Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Consumer Culture and Naming the Animals, by Alan N. Shapiro

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In his famous essay “Myth Today,” published in 1957, Roland Barthes added a second dimension to the semiotic analysis of Ferdinand de Saussure, to the insight of the Swiss linguist that language is a social institution. Barthes added a social theory of culture to the social theory of language. In confronting the reality of consumer culture, Barthes noted the existence of a signifier and a signified in the sphere of myth or ideology as well as in the sphere of language. The consumer is victimized by myth because he perceives cultural phenomena as ingredients of a factual system, not a semiological one. Even an object as apparently simple as a bouquet of roses is far from innocent: it is a signifier of passion or a sign which is ‘passionified roses.’

Opening the current issue of Playboy, I see the ‘playmate of the month’ wearing a garter belt of soft-red color, with a large rose at its center, just below her navel. The signifieds of femininity, submission, passivity, human being as pet or adornment, are all invoked. Sometimes I would like to have this pet, sometimes I would like to be the pet.

What is a sign on the level of language becomes a signifier on the level of culture. This mythological signifier is fundamentally duplicitous. It is both ‘meaning’ (replete with significance as language) and ‘form’ (empty and preparing to receive its signifieds). The form impoverishes the meaning without completely suppressing it. What is disturbing to Barthes is that the signifiers have become enslaved to the signifieds. In the operation of myth-creation, ‘real’ language and objects have somehow been distorted. The meaning is a kind of ”tamed richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning and to get there what nature it needs for its nutriment; above all, it must be able to hide there. It is this constant game of hide-and-seek between the meaning and the form which defines myth.”

Barthes presents the oft-cited example of the cover photo of a copy of Paris-Match, showing a young Negro in a French military uniform, with eyes uplifted, presumably saluting the French flag. The image of the Negro is the signifier; ideologies of nationalism and patriotism are the signifieds (France is a great empire, there is no racial discrimination, young black men are proud to serve those whom others call their oppressors). The reality or ‘presence’ of the Negro is softened in favor of the concept of French imperiality. Thus, the cultural artifact itself is ‘closing off’ discourse and discouraging ‘mythological’ analysis. The problem, however, is that Barthes (in this early work) remains within an essentially Marxist problematic of ‘reading’ or ‘deciphering’ of myths. The bourgeoisie represents objects and cultural artifacts as ‘eternal’, and it is the mythologist’s task to unveil their historical character. We see the object itself, but we do not see the production process or the labor that went into making it. This ‘social theory of culture’ believes in ‘real meaning’ which must be rescued from the myth. Restore to the Negro his history, which has been ‘half-amputated’ into a mere gesture! Unveil the reality of French imperialism, the signified which is masked by a thousand signifiers! “The press undertakes every day to demonstrate that the store of mythical signifiers is inexhaustible.”

By 1971, Barthes had radically changed his position. In “Change the Object Itself: Mythology Today,” he writes: “It is no longer the myths which need to be unmasked… it is the sign itself which must be shaken; the problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, of a trait, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning.”In his later work, particularly S/Z, Barthes developed a much more nuanced theory of connotation, and elaborated notions of an open-ended movement of signifiers, textuality, and cultural codes.

Garth Gillan has written an important synthetic work of philosophy called From Sign to Symbol. Gillan goes beyond a traditional academic style and cuts across the boundaries of philosophical specialization. His discussion ranges from critical semiotics to the late Merleau-Ponty, the question of self and other, the flesh, the site of memory and dreams. His project is the development of a critical theory of language, and he has read and taken seriously the works of Algirdas Julien Greimas, Roman Jakobson, and Jacques Lacan.

For Gillan, what needs to be elaborated is a theory of discourse beyond the problematic of the sign. In condensed terms, language is perceived as having two fundamental possibilities: a grounding in desire and the flesh, or ‘reification’ within relations of power. In late capitalist society, the latter reality tends to predominate. Language is solidified into sequences of information, technical communication codes, clichéd modes of expression, and mechanical chatter about a brutal existence. The insidious web of politics has been internalized into the very way we speak, and the struggle against wooden and encoded utterance is perhaps the struggle of radical ‘practice’ today. “At this moment of history, the critical theory of language is an intervention in the political and theoretical struggles of Western society.”

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