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Sign Language

John Fleming

Mythomania: Tales of Our Times, from Apple to Isis, by Peter Conrad, Thames and Hudson, 248 pp, £18.95, ISBN: 978-0500292587

If myth is part of perception and objectivity is societally defined as “true” perception, then there is not only a myth of objectivity for objectivity is itself enshrouded by myth.

This remarkable insight appears in lines on the inside back cover of my dog-eared 1980s student copy of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. I struggle to understand what it means: behind the dubious confidence and swagger of the phrases, the sentence flounders in its attempt to distil ideas into a few short lines. Try to understand or parse it and you find some vital semantic wire is loose or missing – either in the statement or in your cognitive ability to understand. “‘True’ perception”, “myth of objectivity” and “enshrouded by myth”: the nodes of the insight are sound; it would appear to be the connectors that are flawed. Perhaps a few prepositions are misplaced? Maybe something in the soggy construction sings of botched translation? Better still, do the sentence and its concepts sail on a watery aspect of French psycholinguistics that flounders in the Celtic or Anglo-Saxon (fill in as appropriate) mind? But a warning: this apparent quotation appears in a different font to the typeface of the rest of the book and only in one edition – in fact only in my actual copy. It is scrawled in black biro, in the arrogant hand of my twenty-year-old student self, with the date (April 12th, 1985) as forensics of the ebony ink stain. The phrase has not clarified itself to me over the fade of the almost thirty-two intervening years between its cheeky mimicry and today. But it is pleasing to disinter my ancient imitative flattery of Roland Barthes and pass it off as a diamondised piece of coal from the 1980s, a decade too often painted dull by the drab emulsion of still maturing minds.

Barthes himself was focused on the mass culture and consumerism of the postwar period of the late 1950s. He looked at how marketing ideas and general consensus settled semantically into understandings of ordinary French middle class life. His work as a literate analyst operated as a kind of conceptually driven and remote sociology, very far from details of Durkheim-type suicide rate differentials or class war Marxist rhetoric. He engagingly and rather simply attempted to read society as a book and went around decoding the meanings that formed the vocabulary of his culture. What Roland Barthes wrote about in French society ‑ with twenty-eight essays about wrestling, margarine, plastic, soap powder, striptease, toys, wine and milk, steak and chips, the (then) new Citroen ‑ in the late 1950s inspires a desire in the reader to perceive their own culture and life circumstance in a Barthesian way. As TV and music and popular pursuits proliferated, he nailed them down as second-order signs – they represented not only themselves but also the social and cultural attributes of their era. The crux of Barthes’s myth idea is this: what we regard as the natural attributes of objects are actually historical constructions around them. Advertising, consumerism, marketing and the lifestyles that forge our shared interactions build these meanings into our world. They make meanings inseparable from objects. They allocate automatic semantics to the things around us and code them back into language. Objects work as objects: this is an armchair for sitting on. But they also work as physical metaphors and similes with a concrete presence outside of vivid sentences that might reference them: this Queen Anne armchair signals comfort and a need for ease and upholstered escape, but somehow fails to cushion a fear of engagement only in armchair criticism far from the semantic frontline.

In a short documentary film called Whoever Tells the Truth Shall Die (1981), the controversial Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini offers some interesting insight into terrain similar to Barthes’s. He had a political reason for turning from the insightful social critique of works such as Accattone (1961), Mama Roma (1962) and Theorem (1968) and investing his talents in bawdy arthouse visualisations of Chaucer and Boccaccio. In a rare clip of interview footage, he accounts for his change in direction by saying that, as a poet and intellectual, he believed in the people and their hand-to-mouth struggles after the world war. However, in the course of 1950s and 1960s, “the people” recovered from trauma and destruction and, crawling out of the rubble, began to purchase fridges and washing machines, buying up the white goods of western consumerist dreams. In this way, he noted the “people” (a word with dignity) had mutated into the “mass” (a word without it). Mass was an adjective for large-scale activity lacking any valuable collective endeavour: mass consumption, mass production, mass media ‑ these were voluminous masses but perhaps no longer critical ones. It is the perceptual behaviour of this same mass that Barthes illuminates with his softly cultural but generally never expert essays. To read and understand Barthes, you do not need to be equipped with specialist linguistics, academic knowledge or esoteric terms. His writing works as high-end, extremely intelligent, old-school journalism: it is writing which illuminates the world the reader lives in. 

