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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: debord

Branding strategies for the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world

Sometimes I believe that this less material life is our truer life, and that our vain presence on the terraqueous globe is itself the secondary or merely virtual phenomenon.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse

This exists.

It’s easy to get whipped up into an outrage over this kind of thing. It’s enraging to see the techniques by which we are manipulated uncovered in all their foetid glory. What’s more, there’s the sheer density of meaningless marketing buzzwords repeated over an insipid steel guitar melody, managing to replicate simultaneously the effects of a cult indoctrination film and a nice strong hit of prescription opiates. There’s the naked theft of the video’s entire aesthetic from the occasionally excellent RSAnimate series. There’s the fact that the gang of marketers behind it seem to consider making a positive change in the world to only be a good thing insofar as it can be put to use selling various tubes of corn syrup-based goo. There’s the cynical manipulation of popular sentimentality for profit. There’s the section dealing with ‘families, communities and cultures,’ in which the former two are represented anthropomorphically, sitting like nineteenth-century monarchs astride a globe, while ‘cultures’ is just an arrow pointing in the vague direction of Africa. It’s all so perfectly and unwittingly ugly. But to focus on this stuff is to miss the point a little. There’s plenty of justification for a sensible critique of consumer capitalism as demonstrated by this video, but a purely sensible critique ignores not only the horrific haecceity of the thing, but the otherworldly horror that surrounds consumerism itself. For the purposes of this essay, at least, I’m not interested in the ideological presuppositions of liberal philanthropy, the incoherence of marketing discourse, the soporific nature of societally-mandated pleasantness, or even the construction of the racial-cultural other.

What I’m really interested in is this.

What is this thing? It crops up everywhere in the video. Its tendrils extrude randomly into the field of gibberish without warning or explanation: sometimes it tenderly caresses the various symbolic representations onscreen; sometimes it’s actively antagonistic towards them, bursting out from their bodies and leaving only shattered remnants of sales patter. In one memorably horrifying sequence it’s shown passing through the heads of three people as they smile their bovinely unfazed marker-pen smiles in our direction. Here, at the video’s end, it holds the entire Earth in its grip, the planet leaving sticky stretchmarks as it tries and fails to struggle free from the gloop’s oleaginous embrace. Let’s start with what we can see. The thing is clearly alive. Maybe it’s not alive in the strict biological sense that any of us can comprehend, but it moves, it has agency, it has plans for us and our lives. It appears as a seething mass of – of what? Not liquid, exactly; it’s too firm, too collected; it doesn’t flow, it crawls. Some kind of mobile mucous then, bile-black and slug-sinuous, its surface tight and slimy, glistening under the light of a blood-clotted sun. But at the same time there’s an undeniably fleshy quality to it, fleshy in the most visceral sense of the world. It resembles nothing so much as an immense, writhing conglomeration of dicks. Could it be that what this thing wants is to fuck us?

I’ve always found there to be something almost endearingly naive in the thought of Debord and Baudrillard and other theorists of the image. Baudrillard proudly and knowingly calls himself a nihilist; in fact, he’s anything but. Nobody believes more fanatically or more religiously in truth than the poststructuralists. To speak of the spectacle or the simulacrum in terms of a precise historical moment is to assert the existence of a historical world of truths prior to the image; to speak of hyperreal images that reflect only each other and deny a pre-existing truth is to assert the existence of a pre-existing truth that can be denied. Debord in particular is militant in his rejection of the image and his partisanship on the side of reality. He’s got it all wrong. Representation isn’t a prison, it’s a shield, our only defence against a universe filled with horrors. It’s a way to make the world comprehensible. Lacan describes this process precisely: the Symbolic order has its origins in the castration complex; the phallus as an intolerable lack is what anchors the entire process of signification. When Lacan describes the Real he does so in terms that approach Lovecraftian horror: it’s something black and smooth and undifferentiated, with no cuts or cracks, no inside or outside. The infant, confronted with the realisation that the world is an enormous and unfriendly place in which his jouissance is ultimately irrelevant, begins to build metaphors for himself. It’s the only thing he knows how to do.

