Reading for this week, I couldn’t help wishing I had the foresight to suggest the classic Roland Barthes text, Myth Today (50149_Barthes_Myths), when we were creating the syllabus. I happened to have read it for another class this week and it paralleled so well with our content that I thought I’d summarize it here.
In this text (which I’m sure many of you are familiar with), Barthes analyzes what myth consists of in a contemporary context. The simple answer is that myth is a type of speech, subject to the same semiological distinctions between “form” (sign, word, image) and “meaning” where the a form by itself is arbitrary but becomes meaningful in social use. For Barthes, the form a myth takes can be anything – an advertisement, a magazine article, a movie, a book, an artifact – so long as it takes on the meaning of a certain reality for its audience. However, in order to qualify as “myth,” the meaning of this representation must go largely unquestioned. It must register as neutral, standard, normal, or default in some way. Think the deified Founding Fathers narrative and our weirdly unquestioned reliance on that super old, out of date, ultra vague text called the Constitution…
In this way, myth is a whole system of values, a way of seeing, and unfortunately, always instrumental. It is intended to simplify a concept beyond controversy, normalize something, or assert a dominant view. Of course, we saw this concept all over the reading this week, but most specifically in the remembrance of Memorial Day and Aaron Burr. Barthes’ famous example is an image of a saluting black child on the cover of a French magazine – illustrating diverse patriotism on the surface but normalizing French imperialism at the same time. Seeing the intentionality behind these supposedly standard representations obliterates the myth. However, because anything can become mythologized (given a meaning that conforms to a simplified dominant view), nothing is safe from being perceived in the framework of myth. Like those science museumgoers that remind their kids that evolution isn’t real, anything you produce will be subject to someone else’s reality.
Conversely, you cannot escape myth in your own viewpoint either, but you can look for it by being a critical consumer of social artifacts. Bathes tells you how but I’m sure you already have your own schema for doing this. However, in this pursuit I think Barthes makes an important distinction between myth and a lie. Myth hides nothing – it merely presents a version of reality. The relationship of myth to reality is more similar to a Freudian idea of repression – myth is the socially appropriate surface structure masking a potentially less attractive deeper structure. In other words, Hamilton may adjust the Founding Fathers myth to make room for minorities, but it doesn’t make the real Founding Father’s any less racist.