A modern myth is a cultural phenomenon, which has a mythological nature and originates from the scientific and rational society. The modern myth relates to the processes of demythologization, a strategy of interpreting myth as significant and autonomous. It includes valuable experience and universal cultural principles. The mythological character involves not just the transmission of information in the form of a specific message. The symbol also implies a depth of content, including a plurality of meaning levels. The symbol conveys information not explicitly, so intellectual effort or intuition are required to decrypt it. The intuition is even more conducive for decoding symbols as the interpretations of the mythological character occur with the participation of the unconscious.
The scientists and philosophers strived to explain the notion of “myth” and forms in which it exists in contemporary world. One of these people was Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, critic and theoretician of semiotics. He was one of the French “new critics” and a representative of structuralism since he opposed the traditional literary criticism in his early works. One of the scientist’s major works focuses on the definition of “myth.” This paper aims to discuss his definition of the term and illustrate examples of contemporary myth.
Definition of Myth
One of the main problems developed by Roland Barthes was the relationship of language and power. Language is a key channel of socialization, on the one hand, and a structure with syntax and grammar, which is called to carry a certain imperious message, on the other hand. Based on this approach, an uncommon interpretation of the myth concept was made.
For Barthes, myth is a special communicative system that conveys a specific message. The message is what the philosopher defines as a set of connotative means forming a latent or hidden ideological level of discourse. The meaning and direction of the myth are twofold. On the one hand, are aimed to change reality or, better to say, create the image of reality, which would coincide with the value expectations of mythological consciousness carriers. On the other hand, it is extremely concerned about concealment, for example, ideology. Barthes emphasizes that myth is not a vestige of archaic consciousness but a huge part of modern culture, which realizes itself in advertising, cinema, and television these days.
The problem of myth and its functioning in the culture has a special place in the works of Roland Barthes. According to Barthes, all cultural phenomena and forms of communication are encoded in the sign systems, which are the product of mythological activity. Any significant cultural phenomenon is a speech utterance, discourse as well as a carrier of the mythical message. Apparently, the scientist approaches the problem of the origin and essence of the myth in terms of connotative semiology, which studies sign systems of social practice and its latent meanings that cannot be understood directly but require decoding or “reading” (Roth).
Roland Barthes treats myth as a semiological system. He applies a well-known Saussure’s model of the sign, according to which a sign contains three basic elements: the signifier, the signified, and the sign itself, as the association of the other two (Brody). According to the scientist, the myth is also a three-element system but a secondary one, based on the first language or a target language system (Barthes). Barthes refers to this secondary semiological system as a “meta-language” because it is a secondary language, which informs about the first one. He stresses that it can be viewed from two perspectives: as an element of the first linguistic system and as the source element of the mythological system. Signified mythological system receives the name of the concept as it represents the value of the third element. According to Barthes, the third element semiological system is an actual myth, created due to the relationship between the concept and meaning. This deformation is possible because the very form of the myth created a linguistic sense, or subordinate concept (Barthes). The value of myth is a constant alternation of of signs and symbols and use of meta-language. Although the myth is a message defined by a greater degree of its intention, nevertheless the literal meaning hides it.
Expanding connotative mechanisms of myth, Barthes emphasizes that the latter performs a variety of functions: represents and informs, inspires and directs, and, finally, has motivating character. The myth does not hide its connotative meanings but “naturalizes” them. Naturalization is the basic function of the myth concept since it tends to look like something natural or “self-evident” (Barthes). It is perceived as a harmless message, not because its intentions are hidden carefully, even though otherwise they would lose their effectiveness, but because they are “naturalized”.
All products of the socio-linguistic practice, different types of communication can be represented as a collection of various kinds of “ideological letters.” Every symbolic activity is associated with myth-making and. Thus, the myth is a “stolen language” (Roth). According to Barthes, it is “stolen” because it contains the pretext for mythologizing that is a symbolic mechanism for the manifestation of the speaker’s intentions, what is called expressive language. Since the meaning is never in the myth of “zero degrees,” the concept always has the ability to deform it (Barthes). A myth can even take advantage of the lack of meaning, give it the value of the absurd, and distort everything, even the very desire to avoid mythologizing.
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An incentive to French scientist’s reflections on the problems of myth-making was a desire to demystify lurking in symbolic systems of modern society, including the various forms of communication and ideological deception. One of the most brilliant works of Barthes, Mythologies, conceived as a series of essays revealing a mystified consciousness of mass society. Considering the various phenomena of everyday culture, namely food, housing, leisure activities, the structure of the city, fashion, media, literature, interpersonal communication, Roland Barthes comes to the conclusion that modern mass culture in a civilized society is no less mythological than primitive one. The essence of the myth remains the same: it appeals to cultural products in the form of a “natural thing.” Myth feeds the minds of people living in the world of real values.
