For Roland Barthes, semiology is not only a science of signs, but also a preoccupation with meanings in transition.
From a communication point of view, the allure of Saussure’s linguistic semiology and Peirce’s formal semiotics can certainly be tied to a reaction against mechanistic models of communication—comprised of discrete parts and messages already replete with meaning.
In serving to reinforce the substantiality of messages, this segmentation of motion into discrete parts simultaneously negated the role of links or articulations themselves. In contrast, semiology, by way of linguistics, allows various scholars to attend to the relational ‘dynamics’ themselves.
It is just such a richly fluid ideal (in time: a movement; in space: a link) that Roland Barthes exposes in his brief depiction of basic semiological chains, and later mourns in his playful critique of the second-order chain traced by mythology.
He does this throughout his work, though primarily in the project called Mythologies.
“What we grasp,” he says early on in relation to Saussurian semiology, “is not at all one term after another, but the correlation which unites them,”[i] while with respect to Sartrean criticism, “the relation between crisis (signifier) and discourse (signified) defines the work.”,[ii] both of which leads to his early assertion that semiology is, above all, an active and fleeting pursuit, one that occurs at the intersection of “reading, or deciphering.”[iii]
This terminology of movement and joining whether in relation to the science of semiology or its manifestations in social life, sets up a much larger critique of forms of dominance achieved through the arresting, or bracketing, effect of bourgeois mythology.
For Barthes in “Myth Today”, meaning-as-movement can be traced to what he describes as contingency. ‘Meaning,’ for Barthes, is used to specifically describe the sign, or last term of a first-order semiological chain. Structurally, this Barthesian ‘meaning’ lies in the relationship of contingency between signifier, signified, and sign. Thus, when he later claims that it is ‘meaning’ that is evaporated and repurposed by myth, he is referring not just to any meaning, but ‘meaning’ as something contingent, and thus, to some extent, in motion: the ‘meaningful’ component of a first-order semiological chain.
He does not in ‘Myth Today’ devote ample space to this particular ‘first-order’ semiological relationship. However, it is still worth noting that the ‘meaning’ he depicts (after Saussure) is not one, nor two, nor even three things, fundamentally. As meaning is contingent on all three, then meaning-production might be conceived – at least temporally – as the movement between them; spatially, as the invisible thread which might momentarily join them. Barthes, however, merely illustrates this first chain in order to set up his larger analysis of how myth, as a second order, preys upon it so effectively.
He details how as a second-order semiological system, myth builds its signification (the ‘second- order sign’ or metasign)[iv] by pointing a first-order sign, or contingent-meaning, to a new signified, a new concept.
These exploited signs are effective as signifier-vessels for myth precisely in that they are already “credible wholes…have at their disposal a sufficient rationality.”[v] However, as mythical signifiers, says Barthes, these previous signs are only thin and vacant versions of their previous selves: they are now “impoverished”, “evaporated”… in short, “they have left their contingency behind”[vi] and therefore the sign that was once a meaning – in all its richness, fullness, complexity and dynamism – becomes a mere form, with all the latter’s implications of immobility and in-significance.
Thus, myth’s “point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning.”[vii] Herein lies the crux of Barthes’ critique, what might be called the deformation of linguistic meaning.[viii] Most chilling for Barthes, and most prescient also to the subsequent work of scholars like Hall (1980) and Slack (1996), is that this appropriated meaning, this “constant game of hide-and-seek between the meaning and the form”[ix] serves to both surreptitiously convey and reinforce dominant (bourgeois) ideology.
It is this very ideology that Barthes deems dangerous not only in its historically-limited (thus unnatural) intentions, but also in its invisibility in both function and name. Furthermore, it is this transparency that characterizes myth: its continuous presence as meta-narrative and capacity to appropriate and distort previous meanings.’
Because bourgeois ideology, through myth, robs language and “impoverishes” consciousness[x], Barthes draws the image of the ‘arrest’[xi] the invisible process of freezing, ‘thickening,’ or naturalizing the ‘reasons’ for every day affairs and thus defining the parameters of the social sphere.
It is not because myth is trying to hide that we become subjugated by it, asserts Barthes, but because of our very habituation to its ubiquity, coupled with its general ideological nebulousness. It is thus that bourgeois ideology, through myth, perpetuates a generally secure climate for itself of ‘depoliticized speech’.[xii] Paradoxically, however, it is in the very ‘opening’ of signified possibilities for the second-level signifier that allows it to be appropriated for the quantitatively-poor ‘conservative’ aims of bourgeois myth.
Not only is it opened up to new signification qualitatively, but it also offers – as a newly-inhabitable vessel for a narrow set of ideological values – a vast and apparently ‘diverse’ quantity of new forms for its very disseminationn
[i] Barthes, Roland (1972:1957) “Myth Today,” In Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 113
[ii] ibid., 114
[iii] ibid., 114.
[iv] Ibid., 117.
[v] Ibid., 117.
[vi] Ibid., 117.
[vii] Ibid., 123.
[viii] Ibid., 122
[ix] Ibid., 118
[x] Ibid., 141
[xi] Ibid., 125
[xii] Ibid., 142.