Roland Barthes’ Aesthetics of Everyday Life

A quote from Jessica Helfand, from her blog, Design Observer, February 2004.

“To me, the goal [of education] is to groom students whose comfort level with theory is such that they emerge from a degree-granting program able to articulate their own theories. Isn’t the point of a good education, [she asks] any good education — to ultimately think for oneself? In this view, it doesn’t really matter if the student reads Thorstein Veblen or Thornton Wilder. […] ‘Readings’ of such theorists as Roland Barthes […] Walter Benjamin […] Derrida and Debord […] are now so thoroughly picked-over that I suspect any substantive yield on new visual thinking is basically negligible. And for designers in general (and design students in particular) isn’t the goal, in the end, to actually say/do something that hasn’t been said/done before?”

Much can be said: the phrase “one’s own theory” indicates that Helfand hasn’t read Barthes very closely (in particular the “Death of the Author”). But there are other problems: Have educational institutions ever been devoted to the cultivation of originality?

Problems aside, the quotation illustrates a common, persistent and unfortunate approach to Barthes. He is labeled a “theorist”, implicitly rejecting theory as antithetical to pragmatic action; he is linked with writers whose work shares little in terms of orientation or content with his own; and he is rejected outright, a priori, as “picked over”. Helfand finds him useless for “yield on new visual thinking”. Is this an accurate, fair or useful assessment?

While Roland Barthes did write about visual culture, he certainly did not write for the specialized purpose of generating new visual thinking. Helfand is faulting apples for not being oranges.

Barthes wrote cultural criticism informed by the then emerging field of semiology. And his corpus evolved. He is quite specific in his observation that Mythologies, for example, was superceded by his later approach to cultural artifacts.

Mythologies

All this in mind, what should we do with Mythologies on its 50th anniversary? How should we read Roland Barthes? Who should read him?

I read Roland Barthes because he is helpful to me in a way that he can, I think, be helpful to all of us – designers and design writers, cultural critics, creators, and indeed everyone interested in living his or her life most fully. Barthes can help us develop an aesthetics of everyday life and this is particularly necessary right now.

i.

An important shift occurred in the culture of capitalism over the last decade and a half or so; a shift from the hegemony of objects to the hegemony of brands. In our time, the most successful multi-national corporations are less concerned with manufacturing products than they are with manufacturing brands. We might call this the ephemeralization of capitalism. Baudrillard calls it the perfect crime.

A brand is the “core idea” of a corporation. It is not the ideology of a corporation (corporations generally share the same capitalist ideology). Rather, and as Roland Barthes might observe, a brand is the myth of a corporation.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein observed that companies now see themselves as “meaning brokers” rather than product producers (21). Building a brand means tending a meaning, a core idea, rather than tending a thing, a product. This is not to say that products have disappeared from our stores, only that products are less important in and of themselves than they were once perceived to be. Products today are carriers of brands. And as such they take their place alongside corporate messaging as it occurs in advertisements, on websites, in press releases and public statements of all kinds. The products or objects weigh no more or less heavily than these other bearers of corporate communication.

Thus we can observe a general decline in quality among mass produced objects of all kinds – quantity, in short, changes quality – alongside a concurrent turn toward unique or designer products. Capitalist production thrives on similarity, mass production, replication; while consumer culture thrives on the sense of a singular experience – even when that singular experience occurs en masse. Consumers are moved to purchase specific things. And in certain cases, consumers want products that bear the trace of a human maker; less a craftsman these days than a designer. As corporations cease to be manufacturers, they cease to be interested in their manufactured goods; yet consumers are drawn to objects that reveal their derivation, that bear their history on their surface as a quality, as complexity.

Paradox, in short, abounds. No matter how divorced corporations become from physical objects – from commodities and manufacturing facilities – they remain inexorably tied to them. Brands must be carried by products of some kind: and advertisements too are objects; even websites are things. The sensual, the physical, simply will not disappear. Things may lack the dense complexity that they once possessed but they will not go away. And of course design itself is another device for the marketers. Design manufactures complexity, creates density, intensity.

The conflict here is one between the abstract, ideal or mythic sphere, and the aesthetic. Corporations strive to enter the eternal and inevitable realm of myth, yet they remain tied to the contingent realm of the senses, the realm governed by aesthetics. Roland Barthes can help us understand and negotiate both sides of this equation, though I will focus on the aesthetic side.

ii.

