In our everyday life, we are brought into a world of ‘otherness’ through the induction of language other than that of our own. In particular, here, I mean the language of the product; food and drink, clothes, anything which can be marketed. Our own life contains its self within a field of language, I.E. that language which is natural for us to use and think through and with. Each field of language will, naturally, be slightly different from person to person.
If we take, for example, this supermarket brand peppermint tea which I drink every day. On the box it promises ‘a heady, minty aroma’. This may very well describe the product perfectly, but it is too readily taken for granted that the language used in marketing belies the language of our personal lives, with very deliberate intent. Nobody, I would argue, would describe something they drink several times a day as ‘heady’, nor indeed would many people use the word ‘aroma’ to describe phenomena of the everyday.
The nature of this language is clear- it describes a realm of transcendent values. It isn’t that the words ‘heady’ and ‘aroma’ are at all incorrect, but they express a level of luxury and sophistication which belies anybody’s everyday life. The Joe average citizen uses the word ‘smell’ because it functions as a general mode for describing anything which meets that faculty of sense. The word ‘aroma’, however, pertains to a mythology of the artisan, the connoisseur, the aficionado; one with a refined palette and great taste. We save these words for special events and phenomena which instantiate experiences beyond those of our regular moments. We aren’t inclined to use the phrase ‘heady aroma’ every time we enjoy something which we would call a ‘nice smell’ because ‘heady aroma’ simply expresses something out of the ordinary. My cup of tea smells nice, but sat in my office in Norfolk, a cup of tea is not a heady experience. If I tried a cup of mint tea from a market stall in Marrakech on holiday, I’m pretty sure I’d be far more inclined to use the words ‘heady aroma’.
On one hand, the language of marketed products merely oversells its product in order to make the product more appealing. However, something further actually happens. We understand that ‘heady aroma’ is the language of the extra special, we further engage in a dialogue with the product which promises the extra special, using the language of the extra special.
There is indeed a realm of experience which we can’t grasp in our everyday life because it inherently has an ‘otherness’ about it. It is a reality other than our own. It transcends our experience. Language is one of the most effective ways of transcending into this experience of the other. Literature, when it is good, provides an experience of the transcendental, by giving us a real feeling of what something new or different is like, or makes us feel something from a completely new angle, by using completely new uses of language. Each set of language used must, in some sense at least, provide an experience of one particular kind or another.
Further, once we have experienced the world through new languages, our outlook on the world expands. This seems to be a given; the more experiences we have, the broader our horizons. There is more, however, for it is not merely that our horizon broadens, but that the number of horizons we have multiplies. Our baseline experience, too, must transform as we perceive the world through transcendent experiences- we assimilate the perspectives the languages give us, which then either become our perspective, or we reject those perspectives. A perfect example comes from Roland Barthes, in his article Soap-Powders and Detergents. He states that the brand perception of whiteness in clothing is transformed by the language used in Persil adverts, giving us the mythology of ‘Persil whiteness’. He states that
‘it calls into play vanity, a social concern with appearances, by offering for comparison two objects, one of which is whiter than the other” (Mythologies, p. 32).
The language used in a Persil advert, from Barthes’ reference point, reestablishes our very perception of what white is, and what it means to us.
As we participate in transcendent experiences, our preferences change as individuals in a world which participates in this language and created transcendent experiences. As an example, experiences instantiated from a position of didactic authority can transform our established views. Our social norms can be far further contingent on these created perspectives than is believed. For example, in western society, it is commonly thought that blue is a colour for boys, and pink is a colour for girls. However, Grayson Perry, in his book The Descent of Man, tells us that
“the journalist Jon Henley wrote in The Guardian, ‘towards the end of the great war, in June 1918, America’s most authoritative women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal (it still exists) had a few wise words of advice for fretting mothers. “There has been a great diversity of debate on the subject,” it wrote, “but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” ‘(pp. 48-9).
Merely by engaging with a language from a position of authority, we, as a culture, have adapted our baseline perceptions regarding social mores. As new branding authorities re-appropriated what colours signify, we too change our beliefs regarding the meanings of colour.
To return to my humble cup of peppermint tea, the language of the luxuriant does, in effect, sell us a product with the promise contained in the mythology of the luxuriant, but it also makes us participate in it, and then establish this simulated luxury as an everyday normality. Languages, experiences, pictures, ideas, transcend us into a new world, even when that world is merely a representation of where we are now, and always leaves us somewhere slightly new.
Of course, this operates on the individual level, our subjective relationship with the advert, but it also happens on a broad social level. As adverts (for example) exist in the public realm, each person encounters that exact same use of language, and the same dialectic happens between that use of language and each individual who encounters it. A consensus of ideas will of course emerge from this, by which I mean that the transforming force it has on one, it will have on many. This elevates us, not merely as individuals, but as groups of individuals, into a new transcendental consciousness.
What is so alerting about this is that the dialogue we are having is not one of organic language, nor even one of sincere language; it is one which is meant to poise our thoughts to a specific end. Our consciousness becomes curtailed to the end product the advert dictates. Our transcendental consciousness becomes qualitative of a synthetic reality. This separates us from our authentic existence, into a simulated existence. As Guy Debord says
“The spectacle presents its self simultaneously as society itself, as part of a society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation” (Society of the Spectacle, p. 7).
The objects, adverts, etc., become more solidly fixed in the world as conceived realities of the world rather than realities of a market. This is because we now have language- based dialogues with the objects. As Erich Fromm says
“…the name of a person [for example] creates the illusion that he or she is a final, immortal being… The words indicate that we are speaking of fixed substances, although things are nothing but a process…” (To Have or To Be, p.69).
Another issue is the fact that the reality which the product promises is never actually our reality, because if it was, we wouldn’t wish for it. A simple slogan or marketing line defines our life as one of lack. My peppermint tea, in promising a heady aroma, tells me that my life is lacking in terms of sensate satisfaction, and thus my new baseline consciousness, after transcendental experiential interaction with the language of my tea (and everything else I am marketed), becomes one of dissatisfaction. Fromm explains a similar issue with the notion of the ‘hero’ figure-
“Heroes become idols; we transfer to them our own capacity to move, and then stay where we are- “because we are not heroes” “ (Ibid, p.94).
By sheer force of quantity and prevalence, the reality of the market becomes the new reality of our life, and our own perceived reality of our life becomes redefined and diminished. Does this have to be the way it is? Surely not. We, as individuals, and as a society, can choose that with which we have language and image-based dialogue. We choose our interactions and can choose those realities to which we wish to transcend.
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Barthes, R. (2009). Mythologies. London: Vintage Classics.
Debord, G. and Knabb, K. (2005). The society of the spectacle. London: Rebel Press.
Fromm, E. (2013). To have or to be?. London: Bloomsbury Acad.
Perry, G. (2016). The descent of man. Milton Keynes: Penguin.