Week 3: Representation and Myth

saluting-flag-barthes

To start with, I’m going to go over Stuart Hall’s basic semiotic definitions. Bear in mind that these kinds of introductory explanations only ever fulfil a rudimentary role – that is, of opening-up or setting-in-motion more complex ideas about language, discourse, representation and identity. There is no single or simple definition, or even a set of definitions, that we can refer to generally. You will have noticed that the mode of inquiry of this class is to be constantly re-defining things, shifting meanings slightly, complicating ideas and interrogating preconceptions. Its endless work! For the sake of this week’s massive class discussion, let’s start with Hall’s basic explanation and work our way into Barthes.

Hall speaks about ‘representation’ as a central practice that produces culture. Culture, as we have now heard several times, is about ‘shared meanings,’ and language is the medium in which these meanings are produced and exchanged. The production and exchange of meanings occurs when language is used to negotiate an understanding of the world. In other words, we make meaning when we engage with our world, we exchange meaning when we engage with others in the world, and these processes of making/exchanging meaning through language is how we contribute to our cultural milieux.

Language, says Hall, “operates as a representational system” (1). Signs and symbols (eg text, a photographic image, a facial expression, a song) are used to represent (literally, re-present) ideas. This idea-exchange is happening constantly and has effect on every aspect of our lives. Cultural meanings “organise and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects” (3).

In semiotics, the idea is that things in themselves rarely have a single, unfixed or unchanging meaning. Meaning is something that is ‘given’ to a thing. Remember Hall’s example of a stone: the stone might be a boundary marker, or a piece of sculpture. To see the stone as a sculpture would be to give the stone a particular meaning as an artistic object with an aesthetic/compositional purpose. The stone would represent an idea of a sculptural artwork. Hall suggests that the practice of ‘giving’ meaning to things is key to culture. We give certain meanings to certain things and our relationship to those meanings, our engagement with them, is ‘culture’.

The meanings we give to things are not arbitrary – they say something about who we are and how we identify as cultural subjects. When a meat-eater looks at a steak, they might see the steak as a delicious meal or a nutritional unit of protein or a Sunday night ritual with their best mate at the pub. When a vegan looks at a steak, they might see the steak as a symbol of animal cruelty, as a representation of ecologically suspect land practice, or as a cute calf gambolling in a paddock. These different meaningful ways of engaging with a piece of steak represent different identities – an identity of ‘being’ a meat-eater and an identity of ‘being’ a vegan. Vegans share an identity that will look at steak in a certain set of ways. This identity marks a vegan as different from a meat-eater, and this difference becomes a key part of what defines the cultural particularity of ‘being’ vegan. ‘Markers of difference’ are evident in any cultural or subcultural identity.

“[T]he question of meaning arises in relation to all the different moments or practices in our ‘cultural circuit’ – in the construction of identity and the marking of difference, in production and consumption, as well as in the regulation of social conduct” (4).

So it is through language that cultural engagement occurs and meaning is shared and identity is represented. How? Language is a collaborative practice; it is a dialogue. Something is represented and something is understood. And yet, there are all manner of confusions, interruptions, misunderstandings and deviations that can occur in this collaboration, so we must always acknowledge straight away that ‘meaning’ is only ever partially transferred in language and that language is a representational system fraught with infinite possibilities and potentialities.

“Language,” says Hall, “provides one general model of how culture and representation work, especially in what has come to be known as the semiotic approach – semiotics being the study or ‘science of signs’ and their general role as vehicles of meaning in culture” (6). Hall makes a distinction between this semiotic approach and what is known as a ‘discursive’ approach to language analysis. The discursive approach is concerned more with the effects and consequences (the politics) of meaningful representation rather than how the meanings are produced initially (the poetics). Contemporary theory, moving away from more classic, straight-up semiotics and into poststructuralism, is concerned with an analysis that looks both semiotically and discursively at language. In other words, we want you to be critical thinkers with an awareness of both the ‘how’ and ‘what now?’ of language use, at the poetics and the politics of meaningful exchange, at the representation and its effects on cultural practice.

Now onto Barthes and the myth. For the sake of space, I am only going to look at the long Barthes reading in this piece of writing. So here goes:

We talked in class about the relationship, in semiotics, between the signifier, the signified and the sign. Let’s take the roses as an example again. The signifier is a bunch of flowers, twelve red roses. The signified is my desire for my lover. The sign is the dynamic interaction of signifier and signified – the romantic ritual of gifting a dozen roses. My lover understands this sign as the ‘representation’ of my desire. He engages accordingly.