Aesthetics has become a bad word in the academy today, and a misunderstood one. The word conjures aestheticism, the movement of art for art’s sake; and not just art, of life for art’s sake. Aesthetics also recalls an outmoded approach to art objects: a formalism that separates art objects from history, society, ideology, and psychology: a method that critics spent most of the twentieth century trying to reject.

Those critics were trying to reject the aesthetic nature – the formal, material, and sensual nature of art objects. And indeed formal analysis has all but disappeared in contemporary writing about aesthetic objects. It is completely absent from publications on graphic design. More forcefully stated, the objects themselves have disappeared from many contemporary approaches to culture.

This is unfortunate. Aesthetics is the science that tells us how things have meaning or value for us. The term derives from Greek words meaning both sense and sensation. An aesthetics of everyday life offers us a interested thick description of all the things and activities of our world; an epistemophilia broad enough to embrace all things; an evaluation of existence.

Such an evaluation should be as valuable to designers, and their bosses, as it is to consumers. Design and consumption are two sides of a coin. (Art making, the creation of representations of life, aspires ironically enough to a condition beyond both commerce and everyday life.) My proposal is neither that “everyone is a designer” nor that the “consumer is the creator”. Designers and consumers meet in a marketplace that is itself a contentious decentered community.

The notion of an aesthetics of everyday life has several histories. Michel Foucault’s late search for the use of pleasure and the care of the self; his description of the hermeneutics and technologies of the self. Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist sociology of the everyday, the last bastion of individual freedom: a social sphere that shrank faster than he could describe it. The Situationist’s abortive revolution in everyday life; their research into new behaviors, objects and urbanisms.

As often as similar notions have been proposed, they have gone nowhere. Indeed, the last 150 years have seen critics and creators of all kinds return again and again to the objects around which everyday life circulates only to propose, like de Certeau, a new description of those objects or of our relationship to them. The point, however, is not simply to describe our relationship to objects, but to change it.

Discourses proliferated around objects during the modern era: Husserl’s phenomenology; the Objectivist school of modern American poetry; the Marxist denunciation of the commodity form as spectral; the field of cybernetics.

Much if not in fact most modern art and literature can be read as an engagement with the problem of the object in industrial culture: the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Suprematism, Der Stijl, the Bauhaus, Duchamp’s readymades, Surrealist found objects, Neo-dada, pop art, minimalism. What an anxiety fraught relationship. What a contentious 150 years.

Against this background of more or less continuous disturbance in our relationship with objects, certain moments stand out as moments of intensification, of deepening anxiety; moments when consumerism reached new heights: the late nineteenth century, the 1910s, and of course the 1950s. This last being the decade of modernization par excellance, the decade of modern objects, the decade of a convulsive shift in everyday life, particularly in France. Kristin Ross makes this point marvelously in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.

Roland Barthes wrote his “mythologies” between 1953 and 1959 for a reason. These were years of rapid modernization. The ground was shifting beneath his feet and all around him, a new culture was lurching toward its Jerusalem: one of automobiles, durable electronics and appliances, washing machines and refrigerators; one of television and magazines illustrated with photographs in color.

iii.

Of course Barthes was not alone in his turn toward what we now call popular culture. Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were doing something similar in England; as was Reyner Banham, from a completely different, celebratory perspective.

Barthes, Williams, and Hall, each in their way, gave form to a new phase of oppositional culture, a new kind of ideological criticism in the Marxist vein. Unopposed to popular culture they were opposed to its administrators. But this was an ambivalent opposition to some extent, at least in Barthes’ case. His Mythologies were often as creative, as nuanced in language and imagination, as they were critical. Criticism isn’t supposed to be fun.

In fact these writings waged war on several fronts. Intended to foster critical consciousness, to debunk the myths of ideological thinking, they also extended the territory of culture itself to include popular or low culture. And they can be read, like the writings of a latter day Balzac, as a description, occasionally even a loving description of that culture.

And here we are now, fifty years further down the road. A Popular Culture Association now holds annual meetings and publishes an academic journal, devoted to popular rather than high culture. It is an academic discourse as rigid and exclusive, as isolated as any other, simply inverted. This is of course sad and ironic for many reasons.

