Literature as Mythic Discourse
Sebastian Mahfood
April 2, 2001

            Literature is interpellated through praxis and, as such, is transformed whenever critical inquiry generates discursive modes of exploration.  Articulating the theoretical alternatives to the new criticism and Anglo-American formalism does, therefore, lead us to reconceptualize the idea of literature but only under the condition that we come to view the author as someone who can contribute more to our understanding of ourselves than a mere inventory of the world and literature as a generative transformation from a revolutionary discourse to a normative system. Foucault demonstrates in "What is an Author?" that "it is easy to see that in the sphere of discourse one can be the author of much more than a book--one can be the author of a theory, tradition, or discipline in which other books and authors will in their turn find a place" (113).  Books are bound within given discourses, and given discourses arise through theories that bear within them the ability to subvert themselves.  The myth of literature, moreover, lies in its being taken for granted as a transcendent representation of the cultural and linguistic standards of the time and place in which it was written rather than as a reaction against those standards through the cushion of planned ambiguity that emerges within the discursive space the narrative creates.  Literature, then, is that which comes into being through conflict with the paradigmatic structure of any given world, not that which evolves consonant with the system out of which it is born.  In short, all literature is revolutionary, but our perception of literature is that which is created in adherence to a given system rather than as a result of a given discourse.  By interpellating literature through praxis, by forcing it to recognize itself in the hail, we signify the other-text as an extension of our self-text and thereby come to recognize ourselves in that interpellation.  There is no way we do not create and continue to recreate exponentially recursive solutions to problematic elements within the discourse if we become what Barthes termed 'readers of myth,' and what I term 'inquirers of mythic literary discourse.' 

            Approaching a text without being cognoscente of mythic literary discourse patterns within literature leads merely to reading the system within which the literature was written.  Roland Barthes, in "Myth Today," explains that "the very principle of myth [is that] it transforms history into Nature…what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason" (116).   Now, there is nothing inherently wrong in reading a myth as a reason, and readers can find a healthy development of their cognitive processes through the practice that this kind of reading gives them.  However, this kind of reading can only go on so long before deeper significations begin to be uncovered through increasing inquiries.  Barthes adds that "if myth is depoliticized speech, there is at least one type of speech which is the opposite of myth: that which remains political" (134).  Practice, then, differs from praxis in a very fundamental way.  While practice is the continued adaptation of one's talent and energy towards a particular paradigm until its mastery, praxis is the development of transformative talents and energies that move beyond their original paradigmatic models through active reflection. Praxis creates a dynamic relationship between the reader-as-text and the literary text that transforms the reader into an inquirer, from someone who reads the myth to someone who questions in what way it is there.  For that reason, praxis is revolutionary while practice is not, and, as it is through the function of a given tool that we find its use, those involved in praxis are involved in revolutionary discourse while those involved in practice are involved in systemic adherence.  What is so revolutionary about literature, therefore, is not only its ability to be examined through revolutionary tools such as praxis, but also its ability not to be.

            Any given literature is both a representation of the reality out of which it was born and a struggle against that reality which is why it was born.  Artists[1] view the world around them and find within that world tools for world-critique, but since the critique is not external to the artist, the artist interpellates him or herself into that critique using tools forged especially for that critique[2].  Certain artists use literary semiotics to express themselves, and these are called writers of myth because they combine both linguistic signifiers with the non-linguistic signifieds in order to reproduce a symbol of culture.  An example of this can be found again in Barthes, where he writes about the black man saluting the French flag while wearing a French military uniform in the same way Frantz Fanon wrote about black children in the Antilles reading about their 'ancestors, the Gauls':

If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an instrument.  Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the obviousness of its motivation.  But for the myth reader, the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.  (117) 

That symbol of culture, in this case the flag's being saluted by the black soldier, represents an agreed upon value for both natural and annexed members of that culture, and this general agreement on cultural capital is what creates the mythic reality that the literary text will explore[3].  Through an exploration of that reality, the literary text establishes itself as a cultural assumption at its most adherent and a cultural critique at its least.  It represents the culture out of which it comes because it is based on the use-value of its symbols, which are culturally derived, but it in no way defines the cultural discourse, for any given discourse holds within it the possibility for emergent praxis.  As all writing is part of literary discourse, all writing carries within it the potential to be subversive.

