Anne Carson, Dan Brown, and the poetics of (anti-) consumer choice

anne carson dan brown

This post is mostly about Anne Carson’s “The Albertine Workout.” It is mostly a stretch of thinking-through of the connections between power, servitude, information, and expectations.
The text, unfortunately without the appendices, can be found here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n11/anne-carson/the-albertine-workout

One appendix to the poem pretends to explain the difference between metaphor and metonymy with a a nonsensical parable: Children asked to explain “a hut” respond with either “a small cabin” or “it burned down.” One of these, it would appear, should exemplify metaphor; the other, metonymy.

As one who stakes some portion of their self-esteem both on knowing this difference and on being able to parse difficult sentences, I was frustrated and halted by this parable: “This does not make sense.”

When I turned the page, seeking distraction or clarification, I found absolution of a different kind– Anne Carson apologizing for ‘letting the previous appendix get away from her.’ Obviously, the parable didn’t explain the difference between metaphor and metonymy at all.*

In some daringly platitudinous phrase, Anne Carson forgives herself for getting sidetracked. Something like, “It’s natural, whenever one undertakes the ‘crazy adventure of thinking.'” (i read the book in the bookstore because I am poor, but now I am paying for it with not being able to access the appendices.)

At this point, I’m beginning abstract wildly, articulating the associations and oppositions Anne Carson seems to be suggesting: “charming digressiveness, distractibility associated with ‘adventure of thinking'; this in opposition to meeting expectations, definite knowledge.”
And my fledgling econo-critic mind takes this from the sphere of the text, appends to the latter set: “rational expectations, customer feedback cards: ‘meets expectations, exceeds expectations, does not meet expectations’

The title of the poem, “The Albertine Workout,” taken as if from a tabloid headline, conspicuously does not deliver on its promise. (Albertine, we are told, is always asleep.) The volume is a work of charming disobedience, like a precocious child you are glad does not always behave as directed. Albertine, the poem’s namesake, is a character in a Proust novel, probably based on Proust’s chauffeur. She is a servant to the narrator-character, probably based on Proust.  The Proust volume is called La Prisonnière in French and The Captive in English.

Here is a stretch of text that I am not making much of an effort to truncate. (I am: 1) charmingly digressive 2) unindustrious poor)

8. The problems of Albertine are
(from the narrator’s point of view)
a) lying
b) lesbianism,
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.

9. Her bad taste in music, although several times remarked on, is not a problem.

10. Albertine does not call the narrator by his name anywhere in the novel. Nor does anyone else. The narrator hints that his first name might be the same first name as that of the author of the novel, i.e. Marcel. Let’s go with that.

11. Albertine denies she is a lesbian when Marcel questions her.

12. Her friends are all lesbians.

13. Her denials fascinate him.

14. Her friends fascinate him too, especially by their contrast with his friends, who are gay but very closeted. Her friends ‘parade themselves’ at the beach and kiss in restaurants.

15. Despite intense and assiduous questioning, Marcel cannot discover what exactly it is that women do together (‘this palpitating specificity of female pleasure’).

16. Albertine says she does not know.

17. Once Albertine has been imprisoned by Marcel in his house, his feelings change. It was her freedom that first attracted him, the way the wind billowed in her garments. This attraction is now replaced by a feeling of ennui (boredom). She becomes, as he says, a ‘heavy slave’.

18. This is predictable, given Marcel’s theory of desire, which equates possession of another person with erasure of the otherness of her mind, while at the same time positing otherness as what makes another person desirable.

The continuations of the above interpretative key may be fairly apparent: Possession, a meeting-of-expectations (customer feedback card, the purchases of the rational consumer), itself destroys desire in the senses of “wind-billowed garments” or “palpitating specificity,” which is contingent on otherness.

Possession, then, is opposed to desirability, which we can align with Anne Carson’s non sequiturs, ‘the adventure of thinking’, or “free” sexuality. As soon as we have these things, they cease to exist.

I don’t think much of this is groundbreaking so much as it may be relevant. I have in mind the generally misogynistic discourse of “sexual obligation” which converts desirability to the meeting-of-expectations. One can picture the resigned intercourse of the ‘heavy slave,’ the eventual consummation of what “might as well” happen. The paradigm of passion or discovery is displaced by the bored reenactment of inherited expectations, like losing your virginity at prom. But even this is the best-case scenario, as such visible examples as that mass murderer whose name i forget might attest. He didn’t “get” what he was “owed” from women who were “less attractive” than him, and exploded with jealousy. Paradigms of exchange, possession, and knowable value were used as an analogy for human sexualities, and when reality didn’t meet expectations, he responded with violence.

