The following was a series of tweets on my account, which can be found here.


I want to try my hand at a little #TheoryTime in the style of @TheLitCritGuy. So let’s talk about Barthesian mythic structure!

This comes to us from Roland Barthes’s “Myth Today” from the second half of his 1957 book, Mythologies.

Short history: This is a compilation of short essays from Barthes discussing modern culture as myth.

(you’ll soon see that the separation of culture and myth is hard to pull off, it’s just easy to say that for learning purposes)

In these essays, he’s discussing stripteases, wrestling, commercials, etc. through the method outlined in Myth Today.

You’ll notice that in aesthetics, people like to spend lots of time talking about art, then they develop a method.

Essentially, they re-read how they viewed art and try to pull a methodology out of it. It’s quite common.

So it goes to show that you never want to start with theory, since that comes as a product of praxis. (see: Adorno and Marx)

Likewise, Barthes’ studies of pop culture in the first half of Mythologies then leads into “Myth Today.”

It gets into deep studies of politics & semiotics. Some of which, Barthes retooled later. So let’s only look at parts 1-4

Start with this quote as I think it summarizes everything we’ll look at rather well:

“Myth is a pure ideographic system, where the forms are still motivated by the concept which they represent while not yet, by a long way, covering the sum of its possibilities for representation.” (126)

(logic to keep in mind here: every philosophical piece is an answer to a question or a solution to a problem…

…so read this as an answer to the question what is myth?)

There are two thinkers at play here: Claude Lévi-Strauss and Ferdinand de Saussure.

The former wrote “The Structural Study of Myth.” The latter heavily developed semiotics.

So we have a rather lengthy response to and evolution of concepts from these thinks, as well as some psychoanalysis.

We open with this simply statement: Myth is a type of speech

So myth is connected to language but “…language needs special conditions in order to become myth…” (107)

Myth is

  1. a system of communication, a message
  2. mode of signification
  3. a form

Myth is not an object, concept or idea. What this means then is that there is no static canon of myth.

“…since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse.” (107)

It is not defined by the object of its message, rather the way it utters this message, creating formal, not substantial, limitations.

And to stress this function of language, it’s a simple as things going from ignored to discussed:

“Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things.” (107)

Everything can’t be expressed at the same time so some myths appear or disappear depending on historical circumstance.

Additionally, we aren’t confined to oral discourse, simply the act of continually conveyed messages.

A little history: we’re talking against Russian Formalism, a.k.a. development of literary canon.

We want to create a space for myth that isn’t defined by a concept of an organic society. Thus, things like material conditions matter.

Its not a “one or the other” kind of thing:

“Myth can be defined neither by its object nor by its material, for any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning…” (108)

Myth is dealing with material that’s already worked on so there’s a heavy dependency on language as a foundation.

We take language, discourse, speech, etc to mean any significant unit or synthesis. So pictures, text, all of it.

Myth is anything that communicates, though doesn’t mean you treat myth merely as language. It coexists w/ linguistics & semiology.

Semiology, developed heavily by Saussure, was one of many studies (psychoanalysis, structuralism, phenomenology) into “problem of meaning.”

Here, we aren’t concerned with facts, but with significance. All of these are sciences dealing with values:

“…they define and explore [facts] as tokens for something else.” (110)

There’s some technical talk that connects sciences to other studies, just pay attention to this point: Mythology is semiology & ideology

Semiology is focused on a relationship between two terms: the signifier and the signified, which yield the third term, sign

Signifier is a material object

Signified is the idea to be conveyed by it

And Sign is the collective term of signifier and signified

Think of it like a rose (material) that you give to a crush who reads it as your affection for them (idea).

That whole process is the sign and how, according to Saussure we understand language through interconnected relationships.

It’s a tri-dimensional structure that also makes up myth:


Myth is a second order chain of this relationship meaning the linguistic sign is the myth’s signifier:

“Everything happens as if myth shifted the formal system of the first significations sideways.” (113)

Myth holds this sign to build its system, so the first system is language-object, and myth is metalanguage which speaks about language

Lucky for us, the text gives us a diagram as well as to, constantly referenced examples:


1st example: grammar book grammar example reading “quia ego nominor leo”

2nd example: a magazine cover

So, on the first level of language we understand this as signifier, signified and sign

Signifier is the sentence, signified is how we understand it, “because my name is lion.”

