In “Myth today,” Barthes’ methodological supplement to his series of decoding essays on quotidien life in 1950s France, Barthes tells us that he the “myths” he analyzes are products of language – of what he calls a peculiar “theft” of language – and are not contents. Unlike the usual study of myth, which proceeds from fictions like the God of the Sea or unicorns, Barthes view is that myth names a procedure. “Myth is not defined by the object of its method, but by the fashion with which it offers it.”
This linguistic fashion or mode leads Barthes to make some great generalizing remarks, in order to establish the semiotic norm within which myth is found. Myth, according to Barthes, always operates on the level of tokens (valant pour) rather than types. Within the system of tokens, “myth is a particular system in that it constructs itself in deriving itself from a semiological chain that pre-exists it.” To understand how this works, Barthes borrows an example from Paul Valery. Suppose that you, like Valery, are a fifth grader and you are learning Latin. You open your Latin book and you find an illustration of a lion and under it the phrase, quia ego nominor leo. This means, For me, I am called a lion. What is the real meaning of this? It is not that you are meant to think, this lion is saying he is called a lion. Rather, you are meant to think, this is how a subject accords with its object grammatically. Though the presence of the signified – the lion being called a lion – exists, haunts, the example, that primary meaning is subsumed in the larger meaning, which is implied in the entire situation that involves Latin class, the student, the book, and the illustration.
“On the plane of language, I will call the final term of the first system, the signifier, the sense… on the plane of myth, I will call it the form.”
This distinction doesn’t specify what is special about myth, but simply puts it in the set of such exemplifying gestures. Myth does have a property that distinguishes it, which is the way it empties or deforms the sense – in this way, it performs a “theft of language”. The theft of language – or the theft of the signifier – is what myth does. Although it can’t do without the signifier, which operates as a constant variable, it can also not do with returning to the signifier – for that means demythifying. This is the second of the three different types of reading of myth. The first does make the logical move from the sense to the example. This, for Barthes, is a cynical moment in the rational production and use of myth – it is the p.r. man’s gig. The third reading is simply to fall for the whole thing, to respond to its dynamic, to understand its non-presence as presence.
This semiological reading of myth, in Barthes, is associated with, but not entirely implicated by, his ideological reading. In this reading, what characterises all myth is that “the mission of myth is to ground a historic intention in nature, a contingency in eternity. For this gesture is that of bourgeois ideology itself.”
This is Barthes great theme, however much he turns to different ways of wrestling with it.