Whoa! How about the weather? Don’t they say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb? Speaking of lion, what is Barthes talking about when he describes myth and for my name is lion?
Barthes expands Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept to cover myth, but let’s get on the same page about what’s going on in language.
- Signifier = arbitrarily assigned liguistic representation of the thing (images, the word*)
- Signified = object or mental concept
- Sign = Signifier + Signified (anything that conveys meaning)
*Please note that linguists would most likely challenge “word” being used.
As Barthes explains, myth is a second-order semiological system (pp. 114-115; Barker and Jane, p. 90). The sign in the first-order system becomes the signifier in the second-order system. Let’s take a look at Barthes’s discussion of the soldier, which is referenced on p. 90 in Barker and Jane.
Barthes on Rhetoric
What can Barthes teach us about rhetoric? He identifies what he means by “rhetoric” in his book Mythologies:
“a set of fixed, regulated, insistent figures, according to which the varied forms of the mythical signifier arrange themselves….It is through their rhetoric that bourgeois myths outline the general prospect of this pseudo-physis which defines the dream of the contemporary bourgeois world.” (p. 150)
- physis: nature
From Greek: the material we can sense in the cosmos.
- anti-physis: what we can’t sense (but we think we do)
- pseudo-physis: ideologically real
A few terms to define from the preface:
- bourgeois: characteristic of the middle class.
- petit-bourgeois: belonging to the lower middle class.
- semioclasm: the destruction of signs (that, specifically, aren’t useful).
Let’s define some terms:
- Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society.
- Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group’s (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society must be structured and how other groups must “buy into” the structure.
- myth: 2. a. “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society” (Merriam-Webster online)
Remember, as members of a culture, you share and reproduce dominant ideology. That doesn’t mean you “buy into” EVERYTHING. We are herd animals and our institutions wouldn’t exist without social cohesion. The goal of a class like this is to get you to recognize the ways you privilege knowledge. We all have biases, but college-educated citizens in a (pseudo-)democracy should be able to think critically and recognize how and why they believe what they believe instead of assuming they believe what they believe because it’s absolute truth. Scrutinize your assumptions.
Pause on that definition of myth for a moment. What makes myth, which is essentially a lie (or maybe a partial truth…distorted to fit an agenda), a “popular belief or tradition”? Consider the following myths about American culture:
- The American Dream
- Manifest Destiny
- “All men are created equal…” 1776
- “Land of the free…” 1812
- Paul Bailey, one white male’s perspective on slavery…2016
Referring to slavery: “We need to get over this, folks. All of us do,” he said. “We need to get over it. It’s done, it’s over, it was 200 years ago. We made mistakes. We’ve done stupid things.”
Now, we’ll turn to another myth that’s closer to home (North Carolina) but historical. Jesse Helms was a US Senator from North Carolina from 1973-2003; he retired in 2003 after his fifth term ended. He had a rather peculiar reign in Washington where he fought tooth and nail against racial equality. Helms never won huge margins of victory, but he always won his Senate races. And he was a master of playing on racial tensions.
The above video plays into the fears white people–again, not all white people–had about Affirmative Action, specifically, and racial equality, generally. Besides the rhetorical move of “racial quotas” vs. “affirmative action,” Helms allows white people to see themselves as victims, which allows racial myths, such as “African Americans are stealing our jobs,” to further be implanted.
That campaign ad came out in 1990, so why still talk about it? Isn’t this a post-race America? Well, this myth is alive today. I heard a version of it from a woman who claimed her father’s job (as a white man he felt it was his) was given to a minority. Here’s the story…
What does all this have to do with technology? Well, indirectly, it has lots to do. Instead of thinking about devices, what are some tools–laws or social customs–that have racial connotations? Then, what are some “fixed charges” that might have racial differences?