Quick Note: This was originally written for a Literary Theory class with the specific topic of writing the Mythology of some common place or object, a la Roland Barthes. (Currently there is no writeup that describes mythology in Barthes' sense of the word)
A Mythology of the Credit Card
A quick look in any decently well off person's wallet will produce a veritable plethora of little self-identifying, personal, and utterly essential cards and pictures. We are made up of these cards, each one containing access to a certain part of our lives; our library cards, our frequent flier cards, supermarket discount clubs, our gym memberships and personal photos. While these individual cards may come and go, as may the photos (ex lovers, new flames), one card, or group of cards, remain constant. Within everyman's pocket, within everyman's wallet lives the credit card.
What is this ever-present companion to our daily lives? The credit card is a 2 by 3.25-inch piece of relatively flexible plastic on which may be printed various colors or designs. Every card is essentially the same (in form that is). At the top is the name of your bank printed in bold, reassuring letters, below that is your name, printed in raised letters through the plastic. Below that, also in raised lettering, is your account number, the sixteen digit key to your account and your financial life. This number is no ordinary number, its four groups of four digits form an unguessable number, just one of a possible 1016 combinations. It is your protection, your security. It is a mathematical certainty.
To the right of these are a hologram and the credit card company's logo. The hologram is a silver rectangle portraying, capturing some symbol. It could be an eagle in flight, a globe, or practically anything else, caught within the odd two-dimensional green-orange depth of the hologram. On the back of the card is the other key to the whole system, the magnetic stripe. This thin brown strip contains your account number in digital form, mysteriously encoded in what amounts to be nothing more than a band of color. How does this work? Who knows? But it does, and that is all that is important. And finally, beneath the strip is your signature, the authorized signature for the card. Out of all the "personal" aspects of the card, this one is truly personal. It is the only thing that is not assigned or printed for you; it is your personal contribution that makes the card truly yours.
The card is at one and the same time very personal and completely depersonalized. Thousands of other people have essentially the same card: the same logo, the same hologram, even possibly the same name printed in raised letters across the front. Yet each of these cards is unique unto itself. It is your card, the card for your account. It is an odd product of the modern society, a faceless, mass-produced object which at the same time is entirely unique.
So what does this highly designed and thought out card do? Credit cards are a way of making purchases on credit, which is essentially buying with money that is not yours. Buying on credit is a promise that you will pay the fee at a later date, and what this allows you to do is make purchases that are much larger than what one might ordinarily make. You might not have the money on hand at the moment, but with a credit card that becomes irrelevant. Your purchases are amalgamated into one giant (and how easily they do become giant) sum which you are required to pay monthly or face interest charges. Because of this, credit cards have become the archetypical purchase tool. Don't have the money? Don't worry about it - just buy it now and worry about paying it off later. Buy now. Want something? With a credit card it can be yours in less than a minute. And credit cards make it so easy to do so because they depersonalize the purchase, removing the act from the consequence. There is no cash to count out, no numbers to fill in, as is the case with a check. There is only the purchase. In a sense, credit cards are able to give the thrill of a purchase without having to deal with the reality of the purchase. They allow consumers to live in the moment because they have reduced purchasing to a single lightning swipe.
Credit cards in and of themselves are meaningless-they are merely a tool, just as is a hammer or ruler; a means to an end--and yet they possess so much meaning for us. So much is signified by the mere possession of a credit card that it has in essence become an institution, complete with significance and values, attitudes and myths. One of the biggest meanings credit cards have for us is the sense of independence that one feels from owning one. In many cases, people get their credit cards when they turn eighteen and leave for college. This marks a new stage of financial and social independence, where teenagers no longer have to ask their parents for permission to buy a particular item. They can also purchase much more expensive items than before (because of the reasons noted in the previous paragraph) and in a much larger market than previously available.
Suddenly the world of e-commerce is open to these young adults and that in essence means they can own anything they could ever desire. Credit cards enable choice. They are the passports that enable one to voyage through the sea-through the universe-of goods and services. Magazine subscriptions, movie rentals, and porn web sites are all now within reach. In many ways, owning a credit card is a rite of passage for American teenagers. They can make their own choices, they can be as reckless as they want to be, and they can fulfill their deepest material desires.
Another significance that credit cards have for us is that they are our security in life. Many people see them as a universal safety net, capable of catching all but the hardest falls. Whatever trouble they may get themselves in, consumers can always bail themselves out by using their credit card. Everything can be bought, every expense can be paid. Need to pay for a medical procedure? It's expensive, but a credit card can take care of it and you can deal with the expense later. Lost overseas without an airplane ticket? You can always purchase another, no problem. Did something get messed up with your flight and you need to spend the night in a hotel? Go ahead, do what you need to. The confidence that people experience from owning a credit card is due to the feeling that you've always got a friend with deep pockets on your side.
By signing up for a credit card, you essentially get the support and the full faith and trust of a multi-billion dollar company with international reach and recognition. This rich uncle role is constantly reinforced by the credit card companies themselves, with such mottos as "Never leave home without itTM" (American Express) and "Everywhere you want to beTM" (Visa). Look for the Visa symbol. Travel with confidence. Suddenly a credit card is no longer a mere form of payment, it is your personal bodyguard and sponsor, it is your key to foreign cultures, your guide to the information superhighway, your guarantee in life. But credit card companies do even more than just protecting you from adverse situations, they protect you from the cold harsh world of theft and crime. No matter how much a thief charges to your account, you can be held responsible for only $50 of it.
The final significance that credit cards hold for us is that they give us a sense of identity. Whereas neither cash nor checks have any special meaning for us (any meaning we may draw from cash primarily comes from the areas of history, patriotism, or anonymity; checks may have even less significance) credit cards possess many layers of meaning. From a very basic level, the card itself it is a form of identification. Your name is embossed right across the front and in some cases a picture ID is also present. Credit cards can be used to verify checks or other purchases. Even more fundamentally than the card itself, the very act of owning a credit card identifies you as either a person who can handle owning a credit card or as someone who can't. Depending on your credit history (another personal, identifying entity), you are either a responsible person who can manage a balance and monthly payments or you are someone who is reckless with money and is not reliable with self-control or deadlines. This mark, gleaned from your Credit History, has far reaching effects in one's life, affecting everything from employment to financial aid to mortgage approval. Bad Credit is definitely something that you don't want.
The particular kind of credit card you own can also say a lot about who you are, whether you want security or fun, freedom or service. If you own a Visa card, you are active, fun, and probably middle class. If you own an American Express card you are secure, intelligent, and belong most likely to the upper class. Within these broader divisions, there are different kinds of cards which can say even more about you. Do you have an ordinary card or do you have a gold, platinum, or now the highest level of service, a black Centurion card? Do you have a Delta SkyMiles card or a Corporate Card? Each of these signifies another level of status, and gives us an automatic identity. No longer do you need to guess at a person's financial situation. A mere glance at their credit card will do.
In a sense despite their proper use, credit cards serve as little homunculi for us, a little representation of our innate selves, captured in a wallet sized card. In it is captured our habits, our egos, and our generation. Credit cards belie our fears, our desires, our selfishness, our responsibility and perhaps more than anything else, how we perceive ourselves to be.