Barthes’ Mythologies, Baudrillard and iPod

barthes

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.)

 

iPodadvert

 

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, http://www.apple.com/uk/ipodclassic/itunes.html, [Accessed 23rd November 2008]

16. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 37.

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Postmodernity and the Concept of the Cyborg

Identity is a central issue in postmodernism and many theorists and artists have argued that identity is ‘infinitely mutable rather than being based on some essential nature’.(1.) An important concept is the subject in a technologically advanced capitalist society. Haraway’s concept of the Cyborg is an investigation into, and formulation of, an identity which refuses binary opposition. Haraway uses the term Cyborgs because it means a Being which is part human and part technological construct. The technological aspect is important because to Haraway ‘communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools [enabling the] recrafting [of] bodies’.(2.) Haraway states ‘neither Marxist nor radical feminist points of view have tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation: both were regularly constituted as totalities’.(3.) According to Haraway Marxism and radical feminism, both “Modernist”(4.) in their belief in political emancipation, insist on essentialist, rationalizing understandings of identity. These organizing systems, grand narratives, according to Haraway, tend to exclude oppositional and marginal discourses (voices) dominating and or excluding “others”. Haraway asserts that these rationalizing forces offer ‘unity-through-domination’.(5.) This domination or violence, according to the anti-essentialist postmodernist position, is what led to ‘Auschwitz and the Soviet Gulags’.(6.) Haraway asserts that the Cyborg rejects ‘identity grounding’ because the Cyborg would be unafraid ‘of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’.(7.) The Cyborg is a chimera, a mixture, a hybrid. The Cyborg isn’t a Being defined by either/or – the binary construction of identity found in rationalizing “Modernist” grand narratives – but a Being defined by both/and. The Cyborg, as Malpas explains, ‘is a means of challenging those dualism that shape modern accounts of identity’ such as self/other white/black male/female: the Cyborg potentially offers ‘heteroglossia'(8.) A term originating from Mikhail Bakhtin, heteroglossia is the coexistence of multiple meanings, connotations, within one word, phrase, utterance, and in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg, a Being. Haraway’s ‘cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled post-modern collective and personal self’, an ‘organism’ according to Haraway, both social and private.(9.) To Haraway the Cyborg is a positive inhuman, a required irrational response to the rational project of Modernity and the Enlightenment.

Haraway sees the “techno-sciences” as a positive vehicle enabling a polysemic identity. However postmodernist theorists vary on the nature of science and the potential it offers. A central criticism of techno-science comes from Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard notes that ‘the development of techno-sciences has become a means of increasing disease, not of fighting it’.(10.) One such instance of science increasing disease is the over-prescription of antibiotics which has lead to the production of “superbugs” which are resistant to nearly all forms of medication. The MRSA bacterium mutated from the common bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus because of the over-prescription of antibiotics and is responsible for the death of 1,593 people in the UK in 2007 and is a growing epidemic due to an ‘increase from 51 to 1,652 deaths between 1993 and 2006’.(11.) The techno-sciences are primarily motivated by its own continuing evolution and as Lyotard notes ‘doesn’t respond to a demand coming from human needs’.(12.) The techno-sciences are ‘determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good’ and therefore a part of ‘a system whose only criterion is efficiency’.(13.) The techno-sciences are explicitly linked to enabling the continuing domination of Western capitalist society.