That is the first order sign we utilize as language. Myth then operates on a second level.

This process of seeing the sentence and taking its meaning is now the object (signifier) of myth.

The signified is understanding that you are reading this as an exercise in grammar. (meaning beyond the simple meaning)

And that process then transforms into another sign, or rather into myth.

The second example is of this image:


In a similar fashion we take the signifier of the image and get to the signified.

However, the second order is the more interpretive element of understanding this as French imperiality.

Since this gets confusing, we’re given new names:

1st order: sign = Meaning (signifier) + signified

2nd order: signification = form + concept

Now, the signifier is the trick to all this since it creates a duality in what we’re discussing.

The first order signifier is now called meaning, and the second order is now form. These two have a very tricky relationship.

The meaning comes as a result of history, geography, morality, etc. It’s a full concept that makes use of its concrete relations.

When it turns into form in the second order, this is all “abnormally regressed,” though not eliminated.

Meaning to form is characterized through a distancing effect that turns an indisputable into something hollow.

This hollowing out allows for a new history to take root via the concept that reconstitutes a motivation chain.

Where form is empty, concept is full and implants a new history due to the form’s “knowledge vacuum.”

This new knowledge is confused and allows for the concept to function something we appropriate.

As in, the grammar example or image presuppose a viewer that reconstitutes a new history into the overall system.

You could say that concept corresponds to a function.

Also worth noting that there are many signifiers, and few signifieds. In other words, lots of examples correspond to few ideas.

This repetition of forms is what allows for the mythologist to decipher the myth (more important in part 5 which we won’t cover).

Now signification, or myth, hides nothing. Everything about the mythic system is given.

This is a result of the why language outlines the foundation of the mythic structure.

If you take this system as a whole (which is what signification is) you see that what meaning lost when transformed into form is later part of what we understand in terms of concept. The ideas of meaning are “distorted” within the concept.

The contingencies of the first order are replaced with “gestures” that comprise a shared mythic meaning rather than a concrete one.

(You can see traces of this idea in later concepts of performativity in Judith Butler)

Lastly, myth is a double system that is constantly moving and alternating within its system of language and signification.

Myth is a value so nothing stops it from reproducing itself constantly. It is, after all, part ideology.

Meaning is always there to present form. Form always requires meaning to create a specific distance, create room for concept.

This constant system allows one to see myth is something that is motivated. Its intentional rather than literal.

Intention: I am a grammatical example

Literal: My name is lion

The literal state is not gone since, at the linguistic level, it’s part of the mythical system.

So the signification creates to fluctuating states of notification and statement of fact.

In other words, myth summons personal subjectivity. To appeals to itself as neutral or natural (statement of fact)

When we look closer, we see it as a motivated function that is trying to establish itself.

Contrast this to language in general which is not motivated. Tree = tree is not a relationship fixed through natural law.

The play of meaning and form, the history and ideology create a sense of motivation in the myth that’s unavoidable.

He characterizes this as “stolen speech” since on these terms, myth is an act of appropriation, not simple language relation.

In summary, when you look at mythic structure, what you’re really looking at are the conditions under which language is ideological.

This is a turn away from structuralism, and into post-structuralism. In some sense, we are always operating on mythic speech.

That seems clear when you look at the first half of the text which transforms every aspect of culture into mythic systems.

Myth is then a power dynamic created through the material conditions under which language has to function.

Now, this is really jargon-y and Barthes knows it. He actually didn’t draw from this too much after writing it.

When you get to Rhetoric of the Image or Elements of Semiology, these terms are cleaned up nicely.

And this is very much a statement of myth “today.” Its stressing the historical conditions under which one interprets them.

What’s useful when you look at this whole reading (we only covered the first 4 sections) is how myth operates as propaganda.

Things like created subjectness and ideology’s tendency to normalize its interests, especially in terms of the text are in myth.

Barthes works to show how the right and left use these systems but I’ll leave that out for now.

In summary: myth is a living system of language that is ideological in nature, and thus extremely powerful.