Monday, 24 November 2008

Boxing with Barthes: The Village Brain

I'm sitting with a mug of tea wishing it would snow as myself and Cara keep getting reports of great swathes of the stuff over in Norfolk and Lincolnshire-respective family seats for the ol'folks of the family.In the meantime i'm working on a essay-partially to do with the relationship between the oral tradition and literature and also a host of other things-it's placing the schools relationship with myth up against other voices-namely Roland Barthes and Sean Kane. I'll drop fragments of this in over time-it's too much monkey business for one blog.I would say that Barthes holds the 'Village' perspective of myth, Kane the 'Forest'. Today it's mostly Barthes turn. Much of this debating lacks poetry, but it can be useful to skip through.

It can be seen that to discriminate among mythical objects according to substance would be entirely illusionary: since myth is a kind of speech,everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse. Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way it utters the message: there are formal limits to myth, there are no ‘substantial’ ones. (1) Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Vintage Press, 1957, p.109.

mythtelling assumes that the stories already exist in nature, waiting to be heard by humans who will listen for them. Such stories have a semi-wild existence; they are just barely domesticated and so are free to enact the patterns of the natural world.(2) Sean Kane, Wisdom of the Mythtellers, Broadview press, 1994, p. 35

We see here Barthes and Kane, writers with profoundly different perspectives tugging at something porous and malliable in story, something that indicates a kind of spell language but also openess to more than the grinding muscles of human inventiveness. Kane also says;

History has been brutal to nature and therefore brutal to myth,
Which it has defined by the Latin equivilant of the Greek word
Fabula, a persistent lie…the assumption of human power we loosely call anthropocentrism. As far as mythtelling is concerned,
The term implies a shift from the authority of plants and animals,
each the spirit-children of supernatural progenitors, to the authority
of man, considered to be god like at the center of the world he
contructs for himself. Once this anthropocentrism settles in the
outlook of a people who have learned to domesticate animals, the
animals stop talking in myth.
(3) p.34

In 'A Branch From the Lightning Tree' I call this the movement between the Rhizomic and the Olympian universe.

Coyote is riding a different vibration from those of us dependent on alarm clocks and years planners. He favours the rhizomic universe.The rhizome is a plant root system that grows by accretion rather than any seperate or oppositional means.There is no defined center to the structure, it doesn't relate to any generative model.
We see that the rhizome is de-territorial, that it stands apart from the tree structure that fixes an order, based on radiancy and binary opposition. Trees are organized with universal principles of heirachy and reproduction. We could say that the tree contains the classical,village,Olympian,solar organised model from which we define most of our stage, language and society.The anthropological fixation on world trees as immovable centers in which the Shaman/Coyote ascends or descends to
objectifed territories is actually a blurred picture. This tree, seen through the eyes of an initiate is actually a vast rhizome, pierced through with a million branches and rootes; not stratified realms but alternating degrees of intensity experienced as plateux, interconnected, riddled with gateways. So Coyote or Enkidu as strange heroes are not pulled into dogmatic gestures of the glittering prize.

(4) A Branch From The Lightning Tree, 2009, p125.

I'm a believer in the knotty crossroads between Village and Forest. How do we live in the luminosity of Asgard whilst holding the fractured posture of Coyote? Well it may be worth remembering that Asgard had a Coyote in the form of Loki. When Zeus incubated Dionysus in his own thigh the two universes drank from each other.It's the business of living to exist in this paradox.

