an effect can amount to confusing art with reality. Instead, the actor, author and audience all know it’s fiction.
In some contexts, such as theatre, wrestling, and (in Barthes’s view) Japanese culture, performance or artifice is recognised for what it is. It is not taken to be natural or real. In these contexts, signs have no content. Their operation serves to show the existence and functioning of signs. It also allows an expressive use of signs, to stand for particular emotions.
In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes discusses the different levels of meaning in a Panzani advert. Firstly, there’s a linguistic message, which has the usual denoted and connoted levels. Secondly, there’s a connotation, established by juxtaposition, associating the brand with freshness and home cooking. Thirdly, there’s the use of colours and fruits to signify ‘Italianicity’, the mythical essence of Italy. Fourthly, the processed product is presented as if equivalent to the surrounding unprocessed items. These signifiers carry ‘euphoric values’ connected to particular myths. According to Barthes, at least the third of these meanings is quasi-tautological.
The language of images is constructed in particular zones or ‘lexicons’. Each of the connoted meanings refers to a specific body of social practice which certain readers will receive, and others may not. For instance, it mobilises ideas from tourism (Italianicity) and art (the imitation of the style of a still life painting). Often the same signifieds are carried by text, images, acting and so on. These signifieds carry a particular dominant ideology. A rhetoric of the image deploys a number of connotative images to carry messages.
All images are ‘polysemous’ – they can be read in a number of ways. In an image such as this, language is used both explicitly and implicitly to guide the selection of meanings. The text directs the reader as to which meanings of the image to receive. Barthes thus suggests that texts have a repressive value relative to images: they limit what can be seen. It is in this limitation that ideology and morality function. Ideology chooses among multiple meanings which ones can be seen, and limits the shifting flow of signification which would otherwise happen.
Euphoria and Affect
Euphoria has both positive and negative meanings in Barthes’s work. As a negative term, it refers to the enjoyment of a closed system or familiar meaning which is induced by mythical signifiers. For instance, the fashion system is euphoric because its persistence as a system defies death. People can partake in a system of meanings which seems eternal, and thereby experience some of its illusory universality as euphoria. Myth provides euphoria because it provides a sense that something is absolutely clear. It aims for a euphoric security which comes with enclosing everything in a closed system. Tautology, for instance, gives someone the minor satisfaction of opting for a truth-claim without the risk of being wrong (because nothing substantive has been said). This can be compared to Negri’s argument in Time for Revolution that systemic closure yields a certain type of enjoyment.
On the other hand, it can also signify an experience of fullness arising from actually escaping the regime of myths. In ‘The Third Meaning’, Barthes analyses Sergei Eisenstein’s films, suggesting the presence of what he terms an ‘obtuse’ meaning alongside the explicit denotative and connotative meanings.
These images simply designate an emotion or disposition, setting in motion a drift in meaning. They don’t represent anything. They are momentary, without development or variants. They have a signifier without a signified. They thus escape the euphoria of closed systems, pointing to something beyond.
Indeed, an obtuse meaning is not necessarily visible to all readers. Its appearance is subjective. It is permanently empty or depleted (it remains unclear how this positive ‘empty signifier’ relates either to the ‘mana-words’ of Mythologies, or to Laclau’s rather different use of the same term). It can also serve as part of mythical schemes. For instance, ,moral indignation can function as a pleasant emotion.
The obtuse meaning is not present in the system of language, though it is present in speech. It almost sneaks into speech, on the back of language. It appears as a rare and new practice counterposed to the majority practice of signification. It seems like a luxury: expenditure without exchange. And it seems to belong, not to today’s politics, but to tomorrow’s. Barthes sees such facets as undermining the integration of characters, turning them into nubs of facets. In other words, the ‘molar self’ of the character (who, in Mythologies, is connected to social decomposition and misrepresentation) is replaced by a different kind of connection which is, perhaps, directly lived and connected to the world, rather than projecting a literary figure onto it.
