Thursday, July 14, 2005

Eddies in the Zeitgeist

As we are swept along by the swift current of the times, I find myself on occasion able to catalogue merely some of the minor turbulences. Before getting to one or two of the more fascinating ones, though, one last word on recent events. The redoubtable Globe and Mail wags its editorial finger once again at Muslims, and rebukes spokespeople who worry publicly about retribution, suggesting, hell, no, stating up front, that such leaders are being equivocal in their condemnation of the London attacks. "Muslims everywhere," says the Globe, "must confront the threat within."

Perhaps we're just lucky so far in Canada: no Muslims beaten to death (as has just happened in Nottingham, England), and no reported fire-bombings or assaults, as occurred after 9/11. But are the responsible leaders of any community out of line for being concerned for their community? Yet, once again, "Muslims" as a constructed whole are told what to do, and their leaders what to say.

But I'll make a deal with the Globe editorialist. I'll be happy to make these demands of "Muslims everywhere," and denounce Mohamed Elmasry and Sheema Khan for good measure, just as soon as the Globe demands that "Christians everywhere confront the threat within" the next time an abortion clinic is bombed or white racists acting in God's name blow up a government building or burn a cross on somebody's lawn. I'll be right out there insisting that Muslims bring their terrorists to account if the Globe calls for "Catholics everywhere" to apologize and "look within" if the IRA ever starts up again, or if yet another priest is exposed as a pedophile after being bicycled around various parishes by a complicit bishop.

Are we on?

Now, to other topics. Nothing captures what is in the wind so much as advertising. That's the place to map the currents of the Zeitgeist. Profound cultural and social questions are addressed every day in the banal lingo of the billboard.

A few years ago, for example, the slogan for a popular lottery was "Imagine the freedom." This was a perfect mini-lesson in the propagandistic use of language. "Freedom" is exercised through purchasing. It is equated to the power to buy a commodity or an accumulation of commodities. The more spending power you have, the more freedom. "Imagine": in other words, transcend your current existence by dreaming of a better world. But this world is personal, private, and consists of the ability to buy.

Hence both freedom and imagination are turned into hegemonic values. More and more people are noticing that they are not, indeed, free at all, that democracy is an increasingly empty concept with no immediate meaning in their lives. Their ability to imagine a better existence needs, therefore, to be channelled so that it doesn't stray into forbidden areas like social change, collective action, a society based on beauty instead of profit, and so on. Imagination should be limited to the individual, and the individual's capacity to accumulate. Such imagination is to be encouraged.

If we are not free, the message goes, it is only because we don't have enough money, not because the capitalist system itself is unfreedom. If freedom is to be realized, the system is to be embraced even more fully. There is no alternative.

The lottery slogan is not deliberate propaganda, of course. But it serves a propagandistic function, and does so brilliantly. And, more recently, there are fresh new examples:

Get spotted. The current advertising campaign of PepsiCo invites people to be spotted drinking a Pepsi and win big prizes. Now, think about this one for a moment. Precisely how do you get spotted? What skills do you need? What capacities, other than an enormous thirst and the ability to find a loo? Where should one station oneself? Or should we actually search for the spotters, Pepsi in hand?

The ad, of course, speaks to our current Angst. Everyone in this age of communication, including us hapless bloggers, wants to be spotted. It's the old "fifteen minutes of fame" bit, but with an odd twist: we can achieve that fleeting fame through PepsiCo, each lucky winner a mouse carried into the skies by a corporate eagle. We're not consuming Pepsi so much as Pepsi is consuming us.

We see here the suggestion that, without Pepsi, each of us is condemned to continue being part of an amorphous mass of the never-noticed, the insignificant protagonist of a real-life Antz. But if we slam the stuff back, there is a possibility, at least, of transformation, of achieving a state of corporate grace. Communion with the multinational gods. Imagine the freedom.

Just don't get spotted in the parallel Coke universe, though. There are likely to be consequences.

Are you a MAC man? Leafing through Sports Illustrated the other day, I came across a full page ad from the golden arches folks. A picture of a Big Mac saying something like "I'm not just a piece of meat." Then some nonsense about "can you handle my two juicy beef patties," or some such. All this followed by the current advertising hook, "Are you MAC enough?"

Now, while admittedly a hamburger is also its relish, bun, lettuce and tomato, it most certainly is, fundamentally, a piece of meat. The layered irony here penetrates to the heart of the queasy gender relations that persist long after the second wave of feminism crashed on the shingle. What is being sent up? Why, the old battle-cry of women confronting sexist men (just possibly a significant demographic in the Sports Illustrated crowd). But this hamburger is a tease, urging men on--are you MAC enough? There's a double message here, one that certain men of the "MAC" persuasion believe they are hearing all the time.

Finally, though, irony or no, the burger gets eaten: that's its fate, it's what we pay for, after all. What lesson do we draw here, not far away from the surface in this case, about the social consumption of women?

Readers are encouraged to collect further samples for testing and analysis.

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