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Barthes's Mythologies
– Jan. 31, 2015

Note that I have made a couple of minor editorial changes to this page that are not yet reflected within pdf, nothing that effects argument. I will fix the pdf when (and if) I come back to give this page a full edit.

I am using here 1972 HarperCollins edition, translated by Annette Lavers, which has been the standard edition in English up to the recent publication of an edition including all of the small essays written by Barthes.


This is an effort toward explaining the core, semiotic ideas of the Barthes's essay "Myth Today," which closes out his little book Mythologies. This is not going to be of the nature of a paragraph by paragraph explanation; I want only to cover the basic ideas. (Thus, for example, I skip the discussion about the necessary abstraction of any scientific approach: something which adds much to the overall presentation in "Myth Today," but is not necessary to understanding the basic, underlying ideas.)


Some Context


It seems not that uncommon that I see people get the ideas in "Myth Today" wholly wrong, even in scholarly work. Frequently, it reads as though the cultural critics who use the work know that Mythologies is considered ground-breaking cultural criticism and want to add strength to their own presentation by tapping into its fame; but, they fail to understand the complexities of his ideas found therein, mostly, by my perceptions, because "Myth Today" is at its core an essay on semiology, which is usually outside the cultural critic's familiarity. Even then there is the problem that the language of "Myth Today" lies somewhat outside the language of contemporary semiology: the ideas within have since and elsewhere been discussed by others (and by Barthes) in different terminology and from different approaches. In truth, "Myth Today" is an early, observational essay in semiology about the language and culture of the time and place of its writing. Which is not to say that the core ideas do not extend beyond that time and place: they do. It is to say the book itself is written to that historical moment.

There is also a difficulty, not always recognized by other writers, with the word myth. Barthes uses the word to an end that exists in criticism pretty much only in Mythologies. (At least, I have never seen it used in this way in a text that was not itself based on that book.) The word myth in "Myth Today" has no relationship to, say, the word as it is used by Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade. Myth is being used in "Myth Today" as a purely semiotic term. In fact, it is in a way functionally oppositional to how the word is used by Campbell. Mythologies is, after all, and as Barthes states in the Preface, "an ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called mass-culture" (my emphasis): unlike Campbell, "myth" in Mythologies is not being treated as a cultural positive. And yet, I have seen essays that fail to grasp that rather fundamental issue. Though, to be honest, it can create difficulties for a new reader of Mythologies, in that they may have to constantly remind themselves that the word myth inside that book does not mean what it means outside that book.


Signifier, Signified, Sign


As this is a presentation of a semiological event, Barthes starts at the basics: the triad of signifier, signified, and sign, the last being "the associative total of the first two" (113). If you are unfamiliar with these terms, I believe the easiest way to get a grasp of them is to not try to make something complicated out of them. They are very simple ideas. Barthes's example of the use of roses is about as good an explanatory example as can be had, so I will stay with it.

I secretly put some roses on a person's work desk to express my passion for that person. I am trying to convey meaning to a person, so it is a semiological event that includes a sign and its constituent signifier and signified. Simply put

  • The signifier is the roses themselves, the material object of the message, the "thing" part of the sign.
  • The signified is the idea, the meaning, which I am using the roses to convey: in this case, my passion for the person.

Think of it as a message: I use some thing – be it flowers or words or whatever – to convey some idea. That parts very easy. Where people create confusion is with the sign.

  • The sign is nothing other than the union of the two taken together.

This is where people tend to want to make it into something more complex than it is. But it is really no different than recognizing a tennis net is both the netting and the two poles holding it up. It is simply one word to designate the two parts working together. To speak of the sign is merely to speak of the whole of the act, both the material and ideational aspects unified as one thing.[FN]

[FN] I will use the word material here, though a signifier need not be strictly material, as with Barthes's myth, which uses signs – ideas – as signifiers. However, the word material functions so well for a base definition, to help create the basic ideas, I will stick with using it in a very broad – albeit imperfect – sense. My thought is to use the pedagogical approach of get the general idea first and it makes it easier to handle the variations.

Calling something a "sign" is recognition that there is an action to convey a signified through the signifier. Equally importantly is to note there can be no sign without such a recognition. If I were to put a stapler on the desk (for no reason other than the desk was a convenient place to put it), there is a material event, but the event did not carry any meaning and so there was no signified, and thus no sign (and in turn no signifier). If I were to walk past the person's desk and think my passion for them (without any expression) there would be an idea, but no conveyance via a signifier, and thus no sign (and, likewise, no signified).