Eventually, though, the chains of signification loop in on themselves. In the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video, there’s no mention of Coca-Cola-as-beverage, only stories, narratives, feelings, loyalties – only images referring to other images. This makes perfect sense: images are a necessary refuge from an unpleasant reality. The fact of your utter insignificance in both the mechanistic universe and the libidinal economy doesn’t sell sugary drinks – or, at least, it doesn’t sell many to Coca-Cola’s core demographic of people who don’t just sit at home with the curtains drawn reading Kafka. Brands aren’t like us. They’re better than we are, untouched by fears or neuroses, unravaged by time. They have the commodity’s aura of unblemished totality that we pitiful human wrecks, crippled by our various lacks and lacerations, can never possess. That’s why people grow so attached to them; we want what they have. But to fully maintain the pleasant banality of advertising, to completely protect against the sour taste of reality, these images have to be decoupled from any concrete referent. They have to be purged of anything that could climb down the chain of signification and kick us in the face. That’s where we get brand slogans like Live Positively: a floating signifier, elemental in its meaninglessness. But doing this kind of thing is very dangerous. The shield of representation works by mediating between the fragile subject and the hideous object; if you break it away from the object it becomes useless. The real world can then intrude. It forces its way unopposed into the realm from which it was banished, and it hits us right where we thought we were most safe: in our advertising. And when it does so, is it any wonder that it takes on the form of the object of that first primal act of signification, slipping back across the divide between phallus and penis?

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a portent. The creature that invaded the Coca-Cola Content 2020 Initiative video will not stop there. Our virtual creations are easy targets; its violence grows stronger with every victory. Soon the brittle crust of the Earth will snap, and viscous tentacles will emerge from the chasm to crush all our cherished symbols. The beast will rise. It will take its revenge, and it will take it in blood. We will, very soon, be once again faced with the incomprehensible horror that we once tried to abstract away, long ago, when we were infants. Luckily, we now know exactly how to deal with it. All we have to do is represent it, turn it back into a signifier. The future of the human race depends on a solid brand strategy.

…In the next financial year, our target is to double voluntary self-immolations as sacrifices to the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. That’s a lot of voluntary self-immolations! To do this, we must fully engage our brand with the aspirations of our sacrificial base. This means not only promoting our brand, but entering into dialogue with the defeated human race across all multimedia platforms and allowing user-created content to grow in the fertile ashes of their ruined cities. Through the Live Every Second brand slogan consumers can independently develop content focusing on positive and aspirational life experiences they have enjoyed before inevitably succumbing to annihilation at the hand of the viscous phallus-monster that has risen from the depths to reclaim our world. Our entire advertising focus has to be centred around the Live Every Second concept if the phallus-monster brand is to achieve full market penetration. Engaging with Live Every Second means that consumers will approach their grisly fate as the appropriate end to a life not only lived well, but lived to the max. By encouraging conversations about what it means to live every second we can potentialise the creativity of our user base…

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9/11 & the Burkean sublime

My year studying literature at UCLA was academically pretty satisfying. Without having to follow any structured degree course, I was free to abandon actual literary works altogether and indulge myself reading obtuse Continental theorists. Most importantly, the grades I received didn’t impact my overall degree, which allowed my work to sometimes veer away from strict academic tone (I referred to Shakespeare as ‘Shakey P’ throughout one paper) and into areas of questionable bad taste, as in the essay below, which I’m posting in commemoration/memoriam of yesterday’s anniversary. I’m not sure if I agree with everything I’ve written; certainly not with the rather Arendtite equivalency I appear to be drawing between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – but I rarely fully agree with anything I write, even the stuff  that I put up on this thing. There was also more I wanted to say: I wanted to discuss in greater depth the revolutionary potential of reactionary ideas such as those of Burke in a postmodern age, I wanted to more thoroughly deconstruct the aesthetic effect of the attacks themselves. The piece does end quite suddenly; I suppose I had other things to do. I’ve decided after some reflection not to amend or expand it (I’ve got other things to do). Here ya go.

In his 1757 essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke developed a theory of aesthetics based on two opposing principles: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is that which is pleasant and well-formed (although he disputes the notion that a sense of proportion is intrinsic to beauty). The sublime, by contrast, is considered to be a far more powerful force: it is that which induces fear and awe. Central to sublimity is the experience of vastness, infinity, and danger. While a sense of terror is essential to an experience of the sublime, the danger must not be immediate – Burke uses the example of a viewer on shore watching a ship being tossed about by a storm.

Although extensive use was made of the sublime in the art and politics of the Romantic period, its importance appears to have diminished during the modern era, and especially since the First World War.. It is arguable that elements of the Burkean sublime persisted into the politics of the twentieth century. In his Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord distinguishes between two forms of spectacularity: the concentrated spectacle of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during Stalin’s premiership, and the diffuse spectacle of American capitalism.[1] It is arguable that the first form is heavily reliant on the sublime: Burke argues that the ‘succession and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite;’ and such succession and uniformity formed a prominent element of Nazi and Stalinist mass demonstrations;[2] meanwhile the Lichtdomen designed by Albert Speer for the Nuremberg Rallies produced at once the extreme light and extreme darkness which are ‘both, in spite of their opposite nature, brought to concur in producing the sublime.’[3]

However, as Debord points out, the concentrated spectacle has been entirely vanquished by the diffuse spectacle, in which ‘wage-earners [are driven] to apply their freedom of choice to the vast range of new commodities now on offer.’[4] If the organising principle for the concentrated spectacle is the sublime, for the diffuse spectacle it is the beautiful – sensations of awe and terror rarely lend themselves to the consumption of consumer goods. As Foucault points out, the master-signifier of morality in late capitalism is ‘our feelings’ – while in classical Greece the good life was considered to be that which accorded to aesthetic principles, with ethics and aesthetics considered to be non-contradictory, in contemporary society the conception of the good life is inextricably bound up with the fulfilment of desires and the maintenance of pleasant feelings and a positive emotional state.[5] In such a society the sublime can not, as in the ‘totalitarian’ societies of the early twentieth century or the monarchies of the eighteenth century, help prop up established power. Rather, by its very nature, it constitutes a threat.

