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Barthes’ Mythologies in ‘Free and Easy’ Capitalism


For Roland Barthes, nothing was état-zero; nothing is devoid of meaning. Even the most humdrum objects and gestures of mass culture are capable of disseminating powerful and potentially pernicious secondary meanings. These second order meanings are the modern mythology, which grafts its own supplementary connotations upon reality. Barthes saw the mythological realm as a communicative world, spun by the bourgeoisie to propagate values and ideologies congenial to their own agenda yet assimilating them into le culture de masse as a universal, unspoken logic (or what Barthes called ce-qui-va-de-soi; it goes without saying).

 

In Barthes’ era of French post-war reconstruction, imperial crises and the start of mass consumerism, the myths reflected the entrenched interests of the ruling class: the waning imperialists, the wealthy industrialists. His everyday life became preoccupied with debunking these myths, probing at the benevolence of common sense and practice and chipping away at the foundations of bourgeois legitimacy.

 

A myth exemplar was ‘La Nouvelle Citroen’, a consumer durable portrayed as a national icon of technological futurity and French modernity. Yet these iconic public portrayals were a myth, symptomatic of bourgeois material aspirations that attributed the Citroen with universal values it simply did not possess.  For Barthes the myth illustrated the self-applauding bourgeoisie, infatuated with their technological creations that only they could afford, which enriched a handful of wealthy industrialists and obscured the greater social problems of France’s industrial recovery. The national symbol of futurity it was not. It was, like every myth, “language robbery”.

 

With the opportunism and creativity spawned by the loony ascendancy of free-and-easy capitalism, it seems that myths have never been so prolific or so determined to remain entrenched in the fabric of mass culture. With so many goods being produced of questionable quality and utility, the ‘captain of industry’ is now, self-admittedly as much a culturist and psychologist as an economist (in the classical sense). They have become the primary ‘myth-spinners’ and ‘perception managers’, the cut-throat creators of ‘imagined wants’ in a market that is becoming increasingly absurd. A ubiquitous myth of the twenty-first century is bottled mineral water, a ‘positive’ icon of a post-McDonalds, health-conscious generation with unblemished complexions and youthful zeal. However, spinning frantically behind this myth is the multi-million dollar ‘perception management’ of the water capitalists, assimilating their statistics and quasi-scientific jargon into mass culture with startling success – drinking two bottles of mineral water a day is simply ‘bon sens’, is it not? The myth conceals the absurdities behind the bottle’s innocence: that it wastes millions of tonnes of plastic every year, consumes vast amounts of shipping fuel in transporting it thousands of miles to artificial reservoirs, and that we already have free, clean drinking water in every house while thousands die every day from lack of potable water.

 

Modern mythologies propagate the ideals of free-and-easy capitalism, ‘Consumption for all! And we, the ‘Captains of Industry’ can provide you with all you could possibly want!’ Even those values which once seemed incommensurable with what the market could offer us. Good health – drink Volvic water and Coca-Cola with vitamins, or if you value environmental conservation – use HSBC’s paper banking or use BAE Systems’ ‘green’ bombs! We can now, ironically, buy ourselves out of the holes we have dug through our patterns hyper-consumption. The agenda and institutional role of large-scale businesses (in the grand scale) will never voluntarily engender a decline in consumption, they will green-wash, health-wash, remodel their image, tinker the figures, implement token changes and spend whatever it takes to create the neutralising jargon of social corporate responsibility in order to continue with profiteering and business as usual (ce-qui-va-de-soi, it goes without saying).

 

As depicted, mythologies are pervasive in a minority-powered world where we are expected to express our needs, wants, values and desires through our consumptive patterns. It seems as though we are all in need of a large dose of Barthes’ demystification in order to regain some grip on the reality of how our vegetables are grown, our meat butchered, our water sourced, our timber felled, our garments stitched, our electronics fiddled and our energy generated. Things are changing, but big business has also has a veritable mythological arsenal at their disposal. Consumers are now more environmentally, socially and health conscious. Big business must now attempt to convince us of the incupability of buying their produce, which often takes on an apologetic tone, ‘we are trying to make long-term commitments but one must understand that things cannot change instantly’; the banal, diluting discourse which speaks of more pressing commitments to the self and their shareholders. This piecemeal shift reveals at least a first degree of demystification, yet the much larger hurdle is the debunking of the mythological realm that can only occur when product and producer are reunited and we don’t need a ‘perception manager’ to mediate between us and our water. For they need us more than we need them!