The two are part of the one: you cannot have a sign without both signifier and signified; you cannot have a signifier without a signified and both thus making a sign; and you cannot have a signifier without a signifier, likewise making a sign.

And that is it. When I see people struggling with this idea it is usually because they are trying to make something out of it far more complex or profound than it needs to be. This is just a declaration of terms and their association.

Though, the first complication of that simple terminology lies in the very important recognition that signs are not inherent to the world. They do not themselves "exist" materially or are created out of the signifier.. As Barthes states, a sign does not "evolve from the 'nature' of things" (110). They exist only within communication, and, truth be told, only in the moment of communication. For example, it could be that putting a marshmallow on a person's desk is a playfully suggestive complement as to the dress of the receiving person by a convention which only those two people know. There is nothing inherent to a marshmallow the initiates that sign. Likewise, there is nothing inherent to a rose that creates the signified of passion. It is, just like the marshmallow example, nothing more than a convention: only, in this case, it is a convention shared by millions of people.

Which in turn adds another complexity: a sign need not be established as a convention within a language or culture; it need only be recognized as a sign by a person. Because of that, if I were to put a stapler on a person's desk as a really poor choice of signifier for conveying my passion for that person, for me it might be a sign, but for the person at the desk it probably would not be so, and be nothing more than a action, as with the example of putting the stapler on the desk for convenience sake. Or, while the stapler migh be the signifier of a sign carrying the signified of passion for me, it might, if the person at the desk happened to be looking for a stapler at that time, be for them a sign of considerateness. Or, if I put the stapler down merely to free up my hand for a moment, it could be for the other person a sign of my mental awareness and caution. Or, even, if I put the stapler down to free up a hand and forgot it, leaving it on the desk, and if the person at the desk was a person with a semi-psychotic crush on me in constant search for any and every requiting of their emotions, there could yet again be a sign made of a signifier with a signified of passion.

That is why there is that third term sign: it recognizes that the material element and the ideational element are in themselves insufficient to making a sign. That is, a sign cannot exist unless a person makes it so: there has to be recognition of a sign by somebody (even if only the speaker of the sign) for the sign to exist.

(The complexities of the above examples go into the question of successful communication of signs, not into the existence of signs themselves. A sign can exist even though there is a complete failure in the act communication at whatever point in the act of communication.)

Of course, the terminology is the same with language itself. Let's take the word


There is a signifier: the color distinguishable from background color set out in that general design. And there is a signified: the meaning that the reader (and writer) attach to that signified. In that the word is part of the English language, it carries conventional meanings for anyone familiar with the word. If the design on the page brings such meaning to mind in the viewer of the design (and the maker of the design is also a viewer), then there is a sign. (When you stop looking at it as a word and start looking at it as merely a design, for example if you were a graphic artist, it stops being a sign.)

I believe that should be sufficient to the task, so let's move on.


Myth: The Second-Order Semiological System


This is also is much easier to understand if keep it simple.

A myth is a sign whose signifier is itself a sign. Remember, we are only assigning terms here. Do not try to put meanings into the words from the bottom up; do not go, "well if the signifier is a sign, then that means a myth is different from other signs in that . . . ." No. A myth is a sign, no different than any other sign. The word myth is only being used here as a term to label signs whose signifiers are themselves signs. We could also create the term mongo to refer to all signs whose signifiers are dogs. It is only a term. Do not make it more than that. What is important in "Myth Today" is not that there is something special to the nature of myths – there is not, they are but signs. Rather, what is special about myths lies in how they function in culture.

Barthes uses a graphic made of boxes (on page 115) to visualize myth as a sign – and I admit I find it curious he decided to descend down the page rather than build up. I also have wondered if the use of the boxes creates more confusion than they are worth in that they seem to imply to readers something special about myths. It is nothing more than a graphical presentation of the basic idea of a myth as a sign with a signifier that is a sign. Part of the reason Barthes uses the boxes is to help in expanding the vocabulary.

Instead of graphics, however, I am here going to be a little more algebraic.

