Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Riot Lucida

In 1957 French philosopher Roland Barthes published a book called Mythologies. A collection of essays taken from Les Lettres nouvelles, it examined, quoting Wikipedia, the 'tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths.'

The most famous essay in it was his analysis of the cover of Paris Match, of a young black French soldier saluting which, he argued, through a combination of signs and ideas being signified, helped to perpetuate a myth of France and her imperial power.

I am rather hoping that in the next few weeks, one of Barthes' intellectual descendants will do something similar for the picture above, taken on Sunday night, during the disturbances in Brixton.

It's a slight understatement to say I've been haunted by it since first seeing it. But I would like someone to explain to me why I find it so emblematic of what has happened over the last few days.

It was one of the more tweeted images of the riots, generally sent on with a tweet saying (I paraphrase): 'how stupid, she got caught looting THE SHOP SHE WORKS FOR'.

It was that formulation that first got me thinking.

So I'd hope that a someone could explain why someone might do that; might actively, definitely, jepoardise her employment by doing that, and whether there is anything in the theory that working cheek by jowl day after day selling things you can never afford yourself on the wages you earn might corrupt or warp your sense of right and wrong, so when the opportunity came you wouldn't stop to hesitate and instead, in an utterly misguided way, believe that 'you'd earned it'?

Then I'd hope the gaze would start to zoom out, and look at the rest of the scene. How power and force is still, mostly being wielded by, and forgive me for being blunt, a mostly white police force. You never see a black or Asian riot officer do you? And I'm not trying to be glib here, but surely part of reclaiming the community, or re-imposing the force of law, is getting the message across that it's not an Us vs Them situation, but instead Us vs Us: we look like you, are like you, but are choosing not to do what you are doing. And not only should that choice be respected, but more than that it is the right choice. To choose to make the institutions that we interact with better, by participating.

Then there are the consumerist messages that are inherent here. The consensus that the last few days has been no more than hyper-consumption gone wild seems valid enough. I'd hope our semotician could see evidence for that here. The shopping hours that mean that it's a rare day when you can't have your consumerist impulse satisfied, lustily and un-grammatically signified by the cheery 'We're Open' at the top of the picture. The most important thing for the store is to be Open, always Open, lest any chance to shop be missed. And what if you cannot shop, cannot participate in our main recreation, leisure sport? What happens to you, citizen, when you cannot be a consumer?

And of course our analyst would point to the anomie inherent here, in this situation. Five individuals, caught forever, together in a tableaux that sharply and simply, moralises one camp, de-moralises the other, and drains context out. And where there is no context, there's no understanding. All in uniform. Yet all told that they are unique. Bridging that psychic gap on a daily basis can be, is tough - whose sense of self is strong enough that they are never swayed by another's opinion? Mutliply that uncertainty by the force of a mob's baying, then wonder why the definition of a riot says 12 people need to be present. Only 12?

Lastly, I'd like our analyst to imagine there are no people there, and tell us how different this looks from any similar image you could find from a similar street in a similar town on a Friday or Saturday night. We believe - I certainly believe - that place and time make this picture special. But I am also willing to believe that, sans people, it would not be, and that we can see the emptiness and broken glass and the disorder on a much more frequent basis than we do, and we choose not to. Because it is easier not to.

And it is easier to make a myth out of the extraordinary, like this image, rather than the mundane, which I can also see here, despite (in spite of?) its extraordinariness.

(Image credit: Getty images)


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