Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Precis Posted for Angela Grace Jiang: Saussure and Barthes on Semiotics and Bancroft Cafes

Roland Barthes commences Mythologies Today, the second half of his compiled book of essays, with the following epigraph: "What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech”. Barthes intentionally set aside for us (the audience) three lines of isolated text, along with a footnote that reads, "Innumerable other meanings of the word 'myth' can be cited against this. But I have tried to define things, not words”. This dichotomy of the epigraph and footnote perfectly exemplifies Barthes as a critical analyst, constantly defining and refuting as a way to heighten self-awareness.
Barthes devoted a large portion of his work to an explication on the basics of semiotics, originally developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. It is important to note that Barthes did not create the foundations of semiotics himself, nor did he coin the original terms in which he generously used throughout his writing. Mythologies, Today is crafted in the form of an educational lecture for his audience, in order for us to understand the “modern day myths” relayed in the first part of the book with a heightened perspective. He describes a tri-dimensional pattern that is omnipresent in the human experience: consisting of the signifier, the signified, and the sign.
The signifier is an object or image that is perceived through the human eye; it is the form that the object takes. The signified is the concept, often abstract, that the signifier expresses. The relation between image and concept is where meaning is derived; this relation constitutes as the sign. When one is introduced to these terms in the twenty-first century context, it is easy to question Saussure’s neological competence. Did Saussure not take into account that the ambiguous word “sign” carries with it connotations distinct to each idiosyncratic era? Why didn’t the father of semiology create a novel term for the sake of dissertation? Or at least choose a word that is less trafficked in daily discourse? The answer is that he didn’t need to. Saussure didn’t design a system in which we must disregard our prior knowledge of the word “sign” to understand semiotics; through rationalization, Saussure’s definition is proven to concur with today’s definition. In fact, the two actually amplify each other. Take a basic image that comes across as a modern day sign: a stoplight flashing green. In this situation, Barthes (and Saussure) would say that the signifier is the material form of the three bulbs often mounted above crossroads. The signified is the concept of go.  The modern day human that sees a flashing green light, which signifies go, will interpret the situation as a sign to accelerate his car forward. The semiotic definition of “sign” rationalizes its modern day connotation.
            Ferdinand de Saussure died in the early months of 1913, two and a half years before the birth of Roland Barthes. The French literary theorist seemed to pick up where the Swiss linguist left his final marks and expanded this newfound tri-dimensional pattern to another psychoanalytic level. Barthes created a dichotomy of systems. He grouped the signifier, signified, and sign as System 1, and coined it language-object. Barthes then went on to develop his own theory concerning the definition of myth in System 2 and coined it metalanguage (the second language in which one speaks about the first. At this point in the essay I’d like to imagine that Barthes consciously chose to have some fun with literary devices. He personified myth, entertaining sentences with “Myth sees” and “Myth wants to see”. By giving myth human characteristics, Barthes created a divine aura around System 2 that built upon System 1 but exceeded the first in sophistication and influence.  Barthes wrote, “But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological”. The associative total of concept and image called “sign” in System 1 works as a signifier itself in the analysis of myth. On this greater plane, the signified is linked to more abstract, complex concepts. Barthes called the relation between this mythical form and concept “signification”.
Through the methodical construction of semiology, Barthes ultimately guides his audience to the epiphany that the majority of the modern day human experience operates at the mythological level he defined. The first half of Mythologies is comprised solely of a collection of modern day myths through the language of the two systems. I noticed that Barthes’ tone in these essays is surprisingly more casual and relatable compared to that of Myth, Today. Each story is presented on a strikingly specific, often witty object or situation in today’s materialistic world (e.g. soap detergents, toys, striptease) that grounds his writing to modern-day western culture. Barthes revealed in the preface of Mythologies that the essays were written in the span of two years under the sole purpose of exposing topics he found interesting in daily life through the mythological perspective.
What Barthes bestowed upon his audience in Mythologies, Today is the ability to understand and examine, through use of this second-order semiological language, how today’s bourgeois society asserts its values in daily life. Barthes also pointed out that everything could be a myth if it is brought to oral existence from a silent state. Mythology was described in lecture as the most ubiquitous form of critical thinking other than stand-up comedy. I take these clues as evidence that this prominent French literary theorist had an underlying aspiration in mind for us, his audience: that we employ his semiotic theory as a portal for bringing our own myths into oral existence; and in the process of doing so, become more critically aware individuals, less susceptible to the manipulative attacks of bourgeois ideology that permeates our generation’s materialistic, capitalistic culture. As a tribute to Roland Barthes’ implicit yet transcendent request, I will entertain a mythology of my own and its analytical dissection thereof.
A recent class lecture on the myth of Soap Powders and Detergent brought my attention to a fundamental reality concerning advertisement and business: the diversity of products oftentimes stems from the same source. This truth reminded me of a thought-provoking scenario I’ve recently witnessed.
Earlier this summer, I found myself in the position of “Account Executive” (aka hustling saleswoman) for an advertisement firm that specializes in connecting the college demographic on campus with local businesses in the Berkeley area, primarily through the use of coupon books. My job was to get in touch with owners of local cafes/food stops and persuade them to buy placement in the firm’s annual coupon book through a “sophisticated” sales pitch. One day, I noticed a peculiarity in the system. I was given the same contact number by three of Berkeley’s best-known cafes that line Bancroft Way: Café Milano, International House, and C’est Cafe. Exhuming the hallmarks of family style coffee shops, Berkeley students are found sliding into the homey seats and sipping on cappuccinos with ease. Unwilling to be left in ignorance, I took my investigation to the Internet and discovered that both cafes, along with 17 other shops in college towns across California, are run by the same Everyville corporation, Espresso Roma, under a multimillionaire named Sandy Boyd. For such a powerful man, he generates very little publicity, but this is what I found: Boyd staked his claim as a dominating force in the area’s coffee industry shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley himself in the 1980s.
According to Barthes, when metalanguage is correctly connected to the situation at hand, the myth of Bancroft coffee shops should sprout into existence. The signifier refers to the physical locations and aesthetics of the cafés. The signified denotes the liberal, anti-branding culture that Berkeley is known around the world for. However, the relation between the signifier and the signified do not align since the money from these Bancroft coffee shops all feed into the same source. Signification is only realized through ignorance of these truths. Thus, the Berkeley population essentially operates under a false mythology.
The mythology of Bancroft coffee shops held true at one time, but was ultimately spoiled by Sandy Boyd who decided to manipulate this myth. With his first-hand experience as a student, Boyd was accustomed to the general anti-branding culture that Berkeley took pride in. Customers wanted the quaint experience of sitting in a local shop grounded with the roots of the Bay. He knew that only cafes that appear independent could prosper so closely together. With this in mind, he started to change the essence of the Berkeley’s coffee shops but left the form in its traditional state. From the outside, these shops still seem to be run by small families, but it is merely a façade now, a remnant of a time gone by, when the everyday American could profitably own a small business. What seems at first glance to be a diverse selection of local businesses is actually a consumer trap, set up by Espresso Roma. By exploiting the anti-branding culture that Berkeley has come to embrace over the years, one man has made millions of dollars. But the blame can be put on all of us, for we accept at face value what is told to us.
The false mythology of Bancroft coffee shops is a result of willful ignorance that permeates the minds of students today. Today’s fast paced society leaves less and less time for us to focus on the essence of things and forces us to judge objects based only on the final form. In the midst of this march against time, we often overlook the mere foundations in which we pride ourselves in, and thus are susceptible to the manipulation of the signification. It is pertinent that we look to Saussure and Barthes to remain critically aware individuals in today’s capitalistic society.


