Sunday, July 27, 2014

Precis 1 -- Barthes' Mythologies


In Mythologies, Barthes provides the myth of “natural man” as a prime example of the mystifying nature of bourgeois mythology, insofar that it deprives the proletariat of a lucid recognition of their differences and an authentic and practical solidarity. This myth establishes differences in morphologies, cultural customs, etc. and then follows with an affirmation of unity: “man is born, works, laughs, and dies in the same fashion everywhere; and if in these actions some ethnic particularity still subsists, there is now some understanding that there is deep inside each one of us an identical ‘nature’” (Barthes 196). For a class disjointedly divided within itself, this myth poses a great threat to their potential to subvert the ruling class; the myth has naturalized their condition as divided laborers with unequal rights to distribution and property, and does so by affirming an illusory conception of a natural, ahistorical humanity. It pays no mind to history, which would reveal that humans are born under disparate conditions and do in fact die under many, particularly sinister, fashions. Additionally, it conceptualizes diversity as a requisite to unity, therefore naturalizing a compulsory relationship between division of labor and the diversity of humanity—it is through this signification that division of labor is naturalized.
General concepts such as birth, work, and death obscure the history and identity of the bourgeoisie, which imposes authority over the circumstances of one’s birth, work, and death. Barthes’ analysis of this myth is titled “The Great Family of Man,” which takes its name from a museum exhibit; it is capable of naturalizing unresolved divisions among individuals because it is expressed under the guise of an educational institution—a publicly accepted authority over science and history. The myth cannot ostensibly be attributed to the bourgeoisie, but once the museum is revealed to the masses as a bourgeois institution, any of its supposed authority collapses by the exposed bourgeois identity attributed to the idea.  Bourgeois mythology is easily capable of disassociating ideas from the bourgeoisie because its forms appropriate history and nature, under which bourgeois conceptions are hidden. As the bourgeoisie exist surreptitiously without a name, their mythology inoculates the masses, keeping them divided and upholding the status quo. The proletariat exists relative to its labor divisions and the disparate distribution of property within them, but the false common interest that preserves this structure is dismantled once it is recognized as a bourgeois machination. Identifying the ruling class produces a new rallying point for revolution, one that unites the proletariat in opposition to the bourgeoisie. Alienated identities are expunged for a mass collective identity that operates chiefly to subjugate the ruling class and replace it; however, rather than replacing it with another class that reproduces and perpetuates previous bourgeois ideas, and because “its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class,” it instead leads to the cessation of class rule (68). The methods by which revolutionary individuals and classes operate can only be successful—that is, to incite and enact revolution—by employing a pure political speech that refrains from making itself vulnerable to mythologization. Bourgeois myths frame and control reality, while political language concerns humans as producers, and thus is a productive language that transforms the world by acting upon it rather than speaking about it.
            Barthes spends a lot of time focusing on just how the bourgeoisie perpetuates mythology that further solidifies their position in society. Firstly for Barthes, the bourgeoisie hides its name. Its success is dependent on the lack of self-recognition as a class. To recognize themselves as members of a class, it seems, only paves way for a revolution that overthrows them. That may seem like a big jump, but it's not. When the bourgeoisie identifies itself as a class, everyone else will begin to identify as a class in relation to them. This is ultimately a classist outlook, and a classist outlook on society will lead to a plethora of class-based solutions. Marx's ideology of revolution and proletariat all depend on exactly this configuration of society into classes. It, however, becomes awfully difficult for people to recognize class distinctions if it is constantly being downplayed as unreal and irrelevant. In fact, a recent study in Doug Ellenwood’s blog spoke to the number of Americans who identified as middle class, despite their income brackets clearly being in that of the “working class.” This self-delusion of sorts really allows for an ignoring of what could potentially be an accurate description of modern-day America and the social institutions that have arisen out of capitalism. A parallel situation, also endemic in the United States, is the lack of recognition of the racism that is prevalent in our institutions and culture. The perpetuation of the myth of a “post-racial” and “color-blind” so-called “modern” society really hinders any attempt to address the racial injustices that are inherent, for example, in the incarceration system. 

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