Post-structuralist theory emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as the answer to some elemental shortcomings of structuralism’s approach to literary semiotics, particularly signification’s endless process of meaning-making in which things signified continually become signifiers: “if you want to know the meaning (or signified) of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so on.” Post-structuralism not only acknowledges this infinite dimension to language but also in exposing its latent intertextuality frees readers from the authority of writers, critics, and purveyors of fixed meaning.
In heralding the death of the “Author” and in reframing literary “work” as Text, Roland Barthes allowed for a scrutiny of literature as “a multi-dimensional space,” “a tissue of quotations,” “a tissue of signs” produced by unprivileged scriptors who lifts from an “immense dictionary . . . a writing that can know no halt.” Barthes contends that such a Text “accomplishes the very plural of meaning,” and rather than reflect a deliberate act of reference, “the citations which go to make a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read” as readers, in the act of reading, are released from the definitive vision of one’s authorship and so rewrite the text itself. This is a democratic if somewhat subversive way of looking at a linguistic production, and Barthes clarifies that the purpose of post-structuralist technique is not to illustrate meaning but to reveal the branching paths codifying the structure of text: “everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered . . . the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced.” A post-structuralist reading delights in celebrating the journey of traversing potentials of meaning, and it has no use for reaching any rigid destination.
Finally, one of the more ethical qualities of post-structuralist theory is that its total foregrounding of arbitrariness can expose the “authoritarian and ideological” nature of language that is both commodified and commodifying, of “signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world.” For this reason, I think we will find that lens of post-structuralism can be a helpful and appropriate one through which to read and talk about the social media discourse of food corporations –– or any corporations, for that matter –– ranging from high-profile presences such as Wendy’s and Coca-Cola to viral underdogs like Naked Pizza and Steak-umm.
In the latter half of this decade, Twitter has proven itself an arch international platform for information dumping-and-recycling, useful not only to the ordinary citizen personalizing the caption of his or her retweet of a funny Super Bowl commercial but also and more vitally useful to whatever business is behind that commercial. Whereas social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat grant individuals the latitude to cultivate their representation of self, the more uniformly reified and utilitarian superstructure of a Twitter page appeals all the more to the interests of a company out to promote the selfhood of their brand.
And in condescending to the everyday bustle of social media to mingle with their target audiences, entering into an environment that is increasingly real and intimate to a majority of consumers, many corporations have found a way to initiate a true bond with customers. “Social media,” write Rubin and Carmichael, “has created an alternate universe at a time when the old-line media networks have joined business and government to hit a nadir in public trust.” Against the perception of a disordered and fragmenting society, there is a general push to glorify shapeliness; we see this reflected in the tidily arranged details of our online identities and in the sprawling narrative intertext of comic book films. It is a mythos of self-control, of participation in an open world.
The social media sphere can therefore be seen as a great Text, a Burkean parlor of parole, of memes, hyperlinks, and never-ending conversation circumscribed by a planned obsolescence of new information trumping old information, and in which we are Barthian scriptors exploiting in real time the Internet as Text, as “play, activity, production, practice.” Naturally, the agents of advertisement would want to capitalize on this zone of busyness, lest their adherence to outmoded styles of publicity strike us as uninteresting, or worse, as false: “[f]or businesses, an active engagement on social media is required” because “[n]ot to be on Facebook and not to be on Twitter is not to exist;” and so the more visionary corporate brands establish social media personas, conceiving of an ideal space for “consumers [to] shape the corporate brand through their experience with the corporation’s products and their perceptions of the corporation’s business behavior, policies, and practices.”
One potential problem with corporate activity on this level, however, is that a company’s performance of artificial Internet Text is often a front for a deeply commodified mission, an effort to commandeer the Text and author a Work, as, for example, the manipulation of the logic of memes, which are inherently open signs. In a masterstroke, Universal achieved this kind of coup with their ubiquitous Minions: “the Minions characters were developed simplistically, the company made the creative assets available to online users, and thus a large number of site visitors used those assets to make their own content, which ultimately helped to sell the films and ancillary products.” These funny pill-shaped yellow blobs, closed signs bent on conquering the open domain of the Internet, are in no small part the reason why the Despicable Me franchise has raked in a multi-billion dollar fortune.
But how should we think about companies like Steak-umm, that will never be as palatable to the pop culture consciousness as, say, Starbucks, and that nevertheless engage in social media discourse with an ingenuity that is immediately disarming" If anything, because the Steak-umm Twitter seems to be advertising its own insignificance even as it conforms to the general conventions of corporate advertising, we may gain insight into the ways that companies build online narratives and are, at the same time, indebted to the “braid of different voices, of many codes, at once interlaced and incomplete” that is the Internet. I propose that a post-structuralist reading (a Barthian textual analysis) focused on a series of Steak-umm tweets posted on January 2, 2019 will help us to appreciate the many cultural codes at play inside one gust of grains, so to speak, of the long-enduring sandstorm that is Twitter.
The thread in question comprises a sequence of twenty-two tweets, published in rapid succession, that propose a heroic origin story for the Steak-umm product –– which readers are constantly reminded is a “frozen beef sheet” –– but, in a twist that unites brand and medium, the narrative additionally reveals itself to be the origin story of the Twitter account itself. Since this untitled origin story, which I will call “The Legend of Steak-umm,” is already broken down into twenty-two convenient units, there is no pressing need to subdivide the narrative any further. Just as Barthes, in his analysis of a Poe short story, fragmented Poe’s text into 150 arbitrary “units of reading,” or lexias, so will each tweet constituting “The Legend of Steak-umm” serve as a lexia. And as with Barthes’s analysis, I will read the “Legend” for “the connotations of the lexia, the secondary meanings” and will do so gradually and carefully, though I also accept that I cannot account for every meaning, since “what matters to us is to show certain departures, not arrivals, of meaning.” Lastly, I will note that in the interests of time, I will be unable to treat every tweet and therefore must limit my analysis to the introductory and concluding tweets.