That guy’s violence seems to be only an eruption of a more everyday violence that is deeply and innocuously embedded in our social fabric, and not only with regard to issues of gender and sexuality.

Take, as an example, people who work in retail or customer service (the “servant class.”) Take, if you want, employment as such. To extend slightly from the text quoted above:

19. And in point of fact, how can he possess her mind if she is a lesbian?

20. His fascination continues.

21. Albertine is a girl in a flat sports cap pushing her bicycle across the beach when Marcel first sees her. He keeps going back to this image.

22. Albertine has no family, profession or prospects. She is soon installed in Marcel’s house. There she has a separate bedroom. He emphasises that she is nonetheless an ‘obedient’ person. (See above on Albertine as a ‘heavy slave’.)

Albertine’s human connections are stripped from her. I’m reminded of David Graeber’s argument in ‘Debt’ that slaves had to be stripped from their ‘context’ before they could be made slaves, hence the breaking up of families, the necessary forced migrations, etc. Hence Albertine is turned into a servant by her lack of context. But to the degree that she is a servant, Marcel becomes bored. His fascination for her remains only insofar as she isn’t obedient (she lies), or only insofar as she still has a human context (Marcel imagining her with her lesbian friends.) Her value is inversely proportionate to the degree that she is possessed. The unhumanity of the servant class is something of an unhappy cliche, as is the separation of “work life” from other aspects of life. (“I’m looking for ‘work-life’ balance.”) Your work becomes an element of your non-work context, but the reverse is generally not permitted. (“Leave your problems at home.”)

Take, as point of contrast: Anne Carson, as a poet, is permitted the relatively unalienated work of writing (her time is not controlled enough, or her work is not possessed, either by customers or an employer.) She is free to offer an ‘Albertine workout’ or a parable to differentiate metaphor and metonymy, and then to simply not deliver. But, by virtue of her not delivering, we gain are able to interact with something else entirely, which ends up being much more interesting and valuable.

To return then, to the servant class, we see a collective possession of work-time by our greater economic system. The entitled consumer of other people’s time demands their expectations are met, but to the extent that they are, the possibility for enrichment and sociality is stripped from (not only) their lives. Eruptions of violence like (elliot something’s..?) are institutionalized and preemptive in the form of wage labor. The obligation– to have sex, dispense coffee, fulfill expectations– is there, but in being an obligation, it is already, not free exchange, but a demeaned product of violence. The charming unexpectedness of the child at play gives way to obsequiousness and the need to please. “Give us what we are owed,” we say, and human lives are given socioeconomic justification to the extent that they satisfy demands or fulfill expectations. But, like Albertine, they are also rendered worthless to the extent that they do so.

It’s on my sociopolitical wishlist to see a discourse of ‘producer choice’ (or, better yet– ‘friendship,’ or ‘respect’) emerge alongside or instead of the already-popular ‘consumer choice.’

It’d maybe be a little bit funny, to not talk about Dan Brown in this post, but I’ll do so quickly, to expand the hermeneutic fleshed out above in another direction.

“what is it that hides behind the old masterpieces?” asks Dan Brown, and sets out to deliver exactly that.

Anne Carson asks the same question, but finds it already answered.

Of course, poetics / aesthetics cannot be definitively translated to an *answer* in any definite and meaningful way, so Dan Brown must forge a conspiratorial fantasy– which may retain elements of thoughtfulness or intrigue, but which, ultimately, becomes a “pornography of deduction:” false-to-life and coming to a definite end (spoiler alert: the narrator has sex with the holy grail.) The invented mystery behind the mona lisa is male frustration with female elusiveness. In rendering it knowable, it also renders it boring. By the epilogue, there is nothing more to be said.

Consider the numerated (stanzas? blocks?) of ‘The Albertine Workout,’ or the numerated but non-sequential appendices. The poem parodies the forms of the encyclopedia or deductive reasoning, both of which would offer a mode of knowledge conveyance metaphysically similar to “meeting expectations.” Dan Brown’s “mystery delivery” follows the logic of these forms (the information dumps, the linear unraveling) if not their structures, which recede into the background but still provide the basis for the violence that occurs, of rendering something knowable, making it “meet expectations.”


