Its not economics

26Aug10

Something I’ve not written about in a while is advertsing. I’ve blogged in the past about its deleterious effect on our organism. The inability to process all the codes and signals that it sends out. The saturation of strangely meaningful clips of information. Its a popular topic. Spectacle. Simulation. The medium is the message. And so on… The binary of meaning and meaninglessness, I tend to think these days, is the ultimate human problem. Not death. A meaningful death is worth undergoing. Not life. A meaningful life is worth living.

Meaning and non-meaning. A challenge we set ourselves in order to fail. What is this thing meaning that no one has ever seen? Sure, we can posit God. We can posit our belief systems. But without an experience what does any of that matter? I’m sure we do experience meaning. I have. Meaning is everywhere. We’re saturated with it. But to pervert Voltaire, if meaning didn’t exist we’d have to invent it. Humans can barely, if ever, percieve origins. What is the origin of meaning? Could we construct a genealogy of meanings? Why would we want to? All that is the problem. We set ourselves up to fail. Forget meaning. Forget non-meaning. The whole question is the problem. The intellectual masochism par excellence.

While reading Don Dililo’s novel White Noise I came across this:

A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice. Toyota Corolla. Toyota Celica. Toyota Cressida…part of every child’s brain noise.

I didn’t think. Something just went click. I picked up a pen and wrote this in the margins (a habit I’m beginning to hate):

yup. advertising slogans, brand names, corporate emblems, consumer centric characters (Mario, Sonic…Bagpuss, Sooty)- these form a primal relationship with us. Lovers, great lovers who we believe we met through destiny, friends we’ve known for 20 years, parents who have always been present, the job we loved, the use of our arms and legs, our ability to regulate our own moods, the response to the need to eat, our arms and legs, the use of our genitals. All these permenant and lasting things turn out otherwise. They end.

But the Iconography and Texts, hymns and edifices of advertising remain constant, they stay with us and travel with us through the worst personal losses and impersonal atrocities. We could imagine the last human being after an ecological crisis, born after the collapse, left to fend for itself from an early age, totally feral now. Yet it comes across a can of Coke and somewhere in its head a theme tune plays, a jolly Santa Clause flickers in the neurons, a glimpsing recognition fires off from the synapses. Deeper down, a pang of something lost. Something missed. Something that might have been. We can imagine this child finding other survivors, not the last at all, drawn to them by a trail of billboards, a great McDonald’s Golden Arches illuminating their community.

This iconography can cripple and disable us. But at the same time it calms and soothes. It overexerts our nervous responses. It provides familiarity and warmth. It is punishing and judgemental. It is nourishing and forgives us every desire. It is like the paradox of the Christian God. If it is affective in its nature, which it surely is, then its aesthetics are feminine, insofar as historically it has been the woman’s role to tend the emotions and the nerves of the male. Yet it also divorces things from their contexts, sexualises everything, gives form to hideous images that damage girls and women. It is irredemably male. It is full of puzzles and contradictions that a Marxist or feminist analysis would elucidate so easily and yet they might well miss the essential point.

Advertising is a Religion. A religion of partial objects. A secular religion where the afterlife is an Ikea lamp (replete with domestically blissful setting). At once expansive and familiar, vertiginous and comforting, sexless and erotic. Only the crumbliest, flakiest chocolate. It is a religion. Neither a good religion nor a bad religion. It is a religion because it has its sacred as well as its profane, its transmigration of souls, its heavens and hells, its deities and heros- even Shopping Centres are little else than places where the congregation meets. It offers another world. A better world. Everything is bright and anchored. Everything has meaning.

Meaning. Advertising can be judged most harshly from this. It promises meaning. Every other effect is secondary as every other effect belongs to a subsidary structure that attempts to sure up meaning. But after God, when we’re all rational and have banished our unjust beliefs, so we erect Adverts. The new Sermon on the Mount is produced by Saachi and Saachi. Opium of the people, heart of a heartless world. Yes, sure, of course. But right to the depths. It might be possible to fall in love with the girl from the perfume advert. Not the woman but the image. It might be possible to construct a new morality out of radio-jingles and cinema strap-lines. A false religion, yes. But all religions are lies, one way or the other.

Who were we before this new and monstrous God? I grant none of this may be new or original thought. But its not thinking. Its in the pit of the guts. Its like seeing the crucifixion and being unsure whether that man is your saviour, leaning at once towards him and away. And who will be his St. Paul?

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