Logos v. logos
The 1970s was a fertile time for fresh expressions within youth sub cultures and alongside the more familiar names was spawned a group that did not simply become the most dominant, but ended up transcending them all as they became the mainstream itself. During the seventies, English football teams found themselves regularly playing in Europe and the fans who travelled with them would make the most of the opportunity to buy, or steal, some of the more exclusive and expensive clothing brands that were rarely found in Britain. These garments quickly became portable trophies that were ostentatiously displayed with their high profile logos such as Fila, Sergio Tachinni and Ellesse etc. In turn, the garments became highly desirable fetish items that testified to the fact that the wearer had gone, seen and conquered. They were status symbols of the highest order and were worn with the braggadocio of the flaneur or the poseur and, by the early eighties, this style found its apogee with fans aiming to outdo the opposition through the exclusivity of what they wore. Furthermore, while the style may have been birthed in the football grounds of Europe, it was soon adopted by youth culture more widely as people wished to associate themselves with the power that the wearing of these brands so self-consciously carried.
As the decade wore on, other fashions came and went, but this so called ‘casual’ style went through a very different metamorphosis. A transition occurred where clothing with an ostentatious logo became increasingly the norm. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, many of these clothes became increasingly less expensive and increasingly more available and, as the companies reached the critical mass where prices tumbled, many of these clothes became part of a day-to-day uniform. Vast clothing shops that felt like over-stocked warehouses ensured that, should you so wish, you could fill your entire wardrobe with branded items, from socks to hats, and live in a perpetual state of presenting a logoed image. These now highly recognisable symbols, from Adidas to Puma, Diadora to Reebok and from Donnay to Nike started to adorn large swathes of the populace and it took little time before parading down the street day-in day-out subsumed beneath an avalanche of symbols became the norm for many.
The Logos or the logos?
Will Self once observed that where once we worshipped the Logos we now worship the logos. But is that a cogent point, or simply a clever play on words? The word logos certainly has the capacity to carry with it multiple meanings for multiple people. The Greek word logos held a degree of polyvalence and it had the capacity to suggest ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘account’, ‘story’ or ‘message’. Greek philosophers would use it to describe that which gives form, or life, to the material world while the synoptic gospels tended to utilise logos to refer to ‘speech’ or ‘message’, or when someone was giving an account of something, or broadcasting a proclamation. Logos can describe the message of the gospel, the scriptures or the kingdom and Luke goes one step further still when he uses the word to refer to the actual message that Christ was bringing and his word of authority. To hear Jesus speak is to hear the word and to encounter the word – Jesus IS the Logos – he IS the word. To accept this Logos, in the shape of Jesus and his message, is tantamount to accepting the word of the Father and thus, with it, the word of salvation and truth. This acceptance, in turn, affects the life of the one who has accepted this ‘word’ as the saving word of God the Father and thus becomes a word of salvation. The gospel of John renders the word logos in slightly more complex terms where the logos is the person through whom the world was created – the one who is both life and light and illuminates the relationship between God and man. It is this logos that we see in the shape of Christ; the word of God who goes out to ‘accomplish creation, judgement, redemption and renewal’. Even such a brief review indicates that it is safe to say that within Christian theology the logos is very important indeed. But to what degree may we have licence to say that, in some way or another, the logos have replaced, or at least emulated, the Logos? The answer to this is, in part, found in the language that we may use to describe our relationship with logos.
In the first instance, the logos ‘speak’. They ‘talk’ to us. They initiate a communication flow between us and them and convey all that has been freighted into the symbol by those who created it. They demand an unsolicited authority to speak into our lives and promise us that they have the ability to transform our existence. They proclaim the ‘gospel’ of their brand and do so via everything from short phrases to meta-narratives and in doing so can claim to provide a salvation, of sorts, and one that transforms the life of the one who accepts the ‘word’ of their symbol. Logos suggest that their message will bring a form of illumination, the life and light that only the adoption of their product will bring. They make grandiose offers stating that, if we submit, associate and identify with all that they offer, we will, in turn, find that our status within our surrounding culture has been raised. Or, if we were to put it another way, they say ‘you must decrease and we must increase’. They offer a warped form of redemption and renewal and, in some cases, ask for a form of dying to self and a being born again into whatever the specific logo’s promise holds. The person is being asked to be ‘in’ whoever is the logo du jour and they offer to satiate that internal longing that they say they know we have. But the promise of fulfilment is hollow, it is no better than ‘jam tomorrow’. The idealised life that they have claimed to be able to facilitate always remains tantalisingly out of reach.
Logos assert that we may finally become who we wish we were by purchasing and owning their item and, in so doing, insidiously offer fictional images of our potential selves if we respond to their word. The problem is that we end up envying who we may become. This potential self becomes even more enviable as we realise we will become the envy of others. However, we then find ourselves in the trap of what Rene Girard calls ‘acquisitive mimesis’, where we elicit the envy of others while simultaneously feeling envy of them. This is not such a far-fetched proposition. When children are at play and a toy is near them they may well ignore it. However, the point at which one of the children grasps the toy the other child has their interest in the toy piqued and a desire to then have that specific toy is triggered. Does this dynamic really evaporate as we become adults? The success of our capacity to consume and be manipulated to consume suggests not. The problem with this offer of the logos is that they engender what John Berger calls, ‘…a solitary form of reassurance’. The claim of the symbol steals the love the person has for themselves in the present and offers it back for the price of their product and a promise that the consumer will receive it tomorrow. But, of course, tomorrow never comes.
It takes little time to see the degree to which we may adopt the language of faith for the world of the symbol and, as we do so, we witness a pernicious exchange that can quite evidently occur. It is the interior for the exterior, the tomorrow for the today, the transient for the eternal, the physical for the spiritual. Those who decide to worship at the altar of the logos cannot, simultaneously, worship the logos. Self is right, even if we recognise that many will have never recognised, far less worshipped the logos; a form of allegiance has been pledged and it is not the logos, it is the logos, that have been adopted. Conspicuous consumption is the largest religion the world has seen.
(This post was partially published post under Reading The Riot Act. It needed its own space!).
Recommended reading & bibliography
Berger, J. Ways of Seeing,
Cohen, S. Folk Devils and Moral Panic (London: Routledge, 2008)
Hall, S. and Jefferson, T. (eds), Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (London: Routledge, 2006)
Heath, J. & Potter, A. The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became the Consumer Culture (Chichester: Capstone Publishing Limited, 2005)
Hebdidge, D. Subcultures: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 2006)
Loy, D. R. ‘The Religion of the Market’, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 65/2
Melly, G. Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain (London: Penguin Press, 1970)
Miller, V. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a consumer Culture (London: Continuum, 2003)
Thornton, P. Casuals: Football, Fighting and Fashion. The Story of a Terrace Cult (Lytham: Milo Books, 2003).
Townsley, J. ‘Rene Girard’s Theory of Violence, Religion and the Scapegoat’, (Dec 2003) http://www.jeramyt.org/papers/girard.html