Project 3-3: Myth is a Type of Speech

Read ‘Myth Today’ by Roland Barthes on pps. 51-58 of the course reader and make notes before considering the following questions:

Look up who Minou Drouet was. Why does Barthes cite her?

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy/poet famous in France at the same time as Barthes was writing ‘Myth Today’. Her collection of poems ‘Abre, mon ami’ (Tree, my friend) sold 45 000 copies on publication and attracted controversy with Drouet’s mother being accused of being the true author. This was overcome with the eight year old Drouet writing poems before witnesses – the month after the publication of ‘Abre, mon ami’ Drouet agreed to write a poem on the subject of “Paris Sky” and gained admission to France’s society of authors, composers and music publishers.

In ‘Myth Today’ Barthes states:

“A tree is a tree. Yes of course. But a tree as expressed by Minou Drouet is no longer quite a tree, it is a tree that is decorated, adapted to a certain type of consumption, laden with literary self-indulgence, revolt, images, in short with a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

On one level, Barthes is describing how the signified of a tree is transformed by the poetic language – which is how it “is no longer quite a tree”. Barthes is clearly not enamoured by the poetic language used by Drouet, and with terms like “consumption”, “self-indulgence” and “social usage” it appears his objections are on an ideological rather than artistic level. The argument here is his entire thesis about myths in microcosm – the natural form of the tree is transformed into something other by the application of myth: “a type of social usage which is added to pure matter.”

The choice of Minou Drouet by Barthes to illustrate this point is an interesting one – although her story and the controversy around it was certainly prominent at the time of writing, surely there are other examples that would more strongly emphasise Barthes point? Perhaps the age of Drouet is significant and Barthes is hinting at another myth – that of the artist as genius, that greatness is something inherent in a very few, select individuals. From Barthes seeming disdain for Drouet’s artistry he is definitely at odds with the those that have designated her poems as being great which shows another myth of how the quality of a piece of art is evident in the piece itself when this is clearly decided by a select group of elite taste makers.

Think about his reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble. Can you think of a couple of examples of elements within images that you know that signify passions, emotions or even other objects or events?

Barthes argues that a bunch of roses can signify passion, however, combined together this signifier and signified result in the sign of passionified roses. The roses cannot be disassociated with the message they carry, the rose as signifier cannot be confused with the rose as sign “the signifier is empty, the sign is full, it is meaning.” The term ’empty signifier’ refers to a signifier where meaning is vague or unspecified. They can be interpreted in different ways, and can even mean what their interpreters want them to mean. (Chandler: 250)

The importance of context in enabling meaning to be read is emphasised with the example of a black pebble which can have multiple meanings: it can be “a mere signifier” or it can be weighed with a definite signified, for example, a death sentence in an anonymous vote makes it become a sign.

The question posed here is more difficult than it first seems and I struggled to arrive at concrete examples as there are so many possiblities. Also, as Barthes points out in his analysis, while there can be a preferred way of reading an image, meaning is also multiple.

The colour of the two examples given by Barthes are significant in our reading of their meaning: red – passion, black – death. This led me to start thinking about how colour can signify meaning and then how this can be read in multiple ways depending on context. Possible meanings for red and black are:

Red:

passion – as demonstrated in Barthes example of roses

Danger – for example warning signage

Stop – on traffic lights

Socialism – the red flag

Anger – ‘seeing red’

Black:

Elegance – little black dress

Death – traditional clothing for funerals

Depression – ‘dark mood’

Illegality – black market

Night – darkness

Barthes myth changes the real into an ideological statement. For example Soviet Socialist Realist painting (see Portrait of Stakhanov by Leonard Kotliarov, 1938.) Find other examples.

