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A cultural Analysis of Popular Movies


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A Semiotic Approach to Modern Culture: ^ Myth Today, Totemism Today


An anthropological approach to popular movies that seeks to explain their content, and not merely to explain it away, has to proceed by identifying the constituent elements or themes of the movies and the relationships that bind elements together in some kind of framework or system. This, loosely des­cribed, is the Lévi-Straussian perspective I have contrasted with other, less helpful approaches that anthropologists and others have taken toward the phenomenon of myth.8

Rather than increase the murkiness the notion of structuralism has ac­quired since its introduction to social thought in the fifties, I prefer to identify the approach I take to popular movies here simply as a piece of cultural analysis, or anthropological semiotics: the search for patterns of meaning in cultural productions. Movies either mean nothing or they mean something in relation to their cultural milieu, and the task of discovering what, if anything, they mean falls to cultural analysis or anthropological semiotics.

Following Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce, Thomas Sebeok, and Umberto Eco, among others, I study movies’ cultural significance semiologi­cally or semiotically. As envisaged and practiced by these theorists, semiotics is the science of signs. Popular movies considered as a system of signs thus fall under the rubric of the semiotics of modern cultural productions. A compre­hensive semiotics of modern culture would include analyses of such prominent forms as food and clothing preferences, work habits and values, as well as the whole gamut of institutions we loosely describe as “leisure activities”: sports, musical concerts, pulp literature, television, tourism, and, of course, movies. I am thus concerned with only a small part of the total field of cultural phenomena, but I would maintain that the system of signs identified in movies is generic to American culture as a whole.

Reasoning from the particular to the general is characteristic of earlier semioticians whose work I would like to discuss in framing this topic of the semiotics of modern culture. I am thinking here of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, both of whom have combined topical monographs with the most elevated theory. In 1957 Barthes published Mythologies, a collection of brief, incisive essays on aspects of popular culture in France at the time (“La nouvelle Citroen,” “Strip-tease,” “L’homme jet,” and fifty others). Mythologies concludes with a long theoretical essay that has become a milestone of con­temporary semiotic theory: “Le mythe, aujourd’hui” (“Myth Today”). Five years later, in 1962, Lévi-Strauss published Le totemisme aujourd’hui (Totemism Today), a brief but incredibly powerful theoretical work that set the stage for his later treatise on the nature of indigenous thought, La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind, and the monumental four-volume series, Mythologiques. While Barthes was a lite­rary critic writing about popular culture and Lévi-Strauss an anthropologist writing about American Indians, Australian aborigines, and the like, the complementarity of their work is suggested by the intriguing similarity of their titles and themes: Myth Today and Totemism Today.

Barthes’ analysis of popular culture was inspired by his reading the work of the founder of modern descriptive linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, who visualized “a general science of signs,” or semiology: “a science that studies the life of signs within society.”9 As a literary critic Barthes was primarily concerned with systems of meaning in language, but Saussure’s call for a general science of signs led him to apply essentially literary critical tools to the analysis of nonlinguistic material items and actions like cars, drinks, meals, strikes, and vacations. Consequently, the exciting methodological program that emerges in Myth Today is to treat diverse aspects of modern culture as conceptual representations approachable in much the way that a literary critic would proceed to interpret a text. Saussure’s call for a science of signs thus elicited from Barthes a wide-ranging study of cultural productions, all of which he identified as “myth.”

Totemism represents an analogous expansion of intellectual boundaries. In that essay, Lévi-Strauss’s first goal is to invalidate the assumption held by anthropologists from Sir James Frazer through Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown that “totemism” represents a distinct type and stage of religious thought. Prior to Lévi-Strauss’s work, the accepted interpretation of “totemism” was that it consisted of a circumscribed set of beliefs and practices of particularly “primitive” (or technologically simple) peoples, based on the idea that animals were the ancestors of humans: if groups of American Indians or Australian aborigines identified themselves as “Bear” and “Eagle,” or “Kangaroo” and “Emu,” it was because they believed that those species were actual genealogical forebears of their social groups. Thus according to this interpretation, societies whose members called themselves after animal species and observed food taboos related to their emblematic animal were totemic, whereas societies in which these practices did not occur possessed a funda­mentally different, non-totemic belief system.

