The opening unit of my Language and Ideology course examines how language—and we can extend the meaning of “language” to include hyper linguistic semiological systems, such as myth—constructs our perception of the world, or better, “reality.” These linguistic systems become structures that shape human consciousness, structures that we remain largely ignorant of. Below is a basic introduction to the concepts covered. The nuances of the various theories and methods of analysis have been necessarily simplified; to get a deeper understanding, you’ll need to visit the texts themselves.
Ferdinand de Saussure is perhaps most influential in laying the foundations for structuralist theory in his repudiation of the basic assumptions of language that we carry around: that ideas exist before words, and that words logically name things. In contrast, Saussure demonstrates in his Course in General Linguistics that the relationship between signifier (the sound-image form or word, such as “cat”) and the signified (the concept or meaning) is arbitrary. There is no logical reason, other than convention and context, for the signifier/signified connection. As a community, we decide on rules (grammar, definitions, dictionaries) and we argue over these rules. When someone says that the argument is just “semantics,” this is no small thing, because those “semantics”—the structure of meaning—are incredibly important.
If the form of words is not dictated by their relationship with what they refer to, then that form must have its origin elsewhere. Saussure traces the origin of the form of words—of linguistic signs—to the principle of differentiation. New words like “nerd” take their place among existing words because they are different (and we’re talking about minimal differences, like cat and bat). Words then function in a system that uses difference to create its components. As Saussure himself says of all the elements that make up a linguistic system: “Their most precise characteristic is being what the others are not” (Saussure 117).
Why is this concept of language and its structures, which can determine how we speak, important? Well, it first means that we can’t rely on language to be “fact” or “truth.” If the sign is arbitrary, not a thing in itself, with an identity that is not natural but merely a product of its difference from all the other signs around it, then the sign itself is meaningless outside of the system. Thus, “the community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value” (Saussure 113). Our use of signs is reliant upon the history and context of usage. We must be critically aware of how language shapes the way that we see the world, through the signifier/signified relationship of the sign. We cannot cite words and language as somehow objective representations of reality, since they are constructing that reality.So the signifier (form) and the signified (concept) work together to creating the sign, and that sign is the concrete entity that carries meaning. The study of these signs is called semiology, and examines the “relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified” (Barthes 2).
Take, for example, the word “terrorism.”
First, it comes from the sign “terror,” which is a signification of an extreme form of fear. Not being startled from a loud bang, or afraid of what someone might say if they see the overt pimple on your forehead, but an abject, gripping sort of fear that cripples you inside, a fear of pain and death. That’s a very specific signification.
Then we add the “ism,” giving “terror” an active property, making it a method or even institution, something that can affect all of us.
Then we attach it to specific images and identities—explosions in public spaces, mass death, the Two Towers falling in Manhattan, Arab and Islamic extremists—validating and extenuating existing fears of the Other. Suddenly “terrorism” takes on a new form in it signification, becomes used in new conventions, is given new contexts, and works to shape our realities in its usage.
Think of the difference between “murder,” “mass killings,” and “terrorism.” What ideological and political consequences do each carry? Which is used in what circumstances, concerning specific cultural and ethnic identities?
Myth as “meta-language”
“Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling” (Lévi-Strauss 10).
Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes expanded the study of linguistic systems and semiology to include all of the various elements that make up culture: customs in eating and dress, rules of kinship, rituals of life moments, myths. Like Saussure’s linguistic system, the discrete bits of culture in isolation are meaningless; the hijab, for example, has no meaning by itself, but is dependent upon its relationship (difference) with other bits of culture (signs), including context and convention. In myth, on which we’ll now focus, the meaning comes out of binary oppositions.
Binary oppositions are basic categories that involve a presence and an absence, and what ideologically becomes dominant/submissive, or privileged/unprivileged. Examples: dark/light, day/night, man/woman, edible/poisonous, clothed/naked, sacred/profane, human-made/natural.
Binaries attempt to explain the world (motivated by ideology and power) in understandable truths. A mushroom, for example, is either edible or poisonous. Day is given privilege over night because the night can bring dangers: predators, raids by neighboring tribes, cold. Male dominance is maintained by female subservience. If maleness is linked to the qualities of strength, logic, power, leadership, then the binary opposites of weakness, emotion, and servitude are “naturally” assigned to the female gender—thus validating male dominance. These binaries get translated into cultural acts, expressed as rites, taboos, customs, manners, laws, and acting as “theories” of life.
These theories of life, however, become problematic when contradicted by lived experience. What happens when one discovers that something deemed “poisonous” has medicinal or psychedelic potentials? When the night is not the frightening realm of pain and death? When women are strong, logical, powerful leaders?
Lévi-Strauss argues that “the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction” (229). He sees every myth presenting a polarity, an opposition that the mind wants to overcome but cannot. Continuing this concept, Barthes argues that myths function as naturalizers, making the dominant cultural values, attitudes, and beliefs—expressed in Lévi-Strauss’s binary oppositions—seem natural, normal, self-evident, timeless, common-sense, true reflections of the way things are.
This naturalizing meta-language helps to confer power and privilege; we accept, use, and continue myths to maintain that power and privilege. Myths hide the ideological function of signs and codes. They “go without saying,” and so appear not to need to be analyzed or interpreted.
