Tag Archives: Found Objects

Labor, Consumption, and the Cadillac ELR

My grandfather was an advertising executive. Whenever we laity found an advertisement to be contradictory, esoteric, or downright offensive, he would remind us that even if we didn’t understand the message, the target audience did.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s stock answer when I saw this advertisement from Cadillac for the ELR, a new hybrid automobile.

The ad is pretty offensive for anyone who thinks that it would be nice to have a café to stop into while strolling home from work, or wouldn’t mind having the entire month of August to do things like read, travel, or spend time with family. But if that’s you, then this ad is not for you, leaving the beat until the next commercial for you to howl in outrage. My grandfather would remind you that the wealthy aging frat boys who need convincing that one can drive a hybrid without sacrificing one’s masculine facade will receive the message Cadillac intended.

Its outrageousness aside, it’s worth looking at how this ad works. The car doesn’t come until the end, and most of the time is downplayed as “stuff,” which is not the real point of working. Instead it softens the viewer up for the arrival of the car by flattering him for accepting the fantasy of endless work as ingrained into some sort of national identity (also, I think we can safely stick to the male pronoun in this instance). There’s a constant invocation of the third person, an act of interpellation underscored in the line “why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that?,” where the “that” are less driven foreigners, and the  we are what Benedict Anderson would call an “imagined community,” only now of people who work endlessly and have something to show for it. Now, many of us do work endlessly and have very little to show for it, but if you are cognizant of that, then once again this ad is not for you. It’s for the people who would like to identify with the speaker. That’s why it’s a good ad, because it creates a need through a wish-image of what we can have once we start out with the “right” attitude.

So what we have here is a fascinating neoliberal fantasy. Holding it allegedly puts us in company with the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Ali. It’s an eclectic group, but they did have one thing in common: they weren’t crazy! “Why do we work hard?” the speaker asks. Because we are hardworking believers.Believers in what? The answer is not supplied, but it doesn’t have to be. In this fantasy we don’t work longer hours over more weeks because that’s what we have to do to pay the rent, feed that family we have for all our high-fiving needs, or to be able to get medical care when we get sick. That falls under the category of “stuff,” the “upside” of an endless labor process that is an end unto itself. One “upside:” the Cadillac ELR. Here we have the ad’s main contradiction, because I thought the upside was the work itself? Isn’t an “upside” the desired result? Maybe not, but for the purposes of the ad it is, because after all, the point of the ad isn’t really to take pride in our labor, but to use the money we earn to go out and buy Cadillacs. And if there’s an upside, do we now admit there’s a downside? No matter, because we are now supposed to be gazing at the car, the “stuff” that was really in question all along.

This fantasy is a problem because if the work is an end unto itself, then the “downsides” don’t matter anymore, as long as you are working. It’s there in the ad: time spent not producing value is time wasted. It’s a logic that does not allow for any pursuit that cannot be reduced to the metrics quantifiable by “the market.” Instead it endorses a “do what you love” ideology, what Miya Tokumitsu calls “the unofficial work mantra of our time” in this insightful critique. As Tokumitsu persuasively argues, it’s a mantra that actually devalues labor.

A couple of other observations:

Gender and the family: While the speaker is strutting about the house preparing for work, we see a woman, presumably his wife, and two daughters. The toys lie discarded (the panda thing, the table hockey, the doll house we saw behind the couch). Instead the girl in the foreground is engaged in her homework before a model of a DNA strand, while in the background the other daughter reads, again, presumably, with an end other than pleasure.

Scene 1

The wife occupies the kitchen and receives his discarded newspaper. But she is in her work suit and drinking a cup of coffee, presumably for the caffeine and not because of the deliciousness of real gourmet coffee. Our male protagonist speaks and he’s the one who leaves the house dressed in his uniform and inside his car to face the day’s dangers! But gender binaries don’t get in the way of labor that generates measurable value, or that might equip one to engage in labor that generates measurable value. In any case, they are all incidental to the scene, they occupy the space of the house much as the furniture does.