Lévi-Strauss exploded this narrow definition of totemism by pointing out that the particular phenomenon of naming human groups after animals is simply one aspect of the universal human faculty of classificatory thought. Totemism is not a separate religion of very primitive societies; it is rather one means of expressing, in the concrete terms of daily experience, conceptual relations that other, technologically complex peoples also employ in giving meaning to their lives. Classifying social groups according to perceived divisions in the animal world — bears and eagles, kangaroos and emus — is one manifestation among many of the general human disposition to classify every­thing, to pick out features of things and people that put them in separate categories and that invest them with distinct identities. “Totemic” thought thus becomes the springboard for Lévi-Strauss’s searching inquiries into the underlying structure of the human mind and culture.

If Barthes maintains that myth exists in the modern world, taking the form of popular culture, and Lévi-Strauss argues that “traditional” myths about people descending from animals simply represent one aspect of the human mind’s proclivity for classificatory thought, then it would seem possible to marry the two studies of “myth” and arrive at a very useful framework for an anthropological semiotics of myth in modern culture. Aborigines living in the Australian bush have myths connecting them to animals, but then so do con­temporary urban dwellers who leave their apartments (after saying “goodbye” to their pets) to take elevators down to subterranean garages where their Mustangs, Falcons, Jaguars, and Hornets are waiting, like kachina figures in a Hopi kiva, to envelop them in metallic clouds of totemic imagery and carry them away. Unfortunately, however, Barthes’ and Lévi-Strauss’s ideas do not mesh quite so nicely, for each arrives at conclusions that seem to undermine the other’s.

My view is that the similarities between Myth Today and Totemism need to be emphasized, even when their authors would disagree, for a synthesis of the two provides a foundation for a comprehensive semiotics of modern cul­ture as visualized in the present work. In this spirit of rapprochement, I would agree wholeheartedly with Barthes that myth plays an active role in modern societies (if you can find it thriving among Parisians, you can find it anywhere), and is not just some outmoded relic of cultural expression that “primitives” have and we do not. And I would also endorse Lévi-Strauss’s view that myth represents a fundamental constituent of human thought, that it is not just an isolated, exotic oddity. The mythic qualities I ascribe to popular movies in these pages possess a Barthesian modernity and a Lévi-Straussian profun­dity. Before elaborating on those qualities, however, it is necessary to attend to some problems raised by coupling the approaches of Barthes and Lévi-Strauss in this apparently straightforward way. These problems will have a familiar look, for, despite the fact that both thinkers focus on ideational systems in myth, Barthes’ approach incorporates the flaws of the materialist perspective discussed earlier.10

In what strikes me as an exceedingly peculiar transposition of Saussure’s key ideas, Barthes argues that myth is like language in that it consists of signifier and signified, but differs from language in that myth is built upon it in a superficial, parasitic fashion. Myth is, in fact, stolen or misappropriated language: “. . .myth is always a theft of language” (Mythologies, 217).


It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language-object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first. When he reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask himself questions about the com­position of the language-object, he no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic schema; he will only need to know its total term, or global sign, and only inasmuch as this term lends itself to myth. (Mythologies, 115, emphasis in original)


This argument is seriously flawed. Its acceptance would contradict the premise on which Barthes’, or any other, semiotic is based: relations of meaning in language are not part of a naturalistic order of things, but the result of the same cultural processes that generate myth. There is nothing intrinsic in the rush of air over tongue and teeth to form the sound “tree” that indicates “that thing in the yard with apples growing on it.” Nor are there intrinsic levels of meaning to a word, so that “the thing with apples on it” and the “Tree of Life” in Genesis stand in a primary : secondary, language : metalanguage relationship. To claim that myth is a secondary semiological system which uses language as its raw material (its signified) implies that everyday speech, which now becomes a primary semiological process, some­how conveys meaning in the absence of or prior to a cultural system of values, identities, behaviors. Barthes’ “language-object” becomes a device for naming objects, independent of cultural determinations those objects may have acquired as elements in long-standing human (and protohuman) interaction systems. Myth Today makes out myth and language to be sequential pro­cesses, so that the world is first somehow endowed with named things (through language) and then those named things acquire cultural associations (through myth). It is both ironic and distressing that this classic essay should insist on distinguishing myth and language in this fashion, for its effect is to separate the significative content of any utterance into two categories and to make one of those categories — the linguistic — impervious to cultural or semiotic analysis. It is as if to say that we first acquire language through a natural process of establishing utterance-concept pairs and only later proceed with the cultural process of orienting things in the (named) world within a framework of meaning.