It has been read in terms of a moment of emotion prior to thought. I think it might be better linked to Deleuze’s idea of the ‘time-image’: the obtuse image is a momentary image which expresses the contingency of becoming. Barthes suggests that the obtuse image is carnivalesque, and that it turns the film into a ‘permutational unfolding’, a flow of becoming in the system of signs.
Writerly Reading: S/Z
In S/Z, a text devoted primarily to the study of Balzac’s short story Sarrasine, Barthes proposes a distinction between two types of texts.
A text is ‘writerly’ if it can be written or rewritten today. A ‘writerly’ text is constructed in such a way as to encourage readers to reuse and reapply it, bringing it into new combinations with their own meanings. It is celebrated because it makes the reader a producer, not a consumer, of a text. The ‘writerly’ value restores to each person the ‘magic of the signifier’. The writerly text is inseparable from the process of writing, as an open-ended flow which has not yet been stopped by any system (such as ideology or criticism).
It is necessarily plural. This is a kind of plurality distinguished from liberalism: it does not acknowledge partial truths in different positions, but insists on difference as such. Difference constantly returns through texts, which re-open the network of language at a different point.
Barthes counterposes this view to an essentialist or Platonic view in which all texts approximate a model. For Barthes, texts instead offer entrances into the network of language. They do not offer a norm or law. Rather, it offers a particular perspective constructed of particular voices, fragments of texts, and semiotic codes. Texts have only a contingent unity which is constantly rewritten through its composition in terms of codes. A writerly text should have many networks which interact without any of them dominating the others.
The ‘readerly’, in contrast, reduces a text to something serious, without pleasure, which can only be accepted or rejected. A ‘readerly’ text is so heavily attached to a particular system of meanings as to render the reader passive. It is a reactive distortion of the ‘writerly’ through its ideological closure.
Readerly texts must, however, contain a ‘limited’ or ‘modest plural’ in order to function. This limited plurality of the text is created through its connotations. There are also writerly and readerly styles of reading texts, depending whether one seeks predetermined meanings in it, or seeks instead to inscribe it in new ways.
Instead of treating a text as a single phenomenon which represents something, Barthes proposes to examine a text through the plural signs it brings together. Instead of giving a unified image of a text, it decomposes it into component parts. Such a reading uses digressions to show that the structures of which the text is woven can be reversed and rearranged.
Barthes calls this style of reading ‘starring’ of a text. It cuts the text up into blocks of signification, breaching its smooth surface and especially its appearance of naturalness. It interrupts the flow of the text so as to release the perspectives within it. Each block is treated as a zone, in which the movement of meanings can be traced. The goal of this exercise is to hear one of the voices of the text.
Readers should reconstitute texts as plural. Among other things, this means that forgetting meanings is a necessary part of reading. It ensures that multiple readings remain possible, and therefore, that signifiers are allowed to shift or move.
One can’t reduce all stories to a single structure, because each text carries a particular difference. This kind of difference is not an irreducible quality, but the constant flow of language into new combinations. Analysing the function of each text restores it to this flow of difference.
He also calls for re-reading, as a means to avoid repetition and to remove texts from linear time (before or after) and place them in mythical time. Re-reading is ‘no longer consumption, but play’, directed against both the disposability of texts and their distanced analysis, and towards the return of difference. It helps create an experience of plural texts.
In this text, Barthes criticises many of his earlier views. He now claims that connotation is ever-present in ‘readerly’ texts (though not in some modern texts). There is no underlying denotative layer. Denotation is simply the most naturalised layer of connotation.
Further, connotation carries voice into the text, weaving a particular voice into the code. The writer, here, has more of a role than Barthes previously allowed. Writing brings in historical context through connotation.
The text as expression for the reader is also criticised. Readers are also products of prior texts, which compose subjectivity as subject-positions in narratives. Reading is itself a ‘form of work’. The content of this work is to move, to shift between different systems or flows which have no ending-point.
