iPhones, Canned Lattes and the Myth of The Old Country

Mythologie Monday features short essays on the meaning of common objects, language, signs, and so on. More specifically: we use Roland Barthes’ idea of of “myth” to look at how meaning is MADE, especially where it is constructed in such a way as to obscure construction. For more on the method please see the note below.  

Two commercials, currently in heavy rotation on my streaming services, selling completely different products – iPhones and something called a “One Touch Latte” – use a nearly identical set of visual and narrative tropes to conjure a favorite American fantasy: The Old Country.

Kindly old women in hand-knit cardigans, floral layers and aprons. Weather-beaten old men with thick mustaches and fishing caps. Jangly guitars playing music that is both upbeat and melancholy. Cobblestones and red tiled roofs. Warm tones and golden-tinged sunlight. Crowds, always crowds. But not like our city crowds. These are “folk,” not “masses.”
mustached man holding an aerosol can, the myth of folk

In one commercial, a young woman visits her family in Greece, and amazes the locals with the new portrait function on her iPhone. The locals are simple and good. They are not the wary natives of myth who feared that cameras steal our souls (though we can’t help but make that connection, or the connection to ethnographic records of lost tribes). The blurred background (that’s the whole feature) helps their authenticity shine through. They are delighted to have this magical box capture their likenesses. I’m not sure where they are that they’ve never seen a camera phone. But, ok. They haven’t. Now they have. And they are happy.

In another, a woman with a thick Italian accent tells us she’s spent her life painstakingly crafting lattes. We see a quaint awning, a sidewalk café, a close-up of awards papering her old-timey cash register. Then a new product is presented. It is a threat. It will do instantly what took her a lifetime to perfect. The crowd gathers round for the first taste test. The latte from the aerosol can is perfect. In a surprise twist, the old barista is delighted. She throws up her arms in a cheer and bursts out of the café that has, in fact, been her prison.

In the first case, Granddaughter has brought the future to her village and rather than threaten their way of life, technology preserves it. In the second, technology (if you can call it that) sets an old woman free. End scene. Fade to black. Stop thinking. But I can’t.

One unstated theme dominates both commercials: labor. Both depict old people doing obsolete work. But the products are presented as saving them even as they are celebrating the people’s obsolescence. In this enchanted realm people and the landscape (in fact, the people are also landscape) exist to be romantic and charming. Not to need money or sustenance. Nevermind that the economies of Greece and Italy have been flirting with collapse ever since the financial crisis. Or that both countries are riding the same wave of angry, right-wing populism and racist nostalgia that propelled an orange reality TV star to power in the US.

These commercials want nothing to do with all that. They want to tell us a different story about work. If, as Frederic Jameson famously stated, in a capitalist society the aesthetic and narrative realms function ideologically by offering the “imaginary resolution of a real contradiction,” then these commercials soothe us with a myth that resolves all sorts of contradictory messages. Because capitalism says we have to work to make money. But it also says that we should “do what we love” and somehow use work as a means of personal expression. AND it says that the primary purpose of money/work is to afford leisure activities like travel and sitting in charming cafes and taking pictures with our iPhones. AND it says that it’s right and proper that some people are born into families with so much money that they’ll never have to work (but it’s not the same as aristocracy – someone else in their family just already did the work, and they were smarter than you are). This is all nonsense, but we have to participate or we die.

Enter The Old Country, the one we’re perpetually losing but can still consume as a commodity. Here, work is a natural part of life, something these old people do because it is a part of their tradition. It’s not about the money. But it also is.

Because why are the barista’s awards stuck to her cash register? She celebrates her release from the café, and tells the viewer to “make your own latte.” (the “damn” is implied). But what is she going to do now that she is free? How will she eat? Where will she live?

Are the villagers in the iPhone commercial really so absorbed in fishing and shepherding that they’ve never looked up at the cell phone tower that surely dominates their landscape? Or are they just poor? The subtext of this ostensibly heart-warming sixty-one seconds is “hurry dear, and take my picture before I’m dead.”

A note on method: 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, a series of short reflections on French popular culture that attempt to denaturalize the power relations and values embedded in everyday products of mass society. Barthes used the monthly column in a literary magazine (written between 1954 and 1956, and collected with an explanatory essay in 1957) to develop his theory of the cultural myth. Put most simply, myth is history presented as nature. Barthes used ideas from semiotics (how we make meaning from signs) to complicate conventional understandings of ideology – ideas like false consciousness, metaphors of bourgeois values “hiding” behind a “veil.” Instead, Barthes suggested, “Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts…driven to having to either unveil or liquidate a concept, it will naturalize it.” Through the process of naturalization, the myth is “not read as a motive, but as a reason.”

Barthes was often first to admit his methods were incomplete, flawed, works in progress. The continued influence of his semiotic experiment owes as much to later scholars like Stuart Hall who took his work and ran with it, as it does to Barthes’ original essays. And that’s the spirit in which we embark on these mythologies. We view mythologie as a lens rather than a picture. A tool rather than a rule.

Barthes read everyday objects and products of mass culture as texts in ways that were unusual for his time. Today we’re faced with a new everyday, a new mass culture, and new modes of naturalizing power through the language of common sense. Mythologie Mondays celebrate, question, and build on Barthes’ method in order to explore what mythologizing can do for us right now.

“What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.” Roland Barthes, 1957

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.