A deft updating of Parisian semiotics and midcentury cultural criticism for our own time.
Roland Barthes died in 1980, run down by a vehicle in what Walter Benjamin called the capital of the 19th century; having taken some of Benjamin’s ideas and run with them, Barthes was already long renowned for such centrifugal books as Writing Degree Zero and Mythologies. It is the second book that Oxford-based literary scholar Conrad (Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries, 2014, etc.) takes on in this sometimes fresh, sometimes tired look at the hidden structures and unacknowledged tendencies of our own day: why is Apple’s apple an apple, after all? Ah, there we go back to the Garden of Eden, where, Conrad cleverly opines, “the ban imposed by God had nothing to do with the wickedly tasty properties of the fruit: it was an arbitrary demonstration of divine power, like an order not to walk on the grass or feed the pigeons.” As with all cultural criticism, there’s an element of the unworldly in Conrad’s essays: of course the Apple icon on the computer has nothing to do with the biblical story, and who thought it did? There are some tired tropes at work, too, among others laments for the death of the book, which seems to be stubbornly refusing to die even as books are written about its demise. But there are many smart things about Conrad’s argument, too, as when, in a moment reminiscent of John Lennon on the popularity of God, he writes that Steve Jobs—who, it should be said, is far from his only subject here, though a prominent one—“brought about an awakening more permanent and widespread than Billy Graham’s soul-saving campaign.” True enough, even if Conrad seems to take arch delight in tweaking noses as he says so.
If you’re a fan of Barthes and of the Umberto Eco of How to Travel with a Salmon, you’ll likely enjoy this modest, minor, but entertaining rejoinder.