Roland Barthes decoded the mythology of margarine as a rhetorical species of inoculation. He described the promotional demonstration of margarine’s blemishes as a carefully cultivated virtue in a cultural vaccine that selected contingent over essential evil. Inoculation is one of seven principal rhetorical figures that Barthes develops to analyse the duplicity of bourgeois myths. Margarine’s commercial valorization takes place on the grounds of its imperfections, as well as its secondariness in relation to butter. That is, margarine’s resemblance to butter entails that its simulacral features themselves become the foundation of its advantages, and of its delights in the mouths of sceptics, despite their traditional dairy allegiances. The homeopathic vaccine of inoculation against greater evils that clears the way for its widespread acceptance is not limited to margarine. Striptease, too, thinks Barthes, absorbs and familiarizes the fires of eroticism and in the process creates a reassuring ritual accorded the status of a sport (dancing), a good workout (aerobic or cardio striptease), and even a career option. Readers of Barthes (1957: 44) on this point may wonder about the terms

of reference of his analysis since the English translation exposes far too little of the original essay’s focus on a specific French brand: ‘Astra’. Barthes’s margarine was the leading French brand (a product of Dutch agribusiness giant Unilever’s French subsidiary Astra, after which the product was named) and not a generic substance in a plastic tub. Indeed, the mythological strategy of inoculation was also found to apply to plastic. Plastic has more in common with margarine as a mythologized substance – triumphantly chemical, smooth and shiny – than striptease, even if they share the same rhetoric. In Barthes mythologies are nestled within mythologies – the essay’s title is translated non-specifically (‘Operation Margarine’ and not ‘Astra’; Barthes, 1972: 45), within the general rhetoric of an emerging promotional demonstration applicable to a variety of substances. One searches in vain for a ‘no logo’ moment in Barthes’s mythologies. Instead, it is left to his English translators to add a further layer of myth in the brand’s erasure. In typical fashion, Barthes revealed little about his specimens. ‘Astra’ is no

different in this respect. The dialogue he quotes is lifted from a print campaign for the margarine in circulation in the early to mid-1950s and it

featured black and white full-page advertisements heavy on mock dialogue about resistance to margarine. The promotional campaigns for Astra were complex and involved efforts to insert margarine into bread-and-butter snacks (‘tartines’), the invention of a fictive cook, a kind of Franco-Swiss Betty Crocker named Betty Bossi, author of a full range of cuisine-related objects from newsletters and cookbooks to sponsored contests. By the late 1950s this strategy had shifted to a full-colour print and poster campaign featuring Black Africans and the virtues of the product’s ‘tropical riches’. Barthes’s focus remained on an earlier, more overtly endocolonial rather than exocolonial, form of commercial solicitude. Make no mistake, however, it was Barthes who put margarine on the

table. Like a good Barthesean mythologist I am prepared to admit that plastic, not margarine, was his ‘stucco’, the miracle of which later impressed Baudrillard as an ‘eternal substance’ (Baudrillard, 1993a: 53). Margarine’s shelf life is impressive, but is no match for plastic. In this paper I want to lift the lid on margarine so that, in another promotional discourse, its relational cultural calculus, to borrow Baudrillard’s (1998a: 27) felicitous term, may be heard. For Barthes taught us that margarine is before all else a relational substance that speaks another name: ‘butter’. This is precisely what you can hear, if you listen closely, when the lid on a tub of margarine is lifted: ‘butter’. And of course for Canadians and Americans of a certain vintage this is also the promotional discourse of Parkay margarine of ConAgra whose ‘Talking Tub’ muttered ‘butter’ as an act of provocation, and has been nattering since 1973. Of course, today margarine speaks butter’s name with a ‘not’ – ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’! In order to follow this trajectory beyond these specificities I want to add

Baudrillard to Barthes towards the product of a calculus of simulation that animates margarine’s history and carries its mythologies into the present. This is why a cultural analysis of margarine must involve an analysis of butter within a critical application of the concept of simulation. Margarine is simulacral and its history and destiny plays out this role in degrees of ‘likeness’ to the natural, original reference point of butter. But this paper does not simply rehearse this trajectory. Rather, what I want to argue is that butter – simplifying a materially

complex polycultural substance to be sure – is destabilized as margarine’s status as a counterfeit or fake is superseded. Margarine turns the tables on butter not as it achieves perfection in the erasure of difference with butter, nor through butter’s exhaustion, for example, of legal means that prevent margarine’s drive for similarity, but as simulation perfuses the relational calculus of these objects. The game of appearances, if you will, of the unstable separability of margarine and butter, which both have played out since margarine’s creation as ‘beurre économique’ in 1870 in France by Hippolyte Mège Mouriès, becomes undecidable. This is a non-specific process of contamination. I do not want to attribute this mutual metabolization to butter’s waning mystique nor to margarine’s triumphal technological prowess of

reproduction. Neither am I adopting an explanation based on fatigue produced by legislative differentiation in conjunction with the lifting of codes protecting butter’s integrity, and hence opening onto a profligate indifferentiation; and I am not playing the health card of shifting analyses of nutritional value (margarine’s surging Mediterranean profile and butter’s sinking fattiness) that contribute to the pair’s implosion. To put this slightly differently: what if margarine is no longer obviously secondary to butter? And, what if butter is not longer primary in relation to its pretenders? That is, if simulation destabilizes hierarchy, what is the destiny of margarine and butter? Both margarine and butter issue from models. Only a critical dredging

operation in the histories of these substances can reveal the extent of butter’s strategies for ‘real-ization’ (Hegarty, 2004: 51) that situates it in simulation. Still, the great chain of modelling is so long and intrusive as to go unnoticed as models are produced from market research, changing production processes, trends in artificial and natural additives, right into the mouth of the consumer with the idea of ‘mouthfeel aroma’, a point made about bread, but one equally relevant here, by Victoria Grace (2002: 107). Butter is realer than real, yet it remains resistant to this claim because it carries with it nostalgic obligatory symbolic attachments to traditional activities like dairying, to the necessity of milk, if you will, under the ‘sign of the cow’ (Rynne, 1998). All of butter’s attributes are gathered under this rapidly eroding sign: nature, farming, processes like milking, creaming and churning; richness, purity and uniqueness. Let’s listen to Margaret Visser (1986: 101-2) describe butter’s superiority. Writing of French crémeries, she observes:

Butter appears packaged in the now-usual silver or gold foil, but often the very best of it is still served from the motte – a huge shameless tower of unwrapped voluptuousness, with gleaming facets where chunks of butter have been cut with a wire to the specifications of the customer. … Butter in a motte is not squared-off, brand-named, labeled, and ‘industrialized’: it constitutes a monumental snub to the concept of margarine.