*Here is a passage I found that might demonstrate how the parable actually might clarify the difference:
“Here is my understanding of the difference between metaphor and metonymy: where metaphor establishes a likeness with something entirely different, metonymy shifts attention from the thing itself to an aspect of the thing. Metaphor exerts control, glassing in two different phenomena to exhibit both as evidence of the writer’s perception. In metonymy, though, the writer is lost, does not focus correctly, cannot find the eyes; the writer is too close to see the entirety of whatever it is, let alone to find anything else that might resemble this. Metonymy occurs when we do not know whether to mourn for Albertine or for Alfred Agostinelli or for a small cabin in the woods that may be imaginary and that may have burned down — and yet we feel, we mourn. Metonymy is an attempt to think without the crime of generalization. It is work at ground level. Thus Carson prefers it.” http://www.bookslut.com/thousandfurs/2014_06_020693.php

Perhaps the cabin is the generalized whole, the burning down a too-specifc event that we use to try to capture the entirety of the cabin through time. In any case, the parable exists to both frustrate and serve– or serve by refusing to do so, if you’ll permit the paradox.

yoga farts

farting in yoga class is always kind of on the fence between smelly and funny. Like any fart, but the stakes are a bit higher– reminders to “breathe deep” heighten either effect.
The other day I was doing yoga shirtless, and this is generally something I try to avoid– not tryna be a bear man with the shirtless workout thing goin, or even a lithe man with spider limbs entwining for each bind (this latter for lack of ability)– but of course I was also farting shirtless in yoga class, and worried about what this did to my already uncomfortably-exhibitionist workout.

I discovered a source of possible salvation when rounding my arched back while lying down. The effect was like releasing a hamburger-patty-lined plunger: A very sloppy fart sound, and I thought “If i just made this sound frequently enough, it will be rendered ludicrous, the idea that anyone would loose this many very sloppy farts during one yoga class.” Not only this– but presumably the “fart sound” would overtake the “fart” as the most plausible explanation of previous farts, and forgiveness would extend backward through my entire fart-history.

It’s hard to say, how the fart sounds were interpreted, or how farts would have been received if understood as farts. All that can be said, in retrospect, is that I’m not very good at meditating.

The Daily Show

When I tell I joke, I’m never sure if it’s good.

In my peers’ laughter I find my relief and redemption.

Similarly, when I’m in love, I’ll never be sure if my jokes are good;

my lover laughs regardless.

 

So it is with despair, the laughter pines for redemption

so it is with love, it’s already been redeemed.

So it is with the Daily Show, the laughter pines for change

so it is with the Daily Show, the world has already ended.

On Employability

If you’ve floated before, how many times have you floated?

0

 

Why are you interested in float tanks?

The float tank was the “sensory deprivation tank” and then the “think tank” before it was the “float tank.”

This progression betrays the resilience of the Cartesian epistemology in our culture–  “I think; therefore I am.”  Only what is thought is real– not what is sensed, felt, perceived.  “Sensory deprivation” is indistinguishable from “thought.”  Heidegger famously postulated that the only meaningful statements we can make are about the world and take place in the world, so sensory “being-in-the-world” is the only meaningful conception of reality.  Indeed, if we don’t presume the existence of God as a non-physical final domain of omniscience, as Descartes did, then “being in the world” and “reality” become basically a tautology, and “pure thought” becomes nonsense.

Then equivocation between “thinking” and “sensory deprivation” shows the Christian metaphysics still underlying our thought.

But when we move past “think” to just “float” as the product-descriptor, it is a movement back towards being, but it becomes the physicality of physical deprivation: “I float; therefore I feel nothing.”  For this reason, it is somewhat fascinating.  I would like to try it.

 

 

How do you alleviate stress in your own life?

Exercise, poetics, sociality

 

 

What are the greatest things you’ll contribute to Float On?

If hired:  Probably I will be like the Achilles of customer service.  Poets will sing praise of my deeds for millennia.  I will affix the float tanks of our rivals to the rear hub of my bicycle, and parade these tokens of our triumph through the crumbling fluorescent halls of their old storefronts.

