The Paradox of Suspense X – Early Steps of a Solution

In the previous sections I provided my characterisation of suspense. I held that uncertainty is integral to suspense. Whether in regard to a particular scene or a complete narrative uncertainty concerning how it will be resolved is essential to experiencing suspense. However, because I hold that suspense requires uncertainly I am threatened by the paradox of suspense. As I noted here, the paradox of suspense can be stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any   uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for my account of suspense (because it holds that suspense requires uncertainty).  To escape the paradox of suspense I will illustrate that knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation does not necessarily preclude uncertainty. I will argue that the function and processes of our attention is responsible for this ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out.

            We are able to experience uncertainty in response to scenes, situations and narratives we know the outcome to because we do not (automatically) use prior knowledge (stored in our long term memory) when processing the information provided by a particular narrative. That is, when we are reading a suspense thriller we are not obliged to recall our knowledge of how a scene turns out. To establish whether we are obliged or not to recall specific information Richard J Gerrig conducted several experiments. These experiments attempted to gauge whether we do use prior information about former president George Washington when reading a short narrative about his life. In order to judge whether we are or are not obliged to access specific information about George Washington Gerrig introduced an obstacle to our comprehension of the well-known story of his acceptance of the role of first president of the USA. Gerrig explains:

In our experiments, we created small emendations to nonfictional aspects of American history and culture. We began with assertions that were selected to be unproblematic, such as George Washington was elected first president of the United States. We then wrote stories that presented obstacles to these well-known outcomes.[1]

The obstacle in the first experiment was changing the narrative to conclude that George Washington had rejected the presidency because he was too frail and that John Adams has become the first president. If we are obliged to utilize prior knowledge we have about George Washington then there should be no difference between the time needed to respond to questions by readers given the truthful story and those with the altered ending. The results of Gerrig’s experiments were staggering.[2] In some cases the altered stories produced an increase of nearly 50% in processing time required to answer the question correctly. Gerrig explains:

The results of this experiment indicate that uncertainty can be induced by immersing readers in story episodes. Verification latencies suggested that the subjects entertained the implied conclusions of the [narratives], even when they had information available in memory that directly contradicted these conclusions.[3]

Gerrig concluded that this evidence shows that there is ‘a limit on the way that prior knowledge is put to use in moment-by-moment understanding’.[4] That is, Gerrig’s experiment illustrates that we can be momentarily uncertain about outcomes or situations we have prior knowledge of because we do not automatically utilise prior knowledge of a scene (or situation or narrative) when processing the information provided by that scene. Gerrig’s experiments affirm then that it is quite possible to be uncertain about a scene, scenario or narrative even if we know how that particular scene, scenario or narrative turns out. What remains to be explained is why and how this natural ability comes about and how exactly it can explain features of our experience of repeat suspense. I will show that it is our attention which is responsible for our ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out. That is, it is a feature of the way our attention works that we are able to (and do so frequently) prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. So, when we re-watch Die Hard we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out with the consequence that we can experience uncertainty and ultimately suspense.

McClain hanging from tower

[1] Richard J Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the absence of Uncertainty’, Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 28, No. 6, (December 1989), p. 633-648, p. 634.

[2] For brevity I will not copy the numbers created by Gerrig’s experiment though it is important to note that the difference in latency between true stories without obstacles (2.33 seconds) to stories that were false with obstacles (3.12 seconds) is a massive difference in response to a story with very little counter-factual information to process.

[3] Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty’, p. 639.

[4] Ibid, p. 645.

The Paradox of Suspense VII – Further Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In response to these two criticisms Carroll highlights a difference between our everyday moral assessment and fictional morality. Carroll starts by explaining that we often alter our notions of right and wrong in regard to the imagined or presented fictional world. Carroll illustrates this point by arguing:

For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrating crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. However, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking virtues such that… we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper.[1]

