Critical Theory A
11 July 2007
Myth Eludes History
According to Frederick Engels’ adaptation of Marxist theory, history is made up of a series of epochs that all share a cycle of similar social and economical formations where the circumstances in each, result in the same basic outcome. There exists a class struggle of people that interact socially and produce wealth which in turn creates hierarchies in communities. Competition for survival generates social ranks determined by the richest and the poorest. These class distinctions invariably come to be because people oppress and exploit others to obtain this wealth which eventually divides society to a point where the oppressed class––referred to as the proletariat, refuse to accept the conditions placed upon them by the ruling class––the bourgeoisie. As the epoch cycle evolves, this dissatisfaction inevitably leads to emancipation by proletariat revolt. After a revolution takes place, a new epoch begins where the slate appears to be wiped clean. But elements from the previous social and/or political order in the previous epoch are carried over into the next. Ultimately, allowing what was overthrown to perpetuate again. Finally, Engels suggests that nowadays, there is no way to emancipate the proletariat from the oppression of the ruling class unless you emancipate society in its entirety. From the post-Marxist theories of Roland Barthes, Engels’ view can be challenged by the use of mythologies where the clearest differentiation between each lie in the significance that myth eludes history.
Barthes’ interest in mythologies came from being subjected to advertisements on television and radio and other forms of media dissemination, where he found himself resenting the confusion that was created between nature and history. So, he set out to define contemporary myth as it was relevant in his modern time living in France in the mid 1950’s. In his pursuit, Barthes finds that myth is transported through history through speech and only through speech can it live. Myth consists of speech, language and form with historical and formal limits but no ‘substantial’ ones. It is interesting to note that what he means by that is, “Everything, then, can be a myth.” (109) Mythology in its contemporary condition has no limits because it exists in every aspect of culture: linguistics, communication, speech and objects such as the photograph convey myths through semiology (the science of forms). And we use language to empower ourselves through these forms or signs in culture. Where this relates to Marxist theory is in its counterintuitive relation to historicism and the concept of epoch cycles and class struggles mentioned above.
You would not expect a theory like Marx’s epoch cycles in history to leave room for adaptation since certain social formations in history each support this theory of evolution, e.g. Rome, Feudalism, Christendom, etc. Yet, through Barthes myths indebted to semiology, he makes this claim when he says, “Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.” (142) Marx’s theory of the proletariat having to overthrow the bourgeoisie and emancipate itself from repeated conditions of oppression during the epoch cycle is a myth, and may even be true. But Barthes suggests that the reason Engels says that a stage has been reached where emancipation cannot be attained is because the bourgeoisie of today are indistinguishable. Barthes explains, “As a political fact, there are no ‘bourgeois’ parties in the Chamber. As an ideological fact, it completely disappears: the bourgeoisie has obliterated its name in passing from reality to representation.” (138)
So if one cannot identify the bourgeoisie in politics, where has it gone? He suggests it has become an ideology. “The political vocabulary of the bourgeoisie already postulates that the universal exists: for it, politics is already a representation, a fragment of ideology.” (138-9) Furthermore, he states ideology’s ability to maneuver, “Bourgeois ideology can therefore spread over everything and in so doing lose its name without risk.” (139) As an ideology, it seems that one would not be able to locate the bourgeoisie whereabouts except through new definitions of possible identity. But through its disappearance into myth, the bourgeois ideology is the only recognizable source for which to oppose. How then, can one do that? Barthes describes a case in which there are attempts and it is not the proletariat who were involved. “There are revolts against bourgeois ideology. This is what one generally calls the avant-garde. But these revolts are socially limited, they remain open to salvage.
Then, these revolts always get their inspiration from a very strongly made distinction between the ethically and the politically bourgeois: what the avant-garde contests is the bourgeois in art or morals.
What the avant-garde does not tolerate about the bourgeoisie is its language, not its status.” (139) These excerpts about the avant-garde are almost explicitly accurate with the events involving the social upheavals of 1968 university students who protested the ideologies of their governments in both the U.S and France. But it is the myth of the bourgeois that perplexes and keeps one searching for credible points of distinction whereupon one can see an opening for the proletariat to revolt in a contemporary, and now, a very global society.
Barthes understands the purpose of the bourgeois ideology and the method in which it manages to reinvent itself that has caused its elusive existence today. He says, “The flight from the name ‘bourgeois’ is not therefore an illusory, accidental, secondary, natural or insignificant phenomenon: it is the bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature. (141) In becoming nature, Barthes’ point of mythologies is exacted, “What the world supplies to myth is an historical reality,
What myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality.” (142)
To further emphasize the point, bourgeois mythology’s modus operandi (mode of operating) is to “turn reality inside out”, and alter its historical place by changing the image of what we view it to mean. In doing this, one focuses on the new image and slowly forgets the old. Barthes continues, “And just as bourgeois ideology is defined by the abandonment of the name ‘bourgeois’, myth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things: in it, things lose the memory that they once were made.” (142) He proposes that it is then able to rely upon the altercation of reality while continuing to operate without inspection, and over time, fade in the collective conscious. In becoming a part of the natural world, the bourgeoisie realities reside hidden from opposition and the myth has redefined its historical significance.
Barthes has successfully pinpointed the weakness in Marxist theory most relevant to Engles’ Preface to the Communist Manifesto by working past the ideology of Marxism through his own method of mythologies, a discourse to discover how language works as a means to extenuate the theories of Marx that did not come true; or, to pick up where they left off so to speak. His critical theory as a post-Marxist presents a compelling case that holds up to this day, because he establishes mythologies that may exist in everything, he makes the case that for nature too, is a point of destination for myths from ancient to contemporary times. The reason that Marx’s prediction has not come true today is because the idea of the myth has been rewritten into modern culture, whereas Marx did not believe myth as an intelligible source, he did not understand culture. And the reason the proletariat cannot attain its emancipation from the ruling class is because the bourgeoisie have become a myth and no longer a tactile personified entity––which Marx did not understand. If one can rediscover and pinpoint their place in society, which has been so obscured by varying levels of wealth spread amongst enormously growing population world wide, we could then begin to reveal the slow-killing oppression that still exists today in the form of the ever widening range of wages through capitalism.