New perspective on Strong myths and Weak myths

Introduction

In his essay Myth Today, Roland Barthes introduces strong myth and weak myth terminology which he explained very briefly. These terminologies were brought up by him as result on his analysis on ideology and political issues in a bourgeois society. In responding to Barthes‘s explanation of those terminologies, I claim that those meanings are supposedly wider than stated by him. Examining deeply on Barthes’s thoughts in his own essays, especially in Mythologies and The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, can bring a new, wider understanding of his strong myth and weak myth.

The purposes of this essay are to discuss critically on Barthes’s Mythology, in particular the strong myth and weak myth, and then to suggest new ideas defining those myths. The essay will begin with an outline of the Mythology according to Barthes, then, continue to evaluate and questioning his statement on ‘everything can be a myth, as well as strong and weak myth. In the end, this essay will proceed with identifying new understanding through case studies.

Myth and semiological system

When it comes to discuss about Roland Barthes’ Myth, it is important to refer back to the Ferdinand Saussure’s theory on linguistics[1] as Barthes reworks it by adding a second system of understanding to the theory. Subsequently, Barthes takes Saussure’s linguistic concept a step further where for Barthes, myth is a second semiological system which means that what is known as a sign in the Saussurean system becomes a signifier in level of myth. Barthes asserts that myth is a system of communication, message with a code (Barthes, 1957). A myth is not just any message, but a message produced by a certain signifying mechanism. It is constructed by two semiological systems which the final system is derived from components of the first system. The sign, as the final term in the first linguistic system, provides itself as raw material for the myth as signifier. In other words, signifier in second system has two distinct and unique positions, as the final term of the linguistic system, or as the first term of the mythical system. Concerning confusion between these terminologies, Barthes differentiates the name usage in explaining his myth’s components. For signifier, he uses meaning as the final term of the linguistic system and uses form, to name it in the system of myth to make differentiation. In the case of the signified, he retains the name concept as he found no ambiguity is possible there. As the third term is the correlation of the first two and it is already named sign in the linguistic system, thus he uses signification to define the third term of myth.

As a result of the ambiguity of the signifier in myth, between meaning and form, thus, it is full on the one side and empty on the other (Barthes 1957: p. 117). The meaning as it has already reached final completion in its linguistic structure reflects past idea, knowledge, and memory from the first system. On the other hand, these reflections will reduce and put aside when it turns into form which makes it empty and ready to structure the final signification along with the concept. Meaning and form cannot be separated in the sense of vanishing of them as the meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning (Barthes 1957: p. 123). If one of them is deleted, then the mythical signification would not be constructed and the process will fall back to the first system.

In the case of concept, it is influenced by historical process and reconstitutes a chain of causes and effects, motives and intentions which causes the myth to be uttered. Through the concept, it is a whole new history which is implanted in the myth. The concept closely corresponds to a function. The concept unlike the form, is no way abstract: it is filled with a situation. Thus, according to Barthes, “myth is a type of speech defined by its intention…much more than by its literal sense”.

Furthermore, as explained by Barthes, there are three positions that can be adopted when reading and deciphering myth. It depends on which components of myth that is emphasized more in the reading process. Firstly, we can position ourselves as the producer of myth who starts with the concept and seeks a form for it. Here, Barthes claims that “the signification becomes literal again”. Secondly, acting as the mythologist who deciphers the myth where consequently the distortion would happen or lastly, we put ourselves as the reader of myth itself. Each of them affects myth differently, either by causing the myth is to clearly read which in the end destroy myth itself or by accepting the myth as a story at once true and unreal. It is the reader of myths himself who must reveal their essential function. It is then back to the motivation at the first place when the process of reading myth occurs.

Understanding Barthes’ Mythologies

In his Book Mythologies, Barthes applies Saussure’s sign which updates into mythical system to a wide spectrum of French daily life in an effort to understand their ideological function relating to economic and political hegemony of the bourgeoisie society at the time. He used ex-nomination term to refer to the way in which the bourgeoisie remains ‘anonymous’ by succeeding in presenting its ideology to us as a ‘common sense’. Barthes through his Mythologies talks about a critique of the routine happenings of daily life, expressed through a semiological method. He tries to understand the connection between any social object and history found when we read the context around us. Although the content of myth is ideological and therefore determined by history, the myth is something more than its content, and this is something more requires formal semiological analysis. Mythologies are concern with the values and attitudes implicit in the variety of messages within our society: advertisements, newspapers, and magazine reports, photographs, and so on. He described the function of ideology in this respect as one of the transforming the “reality of the world into an image of the world, History into nature” (Barthes 1957, p: 154). What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality, defined…by the which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality (Barthes 1957, p: 155). Ideological function is to show that what is presented to them as ‘natural’ is in fact what conforms to a particular ideological world view, serving particular social interests. The critical study of myth is not just the denunciation of particular ideological positions, but the analysis of how their message are constituted, how they come to persuade.

