Sunday, 8 April 2012

Lost Illusions

^ Richard Hamilton "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" 1956

From Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections". The final class of a course in Cultural Studies that one of the characters, Chip, teaches in a private college. After showing the class a 'cutting edge' series of adverts for office equipment, that builds up the story of an office staffed entirely by women, one of whom dies of cancer, but who's plight is turned to positive effect by her colleagues' online campaign to raise breast cancer awareness (via the office equipment bought from W_corp), he intends to complete the term by showing the class how to 'see through' to the cynicism at the heart of even such an apparently well-meaning and cleverly put-together campaign as this. The teacher's loyal but narrow espousals of Baudrillard et al's tail-chasing critiques come crashing down when faced with the incomprehension of a class unable, or more likely entirely unwilling to see past appearances, and the razor sharp contempt of a girl who not only sees through the ads initial appearances, but equally cuts through the flimsiness of Chip's moral condemnation, to the point where it is clearly just a subjective position, one resting entirely on arbitrary -and worse- totally unproductive, soul-sapping, no-end-in-sight, solution-less, critique for the sake of critique (and by implication: university tenures).

A petite young woman names Hilton, a Chihuahua-like person, offered that it was “brave” and “really interesting” that Chelsea had died of cancer instead of surviving like you might have expected in a commercial.

Chip waited for someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously “revolutionary” plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad. Normally Melissa, from her seat in the front row, could be counted on to make a point like this. But today she was sitting by Chad with her cheek on her desk. Normally, when students napped in class, Chip called on them immediately. But today he was reluctant to say Melissa’s name. He was afraid that his voice might shake.

Finally, with a  tight smile, he said, “In case any of you were visiting a different planet last fall, lets review what happened with these ads. Remember Nielsen Media Research took the “revolutionary” step of giving episode six its own weekly rating. The first rating ever given to an ad. And once Nielsen rated it, the campaign was all but guaranteed an enormous audience for its rebroadcast during the November sweeps. Also remember that the Nielsen rating followed a week of print and broadcast news coverage of the ‘revolutionary’ plot twist of Chelsea’s death, plus the Internet rumour about Chelsea’s being a real person who’d really died. Which, incredibly, several hundred thousand people actually believed. Beat Psychology, remember, having fabricated her medical records and her personal history and posted them on the Web. So my question for Hilton would be, how ‘brave’ is it to engineer a sure-fire publicity coup for your ad campaign?”

“It was still a risk,” Hilton said. “I mean, death is a downer. It could have backfired.”

Again Chip waited for someone, anyone, to take his side of the argument. No one did. “So a wholly cynical strategy.” He said, “if there’s a financial risk attached, becomes an act of artistic bravery?”

A brigade of college lawn mowers descended on the lawn outside the classroom, smothering discussion in a blanket of noise. The sunshine was bright.

Chip soldiered on. Did it seem realistic that a small-business owner would spend her own money on special health-care options for an employee?

One student averred that the boss she’d had at her last summer job had been generous and totally great.
Chad was silently fighting off the tickling hand of Melissa while, with his free hand, he counterattacked the naked skin of her midriff.

“Chad?” Chip said.

Chad, impressively, was able to answer the question without having it repeated. “Like, that was just one office,” he said. “Maybe another boss wouldn’t have been so great. But that boss was great. I mean, nobody’s pretending that’s an average office, right?”

Here Chip decided to raise the question of art’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the Typical; but this discussion, too, was DOA.

“So, bottom line,” he said, “we like this campaign. We think these ads are good for the culture and good for the country. Yes?”

There were shrugs and nods in the sun-heated room.

“Melissa,” Chip said. “We haven’t heard from you.”

Melissa raised her head from her desk, shifted her attention from Chad, and looked at Chip with narrowed eyes.

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country.”

Chip took a deep breath, because this hurt. “Great, OK,” he said. “Thank you for your opinion.”

“As if you care about my opinion,” Melissa said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As if you care about any of our opinions unless they’re the same as yours.”

“This is not about opinions,” Chip said, “This is about learning to apply critical methods to textual artefacts. Which is what I’m here to teach you.”

“I don’t think it is, though,” Melissa said, “I think you’re here to teach us to hate the same things you hate. I mean, you hate these ads, right? I can hear it in every word you say. You totally hate them.”

The other students were listening raptly now. Melissa’s connection with Chad might have depressed Chad’s stock more than it had raised her own, but she was attacking Chip like an angry equal, not a student, and the class ate it up.

“I do hate these ads’” Chip admitted. “But that’s not …”

“Yes it is,” Melissa said.

“Why do you hate them?” Chad called out.

“Tell us why you hate them,” the little Hilton yipped.

Chip looked at the wall clock. There were six minutes left of the semester. He pushed his hands through his hair and cast his eyes around the room as if he might find an ally somewhere, but the students had him on the run now, and they knew it.

“The W_ Corporation,” he said, “is currently defending three separate lawsuits for antitrust violations. Its revenues last year exceeded the gross domestic product of Italy. And now, to wring dollars out of the one demographic that it doesn’t yet dominate, it’s running a campaign that exploits a woman’s fear of breast cancer and her sympathy with its victims. Yes, Melissa?”

“It’s not cynical.”

“What is it, if not cynical?”

“It’s celebrating women in the workplace,” Melissa said, “It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology, like it’s not just a guy thing.”

“Ok, good,” Chip said, “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, it’s what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment.”

Chad took up the cudgels for Melissa. “That’s the whole point of the ad, though. That if you have access to information, it can save your life.”

“So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?”

“Why not?” Chad said.

“Does anybody see anything wrong with that?”

Not one student did. Melissa was slouching with her arms crossed and unhappy amusement on her face. Unfairly or not, Chip felt as if she’d destroyed in five minutes a semester’s worth of careful teaching.
“Well, consider,” he said, “that ‘You Go, Girl’ would not have been produced if W_ had not had a product to sell. And consider that the goal of the people who work at W_ is to exercise their stock options and retire at thirty two, and that the goal of the people who own W_ stock” (Chip’s brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Caroline, owned a great deal of W_ stock) “is to build bigger houses and buy bigger SUVs and consume even more of the world’s finite resources.”

“What’s wrong with making a living?” Melissa said. “Why is it inherently evil to make money?”

“Baudrillard might argue,” Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply.’”

The wall clock showed two-thirty. Chip paused and waited for the bell to ring and the semester to end.

“Excuse me,” Melissa said, “but that is just such bullshit.”

“What is bullshit?” Chip said.

“This whole class,” she said. “It’s just bullshit every week. It’s one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what’s wrong exactly. But they all know it’s evil. They all know ‘corporate’ is a dirty word. And if somebody’s having fun or getting rich –disgusting! Evil! And it’s always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they’re free aren’t ‘really’ free. And people who think they’re happy aren’t ‘really’ happy. And it’s impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what’s so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!” she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. “Here things are getting better and better for women and people of colour, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that’s great for women –which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything- is to say it’s evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang.” She closed her notebook.

“OK,” Chip said. “On that note, You’ve now satisfied your Cultural Studies core requirement. Have a great summer.”

He was powerless to keep the bitterness out of his voice.