Portrait of Stakhanov (1938) by Leonard Kotliarov (here) is a painting in the Soviet Socialist Realist style which depicts miner Aleksei Stakhanov underground and working at the coal face. Socialist Realism was borne out of the idea that art should advance the ideological cause of the Soviet Union and was characterised by the heroic depiction of labour and glorification of the communist party. The style of the art needed to be realistic as it focused on familiar aspects of daily life and needed to be relevant and comprehensible to the proletariat. Stakhanov became famous in 1935 when he hewed 102 tonnes of coal during his six hour shift – 14 times his quota which was declared a world record by Pravda. Stakhanov was used as a symbol of Soviet propaganda to stimulate workers to produce and encourage both competition between workers and promote a particular way of both working and living.

An interesting counterpoint to Socialist Realism is the Farm Security Administration documentary photography project during the depression in the USA. Clearly, the Kotliarov painting has ideological intent and is a calculated form of Soviet myth making, but I would argue the FSA project has the same intent. Because the images are photographs rather than paintings we (falsely) imbue them with a greater sense of reality, but these images are just as constructed with the aim of giving a very specific narrative about the great depression, the poor people caught up in it and their attempts to look for a better future. Take for example ‘Migrant Mother’ (here) by Dorothea Lange, an image celebrated as a classic example of documentary photography. Rather than being a portrait about a specific person (in fact, the identity and name of the woman in the picture was not known) the photograph is a representation of motherhood and poverty in general with the intent of showing dignity in the face of adversity while being aimed at people completely removed from the reality that the woman depicted and her family face.

 

Think carefully about the passage on meaning and form. “The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning.” Annotate an artwork of your choice to illustrate your thoughts on this passage.

Barthes presents a thesis for two semiological systems, language and myth. The linguistic system consists of signifier, signified and sign while the mythical system is a meta-language, staggered in relation to this so the signifier on the plane of myth is the sign in the system of language. Barthes gives the following visual representation to illustrate his ideas:

Myth schema

The following definitions are used to distinguish terms in each system:

Meaning – the signifier on the 1st system/plane of language – works on the level of denotation.

Form – signifier on the plane of myth (also sign on the plane of language.) Works on the level of connotation.

Concept – the correlation of these two terms, the signified on the plane of myth with which no ambiguity is possible.

For the mythical signifier form is empty but present; meaning is absent but full. Barthes demonstrates this seeming contradiction with the example of viewing the landscape through the glass pane of a car window. Our view alternates between awareness of the glass window and the scenery beyond meaning that the glass is both present and empty and the landscape both unreal and full.

The function of myth is to empty reality, to state facts without explanation, it is natural and is ‘what goes without saying.’ By passing from history to nature the need for complexity is removed , myth appears to organise the contradictions of the world without depth, there is a blissful clarity which enables things to appear to mean something by themselves.

I have chosen a photograph by Chris Killip, Youth on wall, Jarrow, Tyneside (here) to illustrate the Barthes statement.

 

Analysis on the level of meaning – that is the first semiological plane of language: a black and white photograph of a young man, possibly in his late teens sat on a brick wall. The youth is viewed from the side, his knees brought tightly up against his chest met by his forearms and tightly clenched fist. His hand rests on his forehead, his eyes are  tightly shut. His hair is shaved very short, his clothes look old, possibly second hand, a jacket, the stripe of a jumper can be just made out, baggy trousers, thick work socks and boots which seem large in comparison to him. A number of clues exist in the picture which help us read what is happening: together the clothing suggests a working class background for the youth, the condition of the clothes could indicate poverty, the brick of the wall and in the background could indicate an industrial area, the body language of the youth indicates he is in some distress or angry.

On the level of myth we are encouraged to build a narrative for the youth, his life and prospects. The image as a whole can be read as a critique of the decline of industry in the north of England and the lack of hope and poverty that is a consequence. Vallely (2012) states that this image has been wrongly used to illustrate the destructive impact of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies – wrongly because the picture was taken in 1976, 3 years before Thatcher became Prime Minister.

