Semantic Myth

This is the first of four papers from a class I just finished taking, posted to fulfill a social media integration assignment. The subjects of these papers are fairly relevant to the blog.

The Postmodern world seems ready to embrace the relativity of denotation, the presumed “literal” meanings of signs. Connotative meanings – associations brought to mind by specific signs (Fraleigh 344) – are more natural than denotative meanings (Chandler), because they follow intrinsically and honestly from the experiences and presuppositions of individual people. In contrast, denotative meanings require shared cultural understanding that arises through the accumulation of connotations over the course of time (Chandler). On the surface, this relative view of denotation would seem to abolish any concept of objective meaning for any model of semiotics. However, a proper understanding of the relativity of denotation actually points to an absolute context that provides a framework both for objective meaning and for the ever-changing nature of semantics.

Semiotic meanings are derived from cultural narratives drawn from shared mythologies, first expressed as unfixed connotation and eventually solidified into denotation (Chandler). Only in the context of these mythologies can any sign make any sense at all.

Known for writing The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist who delved into theoretical semiotics in his poem “Mythopoeia.” The poem begins with a caricature of the Modernistic practice of defining things according to objective scientific properties:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are 'trees', and growing is 'to grow');
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
Later, Tolkien more explicitly condemns semiotic systems that define things in reference to other contemporaneous things: “I will not treat your dusty path and flat / denoting this and that by this and that.” Instead, Tolkien emphasized the role of the pre-historic humans who laid the foundations of our mythologies:
Yet trees are not 'trees', until so named and seen
and never were so named, tifi those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.
As a religious thinker, Tolkien believed that the intuitions of the myth-makers who invented the oldest mythologies and the ancient pagan religions had some real validity. “The heart of Man is not compound of lies, / but draws some wisdom from the only Wise / and still recalls him” (Tolkien). To Tolkien, the human act of “sub-creation” – making mythologies by applied creativity – re-contextualizes the all-encompassing truth of Deity into human culture; thus, mythology is the universal source of meaning even if individual cultural mythologies might not have a common origin.

Religion is not the only source of support for the belief that mythology is universal. Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth does seem to carry connotations of mysticism even within Campbell’s own descriptions of it, but his defense of the monomyth is almost entirely based on psychology and sociology. Campbell outlined a pattern of 3 stages divided into 17 more specific sections occurring explicitly or implicitly in mythology worldwide (Campbell 36, 37). These stages are based on the stages of the human life cycle that were marked by rites of passage in ancient ritual (Campbell 10). Despite the fact that connotative meanings depend on cultural context, it is a fact that some aspects of the human experience are common across all cultures and all ages of history and pre-history, even if only due to the shared conditions of human psychology and physiology.

Campbell believed that the study of mythology could reveal the meanings encoded in the ritual symbolism. Like Tolkien, he trusted the competence of ancient and pre-historic storytellers:
The old teachers knew what they were saying. Once we have learned to read again their symbolic language, it requires no more than the talent of an anthologist to let their teaching be heard. But first we must learn the grammar of the symbols, and as a key to this mystery I know of no better modern tool than psychoanalysis. (Campbell vii)
Campbell’s description of a “symbolic language” involving a “grammar” suggests that he thought of mythology as a semiotic system unto itself. According to Campbell, mythology is a master language that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers, a language whose lexical structure is based on universal human experience.

As quoted in Chandler, Roland Barthes would probably disagree with the universality of mythology. Chandler reproduces a critique by Barthes of the cover of a French magazine depicting a young black soldier performing the French salute. Barthes interpreted the cover as a perpetuation of the narrative of French colonialism, perhaps even with a veneer of patronizing diversity. The perceived naturalness of myth might in fact be artificial and hegemonic (Chandler).

However, Chandler describes the Western myth of “objectivism” as allied with scientific rationalism, a concept that Tolkien specifically resisted. Like journalism, myth claims to be depicting simple truth without commentary; that is how it has the power to “naturalize” connotative meaning into denotative meaning (Chandler). Journalism can be skewed by the journalist’s perspective either consciously or unconsciously; likewise, mythology can provide an authentic framework to describe objective truth while also potentially promoting ignorant biases or even being used to spread propaganda.

Product placement in movies demonstrates the power of narrative to normalize connotations. When Captain America and Black Widow are hiding as civilians in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they need to decrypt data on a USB stick in order to discover where they need to go next. On the run without computers, they walk into an Apple store in a mall, where Black Widow performs her hacking on a MacBook set up for public demonstration. (Presumably, Hydra agents have Chromebooks.) It is very important that the two superheroes are dressed as regular hipsters. They converse with the Apple store associate, an obvious audience stand-in.

The allure of this shameless plug is not so much the fact that powerful, attractive heroes used the product as that two ordinary hipsters in the middle of their own extraordinary life dramas stopped by an Apple store and used a MacBook to do something very important. Cynicism about the marketing ploy might be warranted, but the fact that narrative contextualizing is used for product placement doesn’t diminish the objectivity or universality of mythological narratives.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier depicts platonic friendship as supremely romantic and binding, assumes the injustice of punishing innocents for the greater security of all, and shows the vulnerable humanity of villains. These narratives can be distorted by being grotesquely emphasized to the exclusion of other truths, and they can become part of hegemonic clich├ęs that need to be subverted. However, these narratives are part of the universal pattern of experience described by Campbell, the specifics falling into the cracks of infinite permutations on the same great themes. They are manifestations of the Light that Tolkien believed in, refracted by human creativity to fill the world with wonder and meaning. These narratives were as true for our most distant human ancestors as they are for us today – though doubtlessly expressed in utterly alien ways – and we cannot and should not progress beyond them.

Works Cited
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. Print.
Chandler, Daniel. "Denotation, Connotation, and Myth." Semiotics for Beginners, 3 Jul. 2014. Web. 18 Sept. 2014.
Fraleigh, Douglas M. and Joseph S. Truman. Speak Up. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R. "Mythopoeia". Web. 18 Sept. 2014.

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