Wandering around in the foliage Kane is bored with Olympia and longs for the cackling plateuxs of myths pre-history rather than the affairs of the Feasting Hall.
He's longing for the earth itself to sing, rather than these pompous dieties with the face of men and women. Barthes seems firmly village bound, sipping a frapacinno and feeling pleased with himself:

The meaning of the myth has its own meaning, it belongs to a history..a signification is already built, and could very well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not suddenly turn it into an empty, parasitical form…when it becomes form the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evapourates, only the letter remains. (6) p. 117

From a rather literal perspective Barthes is writing well here; the oars of his word-boat are causing all kind of linguistic splashes and intellectual tremors, but one suspects he is not such an accomplished diver into the psyche. There is a frantic quality in his arguments that makes us suspect he would do well to jump overboard- allow himself to drown and wake up as a shoe or hawk, rather than an overworked and rather self-conscious brain. What Barthes seems to be associating with myth is what we would today call ‘spin’; the amplification of an image or idea for the manipulation of the Spell maker. He then bemoans the lack of the ‘true’, historic legacy of what that object originally was. We are back to Kanes Fabula, and a fundamental sticking point in approaching myth. Barthes perception, through valuable, is in the role of myth as distortion, un-truth, sly emptier of wholeness.
This is hugely anthropocentric as it places the machinations of human ambition at the center of the myth-world; that the stories are attempts to steer all the cattle into the collective coral, eating the same withered grass.All is horizontal; the metaphorical implications and holy chinks to the Otherworld don’t figure.

'(myth is) abnormal regression from meaning to form, from the linguistic sign to the mythical signifier' (11)Barthes,p 117.

To answer Barthes here: A sign is something that has literal significance placed upon it, a symbol has a far wider web of connotation. A sign denotes, a symbol connotes.When images from the unconscious or from myth are seen as signs only, they have their legs cut from underneath them; their use as psychic guides is redundant. It can only point towards a breakdown of imagination when we intepret a symbol as a sign.

Barthes concretized attack on myth is only effective on a podium in the market square. He criticizes the waves with no idea of the energies that move in their depths. His critique of what he calls myth has a kind of smug intelligence in it, but in my opinion is misguided, even dangerous. Above all it negates the 'web of connotation' into something frozen and manipulative. This points to a cultural misaphrehension; an oddly fundamentalist monologue.
Mythic understanding is subterranean; it lives underneath. A woman who is really a seal, a Dragon obese with conquest, a bridge that is a razored sword; it is inane to suggest these doorways are thin falsehoods; they provide a poetical space for the imagination to flood into. Rather than frozen they are vast-collapsing and refiguring with every consciousness that encounters them.

Barthes states;
What I claim is to live to the full contradiction of my time, which may
well make sarcasm the condition of truth.
(9) Barthes, p. 12

By committing to live in ‘the full contradiction of my time’, he makes his mistake. All storytellers know that two types of time exist. One Barthes knows well-the 24 hours. The shave, the cafĂ©, the deadline; but numinous time is outside the grumblings of the everyday. Myth in its fullness is numinous time pin-pricking through the horizontal, honouring the currency of the shape-shifter generation after generation. Shape-shifer in the sense of its willingness to crumble and reshape to the complex terrain of that generation or individuals consciousness. It doesn’t negate the 24 hours but renegociates its rhymthn; offers a sacrality. It takes us to ‘once upon a time’;the illud tempus, the timeless eternity.Barthes intelligence is rallying against a distorted picture, the best a purely ‘village’ perspective can muster.True mythic influx carries eternity with it.Suddenly we‘have time’-we are nourished.To live in Barthes universe is to walk in irritable boots sheltering under a hungry roof of one-sided intelligencia. It is a joyless language that lacks cock, breast, heart or tail.


Tim said...

Ah1 yes wrestling withy Barthes - no heavy pulsing wingbeats in the twilight , not much inspiration . Too much fodder for the avdertisers and purveyors of cheap materialism .

But Deleuze and Guattari , yes , these guys definitely leave you lost in the rhizomatic forests of becoming ,alert to every cracking twig and the hint of watching eyes behind every bush .

david said...

Barthes's angry ranting words against words.

Writting clogging up the spaces where those other wordless voices might be glimpsed.

Isn't language at it's most magical, beautiful and true as it breaks?

Have wondered in over-heated moments of diamond thought about the authorless-ness of old stories.

Enjoyed the sly Deleuze and Guattari reference.