But the city-states have crumbled into mercenary states, and fierceness has not abated, but only become more volatile.

 

 

How would you describe your ideal work environment?

World-historical, generous.

The refrigerators are stocked with goat cheese; the shelves with the cantos of Ezra Pound.  Co-workers wrestle or practice gymnastics; they take this visceral feeling of significance to their deserving professional duties.

On Non-Commodity Production

Conventional microeconomic theory deals with commodities– scarce goods that are interchangeable within their category, and consumed by individuals exercising choice in accord with their preferences.  Certainly, in this realm, markets are wonderfully efficient as mechanisms of production and distribution: producers are rewarded in proportion that they accommodate customers and lower costs, consumers are empowered to indulge preference.  But not all spheres of human activity accommodate commodity parameters.  Specifically, in the realms of culture, thought, and education, the quality of “not yet being understood” is essential to what is produced, and therefore the possibility of a consumer indulging already-known preferences is precluded from the start.  Yet cultural activity is bound nonetheless to the same or nearly the same market mechanisms as commodity production.  Imprecise analogy is a common element in conservative economic thinking, and it’s no real surprise that market structures have been extended indefinitely without any theoretical backing or demonstrable empirical benefit.  But what are the effects of this arbitrary act of policy?

As we’re trying to understand cultural production, it makes sense to look to notable cultural producers to begin our inquiry.  In Gravity’s Rainbow, American writer Thomas Pynchon writes, in a manner that is characteristically both superficially specious and actually profound:

“It’s true . . . look at the forms of capitalist expression. Pornographies: pornographies of love, erotic love, Christian love, boy-and-his-dog, pornographies of sunsets, pornographies of killing, and pornographies of deduction — ahh, that sigh when we guess the murderer — all these novels, these films and these songs that they lull us with, they’re approaches, more comfortable and less so, to that Absolute Comfort. . . . The self-induced orgasm.”[1]

What does it mean for forms of expression to become pornographies?  The definitive features of pornography are ulteriority, detumescence, and aloneness.  Here, desire is affected in order to extract money; if it is not outright deceitful, it is at least ulteriorly motivated.  The natural contrast with pornography is of course love.  If one stars in porn for money, they love for love.

Culture as pornography takes on distinct qualities.  If one makes commercial art for money, they make honest art for love.  The ulterior goal, making money, discolors the actual act, which can no longer be direct.  Commercial art is “selling out.”  It is subordinating desire to dollars.  Commercial art is justly denigrated as prostitution, because when non-commodities are exchanged on the market, dishonesty is concomitant with profit.  Just as the prostitute enacts an attraction that is not actually there, the reliable victories in stock romantic comedies and action movies proclaim a joie de vivre for a life that does not actually exist, or a virility and ease of victory that is actually impossible.  Consumers exercising preferences must know what they want, and accordingly can only want what they already know.  Journalism becomes reassurance, education becomes accreditation, and art becomes affirmation.  The humility that must precede wisdom is barred from the start, and fun misconceptions step in.  Insincerity and joy become the rules, and they steel themselves against all else.  In bad movies, it is shown how success and happiness are possible, but how they are possible in another world.  The existing state of things is proven good with a non-existent example.[2]

Following this false exuberance on the part of the producer, comes detumescence and aloneness on the part of the consumer.  As culture comes to reflect the commodity-status it’s been assigned, the possibility of providing lasting understanding withdraws.  It becomes like the glass of milk or ear of corn that disappears upon consumption.  Relevance is no longer expected or delivered, and, in both structure and content, culture becomes less a part of life and more an escape from it.  If the cultural producer is expected to earn a living, their work must be conveyed in a way that limits its consumption and allows its purchase– it must be made scarce.  The conversation must become the novel or speech; the mural must become the private painting.  Art merchants remove graffiti from its public setting and sequester it in controlled areas that can be utilized to extract compensation.  At the night clubs, bars, and concerts where capitalist culture is most fully developed, dance is no longer participatory, but the specialized work of “dancers” who are compensated by the establishment or its clientele for their work.