Theoretical studies of Roland Barthes played a prominent role in uncovering the semiological nature of the myth, the secrets of its emergence, and functioning. The appeal to the latent signified connotative sign systems is associated with an attempt to refocus semiology. It helped to identify unconscious meanings, values, mechanisms of mind manipulation and understand how generation and exposure to all sorts of myths could control people’s behaviour in the conditions of modern society. Therefore, according to Roland Barthes, a myth is a meta-language, based on signs of writing, oral language, and images.
One of Barthes’ Examples of Myth
Roland Barthes states that myth is based on the target language and acts as a “meta-language.” He demonstrated that there were two mythical semiological systems, one of which is partially embedded into the other. To illustrate such an interpretation of the myth, Roland Barthes provides numerous examples.
One of them is the cover of the magazine Paris Match with a young African in the French military uniform on it. The boy takes his cap and salutes French flag. This is the direct meaning that every person can see without much thinking over that picture. The direct meaning is built on a secondary semiological system. The mythological meaning of this picture is that France is a great Empire, and all its children, regardless of their skin colour, faithfully serve under its flag.
The image is quite ambiguous. It is strange that the personification of the power of the French armed forces on the magazine cover is not a Frenchman but an African. Obviously, behind this figure, there is something new, expressed not directly but artificially implied. However, this novelty does simply appear, but is created by means of the conscious manipulation. In such a way, a concept embodied in a certain image becomes a myth with a valuable meaning. Myth as a new reality is possible only when a direct, clear meaning of something is hidden, but its shades refer to the concept details (Bignell).
Moreover, on the cover of the magazine, there is not just an African, consisting in the military service in France. The image also contains two contrasting elements, namely the French flag and the person, which is not of French nationality. This contradiction is eliminated because there is a common concept that is the French Empire. However, the original meaning of the concept is distorted: for the sake of an abstract idea, the identity depersonalized. African ceases to be important as a person but becomes essential as the personification of the French Empire.
Modern society is bourgeois and so is the modern myth, from which the image of bourgeoisie disappears because this social class tends to universality. The desire to make everything universal and inclusive leads to the forced simplicity. Therefore, the bourgeoisie, which becomes simple and, hence, universal, loses its singularity as well as its image. Moreover, the modern myth is the one of the Eternal Man, a timeless human nature. These people are present in movies, paintings, politics, media and, thus, create in them the timeless essence (Bignell).
Barthes comments on the myth of bourgeoisie. He stated, “The whole of France is immersed in this anonymous ideology, our press, cinema, theatre, comics, our ceremonies, justice, diplomacy, small talk, weather …
everything in our daily life is connected with the idea of the relationship between man and the world, which the bourgeoisie produces for himself and for us” (Barthes). Thus, everything becomes natural and, therefore, self-evident. This artificially appearing nature, which transforms into ideology, is a substitute for reality. This is the transition from reality to ideology.
Also, through the example, it is revealed that myth and politics oppose each other. Politics in its true sense deals with real human relationships while myth replaces the human reality with abstract entities. Nevertheless, myth is an ideology, and, since politics is full of it. Thus, it can be assumed that myths completely captured the political sphere (Bignell). Under such circumstances, the question whether the politics is to regain the lost power of the natural order arises. It is possible but only through destroying own myths and beginning revolution. The latter overthrows the false idols of humanity, replacing them with its own creations, for the revolution has creative power and is a real politics. However, revolutions are only initiated by the oppressed whom the dominant myth deprived of important rights.
The picture also illustrates that there is no better way to answer critics of the so-colonial system than with the eagerness which the young African expresses for his so-called oppressors. In this case, there is a heightened semiological system. There is a meaning, which itself is a primary semiological system (African soldier saluting as it is customary in the French army). It seems to Roland Barthes that the meaning, as something complete, requires a certain knowledge of the past, memory, comparison, facts, ideas, and solutions. It is usually quite a probable event that can be easily imagined. In this case, it means the system that is a deliberate confusion of belonging to the French nation with military duty. Finally, it is a representation of the signified by the signifier. The latter, in this case, is the deliberate mixing of belonging to the French nation with a military duty. In the secondary system, the mythological meaning comprises both meaning and form and, thus, is filled as well as empty at the same time (Chandler n.d.). The meaning of signifier implies the possibility of a reading since it has an emotional reality, namely greeting soldiers-African. In some sense, there is already the meaning that could be self-sufficient if it was not cleared by the myth or turned into a fully parasitic form.
Own Contemporary Myth (Starbucks)
The image of the Starbucks brand evokes extremely positive emotions. Comfort, cafe, warmness, nice conversation, leisure are the most common associations held about it. The company realized that people come into the café not just to have a hot drink but, what is even more important, to become a part of a special atmosphere that prevails there. They are able to talk to each other, read, study, listen to music while drinking coffee. Knowing that, the company is trying to make their coffee outlets unique to certain extend in order to create this special atmosphere. Starbucks focuses on providing a large number of comfortable seats that incite people to stay longer than they planned.