Already in 1965 – forty two years ago – in her essay, “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, Susan Sontag rejected the distinction between high and low culture as “shallow”. For Sontag, there was only one culture and it was culture. For Sontag, the assault on the citadel of culture – Barthes’ assault, Banham’s assault – had been completed: the new sensibility of the 1960s – the 1960s ! – would be pluralistic – high, low, scientific, and aesthetic – and keyed to a new understanding of pleasure, or it would not be (Against Interpretation, pgs. 297 and 302). Her writings, like Barthes’, have been intellectual bestsellers: Was she wrong? Or, if not, how did the Popular Culture Association miss her message?

Barthes of course never really intended to extend the definition of culture. For him, high or low, culture was culture and it remained culture. He was interested in extending the field of semiology into a means for the ideological analysis of both linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems.

In regard to non-linguistic systems, as he says in Elements of Semiology, “There exists a general category of language/ speech which embraces all the systems of signs; since there are no better ones, we shall keep the terms language and speech, even when they are applied to communications whose substance is not verbal.” (25) The fashion system, the food system; Baudrillard’s system of objects. A small corner of this initiative has recently been isolated from the whole and re-branded under the faddish name visual rhetoric. The rhetoricians, like the pop culturalists, would benefit from a return to sources, a reading of Roland Barthes.

“Semiology,” for Barthes, “is a science of forms… It may well be that on the plane of ‘life’, there is but a totality where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about ‘life’ if it wants to transform it.” In the same passage, he goes on to say that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” (Mythologies 111-112)

Barthes’ semiology is distinct from others in its love of the signifier, its love of forms, the things of the world. Barthes’ tremendous originality was to take semiology out of the archive and into the street; to turn away, if only for a little while, from the culture of representation, from art and literature, toward the realm of everyday life. Formalism foundered in the archive but found itself in the street; at least for Barthes, for a little while.

I am tempted to suggest that Barthes was interested in what I call culture beyond representation. I’ll suggest this only as a spur to further thought, a reminder of the work that remains to be done. For the era of representation is indeed over. We have entered a new age of icons, a space of sensual signs; a non-place of constant and energetic referral; where social space including actual spaces, from cityscapes, shopping malls, and highways to the internet, functions as a network for the expenditure of energy; mixing memory and desire in the production of intensity, pleasure, jouissance. If Roland Barthes was the Moses of this promised land, Jessica Helfand and her ilk have already become its Pharisees.

IV.

My proposal: Read Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, substituting the word object for the word text throughout. Then fold that reading back into Mythologies.

Imagine an aesthetic (if the word has not become too depreciated) based entirely (completely, radically, in every sense of the word) on the pleasure of the consumer, whoever he may be, to whatever class, whatever group he may belong, without respect to cultures or languages: the consequences would be huge, perhaps even harrowing (Brecht has sketched such an aesthetic of pleasure; of all his proposals, this is the one most frequently forgotten). (Pleasure of the Text 59)

Pleasure for Barthes takes two forms: the pleasure of cultural systems and the pleasure of what Bataille would call transgression, the disruption of that culture. The pleasure of transgression provokes what Barthes calls jouissance, which is often translated as “bliss” though ecstasy is more accurate.

The pleasure of culture is the pleasure of situating objects and experiences, everything really, within a system of understanding, a discursive order, which is to say within culture. Objects many be multivalent, saturated with culture; they may participate in several discourses at once, be polysemic. Cultural pleasures too may be ideological pleasures. But this is not the moment to repeat a critique of that kind of pleasure.

Ecstatic pleasure for Barthes disrupts stable systems of discourse; it tears objects from the fabric of the world, elevating them through the power of fascination, obsession, fetishism.

In the case of cultural pleasures, we are talking about the pleasures of communication, which is always to imply those of community, and beyond that of utility or functionality. Objects which announce and fulfill a function, communicate a message to a community of interpreters.

In the case of jouissance we are talking about singular pleasures. Those in which an object becomes dislodged from its functional milieu, shorn of its communicative value, isolated through a singular act of perception.

Both kinds of pleasure can of course be latent in the same object; though some objects may be constructed in such a way as to tend to provoke one or the other type of appreciation.

This framework of interpretation is at once absent from design discourse and crucial to it. The discourses of design are dominated by the utilitarian ideologies of functionality and communicative clarity. Ironically, they know nothing of the pleasure of their objects.