Scene 2

Prometheanism and boredom:

Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right, we went up there and you know what we got? Bored. So we left, got a car up there and left the keys in it. Do you know why? Because we’re the only ones going back up there, that’s why.

Even as fanciful history, this statement does not make much sense, not in the least because defunding of the space program suggests that we will remain bored with the moon for the foreseeable future. This strange line celebrates the overcoming of a seemingly natural limit, an overcoming done simply for the sake of having overcome, only to admit to admit to the futility of it all. In this vision, for all of the money, planning, and yes, labor that went into the moon landings, we were not even left with something capable of engaging our interest.

Ultimately that is what is puzzling about the advertisement. Why do “we” work hard? The monologue never really answers the question, but if you’re still wondering about it by the time the ad ends, then the ad really isn’t for you.

Nature Works for Chobani

A cup of Chobani yogurt I recently consumed yielded this little object of contemplation.

"Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid."

“Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid.”

What strikes me about Chobani’s claim that “”Mother Nature makes every ingredient. We just make the cups. . . and this lid” is that it performs a triple denial of the product’s own origins:

1.) “Mother Nature” plasters over the real labor of production and distribution that is as much a part of the production as the “natural” growth of strawberries and bananas or bovine lactation.

2.) Who is the “we” who make the cups and the lid? The cycle of production, distribution, consumption, and waste is populated by more people not on Chobani’s payroll. What’s more “Nature” bookends that very cycle.

3.) The lid tells a story of ingredients and containers. Chobani handles the former, “Mother Nature” the latter. When and from whom do we get the actual yogurt?

Then there is the worn-out gendering of Nature as female, both in the “Mother Nature” commonplace and, more amusingly, in that “she” produces the ingredients for a milk-based product. Then there is the fact that yogurt itself is gendered female (at least up until recently).

This may be a a lot of pontification for an object that is now trash (although like Grandpa Simpson I have always been the kind of person who reads things he finds on the ground). But I offer it as a micro case-study into why Nature has fallen into such disrepute in some circles.

Tourism, Labor, and a New Raabe Translation

I brought home a few interesting souvenirs from my trip to Chicago last week. Submitted for your contemplation is this billboard I spotted near my hotel:

Odd Billboard

“How Sublime it is to be Small”

One might say that the statement in the advertisement is self-explanatory, since one experiences the sublime because one is physically small relative to the object. Add to this that the advertisement is for skiing; it hawks an experience that commodifies the mountains. Not that there is anything particularly new or remarkable about this, the billboard is simply another document at the end of a two hundred year history of the erosion of the concept of the sublime. Context matters here, as the billboard stands in the middle of downtown Chicago. Finally, let’s not forget the legacy of Caspar David Friedrich in the advertisement, another testament to Romanticism’s long legacy.

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer Caspar David Friedrich

Caspar David Friedrich “Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer”

Another intriguing find comes from a strip mall in Avon, Ohio where I stopped in to get a burrito at Chipotle. Despite the fact that I had not request take-out, the burrito was tightly packed in layers of foil and paper. Chowing down, I noticed this on the back of the bag:

Odd statement on back of Chipotle bag from Ohio, January 2014

“Recycling turns things into other things which is like magic.”

There’s a kind of oddly self-aware commodity fetishism at work here (“like magic”), offered, I suppose, to enhance my experience of consumption by appealing to guilt over the needless use of a paper product. If recycling seems like magic, that is only because the labor processes involved are so opaque, and as it happens recycling is a particularly labor intensive industry, one which recruits both its official and unofficial workforce from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic scale. For the record, Chipotle provided no recycling or compost bins, and yes, my bag went straight to the landfill. Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014Odd Billboard Advertising Colorado, Chicago, IL, January 2014

On another note, it has recently come to my attention that Die Akten des Vogelsangs has been released for the first time in English. Michael Ritterson has released a translation through the Modern Humanities Research Association. Buy it! I have not had the chance to peruse it myself, but I am excited to finally have this book available in English. German Moonlight, Höxter and Corvey, and At the Sign of the Wild Man are also available from the same series.