The Mythology of Subways: a Barthesian exploration of the meaning of metro

Subways are inherently linked (liés) to the forbidden -- l'interdit, die verboten -- through their evocation of everything subterranean. Substitutes, subterfuge, subversion, and the subnormal are integral components of the subway complex, the cognitive web that is public transportation. And the relation is not just lexical but also structural and metaphoric as the links in the complex form, in a sort of sub-tle pun, a kind of subway map, with relations of similarity and connotation substituting for tracks. This subconscious system consists of subjects which are substantially similar to the subway: similar in sound (when speaking of subway as a signifier), structure, semantic content, or substance. This fascinating nexus is subordinate to the subculture of city-dwellers (les citadins) within the more dominant suburban society-at-large. The opposition between the urbanite and his suburban cousins is (in a sort of fractal self-similarity at differing scales) completely contained within the subway system, because there are subways linking the suburbs and the city center (le centre ville).

We must not, when considering subways, neglect the sub itself, this archetypally New York sandwich, which paradoxically is known in New York as a hero instead of the suburban term "sub." The very name hero testifies to the primacy of this sandwich in the New York mythology. The fact that there are two words for this sandwich, one in New York and one outside, emphasizes the position of outsider-status (altérité) of the New Yorker. By speaking a different language, the urban subway rider has become part of a subclass, subordinate in popular culture but, in contrast, superior in his posession of high culture.

Subs, or heros, are the prototypical eat-and-run lunch, and this speed, this subhuman rushing around, is part and parcel with the notion of subways. One could -- to carry the metaphor to its terminus, its final station -- eat a sub on a subway. One would thus combine meaning and word, signifier and signified by moving between the level of the abstract substance of the subway and the concrete, banal, almost carnal, sub.