To Carroll, we alter our notions of moral and immoral to match the central protagonists’ world-view. We do this because the central protagonists are shown to be virtuous. The virtues Carroll has in mind are ‘strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, competence, beauty, generosity, and so on’.[2] In certain cases then, in which the central protagonist’s commit immoral acts, it is their overriding virtues in contrast to the fiction’s antagonists that make us ‘cast our moral allegiance with them’.[3] To illustrate this point Carroll highlights Zulu (Dir., Cy Endfield, 1964) as a prime example of a film in which ‘we are drawn into the film’s system of moral evaluation by its portrayal – or lack thereof – of characters with respect to virtues’.[4] According to Carroll, we align ourselves towards the British soldiers because, even if we are staunchly anti-imperialist, they are shown to be courageous, brave and ingenious[5]. In regard to Goodfellas, Carroll would argue that though Henry Hill is a criminal he displays more virtues, or less vice, than the other characters which motivates us to support his actions. Carroll would also argue, in relation to the particular scene I brought attention to, that within the fictional world and in regard to Henry’s character hitting the neighbour is the moral action (with hitting the wife and neighbour being the logically opposed outcome). Carroll would also use a similar explanation for The Godfather. That is, within the context of the film, and the context of the film’s moral context, Michael assassinating the two rival gangsters is the moral option. However, though Carroll’s replies appear to answer the first two criticisms there are significant problems with his response. The first is that Henry does not display any virtuous characteristics. Henry steals, lies, murders in cold blood and for little reason, he abuses his wife emotionally, cheats on her, is jealous, self-centred, deals and takes drugs, back stabs his friends and betrays those who help him and the Mafia honour code he swears to live by and is, for the want of a better phrase, a viscous scum-bag. We do not side morally with Henry because he shows some virtues that other character’s do not, we feel suspense and care about Henry because we witness and become seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and uninhibited attitude[6]. In regard to The Godfather, even if we accept that within the film’s moral context killing the two gangsters is a permissible course of action; this does not mean that not killing the two gangsters is also seen as immoral. That is, if killing is morally acceptable in the context of the film and calling for a truce is also morally acceptable (though may be disappointing) then there is still a problem for Carroll in that there isn’t two logically opposed possible outcomes[7].  The problem with Carroll’s characterisation is that suspense derives from two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) is that it seems more than possible to experience suspense without there being just two possible logically opposed moral outcomes. There is also a further issue with Carroll’s position in that it also seems possible to experience suspense in response to fictions that do not feature any moral dimension. A striking example of this can be found in L’Avventura. In the scene where Sandro thinks he has seen Anna again we experience some suspense. However, nothing about this scene has a moral dimension. That is, this scene is not suspenseful because it is morally correct that Sandro find Anna. We do not even know if Anna wants to be found. Our suspense in this scene is also nothing to do with Sandro’s virtuous nature as he is not shown to be likeable and after a few days he starts a sexual relationship with Anna’s best friend Claudia (and up until this scene Claudia and Sandro have all but forgotten about Anna and their “search” for her). Another example of a film that creates suspense without a moral dimension could be one that depicts a divorce in a realistic and objective manner. The film follows both sides in the preceding court case showing that the mother and father both have legitimate grievances and claims for the sole custody of the children. As the final verdict draws close we experience suspense regarding which outcome will materialise. In the case of this hypothetical film it would not be immoral for the mother to win; neither would it be immoral if the father won. Our feelings of suspense in response to this film would not be based on there being two possible logically opposed moral possibilities but rather on subjective personal opinion and past experience.[8] That is, our desire that the mother or father win would be based on if we could identity with them, understand their position or like them. Therefore, Carroll’s argument that suspense is created by a conflict between two logically opposed moral outcomes is flawed because it is possible to experience suspense in response to non-moral situations and instances where there is no conflict between two moral outcomes.