Apotheoses of human needs are packaged as discrete elements, but in the fetishization of the sunset lies the quiescence of our capacity to enjoy a more diffuse natural beauty.[3]  The beautiful or sublime is perceived as detached from the course of things, as the labeled vantage point of a hiking trail or the photographic opportunity of a popular tourist destination, which function more to distract us from our surroundings than call attention to them.  Art that attempts to awaken us to moments of synesthesia or significance in everyday experience is displaced by that which seeks to capitalize on conspicuous exemplars of what we already imagine to be beautiful.  To the extent that this comes to define our actual experience, life is cheapened, constrained.  The American “phallocrats” of twentieth century literature– John Updike, Philip Roth, Henry Miller– have this advantage over pornography:  Instead of “cum shots” and blonde simulacra, there are moments of unexpected, idiosyncratic beauty, and fully human women.

This forced commodity status enforces culture’s separateness from the everyday.  Just as there is a time for arousal and a time for sleep, a time for life and a time for porn, a time to purchase recreation and a time to work for money, so too are there are areas of beauty and areas of strip mall, moments to think and moments not to think as well.  But in being constrained in this way, beauty and thought are already forfeit:  A breed of joie de vivre that can only exist in a fantasy; impeccable reasoning grounded in otherworldly premises– that is not joyous; that is not logical.

Consider the climax of the “pornography of deduction,” the all-but-arbitrary final revelation of a work of suspense:  “This is the killer,” it tells us, “the killer and/or the girl, but it might as well have been any other.”  A need is serviced, synapses fire, and all significance fades away.  It is no longer consideration that allows itself to be incorporated in a framework of understanding in an ongoing manner, but considerations that are relevant only in the separate realm of the work.[4]  A trail of clues– a footprint, a fragment of speech, an incident from the suspect’s past– surface by whim of the writer; consideration is effected– “Is this a dream within a dream or a different character’s dream?”– but it is only a parody, a pornography, of intellection, a reflection that exists in a vacuum.  We are given witness to a stream of flawless deductions that lead inexorably to the completely arbitrary conclusion.  It could be anything– aliens, undead, the subconscious, terrorists, political dissidents, corrupt board members– the only thing that is certain is that it ends; but in ending, it asserts the fact that it never existed in the first place.  The final twist of a film by M. Night Shyamalon or Christopher Nolan is the sputter before quiet in a dark room, when it is finally revealed, that none of this has any bearing on anything, as the realization dawns, that you are alone, and you love nothing.[5]

Detumescence thus becomes the defining feature of our cultural moment.  The genderedness of this diagnosis is intentional:  a dysfunctional, or at least limited, mode of male sexuality has been posited as the universal paradigm of human experience– what is a world of self-interested utility optimizers but a world of masturbators?[6]

The culture industry becomes characterized by deceit and other forms of anti-sociality, and a more general blurring of categories follows.  Joy becomes jaded, lies become truth, the impractical becomes practical.  Advertisement, the most complete realization of ulteriority in art, becomes pragmatic, while the reality of the starving artist becomes a sad truism.  Rigor is stripped from the social sciences, and fantastical narratives of human nature or economic history provide the bases for professional success.  What is practical for an individual’s advancement in a dysfunctional society is impractical for society’s amelioration.  It is no mistake that, for those who actually work in the field of cultural and intellectual production, alternatives to market competition– notably stipends and tenure– have long been recognized as more effective modes of supporting and rewarding production in these fields.  Thus it falls to economic theory and policy to restore a culture of love as opposed to a culture of pornography.  If truth and beauty are still deemed worthwhile goals, and not just schadenfreude and blank ambition, a universal stipend ought to be an immediate social goal.[7]  Why should this be more unrealistic than our trillion dollar industries in advertisement, kitsch, and credentialisation?

—–

[1] Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon quoted in http://sun.iwu.edu/~wchapman/pynchon.html

[2] This article from the A.V. Club documents a fun disjuncture in the economies of romantic comedies and real life:  http://www.avclub.com/article/everyones-an-architect-11-jobs-common-only-in-roma-201073.  One aspect of the fantasy is that these endearing and socially valuable jobs still afford secure and comfortable lives.

[3] Rene Magritte illustrates:

magritte les memores d'un saint

[4] Gravity’s Rainbow, conspicuously, does not end.

[5] This is why the 1985 movie adaptation of the board game Clue is so brilliant.

[6]  Before me, George Eliot extrapolated genderedness to different metaphysical inclinations in a similar manner.  She opens Daniel Deronda:  “Man can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. [...] His less accurate grandmother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle.”  ‘Less accurate’ here should not be taken as derogatory.