The myth that Starbucks made has two parts. The first is the obvious image of Starbucks as a shop or a place to drink coffee. The second part, or the hidden meaning, could be best described by the term “a third place,” a venue where one can find the balance between work and home. The success of the myth is proven by the fact that Starbucks operates in 55 countries now, and in each of them, these cafes are seen as the best place to have coffee and relax. Such an image is created with the assistance of several factors, namely company’s logo, reputation, and advertisement (Simon).
The company was called “Starbucks” to honour one of the characters of the cult American novel Moby Dick, Starbuck. Since the latter was an assistant on a ship, the creators of the logo decided to maintain the marine theme. Therefore, a logo image chosen was a double-tailed mermaid or Siren that is a sea creature in Greek mythology. Engraving used comes from the book of the XVI century, which contained the portrait of a half-naked siren (Vlugt).
In 2011, however, Starbucks decided to change radically the logo after twenty years of using it. Therefore, it was agreed to remove everything from the logo except for the mythological creature. A green band with the name of the company and the stars on it faded while the colour of the logo itself became lighter than before. According to Starbucks management, the logo is more expressive and distinctive this way since it retains only the most important elements of the image, Siren and the green circle.
The green colour of the logo represents life and renewal as well as evokes the feeling of natural freshness. It is the colour with notes of soothing respect; however, it can also mean jealousy, inexperience, so the company had to use it carefully and correctly (Derosia n.d.). Having opted for this palette, Starbucks might be also associated with harmony, money, novelty, and versatility. In addition, such choice of colouring can be an attempt to show that the company cares about the environment and is friendly to nature. Application of reusable advertising by Starbucks is the proof of such an assumption.
Starbucks is well-known for its advertising campaigns. For example, in 2011, a film called Sue was released. A one-minute video shows the viewers how Sue orders some coffee at Starbucks. Barista, as befits, writes her name on the glass. Then, a journey begins and allows the audience to see everything from the seedling process to gathering the coffee at the plantation. The beans collected were grown, mixed, roasted, and placed in the machine personally for a special customer, Sue. After watching this, everyone definitely would like to have her or his name written on the cup, and, when the drink is ready, hear “Coffee for …!”
Now, however, Starbucks’ global policy of “personal” service went further and, thus, created the iconic image of the company. It captivates people’s attitude towards the brand even though it is simple and unsophisticated.
Starbucks also developed design elements that are well suited to a certain place. For instance, it produced twin cup for the Twin Cities, coffee cup in the shape of a peach for Atlanta or in the form of New York’s Statue of Liberty, drinking coffee (Simon). Such an approach shows a cup not only as a container for drinking coffee but as something that makes a customer closer to his or her place of residence and surroundings.
The company prefers advertisements in the form of meaningful pictures. One of such ads depicts an eye looking directly at a customer as if asking for help. It represents the ability of Starbucks coffee to help to stay awake. At the same time, “Staying awake will never be this painful anymore” implies soothing the customers suffering or discomfort. Subconsciously, picture evokes a desire to stop the pain showed on the advertisement.
One more advertisement shows the image of delight. It is a naked woman, who left her clothes on the floor. She is in a coffee drink in a pose that shows calling. There could be a parallel with naked Siren on Starbucks logo. In this ad, as in many others, Starbucks uses a word “best.” Thus, customers subconsciously want to go to Starbucks to relax and make their day the “best”.
Starbucks surrounds everything with signs and symbols. The effective way to do that is to resort to reusable advertising. For example, when buying coffee, one can choose to take a free corrugated cardboard ring or pay a little extra to get a nice polyurethane Starbucks logo (Schultz & Gordon). Moreover, having bought it, the client does not throw it away together with a glass but uses is when making the next coffee purchase. It does not matter whether the coffee is from Starbucks or not, the logo of the iconic network still will be on the glass. In addition, one more competitive move, which demonstrates caring for people and the environment, was taken (Simon). It was the introduction of a thermo cup, which are sold for more than a year now in coffee shops. People use the container with the word Starbucks on it although may drink any other coffee. Nevertheless, this contributes to enhanced communication and advertising (Schultz, Gordon).
In conclusion, Roland Barthes analysed the notion of myth and represented it as a meta-language, based on the signs of writing, oral language, and images. He connected cultural phenomena as well as all forms of communication to the mythological activity. Barthes illustrates the crucial features of contemporary mythology, discusses its functions, which include simultaneous representation, informing, inspiration, directing, and addresses its motivating character.
In his works, Roland Barthes presented several examples of what myth is. The brightest one is based on the explanation of the image of a young African in the French military uniform, saluting French flag. The direct meaning of the image is a young African boy in the French uniform. The mythological meaning of this picture is that France is a great Empire, and all her children, regardless of their skin colour, faithfully serve under the state’s flag.
Contemporary myths form under the influence of advertisement, trends, and mass effect. They are everywhere, but it is difficult to recognize them, as they already seem true for the majority of people. Starbucks also created myths. The obvious image of Starbucks is a simple place to drink or to buy coffee. Its modern myths are, for instance, the one of the best café and the other of “a third place”, which is a balance between work and home. With the help of myths, the company became trendy, symbolic and transformed its product into something more than just coffee; it began to sell a lifestyle.