In Mythomania: Tales of our Times, from Apple to Isis, Peter Conrad has gone way beyond the smart-alec ambitions of certain would-be student intellectuals who might seek to ape the form and style of Barthes. He has written a magnificent book in the same style as Mythologies, constructing perceptive essays on subjects one could imagine fascinating Barthes. Air Force One, the Apple logo, Ground Zero, London skyscrapers, street art, selfies, e-cigarettes, the queen and Michael Jackson are put through his analysis of modern semantic constructs. Just as there always lurked a sense of vaudevillian humour in Barthes that never quite exploded into the delivery of gags, Conrad’s writing is fuelled by an amused purview and written with playful wit.

In his “Vaping” essay, he deftly observes that it is the smoke signals we send out that really count. He then offers a rich, inter-referential paragraph, in which he ties together smoking, the godfather of myth in whose footsteps he strides, surrealism and the marketing of harm to health:

In other portraits, Barthes appears with a pipe – less of a threatening truncheon than the industrialist’s cigar, and consecrated to more highbrow uses by generations of Oxford dons. In his book on photography, Barthes contradicted Magritte’s assertion that a painted pipe is not a pipe because you can’t put tobacco in it. A cigar could dwindle to a metonym, but a photographed pipe was, he said, ‘always and intractably a pipe’. And its fixity vouched for ‘the funeral immobility at the very heart of the moving world’. There was an inadvertent premonition in that remark: on the night of his death, he smoked six successive pipes after dinner, which might have brought on his final collapse. He was also partial to consumerism’s most dangerous trophy, the cigarette, which – in the words of a scientist at an American institute that researches tobacco control – is ‘still the most satisfying and deadly product ever made’. The apple that grew on the tree of Eden symbolises sin but is not to blame for our mortality: about tobacco there can be no such doubt.

There is a layer of moralising in Conrad’s disassembly of the modern world here. Along with his clear insight, it is evidence of a novelist lurking within him. While his matching number of essays model themselves on applying the same approach to the early twenty-first century as Barthes employed in 1959, he occasionally doffs his hat explicitly to the master of his template, and affords him illuminating walk-on cameo roles – in this example as an academic Sherlock Holmes, ponderous over a pipe.

Conrad is an entertaining writer. Without fail, he turns a neat narrative trick in the course of each of his several-thousand-word essays. With tightrope-walker skill and the gift of being engaging, he takes you on multiple treks by the end of which you are intellectually tired but immensely happy. You start each essay in an open mode, wondering what it will be about as he introduces one thing and then another. He brings you along a bit, spins you around a few times and sends you out the door with a smile of satisfaction, akin to that acquired through the best fiction. His final paragraphs and end lines are assuring: you reach them easily, and with the certainty of having gleaned something of how he reckons our world of shared meanings works.

Writing of the US president’s plane, he informs you there are two Airforce Ones: one air vehicle is a back-up for its twin. They are never in the air at the same time and so there is a shared identity. But that overlapped identity triggers a dividing question: which is really the fairest of them all? Reading Conrad on that mobile White House in the air, you may find a rhyme with Barthes’s observations in “The Nautilus and the Drunken Boat” about Jules Verne and how, despite the themes of incredible journeys in all of his fiction, the hero always brings a complete microcosm of their cultured world with them in a womb-like vehicle. As Barthes writes close to the start of that essay, “Imagination about travel corresponds in Verne to an exploration of closure …” A few paragraphs later, he clarifies: “The image of the ship, so important in his mythology …  may well be a symbol for departure; it is at a deeper level, the emblem of closure. An inclination for ships always means the joy of perfectly enclosing oneself, of having at hand the greatest possible number of objects, and having at one’s disposal an absolutely finite space … A ship is a habitat before being a means of transport.”

The rails of such a concept run neatly into Conrad’s essay “Utterly Oyster”, in which he explores the concepts stowing away in the titular top-up London tube ticket. Embarking with a reminder that branding takes its name from an activity involving red-hot metal in the shape of an insignia burnished into the flesh of livestock, he commences a symbolic tour of underground duty armed with the Oyster card. Casting an eye back to previous ticket forms, he reminds us that on buses they used to be “strips of paper, churned out by conductors from a hurdy-gurdy they wore about their necks”. Referring to the whimsicality of the Oyster card name, he extols the virtues of its New York equivalent, the self-explanatory Metro Card whose “black magnetic strip … could be tarmac or an electrified rail”. The Oyster card colour of azure “deepening to navy blue” leads him to imagine brand connotations of the Thames and their oyster beds “but these were closed to fishermen a few years ago because of depleted supplies”. Hong Kong’s Octopus card works better as an eight-armed metaphor for transport with extra reach, he argues, whereas the oyster is a clammed-shut thing, a “stay-at home creature, clenched and almost anally retentive”. In apparent opposition to travel, the oyster “clutches its pearls like an affronted dowager, tightly locks its doors against intruders, and when venturing out keeps a wary eye on anyone who might be wielding the kind of knife that can prise open its hiding places to steal its goods”. Conjuring up a context of “Beware of Pickpockets” signs, Conrad immediately delivers a wry punchline: “Come to think of it, the card may after all have some affinity with the citizens who carry it.” The obvious “world is your oyster” reference is dismissed for “a world modelled on an oyster would be a stuffy, solitary place, not at all like the thronging metropolis that Transport for London opens up for us”. Conrad is a reader of people and their signs and concludes, with great narrative mastery: “Oysters are best consumed raw, still living as they slip into our gullets; the Oyster card takes its revenge on their behalf, easing our entry into a system that eats us alive.” You end the essay having happily eaten your fill.