[7] Thus the left asserts its rightful claim to “freedom.”  Consumer choice is maintained, and the constraints of the market are eliminated.  Also, see http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=13025 for a discussion of this and similar programs that views more from an economic rather than cultural standpoint.  The author of the article tends more towards alternatives to the “universal stipend,” and raises good points, but the solutions don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

vice city

it is proclaimed, rightly
but it is not the major ones that will
get us; but vices vicious in their boringness

“the banality of evil” or
some other banality:
That can refer adequately
to defeated cliches
as defeated cliches.

The car thief, at least
takes collective
moral suspension
to an appropriate level.

It is not soda addiction,
or indifferent love;
which take pettiness
as a matter of course.

On the Problem of Maintaining Efficiency in the Face of Increasing Efficiency

Whenever productive technologies improve, we figure, we can ease the burden on ourselves somewhat.  Surely, with automated assembly lines, washing machines, tractors, and refrigeration, we should find ourselves laboring less intensely than prehistoric humans.  But, as even preliminary understanding of economics will tell us, this is not the case:  Machines lessen the demand for labor by allowing more efficient production, so humans must work more to make up the difference.

The former, naïve and common-sensical notion that machines could reduce our collective workload has gained traction in a number of oddball circles, which venture some amusing theories that the abundance achievable by new technologies could lead us, not to “suffer” massive unemployment, but to “enjoy” it; and that, to fund our inactivity, we ought to distribute the fruits of this new abundance to all, regardless of work-status, or even do away with money entirely, and instead pluck treasures from the endpoints of assembly lines, as Adam and Eve once gathered fruit from the trees of paradise.

These solutions, of course, would shift control of the economy almost entirely from the private sphere, and would accordingly dissolve the more vaunted Efficiency of the free market, which has proven itself, both theoretically and empirically, to be incontrovertibly better than “big government.”1 We seem then to be left with two “efficiencies,” one pitted against one the other: On the one hand, we have the original efficiency of the invisible hand, which demands a free market to operate, the capital-“E” Efficiency, which is established to be the most Efficient, and therefore the most desirable, for all times and for all places; and, on the other hand, we have the situational, small-“e” efficiency, a relative newcomer, which offers mechanical aids to increase the productivity of each labor hour to the point where labor as we know it could rapidly evaporate, but which itself depends on the large-“E” Efficiency to be developed and properly utilized.

It is outside the scope of this essay to enumerate all the mechanisms that have arisen to safeguard Efficiency in the face of increasing efficiency; but, briefly, these could include marketing, public relations, dividend buybacks, corporate mergers, asset-inflating finance, especially in real estate, and most of the service sector.  It would not be a stretch to say, that either in terms of dollars or labor-hours, the maintenance of big-“E” Efficiency dominates our current economy.

These forms of economic activity have two key qualities in common:  First, because nothing is produced, you can never have too much; and, on the consumption side of things, because nothing is consumed, you can never consume too much.

Now the obvious question (the “common-sensical” question) is: If these mechanisms are defined by absence, what possible effect could they have? How could they possibly be considered efficient?  Why, indeed, should we talk about them at all? In this essay, I will focus on one particular mechanism, advertisement, to answer these questions.  I focus on advertisement to make my analysis as precise as possible, but the form is broadly synecdochic, and many of my contentions can be adapted to the other mechanisms of maintaining Efficiency.

To begin on the consumption side of things: How are advertisements noticed, or consumed? Generally, the consumer neither pays for advertisement nor pays attention to advertisement. These qualities are not absolute– some advertisements are branded as collectibles, others engage or sway the consumer– but even as the form depends on exceptions for its continued justification, the most fully realized advertisements will exhibit these attributes absolutely, and it is from these that the form derives its greatest power. To understand how this can be the case, we must look at them in some detail.

Let us take the second quality first. Because advertisements are often ignored, an infinite number can be cycled through and forgotten by the consumer in literally no time at all. Consider the driver who listens to advertisements while reading billboards. Advertisements loom on multiple sensory fronts; and, in each case, they are forgotten or found devoid of interest before they’ve been consciously parsed. This simultaneity can be compounded indefinitely, especially in visual forms. Imagine a collage of advertisement on screen or in print: Advertisement is witnessed, and if it is not absorbed, then at least it is not absorbing; and the consumer is thus free to move on before their eye-beams have so much as passed over whatever was in front of them. Advertisement then is a fleeting form; at its best, it tends towards complete non-existence.  In this way, it seems just the thing to keep our collective gears whirring, whirring against nothing (as the teeth have ceased to mesh) but, nonetheless, optimally. However, this eminently promising form comes up against its first major challenge in the former definitive quality: No one pays for advertisement.