Barthes wants to decipher the messages and to evaluate their links with the bourgeois culture. In mythologies, a message is read into some substance, custom, attitude that seemed to carry its own justification in terms purely of practical use; and the message thus revealed turns out to be concealing the operation of socio-economic structures that require to be denounced. These messages are transformed into myths by abstraction from their particular context. The concepts are reactions to the history, rather than accurate reflections of it. Society inevitably transforms functional objects into signs of their function. To appear as natural the myth must connect with certain habits of thought so basic to the culture of its presumed recipients that their validity is taken for granted.

Everything, then, can be a myth?

Specifically, in the beginning of his Myth Today, Barthes believed that “Everything, then, can be a myth”.

Since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse…Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society (Barthes 1957: p.109).

In fact, he argued that nothing can elude becoming the prey of myth, where myth can develop its structure from any kind of material and meaning in society. Because that our society is still a bourgeois society which is the privileged field for mythical to represent, so that myth can become the tool for bourgeois ideology spreading in society. Barthes’s claim on this issue that ‘the most accessible and famous lesson of Mythologies is the realization that all social usages, as soon as they are recognized, turn into signs of themselves’ (Lavers, 1982). Furthermore, Barthes added that not all objects are mythologized at the same time. Before they become suitable for mythical use, they must already be recognized as part of social usage; they must produce ‘meaning-effects’. Barthes emphasizes that any object can turn into a myth because it is retold in a discourse ‘since there is no law which forbids speaking about things’ (Barthes 1957: p. 109). Any object can be communicated in language, if they mean something to be uttered. He gives example that when a tree is expressed, it is no longer a tree as it has decorated in order to adapt to certain type of representation, meaning, or social usage. A rose in the garden, previously is only a kind of flower before it is attached a romantic meaning to represent feelings of love. His argument comes from reason that because he puts more attention to the ideological use of signs rather than the semiological structure in his terminology of myth. He wants to show that ‘it is human history which converts reality into speech’. It is an intentional factor that plays a key role in uttering myths.

In responding to Barthes’s claim, if everything can be a myth, then, the question needed to discuss later is whether there are any certain myths that more real than others. Probably, we might assume that one might be more recognisable than the others or there is a particular myth that more powerful, obvious, or strong than the rest. Differentiation might be found among those myths which causing them competing to survive.

Furthermore, in his Myth Today, Barthes mentioned that there are two kinds of myths, strong myths and weak myths. As explain briefly by him that:

There are, therefore, strong myths and weak myths; in the former, the political quantum is immediate, the depoliticization is abrupt; in the later, the political quality of the object has faded like a colour, but the slightest thing can bring back its strength brutally (Barthes 1957: p. 144)

Barthes defines that Myth is depolitized speech. In this case, myth is provided a historical reality by the world and then produced a natural image of this reality in return (Barthes 1957: p. 142) But, when myth in order to proceed from history to nature, it emptied history and let the reality flowing out. Since myth tends to speak of them, purifying and simplify them, then giving them the clarity, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human significance (Barthes 1957: p. 143). Here, myth comes again under language object and metalanguage terms, as myth is always uttered in metalanguage. Strong myth deals with the abrupt and sudden ‘haemorrhage’ from the process of its signification. But not with weak myth, it needs time.

However, it seems to me that the meaning of strong myths and weak myths according to Barthes can be expanded into different area of understanding. Here, Barthes does not explain any further explanation for them. As he stated that everything in the society’s daily life is potentially to transform into myth, but he does not mention about the ‘quality’ and the ‘load’ of them. Since, every myth has different process turning them into myth and has different substances. He does not cover the implication of the existence of different myths in the society where the society is congested by them. Also, the important role of the myth creator in affecting the reading process and the receiving results of the myths.

