During our discussion, we broke down the four essays that we chose: First off, we dove into “Novels and Children,” which might have been better named something like “women as writers, but in actuality, women as mothers and housewives and homebodies.” We decided that the signifier is women, the signified, men’s perception of women and women’s tasks, and the sign is the myth of independence for women. We discussed the false perception regarding worth and how men are still number one–they have the authority/power/priviledge which determines and limits the conditions of women…i.e. women as writers. The title itself supports this argument: it is novels and children, not novels or children. Thus, women can have the freedom to write, but they have to remember their number one job is to be mothers/wives. Barthes states: “Always remember that man exists and that you are not made like him.” We talked about the historical context and the prevalence of patriarchy, which is seeping through this reading. We also couldn’t tell if Barthes was being sarcastic. He says women can do this that and the other, but then he resorts back to saying that “Well, in actuality, women are entirely dependent on men.” According to Savannah, we define themselves in relation to others…what she called ‘identity maintenance’ whereby individuals pursue actions to maintain their identity. This is the case for women: They define themselves in relation to their male counterparts, whether they want to or not, but mostly because they exist in a society where they are conditioned to do so. I argued that this relates to our class discussion on structuralism where we make sense of something because of certain binaries. Thus, you’re a woman based on your relation to men.
Next, we dove into “Wine & Milk.” We discussed wine as a means of defining the French and how French culture perceived by non-French peoples because of wine. However, wine is just a commodity because of the consumer culture: If the French were not making profit from it, it wouldn’t be as large a part of their culture. We came to the conclusion that the French are conditioned to wine, which in turn relates to cultural flows (and in this case, economic flows). I brought up Marxist argument regarding base and superstructure and how the base is capitalism and the superstructure is wine as a commodity as well as the myth of wine itself: how wine is a symbol of culture. Moreover, Barthes argues: “Win is here a part of the reason of state” (60). Thus, wine itself is the signifier, French culture is the signified, and the sign is the combination of the two. Concerning milk, we had some questions. Milk is considered an “exotic subject”…but why? If anything, milk would seem to have more cultural importance due to its nutritional value and its symbol of strength.
Third, we looked at “The Brain of Einstein.” We concluded that that the brain of Einstein was viewed as superior and machine-like because of his existence during the 1920s and the revolutionary achievements he made in the realm of science. To society, he was viewed as another species of human. However, they did not realize that there were more discoveries still to be made–Einstein did not find the answers to everything. During our discussion, Savannah asked: Is his brain really a myth? It existed physically, yet what makes it seem like a myth? Part of this myth involves our own understanding and perception of Einstein based on American culture and our basic learning of him during school. Thus, the signified is Einstein the human, the signifier as Einstein the superhuman/machine, and the sign is our interpretation of Einstein and our perception of who he was. We also talked about Einstein’s emergence in our own popular culture whereby we joke around using “Einstein” when we’re sarcastic or poking fun at a friend. When discussing this, we all wondered: can this be interpreted as a form of reproduction (similar to Benjamin’s reproduction of art).
Finally, we looked at “The Lost Continent.” This was a bit confusing, but we tried to unravel Barthes argument. We talked about the myth of exoticism and how map drawing skews our perception of the world; i.e. viewing the world from a European point of view and how this places the U.S. as the West and the Asian and African countries as the East, thus impacting how we learned about the world. We talked about ethnographers going in to a foreign place to discover the unimaginable. Meanwhile, they are not concerned with the actuality, thus making them feel in awe of the Orient. They are taking away reality and reducing it down to their own life and perceptions/experiences/ideology. They are blind to the fact that everything has a history and that this continent is not ‘lost;’ it is not merely just floating around and then magically appearing. We can’t assume that the continent is lost because to them [the inhabitants], their land has never been lost: life exists and continues to thrive on. For these essay, the signifier is this “lost continent” with no other meaning, the signified is the ethnographer’s Occident percetion, and the signed is the ethnographer constructing this lost continent as exotic.