The problem with Barthes’ distinction between myth and language is best illustrated with one of his own examples, for a critical examination reveals the impossibility of scraping away the mythic overburden of an image to reveal its simple, descriptive denotata.


And here is now another example. I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faith­fully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and mili­tariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier. (117, emphasis in original)


Barthes perceives distinct levels of meaning in the magazine photograph. A black soldier giving the French military salute is for him the reduced core of the image, its denotative message, which serves as the signifier in a separate, mythic expression. That metalinguistic, mythic message consists of intertwined ideas of French imperial might and the brotherhood of Frenchmen.

But in what sense are the “youth” and “blackness” of the soldier, or the “Frenchness” of his uniform elementary, naturalistic constituents of meaning? I would argue that they are no less complex than the notions of empire and racial harmony which are supposedly based on them. All these concepts (age, gender, race, occupation, nationality) are categories of identity, instances of the representational process of classificatory thought as elucidated by Lévi-Strauss. The meaning those categories take in particular situations is always complex, shifting, and charged with emotion; it is definitely not an automatic response, like reciting the alphabet, that Barthes maintains it to be. Categories of identity contain densely packed symbolic associations that can only artificially, and uselessly, be dissected into “primary” and “secondary” elements. What Barthes assumes are “givens” in the photograph are, for the cultural anthro­pologist, the very material that calls for interpretation.

For example, there is certainly nothing denotative or given about the “blackness” or “Negro-ness” of the individual in the photograph, as anthropolo­gists who have worked in racially heterogeneous societies have repeatedly demonstrated. Physical features and skin coloration that may indicate an ethnic identity of “negre” or “noir” to a Caucasian Parisian academic may be interpreted quite differently by a person “of color” from a society in which fine gradations of hair texture and skin coloration make the difference between an individual’s having one ethnic identity rather than another. If a Martiniquais had been seated next to Barthes in that barbershop, for instance, and glanced at the same photo, he may well have seen an individual with skin color sig­nificantly lighter or darker than his own, whom he would then categorize as a member of a different ethnic group.11

Nor is the “Frenchness” of the soldier’s uniform self-evident. Barthes and his immediate audience can easily “read” that message into the image because of its familiarity, but someone from another country taking up a copy of Mythologies thirty or forty years after its publication might well form an extremely vague notion of that picture in Paris-Match which Barthes found at his barber’s (and which, unfortunately, he did not reproduce in Myth Today). As for the “age” of the soldier — that topic is at least as contentious and agonizing as “race” for an American audience steeped in the advertising hype and social pressure of a youth-obsessed culture whose fitness instructors, diet counselors and plastic surgeons dedicate their careers to thwarting the processes of physical maturation and aging. Show the Paris-Match photo to a Beverly Hills High School senior who has just recovered from his rhinoplasty procedure in time for the class photos and prom (but don’t expect to find him in a barbershop!), and compare his critical impressions of the soldier’s appearance with Barthes’ easy attribution of “youthfulness” to the individual in the photo.

The point of these examples is to illustrate how exceedingly difficult it is to interpret the signs or symbols that figure in the cultural meanings (and that is the only sort of “meaning” we know) that flow from even the simplest social action, such as glancing at a magazine cover while waiting for a haircut. Any attempt to parse the instantaneous flood of impressions that accompany that glance into “primary” and “secondary” or “linguistic” and “metalinguistic” meanings seriously distorts the very phenomenon under study. The only way to obtain some kind of reasonably value-free physical data in the present example of the photo would be to compile photocell readings of skin reflec­tivity and measurements of all kinds of indices of body structure (distance between the eyes, ratio of forearm to upper arm, etc.). Those measurements would, of course, contribute nothing to the task before anthropological semiotics in this case, which is to identify the synthesis of perceptual and conceptual cues involved in glancing at the photo and then to describe how that synthesis, the actual meaning of the photo, affects an individual’s thoughts and actions in a wider social context. In short, the only way to salvage something of Barthes’ argument here is to conscript him, or his writings, as ethnographic subject: the savant becomes the native.

