On peut donc concevoir une science qui étudie la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale; elle formerait une partie de la psychologie sociale, et par conséquent de la psychologie générale; nous la nommerons sémiologie (du Grec sémeîon, `signe'). Elle nous apprendrait en quoi consistent les signes, quelles lois les régissent. Puisqu'elle n'existe pas encore, on ne peut dire ce qu'elle sera; mais elle a droit à l'existence, sa place est déterminée d'avance. La linguistique n'est qu'une partie de cette science générale, les lois que découvrira la sémiologie seront applicables à la linguistique, et celle-ci se trouvera ainsi rattachée à un domaine bien défini dans l'ensemble des faits humains. (Saussure: 1949 p.33)Barthes is particularly interested, not so much in what things mean, but in how things mean. One of the reasons Barthes is a famous and well-known intellectual figure is his skill in finding, manipulating and exploiting theories and concepts of how things come to mean well before anyone else. As an intellectual, Barthes is associated with a number of intellectual trends (e.g. structuralism and post-structuralism) in postwar intellectual life. However, at the time of Mythologies, Barthes main interest was in semiology, the `science of signs'.
... à l'obsession politique et morale succède un petit délire scientifique (Barthes: 1975 p.148)
Passion constante (et illusoire) d'apposer sur tout fait, même le plus menu, non pas la question de l'enfant: pourquoi? mais la question de l'ancien Grec, la question du sens, comme si toutes choses frissonnaient de sens: qu'est-ce que ça veut dire? Il faut à tout prix transformer le fait en idée, en description, en interprétation, bref lui trouver un autre nom que le sien. (Barthes: 1975 p.154)
Semiology derives from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure's linguistic theory as elaborated in Cours de linguistique générale, a collection of lectures written between 1906 and 1911 and posthumously published in book form in 1915, was philosophically quite radical because it held that language was conceptual and not, as a whole tradition of western thought had maintained, referential. In particular, Saussure rejected the view that language was essentially a nomenclature for a set of antecedent notions and objects. Language does not `label' or `baptise' already discriminated pre-linguistic categories but actually articulates them. The view of language as nomeclature cannot fully explain the difficulties of foreign language acquisition nor the ways in which the meanings of words change in time. Saussure reversed the perspective that viewed language as the medium by which reality is represented, and stressed instead the constitutive role language played in constructing reality for us. Experience and knowledge, all cognition is mediated by language. Language organizes brute objects, the flux of sound, noise and perception, getting to work on the world and conferring it with meaning and value. Language is always at work in our apprehension of the world. There is no question of passing through language to a realm of language-independant, fully discriminated things.
Central to Saussure's work is the concept of the sign and the relationship between what he terms signifier and signified. Indeed, a sign is, in Saussure's terms, the union of a signifier and a signified which form an indissociable unity like two sides of the same piece of paper. Saussure defined the linguistic sign as composed of a signifier or signifiant and a signified or signifié. The term sign then, is used to designate the associative total of signifier and signified. The signifier is the sound or written image and the signified is the concept it articulates:
... le signe linguistique unit non une chose et un nom, mais un concept et une image acoustique (Saussure: 1949 p.98)For example, /cat/ is the signifier of the signified «cat». Saussure claimed that the connection between signifier and signified was entirely arbitrary - `Le lien unissant le signifiant au signifié est arbitraire' (Saussure: 1949 p.100), that there was no intrinsic link between sound-image and concept. However, the lingiustic sign was, as well as arbirtrary, was a relational or differential entity. The signifier produces meaning by virtue of its position, (similarity or difference) within a network of other signifiers. According to Saussure words do not express or represent but signify in relation to a matrix of other linguistic signs. To return to my earlier example, the signifier `cat' signifies the concept of a domestic feline quadruped only by virtue of its position (similiarity or difference) within the relational system of other signifiers. In defining the linguistic sign in this way Saussure broke with a philosophical tradition which conceived of language as having a straightforward relationship with the extralinguistic world.