A sign is the unity of a signifier and a signified:

sign#1 = {signifier#1 + signified#1}

A myth takes that sign and uses it as a signifier. As such a myth is

sign#2 = {sign#1 + signified#2}


sign#2 = {{signifier#1 + signified#1} + signified#2}

which I admit makes it as confusing as the boxes can be. The reason I like the albegra more than the boxes is that it makes it more visible that the original sign somewhat disappears within emergence of the second sign, the myth. Myth is a level of meaning laid on top of the original sign and which, as Barthes is demonstrating, suppresses the first level of meaning. Barthes calls it metalanguage, because it is a language act that uses language as its signifiers.[FN]

[FN] Do not confuse the "meta-" here with that found in metahumor or metatext, which are related ideas but not be identical. For example, both metahumor and metatext are often used to describe events such as when a film or book speaks its "awareness" to the viewer or reader that it is a film or a book. For example: the Freudian slip moment in Annie Hall where Alvy suddenly turns to the audience and says something like "You heard it too, right? I'm not going crazy here.") Take the term metalanguage here as with every other term: a labeling of a specific event within this discussion alone.

On page 117 Barthes adds new terms to the discussion so he does not have to keep going "the signifier of the secon-order sign" versus "the signifier of the first-order sign." In figuring out "Myth Today," take the terms at the start as nothing more than terms and do not read anything into the choice of the terms.

The names he gives to the parts of a myth are:

signifier#2 form
signified#2 concept (which he also uses for signified#1, I believe as an attempt constantly remind the reader that there is no difference in nature between a first order signified and a second order signified, while there is a difference in nature between a first order signifier and a second order signifier: the latter is a sign, the former is not one)
sign#2 signification

So at the first level:

sign = {signifier + signified}

and at the second level

signification = {form + concept}

Again, the easiest way confuse things is to make something out of this other than basic labeling, basic "let me call this this and that that to make it easy to tell them apart." While the words chosen are ultimately chosen for a reason, he could have as easily used Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Why does he call the second order signs significations and not myths: because not all second order signs are myths. The term myth in Mythologies is a term used for a certain, semiological event of which all the small essays in Mythologies give example. All myths are significations, but not every signification need be a myth. A myth is a signification (a second-order sign) which functions culturally in a certain way.


For the remainder of this presentation I am going to mostly eschew the terms form, concept, and signification and stick with the basic terms of signifier, signified, and sign – and distinguish first- and second- order signs by writing out the descriptions long hand – because I think it will make it easier to grasp the basic ideas. While reading through Barthes's text – as with any text that is creating its own vocabulary – it is helpful to simply make a chart of Barthes's diagram with the six terms and keep it beside you, referring to it at every appearance of a term until you have the six terms down pat.


In the essay "Myth Today," Barthes gives two examples of mythic language, of second-order signs: the phrase in the Latin text book and the photo of the soldier. Both choices are problematic for contemporary English readers, though for different reasons. The first can throw some people off because Barthes is bringing a second language into the example creating a confusion as to what is the first-order sign. The second will very surely throw off most English readers because they will not know the history behind the picture: that of French imperialism and the conflicts in Algeria. (The black soldier is by implication Algerian.) So let me give you two new examples, each of the same nature.

I look in my English grammar book and find this:

the babies' toys

On the first level of signification, it is a signifier (the design on the page) that carries a signification (the conventional meaning of the phrase "the babies's toys") simply because it is a written, recognizable, English phrase. However, it is being used within my grammar book as an example of how to use the possessive apostrophe with a plural noun ending in -s. The sign that is the phrase is in that context the signifier of a second-order sign whose signified is "the possessive apostrophe goes after the s with plural nouns ending in s." You can't have that second-level of meaning if you don't have that first sign, if you cannot first recognize the meaning of a possession of the toys by a group of babies.

So, in brief, the first-order sign is combination of the letters of the phrase (signifier) and the meaning of the phrase (signified). The second-order sign is the first order sign (as signifier) plus a new meaning: correct use of the possessive apostrophe-s (signified). What is to notice is that the first order signified (the meaning of the phrase) is not part of the second order signified (the grammar rule) but yet serves as part of the building blocks of the second order sign.