Conrad’s subjects are obviously more contemporary than Barthes’s time-eroded choices. But both writers paint perceptive canvases of culture, sociopolitics and the role marketing and advertising play in the commoditisation of ideas and their understanding. Barthes’s book comes with the weight of nostalgia (his focus on Brando and Garbo) and a certain quaintness (“The Jet Man”).

Peter Conrad performs for us without undue nostalgia. He comes free of French intellectual baggage. While his surname suggests a great writer and the “heart of darkness” of the one called Joseph, his own forename has an honest and equally saintly ring to it. He writes against a noisier modern world where multiple media and messages permeate but in which there is still some shared experience of mass concepts. Within the mass social media of the internet and Facebook and all the rest, there is a parallel world of narrowcasting. There are worlds within worlds, consumerist cultures within consumerist cultures. People no longer watch the same television. And never at the same time. The drones we fly as 21st-century kites risk crashing into Barthes’s legendary Jet Man as he soars overhead in some time-warped dream. Conrad’s Mythomania collection nevertheless succeeds in mapping the semantic overlaps of the modern mass which has the divided self of social media.

Reading Barthes is an inspiring act. You become overwhelmed by his intricate world view – objects become laden with meaning (often meanings you did not understand until he pointed them out to you). His electric essays ripple with associated notions of the death of the writer and control over meaning, and rebirth you as an active reader of your own social meaning. Barthes hands you a torch with which to illuminate for yourself the semantic corners of your personal world. Newly literate in a sociocultural way, you pull apart and parse your world’s colloquial artefacts; its pragmatic, linguistic twists and suggestions; its hints and signs. Barthes makes you watchful in a world where the words “icon” and “iconic” are sickeningly misused and overused in the media’s race to frame significance on the altar of linguistic laziness. You could rewrite/reread this paragraph and simply replace Barthes’s name with that of Conrad. They are both that good.

Peter Conrad could have produced a crass pastiche of Barthes or tried to rip off his insight and disguise it as his own. Instead, he has crafted a delicate and worthy work which is entertaining, insightful and illuminating. It is also a wonderful homage to the Frenchman. Conrad has distilled Barthes’s critical and understanding eye and allowed the approach evolve into a useful tool for modern meaning. Both Barthes’s and Conrad’s take on things is intelligent and reassuring. The digital media world hawks easy TV, light weekend supplements, frothy feature articles about kale and pedestrian travel “journalism”. Culture has always coded a reduced capture of the brimming world into seemingly bland dimensions. But you must stab vigorously into those dimensions and watch the polysemous blood pump out. Getting tired of “How to spend 24 hours in city X”, “Five things you NEED to know about subject Y” and “So give me a crash course in Soviet-Sino political economy”? Don’t be jaded by these worn-out clichés. Conrad builds on the work of Barthes to help you understand, if not accept, these worst stylistic excesses of mass communication. Barthes and Conrad are two smart and available friends who get it that myth is often poorly employed as cliché. They are people with whom you could throw your eyes up to heaven. Their supportive advice is the lesson that links all their work: cliché is best hilariously consumed with degrees of dismissive sarcasm.

Barthes even comes with his own gallows humour: he died after being struck by a delivery truck. Cold readings associate the brilliant mind’s death with some sort of anti-consumerist gag. How can being hit by a laundry van in Paris be a fitting end for anyone – be they cultural critic or otherwise? While neither Barthes nor Conrad can be blamed for it, there may be something in the reading of civilisation as the sum of its signs and semantic parts that cheapens human life and individual endeavour. Is there nothing else to do with meaningful world amusement than turn it into an essay?

1/1/2017

John Fleming is a journalist with The Irish Times and an award-winning radio dramatist whose plays have been broadcast on BBC and RTÉ. A Dubliner, he writes fiction and has a symbolic distrust of signs.

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