Central to Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is the ability of “mere thoughts” to motivate emotional responses. However, there seems to be many instances where merely entertaining in thought a proposition does not cause us to respond emotionally. A common instance of this, at least to philosophy students and tutors, is the philosophical thought experiment. Many philosophical thought experiments often include horrific, bizarre and disturbing premises that, if we believed them, we would react in distinct ways. Thankfully however, we do not respond to thought experiments as if we believe them because we are able, in Carroll’s terms, entertain them nonassertedly (that is, without having to hold that x is true). Shaun Nichols highlights one particular thought experiment as a paradigm example of a thought experiment that would be disturbing if we responded emotionally to: ‘Imagine that you’re red-green colour blind and that all sentient life in the universe except for you is destroyed. In that case, does the colour red still exist?’.[9] This thought experiment asks us to entertain the possibility that all sentient life in the universe is destroyed bar us. However, when imagining this possibility within the framework of the thought experiment we don’t respond to it how we would if we believed all sentient life in the universe was destroyed nor do we respond to it with any emotional response. There appears then to be mere thoughts have the power to motivate us to respond emotionally and those that do not. This is an issue for Carroll insofar as it appears that there is more to explain behind the ability of thoughts to motivate emotional responses – especially if Carroll wants to avoid falling back on beliefs to explain the difference. I do however, believe that there is a possible explanation and solution and that is to introduce desire as the difference between instances where thoughts do provoke an emotional response and instances where thoughts do not provoke an emotional response. That is, in the case of entertaining the thought that my footing is loose on a high building I have an active desire (because I’m on an observation deck on a tall building) not to see that outcome realised. If I was in an office building behind a desk and imagined that my footing or the floor wasn’t secure it is unlikely that I would experience any pang of vertigo. This is because I do not have an active desire to avoid falling as I am in a secure building. Likewise, in the case of the thought experiment I do not have an active desire to avoid see the whole universe being destroyed. In regard to fiction then, we are drawn (through several techniques) into desiring that McClain survive and thrive in Die Hard with the consequence that when we are confronted with a scene in which we entertain the thought that he may be in mortal danger we respond emotionally. Therefore, whether a fiction is successful in engendering an emotional response is contingent on us experiencing a corresponding desire and, as Nichols explains, whether we have the right desire to respond emotionally depends on ‘the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on’.[10] To conclude then it is not enough just to entertain the thought that McClain is in danger, we must also have the relevant desire to see him come to no harm.

A second and more significant criticism of Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense concerns his accounts inability to convincingly explain “diminishing returns”. As I noted in section 1.2 diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction) to fiction.  According to Carroll when we watch Die Hard for the third or fourth time and entertain the possibility that John McClain will be discovered eaves-dropping on the terrorists and killed we will still experience suspense. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain that an outcome is uncertain then it seems strange that our suspense diminishes at all. Carroll cannot reply that it is due to the audience not entertaining the possibility because they still experience some suspense in response to Die Hard’s narrative. This is a serious issue for Carroll because diminishing returns is a common feature of our interaction with narrative fiction and his account’s failure to provide a possible explanation provides us with good reason to be sceptical about his account.

A further criticism of Carroll’s account also concerns his solution to the paradox of suspense. Carroll account holds that all that is required to engender suspense is entertained uncertainty. However, if we accept this then it raises the question why any viewers fail to feel suspense on repeated viewings. That is, Carroll’s account struggles to explain “absent suspense”. In many repeat viewings of action genre films we may still be gripped by a sense of thrill and excitement. On our seventh or eighth viewing of Commando (Dir., Mark L Lester, 1985) we still enjoy the scene in which the protagonist John Matrix dangles the antagonist Sully off a cliff while interrogating him about the location of his kidnapped daughter. One particular element of this scene we routinely enjoy concerns when Sully reminds John that John had promised to kill him last to which John relies “I lied” before dropping him to his death. We enjoy this scene repeatedly because we can, in Carroll’s terminology, entertain nonassertedly that Sully is an evil man embroiled in a plot to install an evil dictator in a peaceful South American country and that he deserves (in the fiction’s moral system) his gruesome death served with a pun. However, we do not experience suspense in response to any scene in Commando on repeat viewings. Though we still entertain that John’s daughter is in mortal danger and unlikely to survive any rescue attempt we do not experience suspense in response to this film. Carroll’s reply to this would obviously be that we have just failed to entertain that the outcome is uncertain and this is why we do not experience any suspense. However, this reply appears disingenuous in that it seems odd that we have successfully entertained every other element essential to re-experience the joy, thrill, excitement of viewing Commando but failed to entertain that the outcome of the narrative is uncertain (which would seemingly diminish our enjoyment?). Though this criticism is far from conclusive in defeating Carroll’s account of suspense it gives us further reason to be dissatisfied about its ability to explain even the most common features of our engagement with narrative fiction.

