Mythologies- Barthes on… psychoanalysis and cleaning products

Barthes takes a different stance to the ones we have seen so far. In his essay Soap-Powders and Detergents, he is interested in the place of psychoanalysis in advertising, and in how we view the products we use in our everyday life. He does this in the context of the world’s first ‘Detergent Congress’ (1954). Previously, people only had powerfully abrasive, strong products with which to clean (such as chlorine based products). However, softer detergents had been developed, and judged safe and effective.

Purification is a powerful subject in psychoanalysis, and a prominent feature in everyday life. Dirt signifies evil, and cleaning products signify the cure. Those previous chlorinated products, including bleach, cured the illness, they cleaned perfectly. However, they have many heavy connotations within them. Their all-powerful effects are absolute, all is destroyed. We have unconscious notions of fires, burns, controlled explosions. They are “absolute fire, a saviour but a blind one”.

Then along came softer detergents. These had the power to separate, rather than to impartially attack. They ‘liberate’ the cloth by removing the dirt and washing it away. Not only do we have the symbol of liberation, which makes us unconsciously feel that some power within the detergent is saving us, but we have the symbolic form of purification too. First the evil is gently pulled away from the good, then it is washed away.

The powers of these two products become effective extensions of the person using them. To use the product with the destructive powers is to become the destroyer, to use the product with the liberating power is to become the liberator. (as a point of interest, Slavoj Zizek discussing toilets is entertaining and fascinating. CLICK HERE (3 mins)). Psychoanalysis tells us that we don’t need to acknowledge this consciously, but it becomes a part of our consciousness nonetheless. As we identify with one product over another, we assume the identity within the confines of the chosen product.

Advertisers understand this very well. They abuse our unconscious notions of cleanliness to sell us one product over another. “‘Persil Whiteness’… bases its prestige on the evidence of a result; it calls into play ‘vanity'”. They make the effect of the product a social concern. The product and its psychoanalytical notions were originally a point of self-identification and effect-identification. Advertisers took the understanding of these products and their psychoanalytical effects, and introduced a social realm. Now it is a world of destroyers and purifiers. But more importantly, they took away the notion of white/not-white as binary, and replaced it with ‘whitest whites’. You are no longer simply a beneficiary of the product’s power; you are an accomplice in it’s power. There are social realms of destruction/purification, white/new-white, and so forth, and in choosing a product, you navigate the social realm.

He asks us to consider two further symbols in the cleaning product. Omo has two- depth and foam. Omo adverts stated that it cleans “even the deepest stains”, but nobody had previously thought of linen as having depth. Through a tactile recognition, it is thin and soft, not deep. This introduces to us notions that some products (in this case, the ‘not’Omo products), do not reach the ‘depths’ of our linen. Barthes believes that this instills in us feelings of the human body; depth in our clothes and blankets makes us feel we are being caressed, enfolded, comforted. This symbol-recognition between us and the cleaning product creates a symbol-recognition between us and the linen. If our linen can be deep and comforting, we wouldn’t want linen which lacked these properties. It’s not hard to see that a human-style relationship could even be imputed in the comfort-symbolising of the linen.

The other psychoanalytical symbol they give us, foam, tells us ‘luxury’. We imagine, when thinking of foam, the film-star, the supermodel, the lady at rest, relaxing in opulent bliss in a deep, warm bath. Foam is also telling of volume and depth, but a depth with an airy nature. One further symbol it gives us, is a religious one, a spiritual one. Foam has the powers we see in creation myth- so much is created from so little. It gives us the feeling of something divine, it contravenes human rationality. David Hume famously defined a miracle as a phenomenon which contradicts the laws of nature, and in seeing the expansion of foam, there is an unconscious feeling of the miraculous, the emergence of the spirit.

The very act of conveying these symbols is genius, for the soap powder still has an abrasive nature. We see warning signs on the boxes, health warnings such as ‘if ingested, seek medical advice’, and advice for rashes… it admits it is damaging to the environment too. But using mental symbol manipulation, we believe we are within the realm of the ethereal. We operate in the social realm of the luxuriant, the spiritual purifiers, the smartest, the whitest of whites. Unconsciously, the act of washing our clothes is one of spiritual euphoria.

We take from this the understanding that psychoanalysis has unearthed just how deeply connected we are to even the simplest things in life. We have a psychological attachment to objects, recognising in them the things we need and want. The most unassuming of objects in the world can have emotional, instinctive, sexual, spiritual attachments. Those symbols can be combined and manipulated to direct, create and transform those attachments. A television commercial can make us be spiritually elevated by the common detergent bubbles, sexually awakened by a pair of shoes or jeans, feel the connection of a happy family when washing dishes, and even feel that one has reached the pinnacle of life’s meaning when buying a car.

This post is in series. To read the others CLICK HERE.

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