But actually Barthes, consciously or not, implicitly mentioned several points in his essays and book which if we examine further on them will bring us to identity new explanation on his strong myths and weak myths. For this reason, I would examine and borrow the terms from Barthes on strong myths and weak myths to answer those questions above mentioned before.

Eiffel Tower

First, the essay from Barthes, The Eiffel Tower will be discussed here where Barthes explores the question of its signification in a wider perspective, urban discourse, that affecting the city and its inhabitants.

Significantly, Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris and cannot be detached from the image and identity of the city. In fact, Paris is Eiffel Tower and Eiffel Tower is Paris. The tower’s primary role has evolved and associated as universal symbol of Paris. It is the similar to the Liberty Statue in New York, Opera House in Sydney, Lion Statue in Singapore, or ‘Big Ben’ in London. We cannot imagine those cities without their identification at all. New York would not be complete without the Liberty Statue, as well as London without its clock tower. People travel to those cities to see the symbols that represent the identity and meaning of them. Regarding Eiffel Tower, its eminence is acknowledged by Barthes in his essay:

The tower is also present to the entire world. First of all as a universal symbol of Paris, it is everywhere on the globe where Paris is to be stated as an image; from the Midwest to Australia, there is no journey to France which isn’t made, somehow, in the Tower’s name, no schoolbook, poster, or film about France which fails to propose it as the major sign of a people and of a place (Barthes 1979: pp. 3-4).

The tower reintroduces continuously in almost every visual representation of Paris as a city. It is well-known globally with its simplicity in shape, structure, and imaginations which impose on it.

Certainly, Eiffel Tower is a myth. ‘The tower itself attracts meaning, the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts; for all lovers of signification, it plays a glamorous part, that of a pure signifier, i.e., of a form in which men unceasingly put meaning’ (Barthes 1979: p. 5). For French people, it was erected to celebrate one hundred years of French Revolution which changes the nation’s history. It represents modern French through the usage of steel construction which was a new technology and material for that period. For lovers, Eiffel Tower is identified with love and romanticism. People in love come everywhere, driven by a dream to have memorial photographs with tower as the background. Similarly, the tower itself can represent many meanings, in communication, in science, as rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, or as the poet says, the base and summit, earth and heaven (Barthes 1979: p. 4).

When reading city of Paris as whole in urban scale or perceiving city of Paris as a map to read, Eiffel tower shows as the central and significance symbolization in city. Its signification transcends beyond its visualization even when we cannot see it but we know the Tower is there (Barthes 1979: p. 3). As in urban planning studies, the demand for meaning appears with the growing awareness of the functions of visualization symbols in urban space. Barthes addresses that ‘the city is a discourse…and this discourse is truly a language’ (Leach 1997: p. 165). All the elements of a city uniformly assimilated by planning, while it is growing daily more evident that a city is a tissue formed not of equal elements whose functions we can enumerate, but of strong and neutral elements, or rather, as the linguists say, of marked and unmarked elements. (Leach 1997: pp. 166-167).Then we see that there are many myths that can be found in the city of Paris. It needs little effort trying to look for myths in the city. Inside the ‘box’ there are many myths that we can meet every day. Those roll like movie in front of us whether we notice or not when we walk past them. We can see myth in magazine, in theatre, in advertising, shopping centre, mall, store, back of the trucks, and so on, myths come to us whether we read it or not. In fact, the excitement of the Tower is certainly exceeding other objects in Paris and make it becomes a strong myth amongst other myths in Paris. Its meaning, effect echoes widely and loudly than others. The Eiffel Tower, as indicated is inevitably illustrated justification for the strong and weak myths with regard to its influences and key prominent in affecting the society.

Displays in museum

In the same way, displays in museum indicate another example to understand strong and weak myths in a new perspective. For the most part, museum can be considered as city of Paris in small scale. It is a space that contains other small spaces, it shelters objects within it like Paris settled by people and objects. Museum accumulates a lot of collections, artefacts, arts, and so on therefore, its contents and history provide myth with lots of raw material and substance to work on where their past histories come alive through present meanings.

Museum is not only focusing on collecting, classifying, researching and displaying contents, but it also has to present narrative story to communicate to visitors and let them experience the objects that evoking their imaginations and senses. For this reason, museum is considered as a means of communication where their function is to present meanings in their collection to a wider public in three-dimensional and accessible forms (Lumley, 1988). Consequently, this functions results in a direct relationship between context, content and spatial experience in museum’s design (Macleod, 2005).