Another related issue for Carroll’s account concerns its inability to explain why we do not experience suspense in repeat viewings of sports matches. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supports will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supports will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain the possibility that we are uncertain how a corner, penalty turns out then we should be able to experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events like football matches. The problem cannot be that we do not have the sufficient desire that our favourite team not concede or score a goal. There is obviously an answer to why we do not experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events however; Carroll’s account appears unqualified in offering us a clear and comprehensive answer.

[1] Noel Carroll, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 79.

[3]Ibid, p. 79.

[4]Ibid,  p. 79.

[5]  This characterisation appears to be unfair in regard to the representation of the AnZulu warriors. Though they are not given much of a role in the film’s narrative other than as antagonists they are shown to be resourceful, brave and fierce warriors. If they were not shown to have these warrior virtues their song at the end of the film would have little meaning. That is, if they weren’t shown to have every virtue required of a great warrior nation or people (including honour and respect) then their singing tribute towards the Welsh regiment wouldn’t be such a touching and striking symbol of respect. It could also be argued that the Welsh regiment – essentially a lazy, incompetent, argumentative rabble with a few good men chucked in – are shown to have many more vices than the AnZulu warriors.

[6]Our seduction towards accepting (at least provincially) the Goodfellas’ lifestyle and attitude is mirrored simultaneously in the film through the scenes featuring Henry’s wife.

[7] On moral grounds at least. The difference between the two options appears to be that one is desired (the killings) and the other undesired (the truce).

[8] Another example may be a film a young aspiring West Indian cricketer. In this film we are given a glimpse of a likeable character who dreams of playing one day for the West Indies. The film features young lad, from a rough background, shows significant determination and as reward is given a chance of impressing in a T20 game for his home side the Leeward Islands. In a dramatic scene, with the national selectors watching, he is given the task of bowling the last over with only seven runs to spare. Though there is no moral dimension to this scene – he is a likeable lad but he doesn’t deserve to succeed any more than the other players in contention for a spot in the team – we would still feel suspense in response to every ball, every moment, not because it is morally right that he succeed, but because we want him to succeed and there is a significant possibility that he won’t. That is, there is no conflict between a moral or immoral outcome, but rather a conflict between desired and undesired outcomes.

[9] Shaun Nichols, ‘Just the Imagination’, Mind & Language, Vol. 21, No. 4, September 2006, pp. 459–474,  p. 465.

[10] Ibid, p. 472.

The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.

[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

Women in Film Noir VII – Is Film Noir’s Visual Style Subversive?

Film noir constructs two archetypes based on a dichotomy between those who display legitimate desires and those who display illegitimate or excessive desire. Janey Place asserts that the most important element in the film noir genre is the style in which they are represented. Place asserts ‘Visually, film noir is fluid, sensual, extraordinarily expressive, making the sexually expressive women, which is its dominant image of woman, extremely powerful’.[1]  A vivid example of the destroyer’s power being represented visually can be found in Out of the Past. In one scene, during the male protagonist’s (Jeff Bailey) recollection of how he met the destroyer Kathie Moffat, the use of chiaroscuro lighting communicates Kathie’s exciting but dangerous sexuality.  When Kathie walks out of the sun, into the restaurant Jeff is sitting, the contours of shadow projected on her white dress and face obscures complete recognition. This obscurity communicates that there is a sense of dangerous “otherness” about Kathie. The lighting in this scene also forces the viewer to replicate Jeff’s gaze by locating her in the centre ground. Therefore in this scene the interplay between shadow and light communicates Kathie, wearing a white dress signifying innocence (a continued motif in Out of the Past), is dangerous. In Double Indemnity the final confrontation between Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson is another example of the visually expressive way film noir communicates evil. In this climatic scene Phyllis sits in a darkened room smoking. The light filters through Venetian blinds cutting horizontally across Walter. The lighting in this scene communicates that Walter is fractured (broken) by gazing at the dangerous sexuality of Phyllis. The destroyer figure, represented as exhibiting excessive sexuality or ambition, is therefore, to Place, ‘expressed in the visual style by their dominance in composition, angle, camera movement and lighting’.[2] To Place this dominance in composition brings into question the validity of the film’s repressive resolutions. Place continues:

It is not [the destroyer’s] inevitable demise we remember but rather their strong, dangerous, and above all, exciting sexuality… The style of these films thus overwhelm their conventional narrative content or interacts with it to produce a remarkably potent image of woman.[3]

Therefore Place’s assertion that film noir’s visual style exceeds the repressive conclusions is grounded in the belief that the powerful image of the destroyer cannot be contained by any return to the traditional moral status quo.

[1]     Place, p. 36.

[2]     Place, p. 45.

[3]     Place, p. 36.

Barthes’ Mythologies, Baudrillard and iPod


Roland Barthes published Mythologies in 1957, it was a collection of articles he wrote for ‘Les Lettres Nouvelles’. The articles covered contemporary commodities of cultural significance. In this article I will concentrate on ‘Myth Today’. I will explore Barthes conception and understanding of myth. I will argue that Barthes’ myth is a metalanguage through which the dominant power communicates its ideological standpoint and attempts to naturalise it. Barthes sees myth as the system through which the historical has become perceived as the universal. In this article I will argue that advertising is a prime example of ‘the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature’.(1.) I will use Baudrillard to augment this position. I will then examine a text, an iPod advert, and explore the values the advert communicates.(2.) I will explain that the advert offers individualisation and happiness through the purchase of the iPod. Using Barthes’ theory of myth I will indicate how the advert attempts to naturalise it’s inherent values; the values of the dominant commercial culture.

Barthes explains that ‘myth is a type of speech’.(3.) What Barthes means by this is that myth is a system of communication. Myth is not a particular object but rather the ‘the way in which [an object] utters [a] message’.(4.) Barthes explains that myth ‘is a second-order semiological system‘.(5.) Barthes is arguing that myth is a metalanguage; an overarching language which rationalises and organises thought and perception. Myth is the system of communication which naturalises the political nature of a products’ consumption and production; myth is a system of communication which naturalises dominant cultural and historical values and attitudes. Barthes explains ‘myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification’.(6.) The dominant power, to Barthes the petit-bourgeois, naturalises its outlook by making its message, or ideology, seem self-evident and true; myth is the system used to communicate that which the power wishes to be accepted as common-sense and universal. Just like Gramsci’s hegemony, myth produces ‘an internalised form of social control which makes certain views seem natural or invisible so that they hardly seem like views at all, just the way things are‘.(7.) If we take “dog” as an example of mythic speech in-action we would note that at the most basic representative level dog denotes a four-legged animal (Canis lupus familiaris). A connotation of dog is loyalty: communicated in the maxim “Man’s best friend”. The myth that this maxim augments is of patriarchal or masculine power. Man, and not woman, is that which loyalty to is seen as natural.(8.) The denotation, the basic representative level of dog, becomes implicitly linked to the mythic connotation.(9.) The sign dog, and the maxim “Man’s best friend”, comes to communicate the values of a patriarchal ideology: simultaneously naturalising the position of patriarchal dominance as universal.


Barthes asserts that myth is a system of signification and connotation which circulates the dominant powers’ values. This system of signification is found in everyday objects and signs. Adverts are an important discourse and an important vehicle in the communication of a contemporary cultures’ myth. As Jean Baudrillard notes in The System of Objects ‘Advertising… is pure connotation’: and connotation is the realm of myth.(10.) Baudrillard explains that advertising ‘contributes nothing to production or to the direct practical application of things, [advertising] becomes an object to be consumed’.(11.) Advertising is not an attempted sale of products – evidence shows that consumers are able to resist ‘advertising in the imperative'(12.) – but a ‘clear expression of a culture’ and cultural beliefs.(13.) Baudrillard, influenced by Barthes, comes to the conclusion that advertising is a system of signification and connotation; advertising is a discourse on objects and a discourse which speaks in myth.(14.)