Second example:

Instead of a black French soldier let's have instead a picture of a U.S. soldier in a wheel chair saluting a U.S. flag. Even better, let's have a line of veterans in wheel chairs saluting a flag with a banner naming the local V.A. hospital across the front. The second-oder signification that culture has attached to such a picture is one of the glory of the U.S. military and that veterans love their country and how their country loves them. How this meaning preys upon the image – that is, how it suppresses the first-order meaning – lies in how that cultural meaning is meant to suppress any individual engagements with the image: for example, the idea that V.A. hospitals seem fair rather poorly when compared to even small town hospitals; then, perhaps, in turn that putting crippled veterans in a parade with a V.A. banner is a blatant attempt to create positive ideas about a V.A. system that really should be under heavy critique. (Which is, then, seeing the myth for what it is.)

That is the basic idea of it, and here this discussion gets a little more complex. For to understand the ideas of first and second-order signs in context of the essay you have to circle back around to the front and start again within the context of the book, Mythologies. Many people get confused here in that they lose track of the greater context, and get lost in the jump from assigning terminology to the basic idea to trying to create importance out of the ideas beyond the attempt to name the basic building blocks of communication. After all, our engagement with texts is not a linear chain of signs: signs build upon signs which create signs which build upon signs. Imagine watching a movie and in it you see a person examining a for-them-never-before-seen text in a different language. The person recognizes and understands the phrase "the babies' toys" in the text: a first-order sign. Then they recognize that in context the phrase is being used as example for a grammatical rule: a second-order sign. But the event itself of recognition could then cue to the viewer the signified of the person being a linguist: another second-order sign. Then, the camera zooms in and shows that the language looks like cuneiform, creating a new signified for the sign "ancient text" which then can prompt another second-order sign of "not only linguist, but archeologist." Then it zooms out farther and you see a second person slap their own forehead and say "you are an idiot": a first order sign – the first person is an idiot – that creates a second-order sign – that their translation and interpretation of the text is wholly wrong.

Which should remind you of that first complication and very important point: signs are not inherent to their signifiers, they are not derived from the "nature of things." Thus, second order signs, in suppressing the first order signs on which they are built, can be wholly at odds with the first order sign, if not in complete opposition to it. In fact, many of the examples given in Mythologies – like the Algerian soldier – is directly to that point, that culture will establish second-order meanings whose function is to eliminate unwanted first-order meanings.

Which leads directly to the second point we need to go back and remember: re-establishing the context of the essay and what a myth is in language. The point of the book is to speak about that particular instance of second-order signs that constitutes mythic speech in culture of any time and place. He is making a distinction between the various signs created, for example, with the stapler – which are signs generated by individuals – and myths, which are signs which are attached to signs, which function to suppress first-order signs, and which are established not by individuals from withing culture. They are external to the event of the initial sign. Even, they precede the event.

The various short essays in the book are examples of moments where the individual's engagement with the material event (that is, their own individual meaning-explorations) is suppressed (whether the viewer is cognizant of it or not, though usually the latter) by a second-order cultural meaning. For an example I need only the first paragraph of "Striptease":

Striptease – at least Parisian striptease – is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked. We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration. (84, all emphasis mine)

Notice how he contextualizes the event to a particular socio-historical moment. He is not talking about the event of a striptease universally. He is talking about how in Paris the event of striptease – which is supposed to be erotic – has been suppressed culturally by mythic speech so that it is now no longer an erotic act but one based on fear, which is how the woman ends up desexualized after performing an act that is at its core an overt presentation of sexuality. There is there a second-order sign in that that fear exists – and can exist – only because the first-order sign is of the erotic (just as the presentation of a grammar rule could only exist as a sign because of the first-order sign that could serve as an example of that rule). Also, since the second-order sign suppresses the signified of eroticism, an in such the act of the strip tease no longer functions to its normal erotic ends, the "ritual signs have only to be announced" to evoke the second-order meaning of fear: that is, the eroticism is wholly suppressed. From the second the idea of strip-tease is presented, its first order signified (eroticism) is culturally eliminated and replaced with the second order sign of fear.


Continuing On . . .


The rest of the essay is explication of and elaboration upon the basic idea semiological ideas and is increasingly focused upon the context of myth as a cultural event. Barthes flushes out both his semiological presentation of the concept of myth and – in the process – the nature of the cultural commentary he is making about France (and contemporary Western culture in general). So while the rest of the essay does develop the ideas, it is not necessary to engaging and understanding the essays and what Barthes is demonstrating with them. In truth, the rest of the essay is moving into a more advanced theory of language, but in that Barthes is developing these ideas for himself the presentation – especially in context of contemporary semiology – is not perfect.