Neil Griffey said...

Nice work, I appreciate that you made a point of distinguishing "us" as the audience. Having also written on Mythologies, I wish in hindsight I'd made a point of explaining the purpose of the text a little bit more before I dove into how it functions.

Also, I appreciated your narrative on your discoveries doing business to business sales, discovering the coffee shops of Berkeley aren't as independent as they appear and their quaintness is more constructed than we'd imagine. To some degree this also brought Naomi Kleins work to mind. Just as major brands sold identities to counter-culture youth groups and otherwise counter-corporate American consumers in the nineties it seems Sandy Boyd has come to understand and capitalize on the interests and inhibitions of the Berkeley masses.

Dale Carrico said...

An incredibly rich and ambitious precis! The first part in which you engage with the relations of Saussure and Barthes is already quite elaborated. I don't exactly agree with everything you say in this section, but I do think you get the gist. I would insist that the signifier is as abstract as the signified, for example, but I doubt you really missed the point even if you don't exactly make it here, for example. This seems a topic that interests you and so I do want to recommend you read Kaja Silverman's quite excellent survey The Subject of Semiotics. Semiotics begins (at least) with Plato and the American Pragmatist Pierce is a crucial episode in the tale. You'll love it. I particularly loved your statement: "Barthes ultimately guides his audience to the epiphany that the majority of the modern day human experience operates at the mythological level." This is very fine, and true. Of course, your precis moves on from this abstract grappling to offer up an application from your own experience, and I agree it is a very fine latter day Mythology. Signals of the "artisanal" and the "independent" market the Bancroft cafe archipelago as spaces of resistance to the corporate industrial ethos against which Berkeleyites would define themselves, and yet these function primarily to conceal a host of institutional practices and ownership relations that embody that very ethos. Classic. All very good!

Angela Jiang said...

Dale, I appreciate your reading recommendation. Also, I do agree that the signifier is as equally abstract as the signified. In lecture you used the example that the ways three people say/write the word "desk" is different. In language, we treat this abstractness of the signifier as concrete through pretending, in order to function on the complex mental level that humans are capable of.
This issue concerning Bancroft cafes has been on my mind for a while, and I gladly found that through processing this myth whilst writing my précis, I have displaced my pessimism in regards to the situation with the contentedness of a heightened understanding.

Neil, it is interesting how you brought up Naomi Klein's work. I took a rather negative point of view on her questioning whether commercialization works to the benefit or the detriment of the advocate. Kleins offered the silver lining that market influence/exploitation of a certain progressive youth culture can promote the cause (to a certain degree). Even though we are operating under a false ethos, at least our friends and family who come to visit can appreciate the aesthetic of the absence of fast food chains and possibly inspire them to cultivate an anti-branding perspective in their own lives.