Barthes’ efforts to draw the mythic elements of popular culture into Saussure’s semiology thus risk subverting its principles by erecting a specious distinction between language and myth. Language would become an inani­mate object on which myth acts but which itself carries none of the symbolic associations of myth. Correspondingly, myth would become a distant, nonpar­ticipating commentary (a metalanguage) on the semantic processes of lan­guage. Construed in this way, it is difficult to see why and how myth would have originated at all. What impetus would have driven speakers of a value-neutral and representationally correct language, one that they could use perfectly well to describe what was going on in the world (young Negro soldiers saluting French flags and so on), to subject themselves to the “parasitism” of myth? My answer to this rhetorical question, developed in the following section, would not have pleased Barthes: I want to claim that Barthes has got things turned around, that the meaning inherent in language derives from the Dreamtime of myth, and that, if any prioritizing were to be done, then myth would become the “primary” and language the “secondary” process.

In Totemism Lévi-Strauss launches anthropological semiotics and sets it on a very different course from Barthes’ literary semiotics. The most critical difference for present purposes is that Lévi-Strauss does not introduce notions of primary and secondary processes to account for the relation of myth to experience, as Barthes does in relating myth and language. “Totemic” thought properly understood does not match a particular animal species to a particular human group; it establishes a system of differences that provides a framework for conceptual representations of animals and humans, their natures and behaviors, and the myriad of associations, similarities, and differences between them. The animal species is not simply out there, in the real world, waiting to become the totemic emblem of a pre-existing human group, for it is only by reflecting on perceived differences among animals, by using these essentially as the “raw material” of thought, that humans (whose “humanity” is a rather dubious status at this juncture) are led to formulate distinctions among themselves.


The animals in totemism cease to be solely or principally creatures which are feared, admired, or envied: their perceptible reality permits the embodiment of ideas and relations conceived by speculative thought on the basis of empirical observations. We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think.” (89)


The fundamental, definitive nature of human thought (and cultural origin) involves two interlinked, simultaneous processes: (1) investing animals, including here their appearance, habits, behaviors, and interaction with their environment, with a set of orderly, discontinuous properties; and (2) using those properties to establish the characteristics and conceptual boundaries or identities of human groups. The importance of these interlinked processes cannot be overemphasized, for in producing a conceptual order of Nature in the first instance, the users of symbols (who have been “human” through some, but not all, of this period of processual interplay) also created in the second instance a self-conscious realization of themselves, and thus produced Culture, produced themselves as sentient, human subjects.

It is crucial to recognize how radically this analysis of totemism differs from Barthes’ approach to myth. In assigning myth the status of a metalanguage, Barthes denies its direct effects on the basic structure of the world around us: myth is essentially reactive and reactionary, a seductive and deceitful cover-up, a bit of “stolen language” appropriated by the powers-that-be in bourgeois society. While keeping his intellectual Marxist credentials in good order, and thereby keeping favor with Parisian café society, Barthes frustrates the principal goal of semiology or semiotics, which is to explain how a conceptual system works and not just explain it away. In sharp contrast, Lévi-Strauss’s project of dissolving “totemism” as an isolated, exotic phenomenon culminates in an understanding of myth as the concrete embodiment of the human spirit.


The alleged totemism pertains to the understanding, and the demands to which it responds and the way in which it tries to meet them are primarily of an intellectual kind. In this sense, there is nothing archaic or remote about it. Its image is projected, not received; it does not derive its substance from without. If the illusion contains a particle of truth, this is not outside us but within us. (104)


Curiously, although Lévi-Strauss asserts that “there is nothing archaic or remote” about totemic processes of symbolization, he has consistently denied that his structural analysis of myth has any direct application to modern cultural productions. This is the one fly in the ointment in drawing on Lévi-Strauss’s work to usher in my cultural analysis of movies, for despite his soaring statements about the universality of totemic thought, Lévi-Strauss would probably decline to pull in the same harness as James Bond and Luke Skywalker (not to mention the Ewoks!). I must confess I have never followed his reasoning on this issue, and it would serve little purpose to go over it here. The great shame, as I see it, is that if we were to take him at his word on this point, then the powerful procedures he has developed for the analysis of myth would be useless for all but the most arcane investigations of preliterate societies, the stereotypical “living museum pieces.” And as those societies are increasingly “contaminated” by the outside world with its media-saturated, movie-infested civilization, the structural analysis of myth would find more and more doors closed to it. I propose to avoid that impasse by blithely ignoring Lévi-Strauss’s sage demurral (fools rush in) and proceeding to use his insights into the nature of myth and human thought to extend an anthropological semi­otics of modern culture.




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