Meaning in museum’s displays constructed symbolically and narratively told to the visitors. Indeed, museums operate symbolically whether they like it or not. Objects that displayed in museum after being treated and interpreted by the curators, tend to become symbolic and then re-interpreted by visitors. Symbolic objects in museums are objects lifted out of their use, for museum, it means that through the objects they possess their meaning is no longer limited to their use. Thus, meanings are not constant and the construction of meaning can always be undertaken again in new contexts and with new functions (Greenhill, 1992). Once objects in museums are lifted out of their use and regain their meaning behind to be deciphered, they lifted up to the level of Myth. Like example given by Julian Spalding in The Poetic Museum (2002), “A wine glass in a museum is automatically different from the wine glass in life”. We see a wine glass in the restaurant as a glass that functions as a container for liquid, but when this wine glass is displayed in museum, the meaning has changed. The wine glass in museum has a specific content attached to it differently than the same glass in the restaurant. The wine glass in museum is deciphered as an object of elegance, an object that represents the symbolic status of bourgeois society that retold again in display.

Museum contains a lot of myths, very diverse according to its theme and purposes. Museums need myth to become wanted again to visit by visitors. A strong myth representation will enhance the experiences and retold by them. The curator is the one who decides which of the collections that should be put forward and become the main attraction in exhibition. The position or the lay-out of the objects determined by the curators, in the end will determine the strength of messages that would be transfer to the visitors. From many myths inside the museum, there are several myths that have deep impact and regain more interest from visitors than the others. Like Rosetta Stone in Egypt section in British Museum, London or the installation in Jewish Museum. These myths are strong myth where they are chosen specifically to ‘occupy’ the main and central spaces of the museum rather than other myths which being considered as weak ones.

The Fallen Leaves installation in Jewish Museum Berlin by Menashe Kardishman represents myth that has very strong impact on visitors’ experience and it sends messages to our understanding of the tragic event even we are not physically in there. The iron plates cut coarsely form circular open mouth and cover the floor powerfully compliments the spatial feel of the void area. Literally, at the first level of reading it reads as sculpture or forms scattered around the floor taking form of man’s face. While these serve symbolically at the second level as an architectural expression for the massacre of Jews people in Europe, the installation evoke painful and horrible silent memory of that event. It will be read as victims that shouting out their pain, their humiliation and tears without teardrops. The iron plates will be rusted by time, and it can be read as the event that gone by the time but the memory of the pain will live forever to remember. It reminds us to contemplate in the voidness that echoes messages of the past that this tragedy in human life must never be happen again in the future. This installation has become myth sombrely in its way. The architect, Daniel Libeskind designed the void space that blends perfectly with this installation and intensify the echo of the meanings. The material, its treatment supported with thoughtful space from architect speaks out myth to the mind of visitors conveyed meanings from the content and then totality of it enhances their experience in this museum.

Newspaper

Furthermore, another example from the newspaper will be taken here to illustrate our points. Barthes says that the press photograph is a message, in his book Image, Music Text (1977: p. 17). In the pages of newspapers, there are many stories presented there complemented by photographs as well with advertisements, announcements, and so on with beautiful and colourful graphics to capture reader’s eyes. Each of the images represents their own stories and purposes. Talking about signification in the newspapers, indeed, we found the similar situation when Barthes was at the barber and handed over a copy of Paris-Match with a picture of a young Negro in a French uniform on the cover. Now, we treat the newspapers in the same method as we read city of Paris. It’s a whole ‘community’ on its own, it is an ‘urban space’ that occupied by photographs and storied (read: myths) to read and decipher. The newspaper represents a small cosmos of the society, of the world which provided spaces in its pages defining by columns and module patterns.

As we read the newspaper, there are some stories or images that capture our attention rather than others. Certainly, there are stories and images that make the reader stop overturning the pages and then read it or stories that just pass over without being read any further. A story of robbery in neighbourhood is probably less attractive than a story of murder in terms of its scandalous impact. But primarily, a big bold text with big image in front of the front page as the headline for that day news is obviously one of the immediate strong myth for the readers. It was picked by the editor to send ‘strong’ message to the readers and gets attention, publication, or ratings for the concern of the newspaper itself.