The work is shown to exist only by its functioning: it has no definite outcome. To read is to find meanings within the endless flow of language. We might think of it as creating particular, temporary points or territories by finding resonances within a field which is like an ocean or a desert.
lunes, 5 de diciembre de 2011
Para Mario Goloboff, la de Julio Cortázar es una literatura de “puentes y pasajes”, en el sentido que en sus cuentos, los personajes cambian, migran, se mueven, ya sea temporalmente como espacialmente. La intención del escritor es la de cuestionar las formas tradicionales de entender, de ver el mundo; y propone formas distintas, formas mágicas. La idea fundamental de Cortázar sobre el género fantástico, gira alrededor de la capacidad de estirar los límites de lo real, a modo de hacer entrar, en lo que nosotros concebimos como la realidad, todo aquello que es insólito, excepcional, extraordinario.
La narrativa de Cortázar, se caracteriza por comenzar casi siempre en universos triviales, familiares, universos que el lector puede imaginar fácilmente, y que, sin embargo, nos llevan a desenlaces inesperados, a imaginar una nueva realidad.
“Hubo un tiempo en que yo pensaba mucho en los axolotl. Iba a verlos al acuario del Jardín des Plantes y me quedaba horas mirándolo, observando su inmovilidad, sus oscuros movimientos.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)El vínculo que se plantea posteriormente entre el narrador de Axolotl y los pequeños animales, es insospechado por el lector, casi inasible. Una especie de hipnotismo, hace que él haga de ir a ver todos los días a aquellos seres, un hábito. En realidad, son los ojos de aquellos animales los que lo perturban más. Su obsesión son aquellos ojos sin pupila, pero que denuncian “otra forma de mirar”. Y esto es lo interesante; el protagonista se siente atraído por entrar en ese mundo remoto que reflejan esos ojos; se interesa en conocer esta cultura diferente, extraña; le da curiosidad y vértigo a la vez esta sensación de algo “ominoso” que transmiten estos seres.
“Los ojos de los axolotl me decían de la presencia de una vida diferente, de otra manera de mirar.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)En este cuento, los sentidos del narrador son utilizados para inferir, para sacar conclusiones: utiliza un registro científico y desapasionado en el principio, para describir desde lo certero qué son los ajolotes.
“En la biblioteca Saint-Genevieve consulté un diccionario y supe que los axolotl son formas larvales, provistas de branquias, de una especie de batracios del género amblístoma.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)Luego, surge algo que en muchos otros cuentos se repite, y esto es la alteración de la “normalidad”, el surgimiento de nuevas conductas y sentimientos en el sujeto protagonista. El narrador descubre cosas nuevas, interesantes pero extrañas. Descubre un interés especial por lo diferente; el narrador ve oro en los ojos de los ajolotes;
“Su mirada ciega, el diminuto disco de oro inexpresivo y sin embargo terriblemente lúcido, me penetraba como un mensaje: <<Sálvanos, sálvanos>>.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)No los define como animales; intuye que son algo más:
“Los axolotl eran como testigos de algo, ya veces como horribles jueces. Me sentía innoble frente a ellos, había una pureza tan espantosa en esos ojos transparentes. Eran larvas, pero larva quiere decir máscara y también fantasma. Detrás de esas caras aztecas inexpresivas (…) de una crueldad implacable (…)”. (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)
Se interpreta que esos animales son representantes de una cultura silenciada hace tiempo, una cultura antigua, desconocida, cruel. El oro en los ojos es un recurso de metonimia que nos lleva hasta la cultura azteca misma, hasta la civilización misma que estos seres representan.
