During spring semester, Professor George Gasyna assigned the students in his Comparative and World Literature course, “Literature and Ideas,” to submit an essay about a current cultural myth.
It’s not the first time Gasyna has asked his students in this course (CWL 202) to address cultural myth, a term originating from French philosopher Roland Barthes’ theory on myths arising after World War 2. Such myths can pertain to advertising, an everyday commodity or a well-known social practice, he explained.
He asked students to comment on how such myths focus on political and social uses, and concern themselves with exposing hidden networks or covert agendas (of politics or ideology, for example) where possible, as well as the students’ own reactions to the “myth” and how it can be said to function.
“Student responses to this assignment, both this year and on other occasions when I have taught CWL 202, tell me that such projects help them view cultural production around them with new eyes,” he said, adding, “the eyes of critics of culture, not merely its passive consumers.”
Gasyna pointed out that he is not asking his students to “try to abolish any particular cultural myths, or to radicalize them politically. Rather, on a more universal level, I strive to encourage students to think through some of the ways in which the very society within which they are embedded as citizens, learners, and consumers affects their everyday decisions, and to become more self-aware of their beliefs, assumptions, biases, and choices.”
One essay that caught his attention in particular this term was a piece by Sophia Ebel, a junior majoring in comparative and world literature. Gasyna explained, “Sophia's essay on the deeper meanings of ‘everyday heroes’—workers deemed essential during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US and elsewhere in the West—is a perfect embodiment of the spirit of the exercise: to look more deeply and unblinkingly at the language of the representations, and the images that are produced, and try to determine what these conceal to us as well as what they obviously reveal.”
Here is Ms. Ebel’s essay:
During this unique historical moment characterized by the spread of COVID-19, society has seen widespread recognition of workers essential to fighting the pandemic and keeping our central institutions operating. Medical workers have been applauded from front steps and balconies in major cities; thank you messages and images are circulating on social media platforms; TV commercial breaks now feature ads that blur product promotions with messages that hail essential workers as heroes and remind others to stay home. Even Google has produced multiple animated “Google Doodles” to thank these heroic essential workers. These people are doing crucial, life-saving work, and whether in hospitals, grocery stores, public transit, or elsewhere, are asked to put their safety at risk every day. They deserve every bit of recognition possible and increasing numbers are now contracting COVID-19 and dying from its complications. However, the designations of “essential worker” and in particular the use of the word “hero” to describe them have created a rhetoric and Barthesian mythology around these positions that often masks or attempts to justify the risks that people who have these jobs are asked to contend with. This mythology then often takes the place of concrete actions to protect them.
Dissecting this myth begins at the linguistic and semiotic levels. Superficially, the designations mentioned above-- “essential worker” and “hero” --are fairly simple. An essential worker is an employee whose labor has been deemed necessary; today it often refers to those who work in hospitals, grocery stores, public transportation, etc. A hero is someone who is admired for their courage or other noble qualities, and is often responsible for saving others. Reading these terms as Barthesian myths, however, requires recognizing their usage today as part of a second order semiological system with political, social, and cultural implications.
The idea of an essential worker implies that certain forms of labor, industry, or businesses are required for our continued existence, and supports a capitalist bourgeois mindset in which not even a global pandemic that jeopardizes the health of those still working in public settings can disrupt business as usual. Myth transforms history into nature, and posits both motives as reasons and the values of those in power as fact. This is directly reflected in the rhetoric of it being not only natural but necessary for people to continue working in dangerous conditions without proper protective gear, for us to reopen businesses as soon as possible, and for the economy to be protected at all costs. We must ask to what end, and who truly benefits from this system. Most of the people put in danger by this mythology are not members of the bourgeois class which, Barthes argues, benefits most from this phenomenon and the existing power relations. This is masked by the attempted erasure of class differences in rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 and the praise of essential workers by those in positions of power. But real inequalities remain and have created a situation in which those who already tend to be exploited within the labor system are now even more so and are dying as a result.
Additionally, the fact that this bourgeois class had largely considered people now deemed essential to be “unskilled workers” until the intensification of the COVID-19 pandemic--with medical professionals as a notable exception--is largely being ignored in a further replacement of history with nature. The failure to recognize this shift in rhetoric has corresponded with a failure to improve working conditions, pay, recognition, and status for those who are working in now dangerous situations.
Instead of providing them with compensation, sufficient protective gear, or a system of benefits we call essential workers heroes. This is perhaps the weightier and more sociopolitically dangerous of these linked mythologies. While the myth of the essential worker does rest on the fact that even and perhaps especially during a global pandemic people still need to eat, receive medical care, and occasionally move from one location to another, the designation of these workers as heroes--despite good intentions--has been weaponized to justify the risks that they have to contend with along with a lack of protection or compensation. This mythological “heroism” creates a Barthesian form of Einverständnis where the myth harmonizes with the world not as it is but as it wants to create it. The word “hero” is heavily weighted, especially in the American cultural context. It draws on the mythology of the superhero, an individual who possess capabilities far beyond human, infallibly saves the world by the end of the book/film/comic strip, rarely to significant harm themselves, and in any case is selfless and brave enough that if saving the world demanded the sacrifice of their life—as in the case of Iron Man in the final Avengers movie—they would do it no matter the personal cost. Through this adjacent mythology the dangerous aspects of the myth of the essential worker as hero come to light. The Einverständnis, or false world it creates, is one where we can think of essential workers as holding the same qualities, abilities, and positionality as a superhero when in reality they are human and often have no choice but to continue working. They should not be held responsible for saving the world even if the things they do keep society running. They should not be expected to die for the “greater cause” that is in many cases capitalism more than it is humanity. We should not erase the fact that these workers are put at risk of sickness and death by the broken systems that force them to work in dangerous conditions without proper protective measures. The myth of the essential worker as hero, however, instead of addressing these inequalities and ethical issues simplifies and eliminates all the uncomfortable complications and contradictions in favor of easy displays of unity and support, that while not unmeaningful or unmoving bring no change to the status quo or true recognition of the situation. Barthes would classify this as a myth of the right given this insistence on staticity and deployment of inoculation, privation of history, and identification as tools of creation. And this is indeed the side from which much of the pressure for economic reopening and continued business operations as well as pushback to protective measures have come from. This rhetoric and mythology however, are present and influential at the broader societal level.
Again, the work that people are doing to fight the coronavirus pandemic and keep society running during this time is incredible and should absolutely not be minimized. However, where there is the potential to rethink the expectations of capitalist society and make sure that people in these jobs are protected and compensated, we are instead seeing the creation and propagation of a mythology that even as it reaffirms the essential nature of this work attempts to mask or eliminate the need to make concrete changes that protect those doing it but change the status quo.