MYTH TODAY

In his essay "Myth Today," the semiologist Roland Barthes presents his view of myth as a "second-order semiological system." What Barthes intends by this conception of mythology is an intermingling of the signifier and signified, or form and meaning, into a "mode of signification" -- myth.

Barthes argued that "since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message...Everything, then, can be a myth? Yes, I believe this..." (109). What does Barthes mean by a "second-order semiological system?" He answers immediately: "that which is a sign (namely the associative totality of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second" (114).

One of the peculiarities of myth understood like this is that it is not only constructed from a semiological chain, it contributes to such chains of meaning, in which a meaning at one stage of the chain is hollowed, or emptied out, in the ensuing stage so that it might be turned to work as a signifier of yet another meaning system. Again, this is the danger of a second-order semiological system. It cannot give a full interpretation of the image being used, but rather demands a partial and one-sided translation of that meaning system. Hence, to Barthes myth is seen as a distortion of history, a metalanguage that can give the image of a whole without any explanation as to its roots, formation or mystification. Myth is seen as the appropriation of an historical image that survives in gesture as a mode of signification, rather than as a shared memory.