The semiotic structure of counter myth

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MYTH THEORY II: POLITICAL MYTH AND COUNTER MYTH 

 In telling a myth, the myth-maker not only intends his audience to understand the message he has in mind; he also intends to make them behave in a certain way (Tudor 1972:48).This chapter aims to identify the importance of political and counter myth research, the social value and dangers of counter myth, and their relationship to the establishment of mythic national identify. To establish the importance of counter myth research is also to question the importance of the study of any myth. To begin with, it has been established that myth executes a pivotal social function in that it provides a kind of symbolic reference which links present myth readers to past audiences. With regard to this, Tudor (1972:140) describes myths as « historical phenomena », even though, as we already know from Barthes (1972) myth is not capable of offering a factually accurate connection to a historical past, but what it does offer is a particular view or naturalisation of that past. Thus, myth is fundamentally important in the establishment of a social group’s historical sense of identity. After the elimination of historical and social complexities from its representations, myth offers its audience a kind of intellectual comfort as it works as an orientating force supplying readers with a sense of their individual place in history. With the selective exclusion of historical nuances, myth transcends the personal and particular, thereby representing a type of universal message which can portray the experience of an entire group or culture.

Political myths and national identity

For their part, political myths serve to mythologise a group, not an individual figure (Tudor 1972:139). When represented through a medium heavy in narrative, such as film, the political myth hero figure or protagonist can not only be understood as an individual, but as representative of the entire group (Tudor 1972:139). A certain political myth discourse may even function to serve national identity, where a national identity is a collection of ideas, narratives and myths which constantly work to imbue a people with a collective sense of nationhood (Price 1995:40). Myths then act as the expressions of entire peoples, facilitating cohesion in society and culture. Myths are based on cultural values and therefore they can determine, or at least, influence how people behave within the cultural group. Myths can then be personal and unique to an individual, but they can also be cultural and national (Brown 2004:276). It is the latter type of myth which is of main concern to this study. Myth then also operates to facilitate cultural reproduction. According to Schöpflin (1997:206) myth « … acts as a means of standardization and of storage of information. It provides the means for the members of a community to recognize that, broadly, they share a mind set, they are in much the same thought-world ». Thus comes the recognition that myth plays a vital role in their establishment of coherence within society, and in the maintenance of discourses which makes sense of the world for the community.Such concerns are of particular importance when considering the functioning of political and counter myth in contemporary South African mass media. More to the point, political counter myths in recent South African films have employed myths in manners which may be seen to encourage ideas of reconciliation and a new national identity. Post-apartheid South African films then become an interesting example with regard to the myth theory which has been laid out thus far. Not only are the myths in these texts political in nature, they are indeed counter mythical as they are ardently in opposition to the previously dominant myths of apartheid type oppression and social separation. Added to that, these mythic expressions are of social importance because of their value in terms of their contribution to the establishment of a counter or new national sense of identity. A political myth, similar to all myth, works to counteract social contradictions within a society, making certain beliefs seem more coherent. It also serves to explain the circumstances which a people may find themselves in. This is done by orientating the present situation within a narrative so that the current state of affairs can be viewed “as an episode in an on-going drama” (Tudor 1972:139). A political myth offers a number of important functions which assist the individual in understanding society. These include how the political myth explains how the group came into being, how it arrived at the present state of affairs, and how and why it got itself into its present predicament. Importantly, the political myth also identifies the enemies and threats to the group, as well as offering a picture of future victory (Tudor 1972:139). With regard to content and form, modern political myths are social mechanisms which explain and make sense of past and present political events for their audiences (Flood 1996:41). In post-apartheid South African film, apartheid itself, and apartheid era perpetrators are mythologised in an attempt to make sense of the collective South African history of violence and trauma. Here political myths are being used almost as a collective psychological mechanism for social healing. Furthermore, more positive future-myths are also represented both in post-apartheid South African film and other media, which mythologise the idea of an optimistic future for the country after the trauma of apartheid. These include myths of reconciliation (most poignantly evident in the films dealing with the TRC), the buddy myth (a black person and white person become friends despite of their colour or race) and the myth of the Rainbow Nation. Hence political and counter myths currently describe both how South Africa(ns) arrived at the present point in history by mythologising a traumatic past, but also offer bright future alternatives.In keeping with this (Tudor 1972:139) offers the following observation: “[a] political myth may, for instance, establish the claim of a certain group to hegemony, sovereign independence or an extension of territory; it may help to strengthen the solidarity of the group in the face of a major challenge; it may serve to encourage the resistance of an oppressed minority; or it may supply compelling arguments for the abolition of undesirable institutions. And, where the myth is the story of a political society already in existence, it may sanctify the constitution of that society, inspire its members with confidence in their destiny and glorify their achievements”.It becomes evident that a political myth often works in the service of the maintenance of a collective and social sense of nationhood or national identity. In totalitarian societies, political myths and political rituals function in conjunction with one another. A sudden disintegration of the established order due to economic reasons or due to the playing out of a revolution, sees the need for people within society to establish a new understanding of their place in the world. This need can only be satisfied by the construction of new myths. Now the nation’s past is mythologically dramatised in such a manner that its future and present state become apparent (Tudor 1972:30). Within a current post-apartheid South African context, but also the wider African and global postcolonial arena, the importance of the study of political myth thence cannot be stressed enough. Many previously colonised countries have in recent decades and still continue to struggle to (re)establish a sense of nationhood, national identity and national pride in a complicated post-independence environment. The study of political myth, and the manner in which political myths have been or may still be utilised by previously colonised societies, is of utmost importance to post-colonial studies and social scientists alike, if one is to understand some of how previously colonised peoples have dealt and are to deal with their current condition.Political myths have a functional responsibility to the ideological discourse to which they are inevitably connected. Political myths are vehicles of ideological beliefs and act as naturalisations or justifications for ideological arguments. Consequently, many political myths are in competition with one another due to the fact that they represent conflicting ideologies. A political myth is therefore an ideologically marked representation “of past, present, or predicted political events. The political myth can be described as ideologically marked because it represents the assumptions and is identifiably imprinted with the beliefs of a certain ideology” (Flood 1996:42).