The key text which exemplifies Barthes's early interest in and exploitation of Saussure and Semiology is `Le Mythe aujourd'hui'. `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' is Barthes's retrospectively written method or blueprint for reading myths. In `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' Barthes manipulates and reworks Saussure's theory of the sign and of signification. He is not, however, interested in the linguistic sign per se so much as in the application of linguistics to the non-verbal signs that exist around us in our everyday life. What excites him is the possibility of applying a methodology derived from Saussurean linguistics to the domain of culture defined in its broadest and most inclusive sense.
Barthes's relationship with his intellectual influences - Marx, Brecht, Freud, Lacan etc. - is notoriously idiosyncratic. He rarely adopts ideas wholesale, but tends to alter them to his own purposes, extending their reach and implications. This is certainly true of his appropriation of Saussure's theories. But how does Barthes make use of Saussure's theory of the sign and of signification? Well, let's take Barthes's own example from `Le Mythe aujourd'hui':
... je suis chez le coiffeur, on me tend un numéro de Paris-Match. Sur la couverture, un jeune nègre vêtu d'un uniforme français fait le salut militaire, les yeux levés, fixés sans doute sur un pli du drapeau tricolore. Cela, c'est le sens de l'image. Mais naïfs ou pas, je vois bien ce qu'elle me signifie: que la France est un grand Empire, que tous ses fils, sans distinction de couleur, servent fidèlement sous son drapeau, et qu'il n'est de meilleure réponse aux détracteurs d'un colonialisme prétendu, que le zèle de ce noir à servir ses prétendus oppresseurs. (Barthes: 1970 p.201)Barthes then, is at the barber's and is handed a copy of Paris-Match. On the front cover he sees a photograph of a black soldier saluting the French flag and he instantly recognises the myth the photograph is seeking to peddle. However, Barthes provides a methodological justification for this essentially intuitive `reading' of the photograph, a methodology derived from Saussure's theory of the sign. Barthes sees the figuration of the photograph, that is to say, the arrangement of coloured dots on a white background as constituting the signifier and the concept of the black soldier saluting the tricolour as constituting the signified. Together, they form the sign. However, Barthes takes this reading one step further and argues that there is a second level of signification grafted on to the first sign. This first sign becomes a second-level signifier for a new sign whose signified is French imperiality, i.e. the idea that France's empire treats all its subjects equally.
The central modification to Saussure's theory of the sign in `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' is the articulation of the idea of primary or first-order signification and secondary or second-order signification. This is central to Barthes's intellectual preoccupation in Mythologies because it is at the level of secondary or second-order signification that myth is to be found. In `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' Barthes attempts to define myth by reference to the theory of second-degree sign systems. What myth does is appropriate a first-order sign and use it as a platform for its own signifier which, in turn, will have its own signified, thus forming a new sign. Recurrent images used to describe this process pertain to theft, colonization, violent appropriation and to parasitism:
... le mythe est ... un langage qui ne veut pas mourir: il arrache aux sens dont il s'alimente une survie insidieuse, dégradée, il provoque en eux un sursis artificiel dans lequel il s'installe à l'aise, il en fait des cadavres parlants. (Barthes: 1970 p.219)This is a central and particularly powerful image of myth as an alien creature inhabiting human form and profiting from its appearance of innocence and naturalness to do its evil business. Like a parasite needs its host or the B-movie style alien invader needs its zombie-like Earthling, myth needs is first-order sign for survival. It needs the first-order sign as its alibi: I wasn't being ideological, myth might innocently claim, I was somewhere else doing something innocent.
His model of second-degree or parasitical sign systems allows for the process of demystification by a process of foregrounding the construction of the sign, of the would-be natural texts of social culture. Myth is to be found at the level of the second-level sign, or at the level of connotation. Barthes makes a distinction between denotation and connotation. Denotation can be described, for the sake of convenience, as the literal meaning. Connotation, on the other hand, is the second-order parasitical meaning. The first-order sign is the realm of denotation; the second-order sign the realm of connotation and, therefore, of myth. To put it crudely then, the important `lesson' of `Le Mythe aujourd'hui' is that objects and events always signify more than themselves, they are always caught up in systems of representation which add meaning to them.
There are a number of very useful web sites which you might want to click on: Daniel Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners is a good place to start and there is also a Media and Communications Studies Site with links to other web sites of relevant interest.