Con el indicio del cambio de persona (de la tercera a la primera), tenemos indicios de un movimiento, de un pasaje. Hay referencias al principio del relato;
“(…) la parte más sensible de nuestro cuerpo.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)Pero en el final, el cambio de la perspectiva es claro:
“O yo estaba también en el, o todos nosotros pensábamos como un hombre, incapaces de expresión, limitados al resplandor dorado de nuestros ojos que miraban la cara del hombre pegada al acuario.” (“Axolotl”, Final del juego)
Noé Jirik afirma que en muchos cuentos de Ficciones, “el libro es el motor principal, el centro en torno del cual gira lo que se cuenta” (El Fuego de la especie, p. 142). En “La Biblioteca de Babel” se trata de explicar la existencia del universo, al que muchos llaman Biblioteca, el cual es interminable e infinito. La Biblioteca no es más que un símbolo y este universo, a su vez, posee un orden, que también por ser infinito es impenetrable.
Jitrik establece también, que la acumulación en la Biblioteca de todas las posibilidades resulta, en su sincronía, la negación de la posibilidad del conocimiento. En este cuento, afirma el autor, los libros giran incesantemente; son la imagen de lo ya resuelto e inmodificable y, por lo tanto, repetición. Dice Jitrik que la biblioteca es “infierno indestructible en el que se congela la mente humana” (El Fuego de la especie, p.145).
El rol de los libros es central en el cuento: ellos son de naturaleza informe y caótica, y la vida de los bibliotecarios gira en torno a explicar la existencia de estos libros; en torno, por ejemplo, a conjeturas sobre el idioma en que están escritos. Los bibliotecarios tienen la certeza que los libros están compuestos por los mismos 25 símbolos: el espacio, la coma, el punto y las veintidós letras del abecedario. Sin embargo, encuentran una gran incógnita en el momento de intentar descifrar esos volúmenes ilegibles: el intento de interpretarlos es constante, pero estos caóticos libros son impenetrables. Sostienen que:
“en algún anaquel de algún hexágono (…) debe existir un libro que sea cifra y el compendio perfecto de todo los demás (…)” (Ficciones, p.41)
y también, que uno de los bibliotecarios lo ha recorrido y descubierto que el libro es análogo a un dios. Este simbolismo, el de un libro que sea la existencia perfecta de todos los demás, permite llegar a la conclusión que los libros que nombra Borges son hombres, que habitan la biblioteca (el universo).
Borges explica que, a pesar de la imposibilidad de penetrar el entramado tejido por alguna divinidad, al que llama universo, no puede el hombre desistir en la tarea de planear esquemas humanos para la explicación de la existencia y los límites de dicho universo. Ni tampoco los intentos de los bibliotecarios de descifrar su contenido. Borges ironiza sobre este intento de los bibliotecarios:
“Antes de un siglo pudo establecerse el idioma: un dialecto samoyedo-lituano del guaraní, con inflexiones del árabe clásico” (Ficciones, p.39)
Además, este tópico de la confusión de lenguas hace pensar la conexión del título del cuento con el mito cristiano de la Torre de Babel, en la antigua Babilonia. En aquel lugar, los habitantes habían construido una torre para llegar al Cielo, y habían pagado con un castigo divino, el de la ininteligibilidad entre las lenguas que se hablaban en dicho centro urbano. La referencia en el cuento a la diversidad de lenguas y a los innumerables idiomas que se hallan fuera del alcance de los humanos, es muy clara.
De la visión caótica del universo emerge la imagen favorita de Borges: el laberinto. Este representa el vehículo a través del cual Borges lleva su cosmovisión a casi todos sus relatos.
“La biblioteca es ilimitada y periódica. Si un eterno viajero la atravesara en cualquier dirección, comprobaría al cabo de los siglos que los mismos volúmenes se repiten en el mismo desorden (que, repetido, sería un orden: el Orden)(…).” (Ficciones, p.42)
Jitrik afirma que el libro se “construye sobre un lenguaje que tiene detrás un pensamiento” y que “en la medida en que el libro se magnifica frente a la acción, en la medida en que, por consecuencia, el pensamiento se agiganta, esas figuras como el laberinto indicarán no tanto una forma de ser del mundo sino una dificultad del pensamiento.” (El fuego de la especie, p.148).
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.