Our job, of course, is to resist that urge to accept, and instead attempt to read the myths to discover the mechanisms of naturalization, to live “the myth as a story at once true and unreal” (Barthes 10).
So how do we do this? What method can we use to examine the structure of myth as a linguistic system, and thus understand how it works to maintain those binaries despite contradictions between theory and lived experience?
Lévi-Strauss provides a complex and intriguing method of “decoding” a myth. Like an orchestra score, he demonstrates that a myth can be read both left to right and top to bottom. Like the score, a myth is the totality of its constituent units. The story it tells, and the meaning contained within, is built by all of these individual units—archetypes, heroes and villains, individual acts—which in isolation tell us nothing, and only generate meaning in relation to the other units. These units of myth, which “belong to a higher and more complex order” than the units of language (211), Lévi-Strauss calls gross constituent units, or mythemes. He locates these mythemes by breaking the story in the myth down “into the shortest possible sentences” and then organizing them according to their function in the story. Each mytheme “will thus show that a certain function is, at a given time, linked to a given subject” (211). That function becomes a relation.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Lévi-Strauss is not so much interested in these isolated relations between mythemes, but in the bundles of like relations. It is these bundles—located within a myth not diachronically but synchronically—that reveal to us the underlying binaries, the unconscious structures of thought that construct our realities.
His famous (and controversial) example of this method is a decoding of the Oedipus myth. There have been strong and valid critiques of his methodology, calling into question some of the assumptions he places on the meaning derived from his identified bundles in order to reach his conclusions. What I think we can take from this exercise, however, is a focus on how myths are not just the stories being told: Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother; success stories of Americans (say, Steve Jobs) who “pick themselves up by the bootstraps” to achieve great financial and social success. By examining the underlying “bundles” within the story, how the individual units interact to construct variant meanings that ultimate justify and naturalize specific binaries of power relations, we can better understand how myths function as models for living.
Oedipus, then, provides a tool for naturalize the contradictions occurring within Greek society at the time: a transition from a patrilineal kin line organization to one organized around the city-state. The American success story naturalizes the binary of success/hard work | failure/laziness, so that one who does not succeed (regardless of social and economic factors of class, birth, privilege) obviously did not work hard enough.
Let’s turn to Barthes and his extension of Saussure’s tri-dimensional chain, what he calls the first order of signification. Here’s the graphic again:
We’ll modify Barthes’s example of the rose. We know that there is signifier r-o-s-e, a sound-image that connects to a signified, a concept or object: image.
When we write or speak rose, we get this object.
Let’s take a step further, and think about a red rose.
The color red can signify love or romance. Thus, through convention, we can associate a red rose as a SIGN of romance. We’ll call this the Red Rose of Romance.
This is where Barthes’s second-order signification comes in (myth). The SIGN of the first order (red rose of romance) “becomes a mere signifier in the second” (Barthes 3).That transition into a sign empties the signifier of meaning. This process of signification creates meaning that is a combination of intent (I’m giving the red rose as a sign of my romantic devotion to you) and the nature of society’s conventional modes and channels (the rose has been the signifier of love, and so I am reproducing that meaning).
When the SIGN in the language-object system becomes another signifier, it is now expressing certain values attached to that sign. That value becomes the new signified, and the relation between the two becomes the mythical sign.The first semiological system is the linguistic system, or what Barthes calls the language-object. It is primarily representational and relatively self-contained.
Notice, too, that we can see a naturalization of the hidden binary here:The original SIGN (Red Rose of Romance) is drained of meaning, distorted to create a natural meaning in the new mythical SIGN: giving roses proves love.
Red rose | no flower or other flower
Love | neglect/lack of devotion
So if you don’t receive a rose, your partner must not love you like s/he should.
From the structuralist’s point of view, myths constantly occupy our daily lives, from our latent assumptions about the driver that cut us off to our political validation of supporting a specific presidential candidate. They work at the subconscious level, though we can have moments of awareness and recognition, we are constantly struggling to challenge or maintain these myths, for a variety of motives.
Take, for example, this myth about same-sex relationships (posted by Ari, a student in my class):
The myth is that a same-sex relationship must naturally conform to traditional gender roles: there is always a man and a woman role. This myth exists to “naturalize” same-sex relationships for a society uncomfortable for anything outside this norm, maintaining the man | woman binary and responding to the contradiction of lived experience versus theory: I know that a relationship must be between a man and woman, but here I am seeing two men or two women in a loving relationship no different than a man/woman pairing. This can’t be. I must explain it. Oh, I see, it works because one takes on the role of the man.
Despite the obvious problems with maintaining such a stance, the myth is continually reinforced through our cultural representations of “normal” same-sex relationships. Take, for example, the images used in a recent story on same-sex marriages in front of courthouse:
“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 the (concept) achieves the natural state; myth is speech justified in excess.” (Barthes 10)
Of all the images the Washington Post and Slate could have chosen, they pick ones that depict one woman in a suit jacket, the other in a dress. The reinforcement of the myth includes the image perpetuated throughout our culture of the butch/lipstick lesbian couple, the bear/effeminate male couple, or even the top/bottom designation for gay men (although this sexual role is not connected to a social role in the relationship, it is often misconstrued as such).
Fortunately, we have the power to read these myths as the ideological devices that they are, “decoding” or deconstructing them to show how they become the reality we believe exists independently from us, and their influence on our perception and behavior.
Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1963. 208-231
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965.