 

 

 

 

Barthes’ Mythologies in ‘Free and Easy’ Capitalism.

 

For Roland Barthes, nothing was état-zero; nothing is devoid of meaning. Even the most humdrum objects and gestures of mass culture are capable of disseminating powerful and potentially pernicious secondary meanings. These second order meanings are the modern mythology, which grafts its own supplementary connotations upon reality. Barthes saw the mythological realm as a communicative world, spun by the bourgeoisie to propagate values and ideologies congenial to their own agenda yet assimilating them into le culture de masse as a universal, unspoken logic (or what Barthes called ce-qui-va-de-soi; it goes without saying).

 

In Barthes’ era of French post-war reconstruction, imperial crises and the start of mass consumerism, the myths reflected the entrenched interests of the ruling class: the waning imperialists, the wealthy industrialists. His everyday life became preoccupied with debunking these myths, probing at the benevolence of common sense and practice and chipping away at the foundations of bourgeois legitimacy.

 

A myth exemplar was ‘La Nouvelle Citroen’, a consumer durable portrayed as a national icon of technological futurity and French modernity. Yet these iconic public portrayals were a myth, symptomatic of bourgeois material aspirations that attributed the Citroen with universal values it simply did not possess.  For Barthes the myth illustrated the self-applauding bourgeoisie, infatuated with their technological creations that only they could afford, which enriched a handful of wealthy industrialists and obscured the greater social problems of France’s industrial recovery. The national symbol of futurity it was not. It was, like every myth, “language robbery”.

 

With the opportunism and creativity spawned by the loony ascendancy of free-and-easy capitalism, it seems that myths have never been so prolific or so determined to remain entrenched in the fabric of mass culture. With so many goods being produced of questionable quality and utility, the ‘captain of industry’ is now, self-admittedly as much a culturist and psychologist as an economist (in the classical sense). They have become the primary ‘myth-spinners’ and ‘perception managers’, the cut-throat creators of ‘imagined wants’ in a market that is becoming increasingly absurd. A ubiquitous myth of the twenty-first century is bottled mineral water, a ‘positive’ icon of a post-McDonalds, health-conscious generation with unblemished complexions and youthful zeal. However, spinning frantically behind this myth is the multi-million dollar ‘perception management’ of the water capitalists, assimilating their statistics and quasi-scientific jargon into mass culture with startling success – drinking two bottles of mineral water a day is simply ‘bon sens’, is it not? The myth conceals the absurdities behind the bottle’s innocence: that it wastes millions of tonnes of plastic every year, consumes vast amounts of shipping fuel in transporting it thousands of miles to artificial reservoirs, and that we already have free, clean drinking water in every house while thousands die every day from lack of potable water.

 

Modern mythologies propagate the ideals of free-and-easy capitalism, ‘Consumption for all! And we, the ‘Captains of Industry’ can provide you with all you could possibly want!’ Even those values which once seemed incommensurable with what the market could offer us. Good health – drink Volvic water and Coca-Cola with vitamins, or if you value environmental conservation – use HSBC’s paper banking or use BAE Systems’ ‘green’ bombs! We can now, ironically, buy ourselves out of the holes we have dug through our patterns hyper-consumption. The agenda and institutional role of large-scale businesses (in the grand scale) will never voluntarily engender a decline in consumption, they will green-wash, health-wash, remodel their image, tinker the figures, implement token changes and spend whatever it takes to create the neutralising jargon of social corporate responsibility in order to continue with profiteering and business as usual (ce-qui-va-de-soi, it goes without saying).

 

As depicted, mythologies are pervasive in a minority-powered world where we are expected to express our needs, wants, values and desires through our consumptive patterns. It seems as though we are all in need of a large dose of Barthes’ demystification in order to regain some grip on the reality of how our vegetables are grown, our meat butchered, our water sourced, our timber felled, our garments stitched, our electronics fiddled and our energy generated. Things are changing, but big business has also has a veritable mythological arsenal at their disposal. Consumers are now more environmentally, socially and health conscious. Big business must now attempt to convince us of the incupability of buying their produce, which often takes on an apologetic tone, ‘we are trying to make long-term commitments but one must understand that things cannot change instantly’; the banal, diluting discourse which speaks of more pressing commitments to the self and their shareholders. This piecemeal shift reveals at least a first degree of demystification, yet the much larger hurdle is the debunking of the mythological realm that can only occur when product and producer are reunited and we don’t need a ‘perception manager’ to mediate between us and our water. For they need us more than we need them!

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