            Now, this brings me to my point: literature, because it is comprised of culturally derived symbols that carry potentially subversive use-value, critically emerges from any given culture through praxis, or active reflection concerning that culture as expressed through language.  This critical emergence is what gives literature its revolutionary character, which is why it should be read as an attempt to expand stagnant paradigms into dynamic ones, to build beyond the structures already in place in order to serve as an agent of social change in society rather than as a reflection of social change or of social stasis.  Literature, thus, becomes a tool for social change, a revolutionary tool that exposes the anti-dialogic elements in any given society and lends itself to counterhegemonic struggles against those elements.  As all cultures are in constant internal fluctuation, all hegemonic structures find themselves eroded from within by counterhegemonic praxes.  They cannot help it.  The agency of the given author, therefore, works as a palliative against the hegemonic ascendancy of the given paradigm, and even Alexander Pope's erudite assertion that 'whatever is, is right' can be read as both a validation of British cultural hegemony and as a validation of every counterhegemonic struggle against it since those, too, naturally exist within the discourse of 'whatever is.' 

            The art of literature can be seen as one of turning writers from consumers of myth to myths' very producers[4], giving authors the ability to create what appear to be normalized worlds that accurately reflect the nature of those worlds in order to assist in the process of societal enculturation.  As long as the enculturation process engenders no adversity, the myth of literary discourse remains normalized, unmarked speech.  All discursive systems, however, engender adversity in the form of counterhegemonic forces that are to greater or lesser degrees suppressed by the paradigm against which they struggle.  When this happens, the process of enculturation develops into one of acculturation, and because systems are slower to change than the agents who live within them, the acculturation of its liminal frontiers is soon driven not by the society within which a given culture is predominant but by the inability of that given culture to see beyond its own paradigms and convert its practice into praxis.  Subliminally, therefore, literature arises to address the evolution of the paradigm in a way in which the paradigm is not ready to be addressed, to be interpellated.  It is seen, as a result, through the gauze of the paradigm by the reader of the myth and through the potential of the praxis by the inquirer.  It is for the purpose of growth that we become inquirers of mythic discourse, to find solutions, but not to solve [and thereby render a new rigid paradigm in place of the old one], problematic issues within our cultural discourse.


Bakhtin, Mikhail.  “Discourse in the Novel.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.  Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1998:  32-44. 

Barthes, Roland.  "Myth Today" (1956).  A Barthes Reader.  Ed. by Susan Sontag.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1982: 93-149. 

Foucault, Michel.  "What is an Author?" (1979).  Trans. by Josue V. Harari.  The Foucault Reader.  Ed. by Paul Rabinow.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1984: 101-20.

[1] Inasmuch as artists fill the author function, this is worth quoting at length: "The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.  As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author.  We are accustomed…to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations.  We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.  The truth is quite contrary: the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction…The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning" (Foucault 118-9).


[2] Albeit, Bakhtin makes the point that "language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated--overpopulated--with the intentions of others.  Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process" (35). 

[3] And this doesn't have to happen along racial lines, but along any lines that might lend themselves to a counterhegemonic struggle.  The success of the bourgeoisie, for instance, lies in its normalizing of itself as natural so that its myths become pervasive as what is right and natural in the world.  Barthes later adds that "the same 'natural' varnish covers up all 'national' representations: the big wedding of the bourgeoisie, which originates in a class ritual (the display and consumption of wealth), can bear no relation to the economic status of the lower middle class: but through the press, the news, and literature, it slowly becomes the very norm as dreamed, though not actually lived, of the petit-bourgeois couple.  The bourgeoisie is constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it except in imagination, that is, at the cost of an immobilization and an impoverishment of consciousness.  By spreading its representations over a whole catalogue of collective images for petit-bourgeois use, the bourgeoisie countenances the illusory lack of differentiation of the social classes: it is from the moment when a typist earning twenty pounds a month recognizes herself in the big wedding of the bourgeoisie that bourgeois ex-nomination achieves its full effect" (129-30).

[4] True production, however, cannot really create myth because production in itself is an agent of change as things become transformed through their development from one thing to another.  Barthes explains: "There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, metalanguage is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible.  This is why revolutionary language proper cannot by mythical.  Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal the political load of the world: it makes the world; and its language, all of it, is functionally absorbed in this making.  It is because it generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially political and finally natural, that Revolution excludes myth…The bourgeoisie hides the fact that it is the bourgeoisie and thereby produces myth; revolution announces itself openly as revolution and thereby abolishes myth" (135).