However, it is worth the going through if you can manage it: it does make at times for some difficult parsing. But when doing so keep in mind that you are not reading contemporary semiology. This was written in 1957, and is something of a first go at the ideas for Barthes. Even by his own Elements of Semiology, published 1964, he has greatly changed his language and presentation. For those interested, I will give but very brief summary/notation, organized by Barthes's headers.


The form and the concept: Describes what happens to the signifier and signification as it moves from the first to the second order. The signifier of the first order is suppressed by the myth when it becomes the signifier (form) of the second order. It is emptied out of meaning (though never wholly, or the myth could not exist). That emptiness is filled in by the second-order concept – which does function exactly as the first-order concept: it gives meaning. What is important about myth is that it is putting meaning upon a signifier that already had meaning. It is suppressing the first meaning in favor of the second.


The signification: Perhaps the most important moment of the section comes early:

However paradoxical it may seem, myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear. There is no latency [in Freudian terms] of the concept in relation to the form: there is no need of an unconscious in order to explain myth. (121, emphasis his)

There is also this moment:

What the concept distorts is of course what is full, the meaning: the lion and the Negro are deprived of their history, changed into gestures. (122, emphasis mine)

I cannot help but recognize how this becomes the reiterative performance of culture (which is to say performed re-affirmation of the truths of culture) in later thinkers like Mary Douglas and Judith Butler.

One more, since it is a long section and I'm only doing indicative quotations:

The mythic signification [. . .] is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. (126)

Which may be a statement Barthes himself might reject later on in that signs are always "arbitrary" in the sense that they are never inherent to the signifier – whether it is first-order or second-. But recognizing that to a degree far greater than first-order signs, second-order myths are motivated: they serve a purpose, which is the self-maintenance of the constancy of mass-culture (a language Barthes doesn't use) in all its aspects, including promoting – as with the myth-attached image of the French soldier – national chauvinism (and thus social stability).


Reading and deciphering myth: A section which is as much about how myths function as how to see through myths, and as such we come to a key sentence that is another turn back to the beginning:

We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. (129)

I break the passage in two because what follows is more technical, and that sentence deserved to be isolated.

We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept, can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is read not as a motive but as a [rational] reason. (129, emphasis his)

"Adhonimation" as in ad hominem, appeal to emotions rather than reason; attacking character rather than the actual argument. A myth is not meant to function – nor does it function – with the discourse of language like first-order signs. Where language at the first-order is language about reality but not derived directly from the nature of reality, myth strives to establish the presence of "naturalness," the appearance of a causal connection between the signifier and the signified. Myth's concepts are generated through "adhomination" – through the emptying of meaning of the original signifier in place of a new, emotionally based, cultural concept. But it conceals that artificiality by "freezing" the language moment into a fixed meaning (Derrida would call it sedimentation, in an important reversal of type of energy involved, from the active to the passive). In freezing the concept of the myth it creates validity for the concept, it creates a stability that gives the impression of being derived from the nature of things, thus validating the reality of the concept (even though the concept is wholly artificial) and hiding the motivation of the concept behind that mask of veracity. (What Barthes describes in Criticism and Truth as versimilitude.)

That is what Barthes is describing is "Striptease" in that the presence of the signified fear is immediate, and does not necessitate the actual striptease. He here describes the event well at the end of the paragraph (speaking again about the photograph of the soldier):

[F]or the myth-reader [i.e., the believer of myth, the person who sees the myth and not the first level sign] the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state [. . .]. (129-30, emphasis his)

This is the key element of myth's function: it serves to create truths. As Barthes says at the close of the section:

[A]ny semiological system is a system of values; now, the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system. (131)

When Derrida takes this up, he is describing the same idea though from a different approach: that language and culture naturally "freezes" or sediments, that language as not speaking reality is and active engagement only: it is the nature of the mass to believe language as truths. To note, Berger's The Sacred Canopy is a very good presentation of how this functions in religion. (Though, many other books speak it less technically, as with Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane.)


I'll stop here. What follows from that point on is mostly cultural and political application of the ideas developed to this point. Indeed, much of what follows Myth as a stolen language (131) can be read without the advanced class in semiology. Keep in mind, however, the more the subject cultural in orientation, the more it is anchored in his place and time. For example, you cannot take is comments on poetry and apply it to the whole of poetry. He is speaking critically about a very specific body of literature. (Though, to be honest, even then I do not fully bite on that hook.)