This concern, as can be readily guessed, is superficial; but not quite for the common-sensical reasons. As common sense would have it, the witnesses of advertisement are driven to buy more of the product advertised, and increased revenue from sales then allows the producer to purchase more advertising. Although this is true, it’s only true to an extent. Advertising is actually a remarkable and a vastly complex example of a public good orchestrated largely from the private sphere. Again, this is counter-intuitive; it may seem that the opposite is true: If the role of marketing is to provide a competitive advantage, does it not dissolve into abject uselessness as it becomes the general rule, as an infinity of opposing competitive advantages all cancel each other out? Does it not, then, more closely resemble a tragedy of the commons, actually in need of third-party oversight? The answer, of course, is no; that it is precisely advertising’s apparent limitations, both in the bored eyes of its beholders, and in the unlooking eyes of its creators, that make it so incontrovertibly useful.

There have been other examples of privately-orchestrated public goods in economic history.  We can use Henry Ford’s effort on the eve of the Great Depression to illustrate the seeming contradiction. By instituting a substantial wage increase for his small legion of employees, he hoped to open the possibility that they buy the cars they had been building but unable to afford. The effort failed, and the Depression would withstand even Roosevelt’s government-backed equivalent, and would continue until the country’s cogs could whir once again, and whir valiantly, in the creation of the machines of war, which would be used by both sides of the fighting in World War II.

Like the demand-creation of increased wages, advertisement does not work so much in service of any particular product, but instead creates an abstract and aggregate demand, or, more accurately here, an “acquiescence.” As advertisements are absorbed more seamlessly into daily life, they become less justifiable by their association with “the product” and drift instead in service of their higher purpose; that is, an affirmation of the general superfluity of things.

The beholder scans past ads, or tunes out white noise, and sees or hears little of anything, but an impression is made nonetheless. The impression is not dependent on the content of the advertisement or its product, but is tied instead to its imminent non-existence. Perceived space becomes, not saturated (because saturation is impossible for the cipher form,) but certainly remade. In a daily commute, the consumer must deal with limitless and superimposed advertisement; from radio, from billboards, from the margins of the newsfeed on their smart phone. The actual content of these advertisements is largely incidental: The witness may be reminded of a certain beverage’s crisp taste, or, more likely, of its status as a token of their own masculinity, or their femininity; or of their success, their ambition, or charity; but, more likely even than any of this, they will ignore it entirely.

It will not be registered as informative, not even as associative; rather, it will be registered as a sales person tugging weakly at a rolled-up cuff, and will be indignantly or uncaringly ignored. The beholder forfeits their status as “beholder” because they do do not behold anything; indeed, they repel that which vies for their attention. What was once witness now becomes an averted gaze, but each turned-aside set of eyes meets more of the same. The solution is a blanket blindness, tunnel vision, as provided for carriage horses, and the consumer is driven absolutely along the single task at hand.  But the attention otherwise occupied by sensory experience is not redirected to an intensive purposiveness; rather, it is redirected infinitely, in each possible direction, with each lash outward finding different permutations of the same repellent lies and white noise. Care and attention recoil in disgust. They hide away, and promptly atrophy.

The once-beholder is reconfigured in the pattern of that which they ignored:  The consumer who is immersed in an advert-reality tends towards advertisement’s cipher-quality. They are transported to a world that is no longer worth paying attention to, and respond appropriately– with indifference. They consume without consuming; following their rejection of intake from the world-around-them, they soon implode for want of substance. They become like the zero-dimensional point of planar geometry: situated in space, but materially non-existent. The argument is made silently and incessantly: It is best not to pay too much pay attention; the best tasks are those that can be done simply, absent-mindedly. Not-consuming advertisement fosters a broader habit of not-consuming. Paradoxically, the cycle is cleared for repetition when this comes to include shopping. (Is it not common knowledge that we often forget our purchases soon after leaving the store?)