Thoughts…

I find the concept of myth fascinating, ‘Myth Today’ is a slippery piece to get to grips with however. Writing up this project I feel like I know what I want to say yet cannot articulate it – the examples in the essay help make sense of the piece as a whole but I seem to tie myself up in knots the more I go back to it. I also find it interesting that Barthes rails against the way myth perpetuates bourgeois ideology when he himself sees only what he wants to. The examples I have chosen I think illustrate how the left can distort the truth through myth as easily as the right.

Bibliography:

Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Crow, D. (2010) Visible signs: An introduction to semiotics in the visual arts (2nd edition) Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Gottlieb, R (2006) A lost Child. The New Yorker, November 2006. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/06/a-lost-child [accessed May 2016]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Mavor, C (2010) Tragic Candy. Cabinet magazine, issue 40. Available at http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/40/mavor.php [accessed May 2016]

Siegelbaum, L. (2015) Year of the Stakhanovite. Available at: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/year-of-the-stakhanovite/ [Accessed May 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vallely, P. (2012) Still lives: Chris Killips’s images of Northern working life chronicle and define a bygone era. The Independent, 17th March 2012. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/still-lives-chris-killips-images-of-northern-working-life-chronicle-and-define-a-bygone-era-7566796.html [accessed May 2016]

 

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Project 1-2: Fetishising the Object of Your Eye

This project asks us to read articles by Sigmund Freud, ‘Fetishism’, and Otto Fenichel, ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’, before responding to a number of questions about the way we formalise looking and the customs, manners and taboos associated with this. The articles are written from a psychoanalytical viewpoint and are quite alien in language and tone to anything I have read before and am used to reading. Initially I felt adverse to the suggestions in both articles as the ideas they contained are not ones I particularly agree with. For example, although Freud’s idea of castration fear and the Oedipus complex are notions I am familiar with (albeit from an absorbed rather than studied perspective) they are not concepts I have given much thought to as my initial was that they seem quite ridiculous. To try and counteract my initial rejection of the articles I decided to do some background reading and allow myself some ‘soak time’ to take in the ideas presented.

Unlike the previous project, the questions posed for this exercise are not directly related to the text – I kept coming back to the articles in the hope that they would illuminate me on the answers needed but found they did not. I came to the conclusion that the point of the project is to prime my own thoughts about looking and that I should respond in a personal way using the articles as background. The key hint to this is a note on how to approach the texts, note…questions that arise in your mind as you are reading. You may not find the answer to these questions for some time, if ever, but the act of asking them and noting them down is vital to your eventual understanding.” It seems to be that thinking about how we look and see (and understand) is key to understanding visual culture – not just for the course but for always.

 How does what you have read help your understanding of why and how we look at things in a ritualised way – for instance going to an art gallery?

 Likening a gallery visit to a ritual is both appropriate to the course and accurate. In my experience there is almost always a feeling of reverence when visiting a gallery, the viewers are often solemn and serious viewing the work in silence, the experience can be likened to being in church or a library. Most visitors tend to follow the path that the work is set out and view the pieces in order. Often (I am certainly guilty of this) more time is given to reading accompanying text rather than looking at the work itself. I often feel tension when looking at a piece alongside someone else – are you invading their space? What do they think of you? Are they judging your knowledge or appreciation of the work? How long should you remain in front of the artwork before moving? The mere act of placing artwork or an object into a gallery setting elevates its status, although it may not be obvious as to whether the work is deserving or not.

Art is often collected and deemed to be of great value. Seeing artwork in a gallery setting is quite different to looking in a book or online, the object itself can have an effect on the viewer. Also, appreciation of art needs time and experience; the more art is studied the more able the student is to appreciate what they are looking at – I know this to be true from personal experience.

Thinking about an individuals motivation for viewing art and visiting a gallery led me to consider how this related to Freud’s idea of a fetish. For Freud, a fetish is deeply tied to sexual satisfaction which seems to me a little extreme, however, by thinking more along the lines of deriving pleasure from looking the idea begins to make more sense. If we take as true the notion that art appreciation increases the more art we look at then it would follow that we gain pleasure from this increased knowledge.

 Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

 For Fenichel, staring at someone is a sadistic act. He uses the examples of a magician hypnotising through a look and a snake fixing an animal in its gaze before devouring it as well as citing the idea that when we look closely at something we “devour” it with our eyes. He states that the eye plays a double part: actively sadistic – the person who looks putting a spell on the other, and, passively receptive – the person who looks back is fascinated by what they see. He sees the fixed gaze or stare as being linked to libidinal looking and sexual fore pleasure in adults.

As I read the Fenichel article I thought about ideas such as –

  • Love at first sight (‘their eyes met across the room’, has connotations of being welcome and mutual.)
  • Lecherous behaviour – for example the dirty old man deriving pleasure by looking at young girls (unwelcome, invasive.)
  • Eyes being the window to the soul – the idea that some inner truth can be gleaned through looking directly into someone’s eyes.
  • Voyeurism – which has connotations of deriving pleasure from looking and not being seen by the person you are looking at, more acceptably could be termed ‘people watching’ where others behaviour is observed.

I also noted the question ‘is all looking really sexual’ to which my initial reaction would be no unless you substitute sexual for pleasure.

The articles do not consider the idea of exhibitionism, that is that people actively want to be seen. A number of examples of this common in modern life would be –

  • Fashion, that is wearing clothes that give clues to your inner being or deliberately wearing provocative or revealing attire to attract attention.
  • Tattoos – which have become socially acceptable, even welcome in modern times and are often shown off for all to see. Also, piercings.
  • Sharing photographs – social media makes this phenomenon commonplace and allows us to show our ‘friends’ and the wider world what we are doing at all times no matter how banal.

Another thought I was struck by that confirms the idea that looking can be unwelcome and even dangerous is the idea that conflict can result from looking at someone ‘the wrong way.’ Often there can be talk of someone being looked ‘up and down’ and when referred to suggests an act of aggression or judgement.

Thinking about this question led me to remember Steve McQueen’s 2011 ‘Shame.’ The film’s main protagonist Brandon is a sex addict and the way looking with libidinal intent is explored throughout the film. One of my favourite scenes takes place on a subway train, there is no dialogue but we watch as Brandon’s eyes meet with an attractive female stranger across the carriage. At first his gaze is returned and we sense a feeling of flattery from the woman, their look is maintained and you can sense she is enjoying the attention and harmless flirtation. Things change however when she realises that Brandon has serious intentions due to his unwillingness to unlock his gaze, his expression is one of intent. She turns away and leaves the carriage, she seems shamed by her temptation, we see her wedding ring as she holds the trains rail waiting for it to stop at the next station. At the very end of the film we see the same woman again on the train, this time she is the one initiating eye contact with Brandon, the roles are reversed and it is noticeable that she is not wearing her wedding ring.

 Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for  some  people’s  need  to avidly watch television?

 I am not sure ‘avidly watch’ is an accurate description of how most people watch television. It can often be a passive activity, ‘veg out in front of the telly’ is a common phrase. An important consideration is shared experience, thoughts about watching the same programmes can be recounted with friends and colleagues and gives something to talk about. The most popular (in terms of number of viewers) television programmes in the UK remain soap operas which are broadly heightened, recognisable scenarios which suggests the majority of people are looking for something they can identify with in the programmes they watch. Soaps also rely on the familiar and established, long running characters which could mean that viewers become invested in what is happening due to the time (sometimes years) they have spent regularly viewing. This would again suggest a passive approach. The increase in reality TV is also significant as it is now well established that programme makers choose characters to be involved based on how they think they will interact (or more importantly become at odds with each other and cause conflict.) The attraction becomes witnessing extreme behaviour from the safety of the sofa (see also Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle)

 What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others’? (An example might be a city-dweller who collects landscape paintings  to ‘replace’ real countryside.)

