Barthes’ discourse titled “Operation Margarine” principally focuses on how the “Established Order” is able to maintain its control over people by being self-critical in regards to petty issues, thereby keeping the populace content and blind in regards to the larger evils posed. He cites specifically the army and the church, and links it to an ad for margarine (one that would not be unfamiliar today) with the intent of showing how “a little ‘confessed’ evil saves on from acknowledging a lot of hidden evil.” (Barthes. p42) His point is well-made and certainly is still very much applicable to our present situation. As he says, the “Established Order” as one might term the global system (and the players within the system, government and international businesses) effectively neutralizes discontent by giving air to some frustrations, focusing on well-known (almost proverbial) issues (such as people on cell-phones in cars) as a way to avoid going into more serious ills (the effects of ‘the grid’ on society). Its the sort of realization that makes one think ‘gee that Big Brother is a real rascal’ but the psychology behind this can be applied further, perhaps even to the extent that this particular way of thinking is a condition of life (and even more probable, of modern life especially).

It is never a surprise when the “Established Order” dupes the great majority of people, it’s almost expected and indeed is played out repeatedly in film and television, as well as literature. Those who aren’t taken in view themselves as being “conscience” or aware of the situation at hand. However, it becomes evident that there are many levels of this sort of consciousness. Even those who claim to be ‘aware’ allow themselves to be made content by less than what they desire. The person who buys free-trade coffee and doesn’t shop at Walmart still has an ipod, so to speak. They insist, in fact, that they are in rebellion against the system (as opposed to everyone else who feels the same way but allow themselves to be satiated easier) though they continue very much to grease its wheels in certain respects. They allow themselves to be bought off from actually going the lengths that one must do in order to change any grievous issues, and in fact that free-trade coffee (and the ensuing feeling of accomplishment in fighting the ‘man’) becomes a sub-conscience justification for continuing to allow things to continue as they are.

Does it go further? Could one extend this sort of psychology further and question whether life itself requires this sort backwards thinking? We have a tendency to lambaste life for all of its sorrows (whether in song, film, or literature) but then confidently conclude that for all the bad times (which seem to make up an extensive list) life is still worth it, if only for the sake of itself. In fact, that film which depicts so much sorrow will end with a happy ending where everyone is so ecstatic that they do not even think of how low they had sunk. Perhaps the inherent contradictions of life, especially in our modern world, force us into this manner of thought. We shouldn’t be surprised then that something which might go that deep into the well (I’m obviously am hypothesizing, I’m not a certified psychologist) is so effective in allowing the “Established Order” to prevail.

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2 responses »

  1. Michael K. Johnson says:

    You make an interesting point here. With fair-trade coffee and other “eco-friendly” products, it does seem that there’s a similar operation going on to what Barthes describes, even if it seems at first glance to be just the opposite. Rather than a little confessed evil preventing us from seeing a greater evil, it’s doing a little good that provides the alibi that allows us to ignore that greater evil that’s being done.

    • Yes, that’s where I was heading with it. It’s contentment that is the key. Once one feels content (either with the little bit of confessed evil, or the little bit of ‘good’) than complacency sets in, which in the end equals being compliance with the status quo.

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