For mythology, since it is the study of a type of speech, is but one fragment of this vast science of signs which Saussure postulated some forty years ago under the name of semiology. Semiology has not yet come into being. But since Saussure himself, and sometimes independently of him, a whole section of contemporary research has constantly been referred to the problem of meaning: psychoanalysis, structuralism, eidetic psychology, some new types of literary criticism of which Bachelard has given the first examples, are no longer concerned with fact except inasmuch as they are endowed with significance. Now to postulate a signification is to have resource to semiology. I do not mean that semiology could account for all these aspects of research equally well; they are all sciences dealing with values. They are not content with meeting the fact: they define and explore them as tokens for something else.
Semiology is a science of forms, since it studies significations apart from their content. I should like to say one word about the necessity and the limits of such a formal science. The necessity is that which applies in the case of any exact languages. Zhdanov made fun of Alexandrov the philosopher, who spoke of “The spherical structure of our planet.” “It was thought until now,” Zhdanov said,
that form alone could be spherical.
Zhdanov was right: one cannot speak about structures in terms of forms, and vice versa. It may well be that on the plane of “life,” there is but a totality where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about “life” if it wants to transform it. Against a certain quixotism of synthesis, quite platonic incidentally, all criticism must consent to the ascesis, to the artifice of analysis; and in analysis, it must match method and languages.
Less terrorized by the specter of “formalism,” historical criticism might have been less sterile; it would have understood that the specific study of forms does not in any way contradict the necessity principles of totality and History. On the contrary: the more a system is specifically defined in its form, the more amenable it is to historical criticism. To parody a well-known saying, I shall say that a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it. Is there a better example of total criticism than the description of saintliness, at once formal and historical, semiological and ideological, in Sartre’s Saint-Genet? The danger, on the contrary, is to consider forms as ambiguous objects, half form and half substance, to endow form with a substance of form, as was done, for instance, by Zhdanovian realism.
Semiology, once its limits are settled, is not a metaphysical trap: it is a science among others, necessary but nor sufficient. The important thing is to see that the unity of explanation cannot be based on the amputation of one or other of its approaches, but, as Engels said, on the dialectical coordination of the particular sciences it makes use of. This is the case with mythology: it is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is a historical science: it studies ideas-in-form.
- Roland Barthes: Myths We Don’t Outgrow, The New Yorker
- The Uses of “Mythologies”, The New Yorker
- A Critical Theory of Myths, Ceasefire Magazine