Roland Barthes – Myth Today
In “Myth Today”, Roland Barthes analyses the rhetoric of the modern myth making process: he examines myth as a form of language, and how language forms an alternative reality. He does this in the context of the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie, but having read only a selection, I’m not really sure how that ties in. Nonetheless:
Barthes defines a myth as a language-object outside of reality. That is, something that does not coincide 1:1 with what is it is describing. For Barthes, a myth is the end result and acknowledgement of a failure of language. But to understand such statements, it is important to see how a myth is made.
According to Barthes’ argument, to say that there are rhetorical tools for creating a myth would be wrong: instead, myth-making is using failures of language to construct an alternate world where language is reality or in excess of our reality. There are seven major points concerning this:
- The Inoculation: This is a form of disarming language used commonly in advertising something. It consists of acknowledging a small or accidental detail (or evil, as Barthes calls it) to mask bigger details or problems. This rhetorical flourish both creates and finishes its own argument, and then places you within it’s constraint. A good example concerns the army: “Yes, the army is a stiff and blind and narrow minded– but it is also our greatest defence, the savior of our country and a tool for spreading bigger good.” Another is about the church: “Of course the church is not infallable, just look at its bigoted priests and murderous history. But thats all a small price to pay for salvation in the afterlife.” (this example is actually something similar to what philosopher Blaise Pascal used to support his wager on God’s existence. See Pascal’s Wager). This kind of language is usually used concerning institutions, to create a good-bad balance for them to exist in, where one side always outweighs the other, serving the purpose of the institution.
- The Privation of History: Barthes argues that myth-making removes from an object all of it’s history and place in reality, and through the irresponsibility of language, removes any freedom concerning the object. This is because anything outside of reality is hard to change. By making something either eternal or of-the-moment, its freedom to be anything else disappears and it is caught in the false reality of language.
- Identification: Here, a point is made about sameness and the destruction of anything different. To quote Barthes, “One never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are.” Occasionally, when something is too different to be assimilated into variations of sameness, it is exoticised and thus made safe by a reduction to a spectacle or clown. Language cannot handle too many different things– language is more limited than reality, so language and the myth-maker strives for generalizations which are easier to deal with. But in doing so, he loses track of the reality of things he strives to mass-describe.
- Tautology: Barthes: “Tautology is this verbal device which consists of defining like by like (‘Drama is Drama’)… when one is at a loss for explanation: the accidental failure of language is magically identified with what one decides is the natural resistance of the object… one kills rationality because it resists one, one kills language because it betrays one.” Barthes also quotes a great example of this: “Because thats how it is, just because.” Another one I add is “It is what it is“. Such statements defy logic because they make anything permissible: the statement justify themselves. This work like in math, when one runs amok and gets x=x, which is meaningless but absurdly true. Once again: this represent the boundaries of where language ends and cannot keep up with the reality is is trying to describe. Thus it creates an excuse to get around and further than reality, something of its own.
- Neither-Norism: This is quite similar in method to Barthes’ inoculation. A balance is created, weighing too sides against each other. Here however, the myth-maker strives to create an equality between both sides: by weighing them relative to each other, any objective qualities the two sides may have are lost. Owing to relativism, neither is better or worse than the other, and it becomes embarrassing to choose between the two, and we can safely throw the choices away along with reality. In this way, it is possible to weigh two unlike things against each other, no matter how absurd the end result is: “Should I go to the theater or the ballet?” When two unlike qualities are made relative to one another, they lose any value they may have had and a decision is impossible between the two of them. However, this can be circumvented by judging the choices against an absolute value and thus keeping them in reality by not reducing tier existence to something relative of one another… but that then wouldn’t be myth-making because it would introduce a factor outside of language.
- The Quantification of Quality: Once again, when language cannot handle the complexities of reality, it strives to economize the world: qualities become quantities, and once again, language goes beyond reality to judge it. Though language tries to be scientific about its descriptions here, it has attributed properties not belonging to the original object, and thus does not judge the object, but its properties. As Barthes puts it: “A whole circuit of computable appearances establishes a quantitative equality between the cost of the ticket and the tears of an actor.”
- The Statement of Fact: Barthes argues myths tend towards proverbs, as a function of generalization and institutionalization. Furthermore, he says that language as contained in proverbs (or specifically, speech) can be of two types: active or reflexive. He uses the example of a farmer stating “the weather is fine” as active speech, because language here keeps a link to the real weather outside and its usefulness. Active language is almost technical language. Despite it’s abstract nature, it is still open to reality in that it does not solidify any sort of judgement– a farmer saying “the weather is fine” is open to any actions or results of fine weather. Active language later turns in to reflexive language, which is removed from reality now. Reflexive language strives to make itself reality, to overlay reality with its judgement. It allows for no freedom, and like a tautology, does not represent anything other than itself, though it may have be derived from something real. Reflexive language is a form of generalization and simplification for language to have an easier time dealing with the world, judging and describing the world. Active language is minimal in that it strives to describe as accurately as possible if just one thing and leave all language’s deficiencies out so as to not judge. Reflexive language is maximal in the same way, where it tries to cover as much of reality as it can at one time to simplify the world.
Thus myths are born by trying to capture and possess the world. Myth-making tries to fix reality in one place and one form, to get out it’s essence by making it analogous to language. Language, however, is not 1:1 with reality, and in the process creates an alternate world in which it exists. By putting together abstracted properties of an object, one does not get back the real object. Thus by trying to participate in reality, myths participate in creating themselves– they do not reveal anything about the world that wasn’t there originally, nor do they return anything back to reality, as generalizations cannot be used to prove a fact. As Alfred Korzybski put it: “the map is not the territory”. The myth’s future is nothing less than the destruction of the past from which it has taken.
So then, why myths? Because, in a tautological way, the failure of language merits myth-making. Simply because language cannot account for all of reality, generalizations must be made to deal with that. As long as myths acknowledge their faulty nature, they are permissible as a manageable description of the world. It is only when they overstep their boundaries and try to become realities of themselves that they become a linguistic evil.
And what can be done about that? Can one amend language, where instead of complicating and enlarging it further, we simplify it to only commenting on the properties it can handle without deception or myth-making? Or do we allow the opposite, to expand language in hopes of making it equal to reality in it’s scope? (I am reminded about Borges’story about the map that grew so big and detailed, one could not tell it apart from the world it was describing). Or do we simply acknowledge the limitations of language and remember not to let it fool us?
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