Headline is a strong myth in the newspapers. Here, I argue that strong myth can be decided by its position or most significantly by the size of its image in the newspaper’s pages according to what decided and meant by the editors. Barthes shows that in most cases, and especially in a society dominated by mass media, myth is less read than received. Mythical meanings change very rapidly with socio-historical conditions. We shall have to assign to this form a historical limit, conditions of use, and reintroduce society into it (Laver, 1982). It means that what perceives by the readers on newspaper has already influenced by the editor (as the myth creator) where the possibility of a myth to become a strong myth or weak myth depends on the decision of the editor and condition of the society at that time. As verified by Barthes in his term called ‘style of reproduction; second meaning, whose signifier is a certain ‘treatment’ of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, refers to a certain ‘culture’ of the society receiving the message’ (Heat 1977: p.17). Despite of the influential power from the editor, the image itself should contain strong meaning that speaks more than other stories. Its signification should have provided by well develop form and concept.

But after all, the readers themselves will decide which one of the news that echoes the impact more to them or meaningless. The attention paid to the images will also determine the position of those myths, whether it is a strong myth or a weak myth. As the example of myth given by Barthes in his Myth Today where he read a big July headline in France-Soir: The Fall in Prices: First Indications. Vegetables: Price drop begins. Barthes read it as it is the headline that caught his eyes at the first time he got the newspaper. Assumed that the headline was not the Fall of the Prices’ story, probably Barthes would not read it and took it as the sample in his explanation of Myth. We should ask why Barthes did not turn over the next page and find another story or another image. He might found a story of school boy more interesting than this one, but he did not. He argued in Myth Today that ‘myth essentially aims at causing an immediate impression-it does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it’ (Barthes 1957: p. 130). But in fact, consciously or not consciously, he has picked a strong myth that impressed him more than the others myths in the France-Soir’s pages. He picked the one that have a meaningful to use in his explanation. It is a strong myth that stands out from the other weak myths.

Barthes shows in his essays that the way to communicate the message on myth is more important than the objects of myth. It is pointed out by Barthes that the political insignificance of the myth comes from its situation. Myth is capable to modify its own circumstances, the system in which it occurs, in order to regulate its scope. Therefore, city planner, architect, and newspaper editor who act as myth creators have significant power influencing the process and the result of myths in the society.

Conclusion: strong myths and weak myths

Evidences discussed above have shown that strong and weak myths are much influenced by their creational situation, position, by their creator, their mythologist and by their readers. Myths are ‘politicized’ and utilized by them according to their needs in order to fulfil certain interests and purposes. Also, the answer to our question in this essay would be put emphasized or based on the impact or influential role of myth to its readers. How much it echoes the messages than the others and then how well received by the myth readers.

To sum up, strong myth and weak myth in new perspective are understood by the way their signification and meaning influencing the receiving attitude from the readers in order to gain their position in the society’s acceptance. Their impacts are as the result from the interfere of the myth creator and mythologist during the process of their creation.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies, trans. Annette Laver. London, Granada

Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath. London, Fontana/Collins

Barthes, Roland (1979) The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard. New york, Hill and Wang

De Saussure, Ferdinand (1974) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin. New York, Fontana/Collins

Greenhill, Eilean Hooper (1992) Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London: Routledge

Harris, Roy (2001) Saussure and His Interpreters. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press

Knight, Diana (1997) Barthes and Utopia Space, Travel and Writing. Oxford, Clarendon Press

Lavers, Annette (1982) Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. London, Methuen

Leach, Neil (1997) Rethinking Architecture: a reading in cultural theory. London, Routledge

Lumley, Robert (ed.), (1988) The Museum time-Machine. London, Routledge

Macleod, Sharon and Fyfe, Macdonald (ed.), (1996) Theorizing Museums. Oxford, Blackwell

Moriarty, Michael (1991) Roland Barthes. Cambridge, Polity

Spalding, Julian (2002) The Poetic Museum. London, Prestel


[1] According to Saussure, every language is a complete system of signs (Harris and Taylor, 1997). In that system, as explain by Saussure there are three units that construct it which are Signifier, Signified and Sign. Signifier means the thing that carrying the meaning. It is the acoustic image which is mental. Further, signified is the concept that is conveyed or commonly referred as meaning and lastly, the sign is the relation between image and concept. In other word, the signifier and the signified are the components of the sign.

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