Terminator3-09

If we engage and willingly enter into a symbiotic relationship – recrafting our bodies through science in Haraways’ words – with the techno-sciences, as the Cyborg requires, then we cannot truly be sure that the increasingly dangerous production of superbugs will not ensure that we must retreat fully into techno-science, departing from our biological identity, and succumbing to the nightmarish vision of the Robot. The Robot, and the problem of techno-science and potentially the Cyborg, is that it is programmed in computer logic which reduces identities into workable, reproducible logarithms and mathematical commands; a language of mechanical efficiency programmed to serve capitalist markets. The totalizing force of computer logic seems to be similar if not identical to the rationalizing systems of thought the Cyborg was not meant to be. The tyranny of Modernism is replaced by another tyranny; the tyranny of androgyny. The binary of either/or is replaced by both/and of the Cyborg. Rather than a positive, both/and seems to be a synonym of, and the road to, a homogeneous mass which covers and entails everything; the Cyborg comes to be another totalizing force, the Cyborg offers unity-through-domination. The Cyborg is a world of “anything goes”, a concept which seems to reproduce the very essence of capitalist culture. Lyotard notes the ‘realism of money’ or “anything goes” concept ‘accommodates every tendency just as capitalism accommodates every “need” – so long as these tendencies and needs have buying power’.(14.) The variety and eclecticism of the Cyborg’s Being is only facilitated by the continuing domination of the markets: ‘the apparently borderless postmodern world is so only for the Western elites who have the wealth and power to travel, consume and freely choose their lifestyles’.(15.) The Cyborg “myth” is an identity reliant on money, an identity determined by the financial power of the individual. A financial power which determines the constituent parts of the Being’s self; the Cyborg screams “You can wear any style you want – as long as you buy it”. The Cyborg is a reified or alienated Being, removed from the potential of opposition, it is unable to oppose the capitalist society it is borne from; the Cyborg rather than enabling difference seems to disable difference. By being both/and there seems to be a lack of space for the “other” to define itself and although the already dominant white middle-class may wish to remove any site of binary opposition the Islamic, Afro-Caribbean, working class or Eastern “others” may prefer the “violence” of binary opposition to the androgyny which the Capitalist West offers. Without this space for opposition, this no-man’s land, and difference an individual or subject cannot possibly show ‘the contradictions [a] culture contains… represses, refuses to recognise or makes unrepresentative’ and therefore becomes a cog, a robot mindlessly serving postmodernist capitalist society.(16.) Haraway’s Cyborg, a prime example of postmodernist thinking, seems to produce a problem concerning oppositional thinking in relation to the cultural dominant capitalism. The Cyborg by refusing to engage with depth – preferring to play in the shallow pool of images and depthlessness – renders itself either irrelevant in engaging with capitalism or, as I have argued, complicate with the totalizing drive for inhuman efficiency and capital. To create an oppositional grand narrative is said to be taking ourselves towards building another Auschwitz however without opposition to the totalizing force of capitalism we seem to be just as guilty, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly, of building, to use the hyperbole of postmodernism, another Gulag. What postmodernism must allow, and which the Cyborg doesn’t, is space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

borg

The concept of identity is central to postmodernism. Haraway’s Cyborg is an anti-essentialist theory of identity which refuses binary oppositions and ideas of naturalness. The Cyborg, being part organic part techno-science, is conceived by Haraway as a positive irrational defence against rational excluding discourse. The Cyborg, a chimera, which allows heteroglossia is seen as a concept allowing both/and rather than either/or. Although Haraway sees techno-sciences as a positive, I argued that the development of techno-sciences has facilitated dangerous diseases rather than aid humanity and therefore union with technology must be approached with cynicism regarding its intentions. A further reason to be cynical is that techno-science is implicitly linked to its role in enabling the continuing domination of western capitalist society. Entering into communion with the cyborg is to recraft ourselves into a world of computer logic – a totalizing force. I noted that the hybrid nature of the Cyborg is facilitated by capitalist society and therefore the the Cyborg is complicate with the dominating rationale of the markets. The Cyborg doesn’t offer space to be different without the threat of assimilation.

 

1. Simon Malpas, The Postmodern, Oxon: Routledge, (2005). p. 74.

2. Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 2269-2299. p. 2284.

3. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

4. Modernist and of the Enlightenment.

5. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2277.

6. Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’ in Vincent Leitch (ed) et al, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, London: WW Norton & Company, (2001), pp. 1612-1615. p. 1610.

7. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2275.

8. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 78.

9. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, p. 2284.

10. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’, p. 1612.

11. MRSA: Deaths decrease in 2007, (National Statistics Online), http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=1067, [Accessed 21 January 2009].

12. Lyotard, ‘Defining the Postmodern’. p. 1614.

13. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 39.

14. J F Lyotard in Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

15. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 2.

16. Malpas, The Postmodern, p. 30.

Theodor Adorno on Mass Culture

The cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno was one of the Central figures in my attraction to philosophy and cinema – even though he was pessimistic about the cultural value of cinema. 

‘What is individual is no more than the generality’s power to stamp the accidental detail so firmly that it is accepted as such. The defiant reserve or elegant appearance of the individual on show is mass-produced like Yale locks, whose only difference can be measured in fractions of millimetres.’ (1)

An aspect of Hollywood is the adaption and capture of an individual trait and the use of it until it becomes cliche. The faces of many film stars are moulded to seem individual yet they are shockingly similar to either a contemporary or past film star. In the future I will write an article concerning Adorno and Horkheimer’s beliefs about the deceptive and degrading nature of cinema however i felt a tip-bit of their cynical outlook was interesting enough to post now.

 

(1) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ in Simon During (ed), The Cultural Studies Reader, London: Routledge, (1994), pp. 29-43 p. 41.