 The example given about a city dweller replacing the real countryside with a landscape painting is not one I readily recognise, in fact, the whole notion of a fetish being the replacement for something that is missing is not one that I agree with. When researching ‘fetish’ I came across the Marxist idea of ‘commodity fetish’ and this immediately struck more of a chord with me than the psychoanalytical definitions I had been reading about up until then. Marx believed that there is a magical power in inanimate objects and their fetishisation explains the allure of money, property and ownership under capitalism. By extension everything, including sexuality can be commodified – in fact, the lure of the erotic is often used to sell items – fetishised images of what is desirable. I find it interesting that although Marx and Freud were writing at similar times it is Marx’s ideas which resonate with me rather than Freud’s. Perhaps this is because in the modern capitalist age we now live Marx’s concept of fetishisation of commodities seems more relevant than ever, or maybe it is because this is a more easily accessible theory rather than Freud’s, particularly because Freud’s Fetish theory is from a purely male point of view.

In the modern world the term fetish is closely associated with sexual activity, for example rubber and leather fetishes. Interestingly, Freud mentions fetishes for feet and shoes which I am sure a great number of people would mention as typical fetishes if asked. It seems to me that collecting objects is a modern fetish that is both tied to Freud and Marx, the objects we collect provide status (we show them off) as well as being a form of exhibitionism. Certainly I am guilty of trying to acquire large collections – a recent, relevant example would be buying books for this course, I actively had to stop myself from purchasing more, I was confusing completing coursework with simply buying books.

 Why are people often so keen to display wedding photos or family portraits?

 Wedding and family photographs represent us at our best and happiest – I would imagine the main motivation for displaying them in our homes is to show ourselves off to visitors. This would be a form of exhibitionism that even the most reserved people could indulge in. Nowadays it is more likely that people would predominately use social networking such as Facebook to share images of themselves and what they are up to. Sometimes it seems to me that people are more concerned with their virtual rather than real life because of the amount of time they spend taking photographs and videos rather than living in the moment. It seems that social affirmation is a major motivating factor for a large amount of people.

Photography is also deeply linked with memory, remembering an important, happy time such as a wedding or our families in the idealised presentation of a professional studio photograph is probably a major motivating factor. I am reminded of Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’ which in part is a meditation on photography and loss, much of the piece is about Barthes trying to find the ‘essence’ of his recently passed mother through photographs he has of her. He discovers that finding a satisfactory image is elusive except for one particular picture taken when she was a young woman, the Winter Garden photograph.

Thoughts….

 Unlike the first project, I find myself more confused and less sure of the responses I have given here. Because the questions posed do not directly relate to the articles I have found it difficult to find a way in to the project. My approach of doing further reading has furthered my personal knowledge (particularly in regard to Freud’s biography) but did not give me that eureka moment when everything came into focus. I know that some of the answers (or at least the catalysts for them) will be found on my book shelf but I realised that finding them at this point would take a great deal of time, which being a precious resource, led me to decide that I needed to put my thoughts down and move on. When I started making personal responses to the questions I found the writing flowed more freely, on reflection though I should have trusted my instincts more and jotted down bullet points in response to the  questions posed. In short, I would approach this project quite differently if I was able to do it again from a blank perspective.

It seems to me that this exercise being placed so early in the course is no accident. The ideas presented are quite alien and require a shift out of our comfort zones to confront. This has forced me to reflect and engage on my study methods more and how to balance what we are told to read with further personal study and my own preconceived knowledge and ideas.

 Keywords and concepts for research:

 Scoptophilic, libidinal, Ego/non ego, fetish, vicissitude, scotomized, somnambulism, myopia, somatic.

Further research:

 Otto Fenichel, Sigmund Freud, phenomenology, Martin Heidegger (‘Being and Time’), Edmund Hursel, Satre (Being and Nothingness), De Beauvoir, Derrida.

References:

 Barthes, R. (2009) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

 pp.324-326: ‘Fetishism’ Sigmund Freud

 pp.327-329: ‘The Scoptophilic Instinct and Identification’ Otto Fenichel

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London:  Penguin.

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Polity Press

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.