building nothing out of something

Carlos Garaicoa "Bend City" at the 53rd Venice Biennale

where do you move, where ya movin’ from? It’s yourself/It’s yourself
Modest Mouse, “Never-Ending Math Equation

Previously we touched upon the visual nature of propaganda; what has happened? People have learned to fight over images, the discussion of identity politics has become a common motif in mainstream media. This happened around the same time the iPod came out.

The best place to look, though, is in an Economics 101 course: people are, for the most part, rational – meaning they make decisions that promote their interests. Sure, smoking is irrational long-term (since it is likely to kill you), but we can find the rationale if we simply ask the smoker. There is a reason for everything everyone does if we just look hard enough, and employ some thinking devices to help tease-out the obscured truth of the matter. This is what makes Don Draper so awesome, right? He has a preternatural ability to encapsulate within an advertisement a host of ways of thinking and uncovering the secret yearning of seemingly any audience (so long as their white, male, repressive, and self-indulgent).

What makes Mad Men so enjoyable is that delicious combination of fashion (I watched the first season and now I want to wear a vest), but also a chance to believe that things in the U.S. have gotten better (never mind how horrible it is today) because Black people are no longer oppressed (right?), women are no longer oppressed (right?), people don’t drink when their pregnant, psychotherapy is no longer quackery (right?), etc. The show helps to reinforce a certain set of practices present today as not only good, but better than what was practiced before. Mad Men is an antidote to terrorism – no matter what a jihadist might say about Evil America, Mad Men tells the viewer, “Chin-up, Tiger – you’ve come a long way, Baby.” But what’s with the silhouettes in the opening titles?

Perhaps making a mountain out of a mole hill, let’s consider a few other examples of the silhouette in the contemporary environment.

Who is in this ad?

Following Giorgio Agamben‘s lead, I’d like to suggest that we are witnessing the contemporary subject (you and me) undergoing the “processes of subjectification and processes of desubjectification [that] seem to [have] become reciprocally indifferent, and so they do not give rise to the recomposition of a new subject, except in… spectral form.” Said in another way, the choices that Wal-Mart (to follow with the above example) “gives you” are not choices at all – they are devices, strategies to be employed in forming a sense of self.

Culture is a very conservative mechanism, aberrance is highly undesirable because the process of reintegrating the outlier into the mainstream is conflict-prone. Perhaps this is a metabolic problem. Conflict, by nature, is the site of uncontrolled change – identifying ways of harmonizing differences is the solution to Sun Zi‘s paradox: to fight the battle is to have already lost. When Apple unveiled their iPod they listened to Sun Zi.

Yes, Steve Jobs is the first person to announce Apple’s new products, but he is not their campaign model. Who is the iPod’s campaign model? Nobody.

Why nobody? Why no campaign model? Why not put an iPod on Michael Jordan and have him dunk from half court? Because to present a face with an iPod is to already pre-determine who is the kind of person that gets an iPod, this prior determination then provides the consumer with the chance to say, “Yeah, I’d get an iPod, but I’m not really very athletic.” because they’d think iPods are for athletes. The iPod was a new device that didn’t intuitively connect with people. By presenting silhouettes the consumer is lead to imagine themselves as someone that would, naturally, have an iPod.

It doesn’t seem to occur to most people that the alternative message is that it doesn’t matter who owns an iPod.

If you look closely, it appears the figure is wearing pants

Spectaclist economics requires two messages:

1) that who you are is primarily the result of your purchasing decisions -“boycott Proctor & Gamble ’cause they torture rabbits for cosmetics” is no different, in the end, from Tyler Durden telling you that “You are not your Gap khakis.”

2) that you are only as important as your purchasing capabilities.

The second point became clear to me when I was an undergraduate and the university was erecting a new building. There was some build-up to this epiphany, to be fair. It became clear that the standardization of education was taking a toll on my university: so long as the standardized methods of detecting student progress were being met, one could receive a diploma that would state to future employers, “I am smart and capable to do the work that needs to be done.” It wasn’t that the students were dumb, but the measuring of student success seemed warped. This movement toward standardized education sounded an awful-lot like the school just didn’t care. Then, walking past the construction site for the new building I saw this:

nobody's home

It doesn’t matter to the University who the students will be, the building is all that matters. The Institution is the focus here, the apparatus (dispositif, in French), as Agamben calls it. He points-out three meanings of dispositif (apparatus):

  1. the manner in which parts of a machine are arranged (I built an apparatus for measuring…)
  2. the means by which a military plan is conformed with
  3. “Apparatus is the part of a judgment that contains the decision separate from the opinion.” That is, the section of a sentence that decides, or the enacting clause of a law.

