In trying to unpack Barthes’ model, I found myself getting confused on what the difference was between some of the terms. He describes mythology as a combination of three things: the signifier, the signified, and signification. The form and concept, and also the history, all come into play. And how the viewer receives something is also important, but how one understands something or the level in which he or she dissects it, can also change the meaning. I saw Argo this weekend, and there are plenty of layers to work through within that story. First, it’s a true story. It’s about the extraction of six American diplomatic workers hiding in Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979-1980. In order to extract them, a CIA agent makes up a cover story of a fake movie that is going to be filmed in Iran and hides them as part of a location scout crew. So. if you’re looking at Argo and trying to figure out its mythology or meaning making system, then the signifier would be the general story taken at face value. There’s the plot and that’s it. The signified would be the story as a multidimensional political and historical story. It questions top-level authorities at the time. It’s patriotic. It shows American-Canadian relations, and probably more significantly, American-Iranian relations. It has symbols of the middle east and how things were in Iran at the time, which is depicted as extremely violent and scary. The final layer is something that trips me up a little bit. I suppose this could be the mixing of the two. By taking the story at face value, or just thinking about the images and the colors and the costumes, and then mixing that with the historical and political undertones of the story, it becomes clear that what you’re watching is set in the early 1980s and the rules were different then. It’s also a symbolic system for how differently things are now, but also how much some things have stayed the same.
Barthes mentioned that “a whole book may be the signifier of a single concept; and conversely, a minute form (a word, a gesture, even incidental, so long as it is noticed) can serve as signifier to a concept filled with a very rich history.” I thought this was an interesting point, and something I want to think more about. I’ve been interested in more historical works in books, film, and tv lately, and I think this is something that is very important. When producing stories within a specific historical context, there are symbols strewn all over the work. Some are big, but most are the smaller details that really can fill a story in – but only if the audience is educated on that history. What happens if they are not? Then the symbols become meaningless or become modern symbols which make a different meaning. I think this is what Barthes is trying to explain towards the end of that reading, that every mythology can be unpacked differently, depending on how one takes it. By focusing on an empty signifier, the reader takes things more literally and at face value. By focusing on a full signifier, the reader “clearly understands the meaning and the form” and can see how that dichotomy and how those are playing off of one another. And focusing on the signifier as an inextricable whole, then the meaning becomes more cloudy and become more symbolic than literal.