Barthes describes pleasure most succinctly in the preface to Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola. Let’s substitute the words designer, object, and design for the words author, text, and writing.

Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the object as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The object is an object of pleasure. The bliss [or ecstasy] of the object is often only stylistic: … expressive felicities… At times the pleasure of the object is achieved more deeply…: whenever the object transmigrates into our life, whenever another design (the Other’s design) succeeds in designing fragments of our own daily lives, in short, whenever a co-existence occurs. The index of the pleasure of the object, then, is when we are able to live with the designer. (See Roland Barthes, Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola 7-9)

For Barthes, living with an object of design is not a question of representation. “It is a matter of bringing into our daily life the fragments of the unintelligible that emanate from a object we admire (admire precisely because it hangs together well)… Our daily life then becomes a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat…”

Barthes had proclaimed the death of the author only a few years previously, but here he clarifies his meaning.

“The pleasure of the object also includes the amicable return of the designer. Of course the designer who returns is not the one identified by our institutions…; he is not even the biographical hero. The designer who leaves his object and comes into our life has no unity; he is a mere plural of ‘charms’, the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities, in which we nevertheless read death more certainly than in the epic of fate; he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body.”

The “novelistic glimmerings” Barthes mentions in the most difficult portion of this passage are “biographemes”: traces of a subjectivity that cannot be reduced to a singular subject. These traces include stylistic markers as well as everything else that might signal the presence of a designer’s guiding hand in the creation of an object.

Design discourse in our time urgently needs concepts such as these. The design fields are fields in which authorship is difficult to determine: designers work at the behest of clients, whose ideas they serve; and, within their firms, designers follow the dictates of creative directors and art directors, or are themselves creative directors or art directors.

For twenty years now, design journalist Rick Poynor has attempted to promulgate an interpretation of design as Art based on an outmoded model of Fine Art, a model in which the designer is viewed as a creator in the Romantic vein. Like Helfand, Poynor should read some Roland Barthes.

To return to our discussion: the pleasures of the object are manifold: they are cultural and anti-cultural, social and individual, communicative and beyond comprehension. Barthes describes the pleasures of the Eiffel Tower – to take only this one example from his work – as “polyphonic.”(The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 17) The Tower, he says, “attracts meaning”, but remains “ineluctable, because it means everything”; it is an “infinite cipher.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 4-5) But it is not only a sign, it is an object of interaction, indeed a field of multiple engagements, of many uses. The bliss of the Tower is the “bliss [or ecstasy] of sensation.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 11) “What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced?” (Pleasure of the Text 61)

The object effects the uneasy commingling of abstract and sensual value; of sense and sensation. Some objects do this more so than others do. Yet the theory of pleasure does not propose an hierarchy of objects based on the pleasures they afford: more is not always better. The task set before the designer is to determine the degree of pleasure an object might most appropriately offer.

Barthes discusses the pleasure and personality of the object is his myth on toys. “Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”( Mythologies 53-55.)

Wooden toys on the other hand are more directly natural and therefore maintain a child’s contact with trees, tables, and the floor. Most importantly, wooden toys change with time, they “live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. […] Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and colour; their very material introduces one to a coenasethesis of use, not pleasure.”

This reading of toys clarifies Barthes’ suggestion that “our daily life [will become] a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat.” Enjoying an object, indulging ourselves in its pleasures, is a means of enfolding or entangling ourselves in the life of our objects and of enfolding our objects in our own life. The fold or tangle here is a theater, a circuit for the exchange, referral and deferral of energies.

Our search for the pleasure of objects is not intended to create a new law for the creation of objects – a modernist dictate as to how and why objects must be created or used. Rather, it intends to return us to the enjoyment of objects – to their idiosyncrasies, their manifold densities, intensities, and destinies – and thereby to encourage our aesthetic enjoyment of everyday life. (57)

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asks: “What relation can there be between the pleasure of the [object] and [its institutions]?” And answers: “Very slight. The theory of the [object] postulates [ecstasy], but it has little institutional future: what it establishes, its precise accomplishment, its assumption, is a practice … not a science, a method, a research, a pedagogy; on these very principles, this theory can produce only theoreticians or practitioners, not specialists.” (60-1)

Specialists – Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, the Popular Culture Association, Visual Rhetoriticians et alia – will always miss the pleasure of objects and misunderstand Roland Barthes. Luckily, they’ve left the fun for the rest of us.

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