In his essay about the Eiffel Tower, Roland Barthes seems somewhat dazzled by its singularity, but part of what he says about it seems true not just of the tower but of much of totemic goods circulated in our consumerist economy. Barthes points out the essential uselessness of the tower, which makes it a “pure signifier, i.e., a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history).” The key to its usefulness as a signifier is its functional pointlessness. “In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind of total monument, the Tower must escape reason.” In this, it resembles our advertising discourse, which is increasingly desgined to achieve our blithe acceptance of illogic as a matter of course and is likewise aspiring to the level of “total monument”—its monolithic presence and fluid adaptability offers everyone a reason to become wrapped up in it. Barthes continues, “The first condition of this victorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument.” But since we are under the illusion that ours is a pragmatic, rational culture, we are scandalized by this apparent lack of function, so, as Barthes points out, we supply alibis enumerating its usefulness to science and engineering. These are “quite ridiculous” since they “are nothing in comparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictly human.”
It seems to me that what Barthes is saying about the Eiffel Tower is very similar to what Rob Walker argues about various brands in Buying In. Hello Kitty and Red Bull are gloriously meaningless in and of themselves, which make them adaptable to whatever personal uses we want to put them to in order to conjure our identity into being through the language of goods—before this articulation identity remains notional and inchoate, something we can’t define or prove. Once we make our identity manifest in the goods, we need to broadcast our ownership of the goods to make the identity functional in the social sphere. So the Eiffel Tower is not useless, it’s just that its purported use masks its real one, the same way that Red Bull (or Coca Cola for that matter) pretends to be a beverage while truly offering us a malleable symbol—a lifestyle or personality building-block. What’s more, if Barthes is right, the prevalence of these symbols is not a blight but the essence of our humanity, that which “enables men to be strictly human.” One wonders if there are any alternatives to the commercial brands for the sort of symbols that can be at once deeply personal and near-universally recognizable—through which, as Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower, “one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world.”
From what repository did such symbols come from in the past, before consumerism? Were people simply human in a different, more circumscribed way? Would we want to return to it, even if we could?