The apparatus, then, in one sense, is the mechanism that creates subjects, it is a process of subjectification, but (as we’ve talked about previously and at length) an apparatus can also be used in a process that de-subjectifies someone, and this was the epiphany while standing in front of that construction site. The University’s only concern in the building of this new structure was not to serve the student body, to promote the interactions among the students and faculty. As we see in this poster, the University is excited to announce that there is a new structure through which the raw material (students) will be processed and help the University sell its real product: raising the intellectual capital of the state.

That this subjectification and desubjectification is present in technology is nothing new and Agamben recognizes this, our task is the “restitution to common use of what has been captured and separated” in the use of these apparatuses. Said another way, our task today must include placing ourselves and finding one another in a schematized world that is utterly indifferent and designed to ignore singularity. A task for a new avant garde?

fancast, hypebeast, kennesaw state university, sinsign



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9 responses to “building nothing out of something

  1. great job, paul! i think this is my fave article you´ve written. i really like the idea of the sillouette plus (de)subjectivication, very perceptive, i hadn´t ever thought of the sillouette in that way before. i wonder what graphic designers would say about your analysis. i didn´t initially understand the agamben quote + walmart example, but it all came together for me with the univ building example. for more on the spatial aspect of desubjectivication, you could check out marc augé´s book about “non places”
    to rehash your idea– the way the system is set up, the first reading, i think, for the majority of humans, when seeing those sillouettes and products is that they’re identity neutral, the only barrier to them is economical (having the $ to buy an ipod and pay your tuition) but that ‘anonymous who’ is just another marketing trick, the product (a building, an ipod) and its visual promoters are obviously carefully designed to target a very specific identity group and (i add) to control exactly what that group does with the product.


  2. I second that. This one ROCKS. And I like this popop business. When do we all finally get to fan it on facebook?

  3. saving your ´Che´ photo to use in my class (“Intro to Hispanic Culture”) : )

  4. @Megan –

    Thanks! I’m to blame for the obscurity of the Agamben + Wal-Mart thing because I cut a section where I relayed the time my dad told me that the reason he shops at Wal-Mart vs. other grocery stores in his town is because “Wal-Mart just gives you so many choices.”

    Thanks for the link, I will be reading this for sure!

    I know you’re more specialized in Spanish culture, but do you have any insights into contemporary Cuba? I’m going to Mexico in a few weeks and there is a gallery hosting a bunch of new young Cuban artists there and after I saw Garaicoa (the top picture) at the Venice Biennale I want to develop my appreciation.

    How are things in New Zealand?

  5. @Rachel –
    I’m secretly working in my shop and will unveil soon.

  6. Hi Paul, Cuba is fascinating because there´s so much creativity, the country does so much with so little. They have a very good film industry. Before you leave for Mexico, please view I AM CUBA. This movie will “blow you away”. The cinematographic tecniques are really moving, especially considering that the film was made in the early 60s. If you don´t find it near you, let me know and I´ll get it to you. The film is usually considered “communist” and I usually ask students to put it in dialogue w the American documentary “Our House in Havana” that shows a different/opposite view on the Revolution. It´s about a woman who comes from Cuba´s tiny elite (before the Revolution) and who left Cuba for the US and lost everything she had. She´s a hard-core anti-Catroist and in the 90s she travels back to Cuba for the 1st time since 1959 to reclaim the family mansion. You´ll have to see it to see the outcome! But I´ll hint that the trip transform her life.

    Also, the documentary Balseros is very well done And for music, you may like the documentary Buena Vista Social Club

    Also, you may want to check out one of my favorite singers: Silvio Rodríguez. “Al final de este viaje” is an EXCELLENT album to start with. (He´s considered like the Bob Dylan of L. America.)

    Let me know if you can´t get a hold of any of this stuff.

    • Thanks, Megan.

      I’m leaving on Tuesday, and I’m sorta in disbelief. I’ll try to write some sort of follow-up on the gallery visit. I’m hoping to hit a few galleries while I’m there.

  7. Pingback: popop//ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space | the avant guardian

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