Myths, Rites, Simulacra.*
Introductory Remarks from a Semiotic Point of View

In the year 2000, the Austrian Association for Semiotics celebrates its 25th anniversary (1975 proposers' committee, 1976 formal foundation), and suggests on this very occasion as the title of its 10th Symposium "Myths, Rites, and Simulacra, i.e. a semiotically "deep" and "significant" topic - not least due to the fact that "2000" is certainly a myth in itself!

The notion of "myth" is doubtlessly ambiguous, and thus generally, as well as (in particular) semiotically, challenging - fiction with "deep truth"(?). In the classical sense there were, in the beginning, the myths about gods and heroes, about the creation and the end of the world. "Mythologies" were understood as ("primitive"?) models of explanation and appropriation of the world, as early states of consciousness, in close connection with religious thought. A more secularized view of the myth comprised also personalities and events pertaining to world history, then a trivialized view the modern political myths too (e.g. "nation", "empire"). In the end it also became obvious - thanks to semiotics - that we are living with and in "everyday myths". Moreover, "mythology" means the whole of the myths of a community on the object level; on the meta-level, their scientific treatment. Semiotic analysis and elaboration of the notion of "myth", and what is meant by it in different contexts, is therefore an important task. Indeed, semiotics has dealt with mythology already broadly and fundamentally (Vico, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Cassirer, Langer, Geertz, Leach, the Moscow-Tartu-School...), and it is obvious that many related semiotic fields of interest are connected with "myth" (culture, structure, deep structure, discourse, narration, metaphor, modelling, fictionality, ideology, media, magic...). There seem to be no limits for the application of semiotic methods and categories.

The notion of "rite" means first of all the cultic tradition of a religious community as a whole, while "ritual" indicates singular cultic practices and liturgical acts. Yet, as the notion of "ritualization" - coined by J.S. Huxley in 1914 - shows, there were also other currents of thought, for instance early ethology, signifying therewith certain animal and later also human patterns of behavior ("displays"), participating in the construction of a now more manifold meaning. Or take A. van Gennep's notion of "rites de passage" (already from 1909) in anthropology. Such terms were then also used in sociology, as can be demonstrated by E. Goffman's well-known term "interaction ritual". And similar to the case of "everyday myths", one speaks today about "everyday rituals" even in colloquial speech, in which the notional extensions from the liturgial-cultic and the scientific field diffusely intermingle - a (dis)continuum of notions, from value-neutral (be it biologically or sociogenetically) "regulated", "ordered" behavior to pejoratively interpreted patterns of stereotyped, automatized, schematized, over-regulated behavior. From a semiotic point of view, the topic is closely connected with that of the "myth", on the one hand, and with many further important fields of research and interest, on the other (codes, conventions, speech rituals, gestures, expressive behavior, kinesics, proxemics...).

The notion of "simulacrum" is, in a way, ambivalent too, insofar as it first of all meant picture (Lat. image, picture, reproduction), but at the same time the fictitious, vague, diffused image (Lat. dream image, mirage, shadow). The latter meaning was centrally established by J. Baudrillard in postmodern and particularly postmodernism-critical discourse. In his culture and media semiotics the point of the term is the increasingly reference-less, "empty" sign in our culture and society, characterized by "floating significants", which in total tend to make everyday life as well as history become huge simulacra. In this process, the media and the ideology of consumerism play outstanding roles, so that the notion of "simulacrum", as a pendant to "myths" and "rituals", seeks to encourage practice-oriented semiotic approaches in dealing with genuinely contemporaneous phenomena.

 


* The 7th Austro-Hungarian Semio-Philosophical Colloquium has the same general topic as the 10th AAS Symposium. In principle, it is not restricted to its focus, i.e. Section 3.2., but cuts across many of the topics of the other subgroups. - The former Colloquia took place in Budapest (1988), Vienna (1990), Szombathely (1992), Vienna (1994), Graz (1996), and Szeged (1998).

 


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