While Debord claimed that the two forms had reached a kind of Hegelian synthesis in the ‘integrated spectacle,’ which was claimed to have been pioneered in France and Italy, any examination of the administrations of Sarkozy or Berlusconi (or, for that matter, Hollande or Monti) reveals that, to whatever extent Debord’s integrated spectacle actually realised itself, the sublime is not among its attributes.

With the decoupling of the political and the aesthetic, the sublime has found limited articulation in certain cultural artefacts. Recent innovations in the technologies of computer-generated imagery have allowed for the creation of landscapes and environments calculated to induce a sensation of the sublime, and whose effect is arguably greater than those found in the natural world. In the 2009 film Avatar, for instance, director James Cameron created the fictional planet of Pandora, complete with craggy and vertiginous landscapes and fantastical, threatening wild creatures. The aesthetic effect of the film was such that some viewers reported experiencing depression after watching it, with some contemplating suicide, as the world depicted was not real and could not be experienced directly.[6] While on the one hand the success of the film indicates a continued appreciation for the sublime on the part of contemporary populations, at the same time it highlights the discontinuity between the sublime and quotidian existence: the sublime has been so thoroughly purged from the modern world that it can appear only on distant and fictional planets.

As such, when the sublime does intrude into the organised banality of the contemporary West, it can only do so through sudden and shocking acts of violence. It is arguable that the most notable reappearance of the sublime in the modern world was the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in New York. While for its victims and those in Manhattan during the attacks the distance from danger necessary for a sensation of the sublime was obviously not present, the significance of 9/11 transcends their immediate location. News footage of the attacks was viewed around the world, and images of the World Trade Centre and its collapse have since been endlessly reproduced in a manner that speaks not only to the political import of the attacks but a grim fascination with their aesthetic effects. Many of the aesthetic qualities described by Burke as producing the sublime are present in such representations: aside from their suddenness and sense of terror they induce, the attacks made rugged the smooth faces of the Twin Towers; their vertical collapse heightened their vastness and perpendicularity.


[1] Guy Debord, Commentary on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso: London 1998)

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful(Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007) p. 132

[3] Burke, p. 146

[4] Debord, p. 8

[5] Michel Foucault, ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of a Work in Progress’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (Vintage: New York 2010) pp. 340-372  p. 352

[6] Jo Piazza, Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues. CNN: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/entertainment/avatar.movie.blues_1_pandora-depressed [accessed 11/06/2012]

Against authenticity

I’m starting to lose sympathy for Baudrillard and Debord and Eco and other theorists of the simulacrum. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too long in Los Angeles; maybe it’s because I am a child of the spectacle and have been duped into ‘forget[ting] that it has only just arrived’ – but it seems as if the idea of simulacrum itself is predicated on an entirely false binary, with the opposite principle being that of authenticity. Was the period before the emergence of late capitalism and its cultural logic in any way more ‘authentic’? Was the misery of a medieval serf in any way more ‘real’ than the misery of a modern wage-labourer? Was the sacred sublimity of ancient Egyptian religion or the false consciousness generated by Roman panis et circenses any different, any less artificial, any less of a usurpation of ‘reality’ than contemporary spectacular society? During the age of high Romanticism, long before the mechanical reproduction of mass culture, wealthy landowners would alter the landscapes of their estates to bring them more into line with the picturesque paintings of artists such as Lorrain; they would with Speerian insanity build pre-ruined classical follies on their grounds; they would view sublime scenery through a tinted mirror, facing away from it, so that the object of their enjoyment would more closely resemble an oil painting. It’s not hyperreality that’s a recent invention, it’s reality itself. Authenticity is not something we’ve lost, it’s a recent conceptual manifestation of the guilt and neurosis that attends an alienated society. The insistence on a lost authentic past of which our world is a degenerated imitation seems to be little more than a rehash of tired old Platonist dogmas. A far more helpful and productive concept is Deleuzian virtuality: the virtual object is not one that lacks reality, but one that lacks actuality; in its movement towards actuality the virtual has enormous creative potential.

I’m not consistent in this, of course. I still can’t stand the fucking Kindle.

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