Roland Barthes’ classic 1964 The Rhetoric of the Image was the founding essay of semiology (Fr. semiologie, also known as semiotics, the usage employed by Umberto Eco and among US academics.) The essay centres on an advert for Panzani Italian pasta products, with an image of a string shopping bag containing ingredients for an Italian meal. The essay is easy to find online but if you are unfamiliar with the basic concepts of semiology I recommend the summary of Barthes’ essay on Hugh McCabe’s photography blog, where he provides the following handy checklist of the semiology of the Panzani advert, which contains:
1. The linguistic message (text)
Barthes sees two kinds of linguistic messages at work: a denoted message comprising of the caption and the labels on the produce, and a connoted message – the word ‘Panzani’ connotes Italianicity.
2. The symbolic message (or connoted image)
Four signs are then identified from the non-linguistic part of the image and they constitute the symbolic message, or connoted image:
- The half-open bag signifies return from market
- tomatoes and peppers signify Italianicity
- the collection of objects signifies a total culinary service
- the overall composition is reminiscent of, and therefore signifies, the notion of a still life.
3. The literal message (or denoted image)
This is non-coded in that the image of the tomato represents a tomato, the image of the pepper represents a pepper, and so on. He remarks that in this case we have a signifier and a signified which are essentially the same – this is a message without a code.
Please refer to the link above if you want to see this in more detail, but I think the above checklist will be all you need. So let’s explore the semiology of the Moggcast and see if we can arrive at a rhetoric of this deliberately contrived propagandist image.
1. A deliberately contrived propagandist image
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a Conservative MP who is on the extreme right-wing of the party and is a key advocate of Brexit. He is a money man, with a hedge fund and has recently shifted his operations from London to Dublin so he can maintain a European base when the City of London is damaged by the Brexit he wants to see.
It goes without saying that the professional illustrator who constructed the image intended to convey to the viewers of the Moggcast an overt political message. We can therefore identify the category of this image by definition as political propaganda.
What is the Moggcast? As the Guardian says, ” Jacob Rees-Mogg is the nearest thing the party has to a cult figure.” The regular podcast. on the blog ConservativeHome is described as “a fortnightly conversation with Jacob Rees-Mogg about the topics of the day. In these slots, he monotonously explains government policy and euphemistic “difficult choices”, etc. I shall not link to it here, as we are not interested in his propaganda but in analysing the Moggcast image.
One key factor which needs to be stated here: the Moggcast is sound only, so the rich collection of signs and symbols in the Moggcast graphic is something that may engage the listener during the half hour of listening to Mogg’s pronouncements on the political scene.
2. The composite image described
In the study of a remote country house Mogg sits at a desk which is drawn very small, which makes him look imposing. He has a microphone in front of him and he is referring to some notes. He gazes out of the picture directly meeting the eye of the viewer, in an expression which quizzically seems to demand some response from the observer, who is facing across the desk, as if maybe a pupil who has been sent to the headmaster’s study.
There is a chintz curtain tied back to reveal an idyllic unspoilt landscape; a cluttered wall with deliberately placed symbolic elements; a bookcase to lend authority to the central figure; and a green-glass period brass lamp of the type one might see on the theatre set of an Edwardian play.
3. Signs, signifiers & connoted message: the symbolic interpretation of the Moggcast image
The first sign is the grey double-breasted suit, as it is the largest visual item in the picture and fills the central area. It is buttoned up, worn with a Tory blue striped shirt with the right amount of cuff protruding from the sleeve: not too much and not too little: it is a tailored shirt.
This signifies a man who is exactly the same when he is in his own home as his public appearance in the street or in Parliament: this is a man who never wears pyjamas in bed, or swimming trunks on a beach; but always a double-breasted suit, buttoned up. His moral superiority is impregnable and you will find no skeletons in his wardrobe, but only a row of grey double breasted suits, buttoned up. Similarly, the round lensed glasses are deliberately chosen for their bank-manager / headmaster look. Nothing in Mogg’s appearance is left to chance. The accessories are all part of the armour strapped on every morning together with the self-conscious plummy accent and an air of ruthless superiority, with not a hair out of place beyond the perfect parting.
The appearance – while intended to protect himself against the scary modernity that threatens to invade his world – it actually consists of a very precarious set of signs. This whole ensemble is just soooooo close to being entirely camp; hence the desperate need to display his large Catholic family in that portrait on the wall above the crucifix (but we will come to that later).
