On myth & movement(s)

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.

Serving / leftovers


Serving is troubling. The act can be differentiated from “giving” and “taking” in that it somehow borrows from both in one smooth moment of possibility. It is important to recall that it is not the same as “giving.” The most significant point of differentiation is that “giving” entails a clear separation–a separation of self from object (shirt off back), of self from other (left him my heart), and of other from object (got a new toy). Unlike giving and taking, which are necessarily abstractions (two poles of a continuum), serving must be thought and done at the same time. It is there to resist definition.

Serving is tense. It eludes fixed positions, being captured. Giving is characterized, inventorized, and illustrated in vivid colour in moral fables, sacred texts and mythology. The moving target of serving is handed via analogy at best, and for the most part has resisted theorization.

Serving can only be a practice–a set of actions considered. It must be considered AND performed at once. Or else, it is not serving. It is something else.

Serving & food

Serving helps us get out of thinking of food mechanistically. That old anatomical drawing of the digestive tract, foisted upon us in elementary school, is only the starting point of this pervasive (Western) worldview. Think. The harvest is glorified. The harvest is seen as a “collection.” Other organisms are “products.” Farmers and cooks are “manufacturers,” and we, the human being, are “consumers.”

That quaint notion we’re taught, something called the food cycle, is really a conveyor-belt of inputs and outputs, attack & surrender, a forward-marching siege of give-and-take whose conclusion is stencilled into the diagram before we can even begin to wonder at its real workings. To survive, we must “take” vegetables from the earth and “put” them in our body. We can “give” them to our children (ostensibly to sustain their life). Yet ultimately, in this conception (the only most of us know) we and we alone propel activity. We are the actor, while the food (or person being served) are already erased. They might resist with roots, or a waived fork, but within this conceptual arrangement, they can be little else than an object which receives our advance.


Serving, as a critical concept, complicates the certaintly of the productive line. Serving is the interruption, the place where we touch & are touched. Do you “interact” with a cool damp carrot plucked from the earth? If so, is the interaction the stuff of old-fashioned whimsy, an “alchemical” change of state and slight dismemberment? (peeled & boiled orange stuff on a plate?) Is the interaction the scrumptious dish you display to your guest, prompting them to intake, intake, intake with a waggle of your sharp (potentially deadly) fork? The vegetable itself has helped dictate the tools, gestures and dimensions of the dish, the actions your partook, and the words you spoke (and fork-pokes you took) at your guest.

You’re eating at a restaurant. You’re slaughtering a sheep. You’re laying down a spread for your hungry teenaged son. Who controls service: the server, the served, or the matter being served ?

From funnelling seeds into the earth to layering alasagna

Food practices are not simply narratives of “taking” and “giving.” Food practices are strewn together by acts of serving. The point here is that we don’t “give” food to someone any more than we “take” it from the earth.

If I’m a host, we say that I serve my guests. Yet I am not giving them anything. No more than a monkey is “taking taste and nutrition” out of the banana as it strikes the roof of her mouth.

Because serving resists abstraction, it is ambiguous. As always, ambiguity can only be an opening. No more no less.

Take out the serving, take out the opening. And without it, the study of  food–like the study of humans–is just too neat and clean to be trusted.