Guide to Week 12: Thursday or Friday
Masha Gessen's review of Anya von Bremzen's Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (2013) will introduce you to von Bremzen's cultural criticism of the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian use of food as a political symbol, social status marker, bargaining chip for cultural power, weapon, and many other uses you might never have thought of. You probably, ordinarily treat "food," like air and fresh water, as a "natural, normal" phenomenon and often do not see how, even in America, it is over-coded (Umberto Eco's term) with semoitic significances operated by many different sign-systems' grammars and vocabularies. Consider the significance of dining within Goucher's dining hall system using the "OneCard" as opposed to making your own food in one of the dorm kitchens, or as opposed to ordering food delivered or even "going out to dinner," that most ceremonially encoded social event. In von Bremzen's case, she grew up as the Soviet Union's seventy-year experiment with command-driven economies was collapsing. She experienced food shortages that resulted from incompetent central planning and from cynical manipulation of resulting scarcities to benefit politically well-connected parts of the society. These politically charged uses of food to designate political privilege were part of a system known, in Russian, as nomenklatura (from the Latin nomenclatura or "list of names"). The nomenklatura was composed of the hierarchical list of Communist Party members which determined which levels of officials got what quality and quantity of food during a time of near-famine.
For an earlier, pioneering example of the semiotic method applied to non-verbal sign systems, read the GoucherLearn posted copies of Barthes' essays on "The World of Studio Wrestling" and "Ornamental Cookery," and examine the table of contents for Mythologies (1957, rpt. 1970). Each essay is an example of Cultural Criticism's theory applied to a type of "cultural production," a kind of commodity which the culture is selling to some segment of itself and which does important cultural work, even though it may seem trivial or unpurposeful. Barthes took it as his job to detect the hidden cultural codes operating within each cultural product, and to discover the rules articulating those codes (lit., "speaking them into existence"). Having done that, he generated theses about what cultural work the products were doing for their intended audiences. Keep in mind that Cultural Criticism is not, itself, a culture-neutral activity, but rather it resembles Marxist or Psychoanalytic methods in its desire to detect hidden motives for behaviors that participants consider "normal" or "unmotivated." Click here for some points to review regarding Barthes' analysis of "Ornamental Cookery." Click here for some points to review regarding Barthes' analysis of "The World of Wrestling." When you believe you understand what Barthes is saying in his essays, click here for some passages from Tyson's chapter which relate to the theory underpinning Barthes' activities as an interpreter of culture.
When reading Barthes, keep in mind the prescient observation of Oscar Wilde's character, the aesthete Vivian in "The Decay of Lying," that "Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life." When analyzing a semiotic system during the "Post-Modern event" in which we live, you must detect its attempt to aspire to the condition of art and to follow art's rules, perhaps those governing genres of literature, painting and sculpture, theater, mime, dance, puppetry, chamber music, opera, etc. The combination of mass literacy and mass media have saturated the audience with high art's rules, even if they have not studied them. Like the rules of language, the rules of art are internalized silently and unconsciously, but popular culture articulates them. The relentless reweaving of "art" and "life" discourses can become quite complex.
Of all the Cultural Critics, Barthes is the oldest and uses a method which is easiest to apply. He wrote for popular French magazines rather than for scholarly journals, and his audience was composed of a mixture of university trained intellectuals and ordinary citizens looking for insights into their culture's operations. "Ornamental Cookery" shows how to apply Barthes' methods to non-animate cultural products. "The World of Wrestling" is a somewhat more complete demonstration of how to apply his methods to a fully dramatized cultural product. In both, you will notice that the readership of the magazines and the audience of the wrestling matches both have fully scripted roles to play, roles whose rules Barthes discovers and mines for clues to the political agendas motivating these two semiotic systems.
If we can complete our discussion of Barthes' analyses in time, we can try out possible subjects for your "Working With Cultural Criticism" papers. Choice of a mythic system to analyze is very important, as is a vigorous search for its secret socio-political motives.