The chintz curtain of the quality indicating it was purchased in a London department store is tied back with ornamental rope, revealing through 18th century multi-paned glass of the type found in a country house, an idyllic parkland country estate. It seems to continue to the horizon without a fence in sight.
The sign clearly connotes wealth and privilege: here is a man who owns a significant property. It is a symbolic nod to the painting tradition of Gainsborough and others of the 18th century whose subjects were pictured in their rural estates to show off their wealth.
The wallpaper or wooden panelling
It was Oscar Wilde on his deathbed who said, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do!” If this is wallpaper, it is of that kind. But it may be wooden panelling. If the former, this is a proclamation of the ghastly bad-taste for which the upper classes are very proud and reknowned. If wooden panelling it adds to the connotation of a substantial country house, soundproofed against the cries of the poor and the revolution in the distance.
The Union flag
The sign of the Union flag connoting patriotism will be the most obvious semiotic device in this picture, so we won’t dwell on it for long. But the fact of it being in touch with the Moggface, and the way the diagonal in the flag follows exactly the line of his carefully tailored shirt collar, signifies his total connectedness with the realm, this England, this UK.
A bookshelf laden with heavy tomes is a very common sign in portrayals of persons in positions of authority, and the connotation is clearly a kind of proclamation, “Look I have read all these books, so I jolly well know what I am talking about…”
But here on these bookshelves must be the book that Mogg Junior knows we know Mogg Senior wrote. The handbook of disaster capitalism called Blood in the Streets: Investment Profits in a World Gone Mad because you do not buy cheap in a social and political disaster until that horrendous stage has been reached. And that is how you make a profit. The book quotes 19th-century financial trader Nathan Rothschild: “The best time to buy is when blood is running in the streets.”
The large Catholic family
With a mixture of ostentation and moral superiority, the self-portrait with six children above the Catholic crucifix is an obviously contrived conjunction of signs, and we note that like the Union flag, the line of the left sleeve follows the angle of the line of the crucifix from the crossbar to the foot of the cross and the head of the Christ is inclined in the direction of the Mogg-devotee as if the suffering little Jesus is looking to the great leader in hope of salvation.
Note that the same grey double-breasted suit appears in the photograph, still buttoned up, with baby Sextus (yes even his sixth child must be named symbolically) on his lap, reaching up to him. The deliberate conjunction of crucifix and Moggdonna with Child is unmistakable.
The connotation here is an appeal to Old Catholic England, to the mysticism of Julian of Norwich and the myth of Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail in the swirling mists of Saint Mogg’s west country constituency.
The desk and the 1930s microphone
There are papers, pens, a teacup and saucer (no milk or sugar we see, as it is dark and there is no spoon) The mobile phone is a necessary concession to practical need but placed next to more reliable Guternberg technology, an old-fashioned hardback book. The green-glass brass lamp we already referred to above is known as a “banker’s lamp” (*credit to Charles Turner: see comment below.)
But the central object in this composite image is worth focusing on as the final sign. It is a very 1930s style microphone and even the curly flex suggests that cloth-covered wire that would be of the period. The 1960s media guru Marshall McLuhan – in his discussion of hot and cool media – explained that Hitler and Mussolini would not have come to power using television, for it was a ‘cool’ medium. Radio was a ‘hot’ medium, in which a demagogue could mesmerize a crowd, or a whole nation.
Yesterday, before I wrote the above semiological analysis of the Moggcast picture, I asked what you might see in it. Thank you to Alys Thomas for suggesting Charlie Chaplin standing at the microphone in The Great Dictator. Thanks also to reader Neil Maybin who sent the above photograph of Mussolini’s study and his desk.
When you put together all of the signs in the Moggcast picture its connotation is overtly fascistic but at the very least is a symbol of the kind of authoritarianism that the younger generation of voters in the United Kingdom must arm themselves against. Our fathers fought a war against them, but now the barbarians are within the city gates, and falsely waving our Union flag.
Footnote: what do we mean by fascism?
My definition of fascism in the above essay is based on the postmodern definition offered by Umberto Eco in his seminal 1995 essay on the subject in The New York Review of Books, “Ur Fascism” (the eternal fascism).