Barthes and the Chocolate Man
My decision to start this blog was arbitrary. I liked chocolate, I talked about it in ways (both high and low) that other people didn't seem to, and I had a lot of free time. I imagined that, perhaps more than taste-testing the substance itself, I would write about obscure things peripherally related to chocolate. If the blog had taken that trajectory, I might have sat down sometime over the last month and written about the ludicrous commercial I saw at the cinema, for the new chocolate-scented Axe body spray. I might have written about how--perfectly timed with my viewing of the ad in which women flock to and then consume parts of a man who appears to be made of chocolate--I received an email from a publicist for Axe, telling me that "more than 70 percent of women around the world ranked chocolate as more irresistible than shopping, jewelry or even sex. Based on this insight, AXE created new AXE Dark Temptation, both a bodyspray and a shower gel for guys that is as irresistible as chocolate." (That publicist sent me a box of samples several weeks ago, and I only this moment realized that the box contained not only the shower gel, which I have been using on myself, and the body spray, which I have not, but also an enormous block of chocolate on which the above PR slogan about women, chocolate, and sex is printed.)
However (as regular readers of this blog must have noticed) I've spent the past month writing nothing at all.
Perhaps the reasons for my silence come not from chocolate at all but from an existential crisis about the act of writing itself. But, read another way, that crisis has everything to do with chocolate. At exactly the time that I started this chocolate blogging endeavor a few years ago, the (artisan/artisanal/high-end/origin/high-cacao-content/call-it-what-you-will) chocolate industry and the business of writing about it mushroomed from a sideline fascination into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. So instead of writing about chocolate-laced advertising campaigns, I started to write about individual pieces of candy, their flavors (or lack thereof), and the importance (or lack thereof) of their cacao percentages. And people read this stuff and wrote back, and I, in turn, kept up the dialogue by writing yet more about the subject. (Even during the month when I wrote nothing here on Chocolate in Context, Imbibe magazine deemed me an expert on the subject--though you'd have to find a hard copy October issue to read it.) Lately, though, while food industry insiders find chocolate to be the greatest thing going, I'm finding the conversation to be a bit banal.
In my mind, the (at least pre-financial-meltdown) astronomical growth of the specialty chocolate market has resulted an extraordinary increase in the production of mediocre chocolate, or products that employ artisan techniques yet have neither the taste nor the generally laudable creativity of the first wave of contemporary American chocolate makers. On my last trip to San Francisco, I asked the astute Seneca Klassen what he thought about all of this. He answered that
There's a fundamental problem with the whole concept of artisan chocolate making at this time, and that is that one of the components that I generally associate with artisanal processes is that they're intergenerational, and that there are skills that are passed down from person to person. And that's been erased over the past hundred years of chocolate's history because of the industrialization of the product. So there aren't people to go ask how to do this stuff. So what does artisan mean, then? So we're at the point where anybody entering this pursuit has to basically start from scratch and cobble together what knowledge they can, however they can, and hopefully build relationships over time that improve that body of knowledge. But it's a pretty weird set up because basically we're all fishing in the dark, trying to achieve really high quality, amazing things, but the results are radically different. And that's only within the small community of people who really give a shit. There's a broader community of people who just want to be able to more effectively market and label their products.
The Axe Chocolate Man is just such a person. I am meant to infer (though this is certainly not what I or anyone watching this ad would actually feel) that this (artificial) image of a man made out of (artificial) chocolate is sexy, or somehow sexier than sex. I'm not talking about chocolate anymore. I'm talking about some kind of body spray that's not made of chocolate and doesn't even smell like chocolate, but rather smells like the very distinctly non-artisan artificial aroma that, as a result of those hundred years of industrialization in the food industry that Seneca referred to, Americans now associate with chocolate. Well, isn't this what I set out to do with this blog anyway? To make sense, as a chocolate fan, of representations of chocolate? Perhaps. But what's the point? "[T]his is the point:" writes Roland Barthes, whom I take entirely out of context, "we are no longer dealing here with a theoretical mode of representation: we are dealing with this particular image, which is given for this particular signification. Mythical speech is made of material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance." Here, I might have been inclined to lapse into an anecdote about my-only-partially successful attempt to fill up my empty writing hours with reading hours and about how I found Barthes's Mythologies to be some combination of useful and baffling. Such an anecdote would have allowed me to wrap my self-deprecating characterization in a bit of classy prose in which I dismiss my inability to apply my reading of Barthes to the Axe ad in anything but the most coincidental of ways. I might have done that, except that, in his essay "Blind and Dumb Criticism" in the same book, Barthes asks,
...But if one fears or despises so much the philosophical foundations of a book, and if one demands so insistently the right to understand nothing about them and to say nothing on the subject, why become a critic? To understand, to enlighten, that is your profession, isn't it? You can of course judge philosophy according to common sense; the trouble is that while 'common sense' and 'feeling' understand nothing about philosophy, philosophy, on the other hand, understands them perfectly. You don't explain philosophers, but they explain you.
Why be a critic, indeed? I don't know, man, but I think it's a question worth my time to figure out. And that might take another month (or more) of not writing about anything. For the moment, I'm resolved to sit here a bit bored and a bit baffled, reading the enormous chocolate tome presented to me by the Axe Chocolate Man. ("Eighty-two perfect agreed that chocolate is a temptation that is hard to resist," it tells me.)