|Zadok : Papers : The Abuse of Consumerism|
Zadok Paper S101 Winter 1999
The consumer spectacle tells a story full of myths
THE NATURALISATION PROCESS WHICH establishes the abusive consumer relationship is helpfully understood in terms of the operation of myths. Roland Barthes builds on the notion of myth as providing a meaning framework, while at the same time freeing it from the primitive religious status it has in some works. Barthes shifts the notion of myth away from its content to its form. He defines it in simple terms as "a type of speech . . . Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message: there are no formal limits to myth, there are no 'substantial' ones." 
As well as broadening its content, Barthes also broadens the medium through which myth is transmitted. In particular, he argues that myth, rather than being limited to any one form, is transmitted through the many voices which constitute cultural discourse. "Speech of this [mythical] kind is a message. It is therefore by no means confined to oral speech. It can consist of modes of writing or of representations; not only written discourse, but also photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity, all these can serve as a support to mythical speech."
The search for modern myths was undertaken in his influential book, Mythologies, in which Barthes took the newly emerging area of semiology and applied it to modern French culture. At the crux of his argument is the idea that implicit subtexts of social discourse are spoken through myths found in everyday public discourse, and that through this process the myths become naturalised to the point of becoming an unchallenged part of society. Because of the direct relevance of Barthes' work we'll take a brief detour to look at his theoretical framework in a little more detail.
Semiology, according to Barthes, is the study of "ideas-in-form", any semiological system made up of a system of signifiers and referents to which the signifiers refer. The sum total of signifier and referent is known as the sign, and it is the relation between the signifier and the referent which makes up the study of semiology. Barthes writes that "any semiology postulates a relation between two terms, a signifier and a signified . . . what we grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them".
Myth is created when two such semiological chains are put together, one building on the other. The first chain consists of "a linguistic system, the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated into it)". For an advertisement this would be the surface level meaning. The second chain is myth itself, a "metalanguage", because it speaks about the first. Myth occurs when the meaning of the first semiological chain is also, at the same time, the first term of the second chain. Under this double-chain structure, myth is able to assert itself in the form of metalanguage when appropriate, yet when threatened with being revealed can hide behind the surface meaning of the first semiological chain.
Barthes writes that myth "is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity: its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning . . . the signification of the myth is constituted by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternately the meaning of the signifier and its form, a language-object and a metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness. This alternation is, so to speak, gathered up in the concept, which uses it like an ambiguous signifier, at once intellective and imaginary, arbitrary and natural."
Through this process the form of discourse of myth specialises in taking what is contingent and historical and makes it appear natural and eternal. Barthes writes about "the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature". The sleight of hand involved in this process is that, whereas myth sets up equivalencies between the sign and the thing referred to, it appears to its receiver to operate causally through a process of induction. Barthes writes about this mechanism of indoctrination that "what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one. Where there is only an equivalence, he sees a kind of causal process: the signifier and the signified have, in his eyes, a natural relationship."
It is through this naturalisation process that myth introduces and maintains consumerism's hold on the consumer. Debord describes myth as playing this central role in maintaining existing (capitalist) social relations. "Myth was the unified mental construct whose job it was to make sure that the whole cosmic order confirmed the order that this society had in fact already set up within its own frontiers."