OK: now to the myth. The myth is a language act in which the signifier is already a sign. It is known sign, a repeated trope or image that carries a certain cultural meaning. Let’s take a local example of the lifesaver. The lifesaver has long been an Australian myth. This is not to say that lifesavers do not ‘actually’ exist, of course this is not the case. But ‘the’ lifesaver, that is, the iconic or mythic representation of the lifesaver-as-national-idea is a powerful symbol that can play a persuasive role in sending a message about Australian nationalism. The lifesaver comes to represent a kind of national hero, typifying the good, the noble and the selfless of the ‘Australian character’. It naturalises a historical phenomenon, which is the central aim of the myth, according to Barthes: lifesavers became important in Australian culture when the beach became a tourist and leisure attraction. That is the ‘historical’ beginnings of lifesavers. But the myth suggests that the lifesaver is much more than simply a historical subject of Australian beach culture: the myth suggests that the lifesaver is a ‘natural’ or inherent character of Australianness. The lifesaver has powerful cultural currency because it is a myth attached to notions of safety and ‘goodness’.

We can see that the myth of the lifesaver became a powerful tool of the media in its reportage of the Cronulla riots. Rather than specific violence between specific people, the events were commonly referred to in media commentary as an attack on this notion of ‘Australianness’, because of the unthinkable violence towards the lifesaver. In many cases it was not the lifesaver as an individual whose victimhood was discussed, but the very idea of the lifesaver. Note also how this plays into a discourse of fear — those who protect and serve are under threat, therefore nothing is safe.

Does this make sense?

Now another example. Remember that it is easy in a modern, secular consumer-capitalist society (ie, ‘our’ culture) to assume that ‘myth’ only applies to rituals and rites of the ancient, religious or ‘primitive’. In fact, our culture relies on the myth just as much as any religion or ancient culture ever has. A commodity, for example, relies on myth, which in turn relies on the ‘naturalisation’ of desire, to sell. When you engage with a piece of advertising, often the myth (eg, that shoes will result in amazing sex) is immediately obvious. Yet it is still powerful, because it is a myth that plays with desire and longing, it repeats a certain understood sign of wealth, power and beauty that has currency in our consumer economy. In Barthian terms, the myth naturalises the historical circumstances of consumer capitalism so that commodity fetishism is considered a normal ‘fact’ of life.

OK. That’s enough for now. Discuss!

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22 Responses to “Week 3: Representation and Myth”

  1. Nikki Says:

    OMG WTF!

  2. Rebecca Says:

    Thankyou!
    This really helped to clarify what we spoke about today.

  3. Kelly Says:

    Thank-you for the summary. The example of the lifesaver really cemented the idea of the myth for me. I didn’t really understand much of the Steve Irwin example in the tutorial, but now with this summary and hindsight, it all makes a bit more sense.

  4. Ellyn Says:

    oooooooooooooooooooooo
    i get it now 🙂
    thanks

  5. Catherine Says:

    I understood the concepts of semotics and shared meanings after the tute, but as Kelly said, the lifesaver example was very clear. I now understand the ‘myth’ idea… I connect with the idea that it is a known sign, a repeated image that carries a certain shared cultural meaning. Woo hoo!

  6. textandcontext09 Says:

    Yay!

  7. Gabrielle Says:

    I concur with the above statements 😀
    Thanks HEAPS for this!!

  8. fred Says:

    if only i had you as a teacher in 1st year asti! clear unpacking of difficult concepts, not at the expense of their complexity. nice one!

  9. Maru Maru! Says:

    First thing’s first, thanks for clarifying what the discursive form of analysis was, I was reading through my notes and remember all this talk about semiotics and I had like 4 lines on this discursive stuff that was all greek to me!

    But as I see it now, the relation between semiotic and discursive is a rather circular one. The semiotics as you say is the ‘how’ and we find that semiotics is the base for meaning; it makes sense logically, after all society is a far cry from stagnant, where there is a certain mobility connected to meaning, that is society influences meaning and in return meaning influences society. Discursive analysis (not really sure yet how to use this word correctly in a sentence? O_O) relates to this pattern in which language, knowledge and meaning hold true to the permeable and unstable ‘place’ it holds in humanity. The practice of culture being one of cause and effect. Discursive leading to the consequential aspect of culture in practice.