The iPod is an internationally known product from the Apple company. A portable media player capable of playing music files, video files, and the new iPod Touch, video games [New at the original time of writing this paper]. The text I have chosen to analyse is an advert for the iPod Classic. The Apple website explains ‘iTunes automatically fills up your iPod classic with everything you need to be entertained’.(15.) The iPod is a personal portable entertainment machine – the iTunes programme is the organising system which allows to download and personalise your track choice. Barthes explained, in his exposition of soap-powders and detergents, that adverts ‘involve the consumer in a kind of direct experience of the substance… [the object] is endowed with value-bearing states’.(16.) The iPod poster is a representation of euphoric dancing, simulating the experience you gain from possession of an iPod. The poster refers back to the televised adverts. The televised adverts, sharing the same aesthetic design as the poster, are assigned popular songs. The black figure dances in time with the music in several distinctive styles. The poster, and television advert, attribute the state of happiness and euphoria to ownership of the iPod. The form of the black figure is set against a homogeneous singularly-coloured mass of pea-green. Only the black figure, activated by the white iPod, can move – the figure is individualised by ownership of the, and interaction with, the iPod.


The iPod does not individualise you; your experience may be different from others indicated by a different selection of music, but you plug yourself into the same interface as others. An interface of a homogeneous mass which retains a consistent form and style: the electrical goods market. The myth of the iPod communicates and naturalises the stance that only through the consumption of commodities can you achieve happiness; a state of simulated ecstasy. While “individualising” oneself through the iPod you plug yourself into another homogeneous mass; the culture industry. With a potential “10,000” songs in your pocket the ability for individualisation of your hard drive is immense. You can download any song you want and therefore represent any personality you wish; as long as it is from and through the culture industry. This amounts to the mythic discourse saying “you can have any song you want as long you choose it from our library of songs”. Exploring the structure of advertising discourse we realise that the iPod myth attempts to naturalise the ideological position which asserts that we construct we construct our individuality through commercial culture and that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities.


Myth is a type of speech, a form of connotation. Myth is not a particular object – though it can be any object – it is rather an utterance above and beyond the representative level of things. Barthes argues that myth is a language-structure which transforms the historical into the natural or timeless; myth transforms ideology into the common-sense. As I indicated which the phrase “Man’s best friend” myth transforms a certain set of beliefs and world-views into the timeless and self-evident; myth naturalises the historical. Baudrillard noted that advertising is an expression of a dominant culture’s beliefs. Advertising is the discourse of commodities; a discourse which speaks in mythological terms. I looked at an advert for the iPod classic. I noted that through connection with the iPod the black figure is individualised and separated from the single-toned background. The iPod is also endowed with the expression and attainment of happiness and ecstasy. The iPod is endowed with value beyond its physical elements. I argued that the iPod, rather than produce individuals, asserts the market economies dominance over the personal sphere; the discourse of the iPod naturalises a capitalist ideology by asserting that individualism is brought and obtained through the market and through commodities. The iPod myth naturalises both the position that we construct our personality through commercial culture – pop music – and the position that happiness is achievable through the consumption of commodities. Barthes theory of myth provides a framework through which to analyse contemporary connotation. The study of myth is concerned with the precisely contemporary and does not need to concern itself with eternal truths; in fact it exposes the ideological motives behind common-sense and the natural. Barthes’ myth is particularly well suited to analysing advertising and commercial culture as they are, as Baudrillard noted, purely connotative. Advertising becomes something above and beyond the physical object they promote; advertising is a metalanguage – advertising is purely mythological. 


 1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, London: Vintage, (2000), p. 9.

2. Advert displayed in the bibliography section.

3. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.

4. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 109.

5. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 114.

6. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 142.

7. Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1995), pp. 164-165.

8. The tamed beast that is dog locates the site of power – the provider – and is loyal to it: masculinity. And as the dog is nature then it’s perception cannot be anything other than natural.

9. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 131.

10. Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, London: Verso, (2005), p. 178.

11. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 178.

12. Resistance to ‘Advertising in the imperative’ means resistance to the commands that advertising makes such as; “buy this particular product”.

13. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, pp. 179-180.

14. Baudrillard, The System of Objects, p. 179. p. 214.

15. Apple United Kingdom,, [Accessed 23rd November 2008]

16. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 37.

