One of the key principles upon which the semiotic method is based is that of the cultural mythology. Grounded in Roland Barthes’ pioneering study Mythologies, a cultural mythology is an ideologically inflected worldview (or set of worldviews) that shapes social consciousness. Unlike more strictly held views on social constructionism, however, which hold that reality itself is a social construct, the mythological viewpoint—at least as I present it in Signs of Life in the U.S.A.—is essentially subjective, and can be tested against the objective realities that surround it. So passionately are cultural mythologies held, however, that when reality does break through, the result can be quite emotional, even violent.
Take climate change denial, for instance. Effectively a sub-cultural mythology in its own right, a steady stream of objective evidence that climate change is real only produces ever more insistent denials by its adherents. Or then again, take America's fundamental mythology of the American dream, which holds that opportunities for social and economic advancement are open to all who make the effort to achieve them, and what happens when uncomfortable realities challenge it—as just happened with the still unfolding college admissions scandal.
The extraordinary level of emotion—and media attention—that has greeted this scandal is especially indicative of what happens when a cultural mythology smashes into reality. For here is evidence, especially painful for the middle class, that even college admissions can be bought through schemes that are open only to the upper class that Americans are so slow to recognize exists at all. In a certain sense, I must confess, I'm a little surprised by the profundity of the reaction. I mean, didn't everyone already know about the advantages—from legacy admissions to exclusive prep schools to expensive SAT tutoring—that America's upper classes enjoy when it comes to elite college admissions? Somehow I can't help but be reminded of that iconic scene in Casablanca where Captain Louis Renault is "shocked" that "gambling is going on” in Rick's Café Américain, just as he is about to receive his own winnings.
So there is something about this current glimpse into what upper-class privilege is all about that has really struck a nerve. I see at least three facets to the scandal that help explain how and why. First is the high-profile celebrity involvement. As an entertainment culture, America adores and identifies with its favorite entertainers, so when two popular actresses, and their children, are alleged to have taken advantage of their wealth in order to slip past the guardians of a supposedly meritocratic college admissions system, the feeling of betrayal runs especially deep.
The second component to the scandal is that—even before the Great Recession hit—career opportunities for America's college graduates (especially if they are not STEM majors) are closing down, increasing the pressure to get into one of those schools whose graduates have the best chance at getting the few good jobs that are left. Suddenly, where you go to college seems to matter a lot more in determining where you are going to get in life.
Which takes us to the third angle to the phenomenon: the stunned realization that not only is the American dream a cultural mythology but that the whole game appears to have been rigged all along. This apprehension cannot be overestimated in its affect on American society today. It is, in good part, behind the rise of political "populism" (it may be significant in this regard that conservative commentary on the scandal gloats over the "liberal" Hollywood elites involved), as well as the accompanying divisions in a society where more and more people are competing for fewer and fewer slots in the good life—which appear to have been purchased in advance as part of the social scenario of a new Gilded Age.