When I was interviewed for this MA Mythologies (Barthes, 1957) came up and it was clear that some of my earlier work had triggered an association with it for my tutor. So even though I have had the book for a while its taken me quite a long time to read it and think about the issues it raises in regard of my work.
The book is unabridged and contains 53 essays reflecting on myths in everyday French life and the separate essay Myth Today. The preface to the 1970 edition tells us that the book is two fold:
1) And ideological critique of mass culture
2) A semiological dismantling of that language
Whereas the preface to the 1957 edition tells us that:
- The texts were written between 1954 and 1956 – one a month
- Choice of subject matter was arbitrary and followed Barthes own interests of the time
- His aim was to reveal the “what goes without saying” dressed up realities
- The essay Myth Today is a more methodological consideration of the issues
I found some chapters immediately resonate (eg modern wrestling was easily recognised through this description even though it was written over half a century ago. We all know its theatre – not sport, and the Harcourt Actor), while in others (eg Martians) I feel Barthes could make his point much more clearly and succinctly if he used less prosaic language. But when I raised this with a colleague whose first language was French and read the untranslated version she said that Barthes’ prose in Mythology is really pleasant and that she could read it just for the music of his words.
Having said that, the second part of the book, Myth Today, was much clearer and Barthes takes the reader through the process by which people understand images and how an apparently naturalised meaning is manufactured. For example he shows that to create a myth, that signs are used as signifiers, and a new meaning is added, which is the signified. But according to Barthes this is not added arbitrarily but rather created intentionally.
The author demonstrates with the use of an example of a magazine cover showing black soldier in French uniform saluting. The signifier: a saluting soldier, cannot offer any further facts about the man. But Barthes argues, the photo has been chosen by the magazine to symbolise more than a man; the picture, in combination with the signifieds of Frenchness, militariness, and ethnic difference, offers a message about France and its citizens.
Implications for my work
Mythologies is about associations of one thing with another and how pre-existing knowledge moves the signified and signifier to another level of meaning: the signification (the myth itself). Accordingly there is a lot in this in regard of disability.
People think they know what disability is. Yet they don’t. The World Health Organisation reflects that complexity of the issue here where it notes that disability is the result of – it states – personal and social factors.
Some disabled – like me – people believe that disability is wholly a social construct where society fails to recognise the needs and rights of a person who has some form of impairment and thus creates barriers to their full social recognition as a citizen and or social participation. Thus the myth in this case is that it is the impairment itself which causes the disablement and so the lack of ability and social participation of disabled people is a wholly natural state of affairs. Yet when you think about the issue for just a little while it becomes obvious that disability is a social construction.
- Is someone who wears spectacles disabled or impaired?
- Is someone with a below the knee amputation disabled or impaired?
- Is someone who can’t stand or walk disabled or impaired?
- Is someone with veneer tooth implants disabled or impaired?
If we take the view than any physiological defect can be classed as a disablement then all the examples above will be seen as disabled people. But this isn’t the case as some impairments are recognised, accepted, and catered for while others are not. It all depends on context.
Figure 1 Accepted, rejected
Myth as a semiological system
So Barthes shows how myth is a semiological system and semiology is not concerned with facts but facts endowed with significance. Thus myth is both empty and full of significance p233 and so we no that there is no myth without motivated form p236.
Deciphering the myth – 3 ways
- Via the empty signifier
- Via the full signifier
- Via the mythical signifier – its naturalised the myth and transforms history into nature
And so we have the “natural” view that it is not the choices made my individuals and groups about how we construct and organise society that disables impaired people but rather their individual physiological deficits – not.
Figure 2 Nothing natural here – the social construction of disability
R. Barthes, Mythologies published by Hill & Wang; 1957 Reprint edition (12 Mar 2013)