Myth and postcolonial collective identity

But most of this, theorists have known about myth for some time. What is of particular importance in this study is how myth, and in particular counter and political myth, operate practically to inform the new mythologies of previously colonised societies (with particular reference to South Africa) within a post colonial and post-apartheid environment, and also how counter myths are functioning to (re)establish these people’s social and political identities.Myths operate as a mechanism for the transference of identity. Schöpflin (1997:208) maintains that myth « … enables a new identity to be superimposed on an older one, so that the collectivity sustains itself by creating an identity homogenous enough to let it live with, say, a major social upheaval ». This is particularly applicable to many postcolonial situations, where previously colonised societies necessarily need to reestablish new collective identities by re-formulating older colonial-era identities, prior to the various upheavals which have accompanied the post-independence era, particularly in Africa.It is important to understand that the objective of counter myth is not necessarily to disrupt the societal cohesion made possible largely by dominant myth as described above. Counter myth is not (or at least is very rarely) motivated by a desire for social chaos and anarchy, but rather by a perceived desire for a better social world, spurred on by the idea that a particular group within society suffers some kind of social injustice which should be rectified. It is an ethical action, even though the ethics inscribed in the counter myth may be a subjective matter of opinion. Nonetheless, the counter myths which are (and were) consciously enacted in the past and are still finding motivation in representational practice by previously colonised peoples in reaction to the dominant political myth discourses of the colonial powers, deserve critical attention if we are to ever understand how new post colonial identities are to be, and are being (re)established.But more than that, an understanding of counter myth empowers us with the opportunity to develop strategies of resistance to socially damaging dominant myths and their discourses. These strategies are already taking root, as visual evidence of counter myth of African origin is revealing itself in recent film. An example is the film Tsotsi (2006): this film highlights the ideological complexities and difficulties faced by postcolonial counter myths, as while Tsotsi (2006) still employs an Africanism[1]  type aesthetic in depicting the misery of the Johannesburg townships, it also establishes a mythic racial dynamic in which traditional black and white tensions are finally laid to rest. This representation of a South African social situation which does not depend on black versus white racial conflict, is uncommon in contemporary South African film, and Tsotsi’s (2006) success in its counter mythic programme, is that it represents South Africa as more than a country which is exclusively governed by the legacy of racism and apartheid. Tsotsi (2006), however, because it does not wholly shed the mythic representation of Africanism, does serve to illustrate how dominant myth and counter myth can often inter-animate one another within the same representation. The more recently produced Jerusalema (2008) follows a similar mythic formula to Tsotsi (2006), in that whilst the aesthetic and iconography of Africanism persist, the main theme(s) of the film involve more than the simple racial binary between black and white.At times myth can be mechanism for mobilising a community in a standardised way to respond to a crisis, or to recover from trauma. Evidently, the community’s response would not have much effect if not organised, and this organisation of action is inspired by myth (Schöpflin 1997:208-209). In a postcolonial environment, this social function of myth is particularly important.

