Nature and culture: a peculiar interplay

In selecting models for semiology, [Roland Barthes] has to bear in mind the two aspects he wants to account for: on the one hand, the dual aspect of myth due to the peculiar interplay between nature and culture and the exploitative use to which it consequently lends itself; and on the other hand, the degree of consciousness involved in the functioning of myth.  Or to put it another way, on the one hand the presumed structure of myth, and on the other the purpose of myth and its use” (Lavers, 1982: p108).

At the end of ‘The Unknown Language’ — the second of the series of essays constituting Empire of Signs — Roland Barthes remarks on “how absurd it is to contest our society without ever conceiving the very limits of the language by which (instrumental relation) we claim to contest it: it is trying to dislodge the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet” (Barthes, 1983: p8).  In view of this toujours contestataire character of Barthes’s writings — which encompass a broad range of sujets — his semiotic analyses have proved invaluable not only as sources of theoretical argument but as methodological models. 

Barthes, asserting that “Language is neither an instrument nor a vehicle: it is a structure,” adds that “[language] can never explain the world, or at least, when it claims to explain the world, it does so only the better to conceal its ambiguity” (Barthes, 1982 (14): p187).  Philip Thody, commenting on a point-of-view shared by Saussure and Barthes, expands further: “although human beings are … always potentially conscious of the arbitrary nature of the signs they employ, they are constantly tempted to pretend that these signs are natural, inevitable, and out of their control” (Thody, 1977: p104).

Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ‘Authors and Writers’ (1960), from Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.

Barthes, R. 1983. Empire of Signs. London: Jonathan Cape [“First British edition”]. First published by Hill and Wang, New York, in 1982. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as L’Empire des Signes; copyright © 1970 by Éditions d’Art Albert Skira SA, Genève.

Lavers, A. 1982. Roland Barthes : Structuralism and After. London: Methuen & Co.

Thody, P. 1977. Roland Barthes : A Conservative Estimate. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.


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