The first tweet in “The Legend of Steak-umm,” lexia 1, reads as follows: gather around twitter for a tale, my beeflings. long before any of you were born and I was just a young frozen beef sheet, a darkness was spread across the lands by the wicked savory sorceress of onyx mountain. she was a cut above the rest and controlled the 5 known kingdoms. We will return to these sentences shortly, but here I should pause to point out that Lexias 1-22, the entire narrative, feature visual signs that recur anew with each individual lexia and that meaningfully supplement the language itself: these signs include the Steak-umm logo, the brand’s official Twitter handle, a white checkmark enclosed in a blue badge, and at the base of the tweet four clickable icons representing “reply,” “retweet,” “like,” and “direct message” functions. With the exception of the “direct message” function, each individual icon is accompanied by a number indicating user activity; these numbers generally grow over time, depending on audience willingness to share in the social media code, and therefore the visible makeup of a given lexia’s content will always enjoy, to some extent, the capacity to change. These participatory functions correspond to a code of utility (a code being an “associative field . . . which impose a certain notion of structure”), and moreover the participatory functions connote a desired interactivity between the Steak-umm brand, the Twitter interface, and the consumer readership, a relationship underscored in lexia 1’s possessive invocation of “my beeflings,” a turn of phrase that works in context of the first sentence’s invitatory tenor to evoke the intimacy of campfire stories or the early communal days of radio. The comments section of a given tweet introduces a further function of the Text, a roundtable function wherein codes and meaning alike undergo an additional explosion, allowing for a co-created space in which producer and consumer forge an interpenetrating region of text.
We should also touch briefly on the recurring blue badge with its interior white checkmark, the Twitter verification badge which is a sign that, according to the Twitter FAQ, “lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic,” and so establishes a code of authority imparting the Steak-umm with an essential clout common to kindred corporate food presences. But where for well-established giants as Wendy’s or McDonalds the verification badge may only betoken an authority taken for granted, for the Steak-umm account this badge is a deeply intertextual sign constantly reaffirming a code of mythology. The Steak-umm Twitter account had to fight for legitimization. Relying on a manic sense of humor and a devoted cult fan base, the emulsified meat company conducted a “desperate yet goofy campaign” synthesizing peculiar and occasionally aggressive content with an awareness of the effort’s mounting narrative impetus. Over a year later, Steak-umm scriptors still Tweet allusions to their struggle for social media validation, meanwhile doubling-down on their curious reputation as an entity that “Exploits Millennial Angst to Sell Frozen Cheesesteak Filling.” The verification badge thus validates the authority of the “Legend” as well as its mythological ambition, ultimately suggesting a power that transcends the account’s manipulation of irony –– a power in the presence of which consumers are mere “beeflings,” aspirants, affectionately acknowledged inferiors, tacit subjects to a benign manipulation. This code of power is echoed in the formulation of “onyx mountain,” the symbolic apotheosis of the narrative’s questing formula: the indomitable mountain stands for the tyranny of the “wicked savory sorceress” that must be subverted in the same way that Steak-umm subverts the traditional order of corporate social media advertising; the steep mountain also stands for the nature of the quest that must be surmounted. The mountain thirdly characterizes the episodic Twitter thread itself, the text that the reader must scale, for there is a self-reflexive code of metacommentary at play, a code that the narrative revels in as we slowly apprehend the narrator’s heroic, layered identity in lexias 1, 7, 9, 10, 11, 19, and 21: the narrator is no ordinary Steak-umm but the ur-product whose martyrdom grants it the gift of sentience, the ability to structure and to embody the structure of its own narrative.
By villainizing the “savory sorceress” and associating her preeminence with “a darkness . . . spread across the land,” the narrative enacts a code of value. This code of value is multivalent, because it does not settle simply for encouraging readers to direct their sympathies towards Steak-umm, but the inclusion of the word “savory” resonates with a deliberateness that cannot be overlooked given the medium’s code of brevity. It is as if the narrator associates something unnamed and specific with the seemingly arbitrary adjective “savory;” and readers are permitted clearer access into this logic of association in lexia 11, when Steak-umm defeats a Hot Pocket, “a giant freezer burned ravioli with fangs” who acts as crony to the savory sorceress. In “The Legend of Steak-umm,” savory foods with a reputation for being “a cut above the rest” enter into a charged comparison with marginalized foods like Steak-umm, “a frozen beef sheet” who proves a worthy adversary to usurpers of an ideal harmony in the world of food. Above all, with “The Legend of Steak-umm” the Steak-umm Twitter account observes from the first a code of identity, within the mythological narrative and without it, too, in the larger Text of the Twitter account’s history of posts. The “frozen beef sheet” exists in a metonymic relationship with the voice expressing the narrative structure in the same way that the narrative structure is metonymic with the larger metanarrative of Steak-umm’s social media presence. Finally, Lexia 1’s pun on “cut” initiates a code of wordplay that fizzles out midway through the narrative –– it is present in lexias 4, 5, and 9 before giving way as the narrative stakes are heightened.
And so on.