Postmodernity, Architecture, Jameson and Foster

Architecture is important in the understanding of postmodernist thought, Jameson notes ‘of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship’.(1.) He continues to state that it is ‘not surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it’.(2.) According to Jameson postmodernist architecture has a symbiotic relationship with multinational corporations. Postmodernist architecture arose due to the loss of faith and the end of the governmental post-war funding for housing projects. Significant modernist projects are the Park Hill flats in Sheffield, and Robin Hood Gardens, a council housing complex in London, both projects were inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. These projects failed significantly in their humanitarian, rationalist aim and this is argued to be a contributing factor to the style of the postmodernist architecture. Lyotard notes ‘the disappearance of this idea of progress within rationality and freedom would explain a certain tone, style or modus… a sort of bricolage’ [bricolage means tinkering].(3.) Charles Jencks, a highly influential postmodern architectural theorist, proposed the “double coding” style of architecture, which ‘entails a return to the past as much as a movement forward… tradition with a difference’ in essence a history and a locality, treated with irony.(4.) This style, similar to Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism”, can be found in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans which replicates the local Italian community by referring to ‘the Trevi fountain, Roman classical arches, even the geographical shape of the country itself, transcoding their historical forms into contemporary materials [Steel rather than marble] as befits a symbolic representation of Italian-American society’.(5.) Postmodernist architecture is a “popularist” doctrine, which aims to bring the sublime into social environments, refusing to attempt to transform the inhabitants of a city to fit in ‘pre-decided rational schemes’ it aims for organic growth which transforms itself to fit the inhabitants of a city.(6.)

Charles Moore Piazza Italia New Orleans

For all the rhetoric of popularism architectural postmodernism suffers from the same elitism of style it accuses Modernism of exhibiting. As Hal Foster notes postmodernism ‘far from [being] populist (as is so commonly claimed) is alternately elitist in its allusions and manipulative in its clichés’.(7.) The ironic treatment of history is evidently a treatment only understood by those with architectural training however it could be argued that the fusion of highbrow allusions and lowbrow clichés is the degeneration of the high/low cultural divide that is seen as an important positive democratic aspect of postmodernism. Hal Foster continues to explain that ‘architectural postmodernism exploits the fragmentary nature of late-capitalist urban life; we are conditioned to its delirium even as its causes are concealed from us’.(8.) What this means is that postmodernism is but a ‘gratuitous veil drawn over the face of social instrumentality’.(9.) The local identity and history referred to in Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia are but a cynical reference to the local culture, and traditions of that distinct area. The “Italian heritage” the Piazza refers to is a flat, arbitrary, almost racist version of what it is to be Italian. Rather than simulate and reflect the local culture postmodernist architecture reveals – unintentionally – that multinational corporations exploit the image and history of a neighbourhood without considerate understanding or care for the people. By reducing the neighbourhood into a flat image of “Italianness” the community is commodified, reduced into an image. “Italianness” is idolised; the problem with idolisation is that it reduces a Being into an image, an image that can be brought and sold: slavery. History warns us of the dangers of commodifying, idolising individuals with the suicides of “icons” Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain who broke underneath the weight of their extreme commodification or as it is often named “fame”.


Postmodern architecture, theorised by Jencks and Frampton, styled itself by a returning to the past ironically and with a regionalism that refused to fit people to architectural designs, preferring to fit the designs to the people. I noted that Moore’s Piazza d’Italia was rather a cynical simulation of a cliched sense of “Italianness”. Postmodern architecture is the aesthetic of an inconsiderate corporate ethos which reduces a community and its people into flat images which are easily reproduced and replicated. Rather than reflecting the surrounding community postmodernist architecture isolates communities, reducing their image into easily reproducible cogs; the transference of communities and individuals into commodities is slavery.

1. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

2. Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, p. 5.

3. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1613.

4. Charles Jencks in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

5. Linda Hutcheon in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 15.

6. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 17.

7. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, Perspecta, Vol. 21 (1984), pp. 145-153, p. 146.

8. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 148.

9. Hal Foster, ‘(Post) Modern Polemics’, p. 147.