    The idea of ‘myth’ to me really solidified in the lecture when Katrina mentioned it was a ‘2nd’ round of meaning, a sign turned into a signifier, and hence becomes a ‘double-up’ of meaning. But the lifeguard example was particularly clear, hoorah for simplicity!

    So that’s my 2 cents, nowhere near as succinct or well expressed, but oh well!

  10. Louisa Says:

    Last week i was still pretty confused by the use of language and culture and its link but this week thankfully it all clicked.

    This week i was completely stumped by the readings but the lecture and the tute really gave good examples that explained it alot better and i think i understand it all. Maybe. Well at least more than before.

    Thanks for the blog entry!!! Pretty epic.

  11. Josiah Says:

    hi fred

  12. Courtney Says:

    Thanks for the great summary. I have leapt from that mystical cliff of confusion and into the sea of understanding.
    (Hope that wasn’t too corny…)
    Hahaha, Fred made an appearance, hi Fred.

  13. Dahlia Says:

    Ooohhh …. it gets interesting every week .. to think that I was kinda obsessed with Freud when I was first introduced to him (no, not a freak but could be warped sometimes .. LOL!).

    Anyway, It’s truly very simple for me, it’s basically how “we put meaning onto anything’ and how different interpretations could arise from this one “anything”. Introduce the different school of thoughts to “young unblemished” minds like us – we realised how meanings is no longer meanings as we know it … usually direct meaning.

    Imagine myth without motive, imagine just having straight conversations (although at times, this is probably the best option) – how dull would that be … our minds would not be challenged.

    Today’s Understanding Communication’s lecture binds with what we learnt on this topic. It made even better sense as the definition gets simpler somehow. I get it but my main worry is if I could articulate it well on paper … eeekkk!!

    By the way, Hi Fred …

  14. Maru Says:

    haha dahlia, i have rather large amount of anxiety when it comes to being able to express all this in my writing, so you’re definitely not alone Dahlia! hehe

  15. Emma Says:

    okay.
    pretty sure i have this now. it was just the concept of myth, actually more of how a myth is created was what i was struggling with, but now i think i’ve damn got it!
    I’ll just need to read the myth reading again and it should be all nice and solidified.
    It’s so much easy when it’s written in plain words and examples of things i’ve got a connection with!
    Thanks.

  16. jacob Says:

    thanks astrid!
    very helpful.
    can you summarise our language&discourse readings as well?
    i suppose the most daunting part now is how do i use this information.
    thanks again
    j

  17. Lara Says:

    Ok it’s safe to say that the reading on all this couldn’t have confused me more..would it have killed them to have TRIED to explain it like this?! it’s all making a lot more sense now.
    Thanks!

  18. kickknees Says:

    “Let’s take the roses as an example again.”

    again! astrid tells me that the person in class she used as her “rhetorical” lover in this example was somewhat embarrassed. well in solidarity with that person let me just say that after having been astrid’s actual (& rhetorical) lover for 4 years i have never once bought her roses (i have however, picked many a bunch of jasmine from the street). we’ve never bought each other a valentine’s day present either, i guess we find the whole consumerist exploitation of love to be corrupt, or perhaps we’d just prefer to spend money on beer and books. does this make us a non-traditional couple? lesbian vegans? sports jocks?

    i note also that everyone is saying hi to fred. this is odd because i just said goodbye to him as he walked out the door and drove home to his farm. he’s a farm boy, runs away when it gets overcast in the city. bye fred, you fat hobbit!

    great post asti, but can’t you simplify the argument into an algorithm, something like: L=0+V/E – Y/O=U

  19. Peter Says:

    That really helped me with the Barthes reading. One thousand thank yous.

  20. Tim Says:

    …I just wrote a really long post ranting about Barthes… a really epic vent… and I forgot to put my email in, so it didn’t post and was deleted… and I totally can’t be bothered to retype….

    Trust me on this one, though. It was epic. Almost as epic as Astrid’s phenomenonly helpful post.

    Shame you guys had to miss out.

    That must suck 😦

    See you all tomorrow!

    Tim.

  21. Rosie Says:

    Astrid!

    You are the queen of summarising. I think I got more from this than I did from the whole lecture/readings/class/my brain etc. I think to write more now would ruin the fragile balance of understanding I’ve got going so I’ll just say thank you…

    Rosie

  22. Isabel Says:

    THANK YOU! This just confirms everything and i dont feel like my head is spinning haha!

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