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  • Myth Today, page 1 of 26

    from Mythologies by Roland Barthes[translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang,New York, 1984]

    MYTH TODAYWhat is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset afirst, very simple answer, which is perfectlyconsistent with etymology: myth is a type ofspeech.1

    Myth is a type of speechOf course, it is not any type: language needsspecial conditions in order to become myth: weshall see them in a minute. But what must befirmly established at the start is that myth is asystem of communication, that it is a message.This allows one to perceive that myth cannotpossibly be an object, a concept, or an idea; it isa mode of signification, a form. Later, we shallhave to assign to this form historical limits,conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it:we must nevertheless first describe it as a form.

    It can be seen that to purport to discriminateamong mythical objects according to theirsubstance would be entirely illusory: since mythis a type of speech, everything can be a mythprovided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth isnot defined by the object of its message, but bythe way in which it utters this message: there areformal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial'ones. Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, Ibelieve this, for the universe is infinitely fertilein suggestions. Every object in the world canpass from a closed, silent existence to an oralstate, open to appropriation by society, for thereis no law, whether natural or not, which forbidstalking about things. A tree is a tree. Yes, ofcourse. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouetis no longer quite a tree, it is a tree which isdecorated, adapted to a certain type ofconsumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a typeof social usage which is added to pure matter.

    Naturally, everything is not expressed at thesame time: some objects become the prey ofmythical speech for a while, then they disappear,others take their place and attain the status ofmyth. Are there objects which are inevitably asource of suggestiveness, as Baudelairesuggested about Woman? Certainly not: one can

    conceive of very ancient myths, but there are noeternal ones; for it is human history whichconverts reality into speech, and it alone rules thelife and the death of mythical language. Ancientor not, mythology can only have an historicalfoundation, for myth is a type of speech chosenby history: it cannot possibly evolve from the'nature' of things.

    Speech of this kind is a message. It is thereforeby no means confined to oral speech. It canconsist of modes of writing or of representations;not only written discourse, but also photography,cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, allthese can serve as a support to mythical speech.Myth can be defined neither by its object nor byits material, for any material can arbitrarily beendowed with meaning: the arrow which isbrought in order to signify a challenge is also akind of speech. True, as far as perception isconcerned, writing and pictures, for instance, donot call upon the same type of consciousness;and even with pictures, one can use many kindsof reading: a diagram lends itself to significationmore than a drawing, a copy more than anoriginal, and a caricature more than a portrait.But this is the point: we are no longer dealinghere with a theoretical mode of representation:we are dealing with this particular image, whichis given for this particular signification. Mythicalspeech is made of a material which has alreadybeen worked on so as to make it suitable forcommunication: it is because all the materials ofmyth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose asignifying consciousness, that one can reasonabout them while discounting their substance.This substance is not unimportant: pictures, to besure, are more imperative than writing, theyimpose meaning at one stroke, without analyzingor diluting it. But this is no longer a constitutivedifference. Pictures become a kind of writing assoon as they are meaningful: like writing, theycall for a lexis.

    We shall therefore take language, discourse,speech, etc., to mean any significant unit orsynthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photographwill be a kind of speech for us in the same wayas a newspaper article; even objects will becomespeech, if they mean something. This genericway of conceiving language is in fact justified bythe very history of writing: long before theinvention of our alphabet, objects like the Incaquipu, or drawings, as in pictographs, have been

  • Myth Today, page 2 of 26

    accepted as speech. This does not mean that onemust treat mythical speech like language; mythin fact belongs to the province of a generalscience, coextensive with linguistics, which issemiology.

    Myth as a semiological systemFor mythology, since it is the study of a type ofspeech, is but one fragment of this vast scienceof signs which Saussure postulated some fortyyears ago under the name of semiology.Semiology has not yet come into being. Butsince Saussure himself, and sometimesindependently of him, a whole section ofcontemporary research has constantly beenreferred to the problem of meaning: psycho-analysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, somenew types of literary criticism of whichBachelard has given the first examples, are nolonger concerned with facts except inasmuch asthey are endowed with significance. Now topostulate a signification is to have recourse tosemiology. I do not mean that semiology couldaccount for all these aspects of research equallywell: they have different contents. But they havea common status: they are all sciences dealingwith values. They are not content with meetingthe facts: they define and explore them as tokensfor something else.

    Semiology is a science of forms, since it studiessignifications apart from their content. I shouldlike to say one word about the necessity and thelimits of such a formal science. The necessity isthat which applies in the case of any exactlanguage. Zhdanov made fun of Alexandrov thephilosopher, who spoke of 'the sphericalstructure of our planet.' 'It was thought untilnow', Zhdanov said, 'that form alone could bespherical.' Zhdanov was right: one cannot speakabout structures in terms of forms, and viceversa. It may well be that on the plane of 'life',there is but a totality where structures and formscannot be separated. But science has no use forthe ineffable: it must speak about 'life' if it wantsto transform it. Against a certain quixotism ofsynthesis, quite platonic incidentally, allcriticism must consent to the ascesis, to theartifice of analysis; and in analysis, it must matchmethod and language. Less terrorized by thespecter of 'formalism', historical criticism mighthave been less sterile; it would have understood

    that the specific study of forms does not in anyway contradict the necessary principles oftotality and History. On the contrary: the more asystem is specifically defined in its forms, themore amenable it is to historical criticism. Toparody a well-known saying, I shall say that alittle formalism turns one away from History, butthat a lot brings one back to it. Is there a betterexample of total criticism than the description ofsaintliness, at once formal and historical,semiological and ideological, in Sartre's Saint-Genet? The danger, on the contrary, is toconsider forms as ambiguous objects, half- formand half-substance, to endow form with asubstance of form, as was done, for instance, byZhdanovian realism. Semiology, once its limitsare settled, is not a metaphysical trap: it is ascience among others, necessary but notsufficient. The important thing is to see that theunity of an explanation cannot be based on theamputation of one or other of its approaches, but,as Engels said, on the dialectical co-ordination ofthe particular sciences it makes use of. This is thecase with mythology: it is a part both ofsemiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, andof ideology inasmuch as it is an historicalscience: it studies ideas-in-form.2

    Let me therefore restate that any semiologypostulates a relation between two terms, asignifier and a signified. This relation concernsobjects which belong to different categories, andthis is why it is not one of equality but one ofequivalence. We must here be on our guard fordespite common parlance which simply says thatthe signifier expresses the signified, we aredealing, in any semiological system, not withtwo, but with three different terms. For what wegrasp is not at all one term after the other, but thecorrelation which unites them: there are,therefore, the signifier, the signified and the sign,which is the associative total of the first twoterms. Take a bunch of roses: I use it to signifymy passion. Do we have here, then, only asignifier and a signified, the roses and mypassion? Not even that: to put it accurately, thereare here only 'passionified' roses. But on theplane of analysis, we do have three terms; forthese roses weighted with passion perfectly andcorrectly allow themselves to be decomposedinto roses and passion: the former and the latterexisted before uniting and forming this thirdobject, which is the sign. It is as true to say thaton the plane of experience I cannot dissociate the

  • Myth Today, page 3 of 26

    roses from the message they carry, as to say thaton the plane of analysis I cannot confuse theroses as signifier and the roses as sign: thesignifier is empty, the sign is full, it is a meaning.Or take a black pebble: I can make it signify inseveral ways, it is a mere signifier; but if I weighit with a definite signified (a death sentence, forinstance, in an anonymous vote), it will become asign. Naturally, there are between the signifier,the signified and the sign, functional implications(such as that of the part to the whole) which areso close that to analyses them may seem futile;but we shall see in a moment that this distinctionha