Shaping perceptions, beliefs and social action

Bottici and Challand (2006), albeit with reference to dominant political myth discourse, point out that, political myths (and counter political myths) have the capacity to effect the perceptions of people to such an extent that the future political actions of a certain group within society may be determined by them. The importance of studying political and counter myths comes in that these myths do not act to intellectually organise society, but also function as a call to act: “a political myth is not simply a prophecy, but it tends rather to become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Bottici & Challand 2006:329). Myth is a mechanism for providing certain cognitive limits, which simplifies the reality. It standardizes the understanding and the coherence of the collective. This can be dangerous, however, when understanding provided by the myth has variances which are too great when compared to the reality. If an entire people or collective should respond to such a myth, then they are a resultantly responding in a way which is not responsibly informed. Examples of this could be numerous ethnic conflicts which have taken place throughout history, and which have occurred in great measure on the African continent during the last five decades of African independence in various countries including Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia amongst others (Schöpflin 1997:208-209 & Dowden 2008).Because myth sets limits on collective cognition, it can have a potentially negative effect on the understanding of social change. Political leaders can use this in one of two ways. They can encourage myths which elicit a widespread emotional response, in order to block reform or to soften the blow which accompanies great social change. Political leaders can also deploy myths to preserve power, by setting certain barriers to collective understanding or comprehension by stressing a myth which encourages us not challenge those in the position of power. Schöpflin (1997:212) asserts that « [t]he very language of contest is made to seem unavailable as words acquire the very particular, constricted meanings with which myth invests them, and the range of understanding is greatly narrowed ». While myths have the ability to shape perception and belief, it cannot be unexpected that eventually people may act on the beliefs that they receive from mythical discourse. This may be even more so with regard to counter myths. These myths have the capacity to not only determine how certain groups perceive the world, but are also inspired by a call to social action, and the importance of studying counter political myth therefore becomes paramount. Lincoln (1989:4) observes how ideological persuasion is facilitated by discourse (mythic or otherwise) and is usually strategically employed to “mystify the inevitable inequities of any social order and to win the consent of those over whom power is exercised”. Discoursal action can, however, also serve the interests of those who aim to demystify, denaturalise and deconstruct the traditionally established discourses, norms and legalities which govern social life (Lincoln 1989:5). This arena of inspired social change is the ground of counter myth.The term Africanism as used in this study, stems from and is similar to Said’s (1978) term Orientalism, Africanism connotes a traditional Western attitude of superiority over Africa(ns), while maintaining fascination with the idea of exotic and savage Africa.

Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 Background, aims and a demarcation of the field of study
1.2 Methodology and theoretical approach
1.3 The literature study
1.4 The case study
1.5 Summary of the chapters of the study
Chapter 2: Myth theory I: counter myth
2.1 Counter myth: a theoretical framework
2.2 The semiotic structure of counter myth
2.3 Counter myth and media framing
2.4 Counter myth and the first level signifier
2.5 The functions of myth and counter myth
2.6 Counter myth and political myth
2.7 Counter myth and discourse
Chapter 3: Myth theory II: political myth and counter myth
3.1 Political myths and national identity
3.2 Myth and postcolonial collective identity
3.3 Shaping perceptions, beliefs and social action
3.4 Examples of counter myth
3.5 Stereotyping
Chapter 4: Myth theory III: myth-as-narrative and myth-as-object
4.1 Myth and narrative
4.2 Myth-as-object and film
4.3 Social semiotics and myth
Chapter 5: A theoretical framework for the analysis of myth and counter myth in film 
5.1 Myth identity: naming and placing the myth
5.2 Medium(s) of myth representation (form)
5.3 Myth type: dominant myth and counter myth
5.4 Myth format: myth-as-narrative and myth-as-object
5.5 Myth genre and myth sub-genre
5.6 Mythic iconography
Chapter 6: History film: the (re)construction of white collective identities in post apartheid South African films by myth and counter myth
6.1 History film and national cinema: a new South African film genre and a site for counter myth
6.2 The mythologisation of race: whiteness in post apartheid film
6.3 Applying the theoretical model: counter myth analysis on post-apartheid South African new history film. The myth of the good white and bad white perpetrator
6.4 Counter myth and the re-mythologisation of whiteness: the myth of reconciliation
Chapter 7: Conclusion
7.1 Conclusions, contribution and implications of the study
7.2 Proposals for further research
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A THEORETICAL EXPLORATION OF THE CONSTRUCTION OF COUNTER MYTH: A CASE STUDY OF POST APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICAN FILM

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