Thus the accumulation of failed advertisement amounts to more than the sum of its successes. Stimuli so boring and unimportant that they cannot even be called stimuli, that are depleted of interest even before the non-existent duration of their perception has elapsed, become of utmost value and importance. Our collective cogs are freed to whir indefinitely and indifferently.

But this has only been to talk on the consumption side of things. To shift now to production, we see advertisement’s two-fold role in stabilizing the structure of employment (if only a slight percentage of the population is engaged “actually making things,” what do the rest of us do?) and in stabilizing the continued presence of advertisement itself as the form tends towards its greater role as encroaching non-existence.

As small-”e” efficiency frees growing chunks of the population from the demands of “actually making things,” more and more material wealth can be redirected to those occupied in the maintenance of Efficiency. Advertisement can be leveraged to justify and stabilize this process. The skill-set of “actual production” has already been determined: anyone can do it. You don’t need a college degree to build shoes or iphones. Thus these tasks retain their low status as an accessible but humiliating means of eking out a living. Advertisement, on the other hand, can choose for itself the credentials it may require. As citizens who are either easily relatable to those-with-money, or else indicative of early-stage success– for example, the graduate of an elite college who “did everything right,” and whose personal failure would therefore indicate a larger failure of the ordained life-model of “work hard, succeed”– as these types of humans come into the job market, they can be internalized by advertisement or related industries to prevent systemic instability.

While advertisement alone seems to offer an unconstrained inlet for these cases, (if nothing is made, you can never have too much), a wealth of related industries builds upon the process and ensures its smooth growth. Take, for example, the field of advertising analytics: Firms emerge to analyze the relative efficacy of different advertising strategies; and they must employ their own arm of advertisement, which then can be analyzed. The process can be repeated ad infinitum: We advertise for advertisers who analyze an analyzer’s advertisements, and we can delve into the feedback loop as deeply as we must, until all those who embrace Efficiency are employed in its service.

This signals advertisement’s unlimited potential, but it it also seems to indicate a vulnerability. Not all our contemporary CEOs and entrepreneurs have the perspicacity– or the market-power– of old Henry Ford: not all realize the public benefit of certain private practices, or else they cannot presume to implement them single-handedly. Then the process of non-existent eternal return crafted by advertisement is not neatly orchestrated from above: It cannot be simply decided by an abstract “employers” to adopt the policies that would benefit them.

Here is where the full importance of advertising analytics comes in. While advertisement’s greater social benefit rests on its failure, its private benefit rests on its success.  Advertisement analytics secures and measures this private benefit.  It gauges profitability, and, as certain breeds of banner ads become ignored or unclickable, or as the consumer succeeds in numbing themself to certain pitches of radio advertisement or patterns of flashing colors, it helps determine which forms are as yet fresh and surprising.

Of course, they will not remain such. Soon the consumer will realize the boring unimportance of these new attention-grabbing techniques; but, like police sirens that change every few months to ensure that their pitch and oscillation remains startling to drivers, advertisement changes forms to continue to impress itself upon the consumer. The difference is that the far more rapid perception of advertisement renders the effect more cumulative and less cyclical. The configurations of space, digital and physical, that had not yet been remade in advertisement’s likeness are scrutinized and altered appropriately. That is to say, they are destroyed.

This may seem to indicate a time limit on advertisement’s efficacy, practically speaking. While its failures (and therefore its public success) will become more frequent and more encompassing, its service to “the product” will be minimized, and it will cease to be justifiable in the eyes of the private purchaser of advertisement. This problem, though, is artificial, because new media and new cultural forms permit virtually limitless variation. So long as these things create new ground for advertisement to revoke, the practice will remain secure. Just as advertisement and its associated industries will forever offer blank positions for those who must be employed, the introduction of new media will forever ensure new spaces for advertisement to destroy; or else the more general flux of culture will provide changing modes of expression that can then be rendered meaningless. The eternal recreation of space stabilizes advertisement even as it precludes its total realization as non-existence.

Thus advertisement liberates us from the possibility of abundance even as it retains excess for those who must be provided for. There will always be those who are willing to buy advertising’s cipher-products as long as it exists to bore them, and there will be those who will be able to afford its cipher-products for as long as it exists to employ them. Efficiency, then, is maintained in the face of increasing efficiency.

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1Note the deadweight loss (“DWL”)

dwl