Davenport on TV, advertising and commodification

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 23:22:59 +0900

In response to Clyde Davenport.

Davenport's post on TV, advertising, and commodification is, for the
record, the first time in my life that someone has felt it worthwhile to
write at such length in response to remarks of mine. I am, of course,
enormously flattered. The seriousness of this post deserves an equally
serious response. The following paragraphs are, at most, a beginning.

First, I find his explanation of what he means, following Habermas, et. al,
by "the colonization of sexual desire" convincing. I.e., "that
"colonization" can be used in a metaphorical sense (in Habermas, and
others) to describe a process of the taming or hollowing out (e.g. resource
extraction, etc.) of some "other." The "other" is not destroyed, but rather
is marginalized in the relation of dependency." Whether, in fact, sexuality
can be so marginalized is still, to me, a debatable point. Sex seems awfully
central in all of the cultures I have ever known or read about.

Second, the broad outlines of the critique of advertising Davenport
rehearses here are also ones with which I personally agree. The critical
point is, indeed, not whether any particular ad achieves its goals, but
whether advertising as an institution contributes to the overall
commodification of culture, which only a fool would deny. Whether the
culture so created is good, bad, or indifferent is, to me, another debatable
point. My personal position is shaped by the perception that all cultures
whatsover are, as it were, like the wedding dress described in the
traditional American rhyme:

Something old
Something new
Something borrowed, and
Something blue.

All cultures are a mixture of things handed down from the past, new
things unknown in earlier times, a good many of which are borrowed
when people of one culture interact with those of another. But the critical
line, to me, is "Something blue." Every culture I know incorporates
tradeoffs that make some segment of the people who share it unhappy at
least some of the time. Traditional China, for example, was a good place to
be well-off and elderly; a shitty place to be poor or young. In contrast Japan
in recent years has been a pretty good place to be young. It is far less
appealing as a place to grow old.

To say this, and to recognize that competition, conflict and contradiction
are inherent in all forms of human social organization should no be a
license, I feel, to fall into the mindless moral relativism that says,
"Shucks, there's good and bad in everything." It does, however, require a
certain caution when reading someone like Baudrillard who is given to
drawing verbal cartoons, then explicating their implications as if they
encompassed the whole of the real.

The real. Yes, there's the rub. Davenport is right again when he warns
against my habit of being at times too clever (or condescending, or
outright bitchy) in throwing words around. As someone with deep
pragmatic as well as theoretical interests in how words play against each
other and with imagery and music as well, I am, indeed, a very postmodern sort
of character. I am also given to falling in love with my own words. At the same
time, however, I have never quite shaken off the logical empiricism in which I
was schooled and a solid respect for serious science and mathematics. That
fantasy is part of reality I do agree. That fantasy exhausts reality I do not
agree at all.

Coming back, then, to advertising. To me it is, like the automobile, a
dangerous tool that offers a certain amount of pleasure in itself and has,
historically, made itself an integral part of contemporary culture. Its use
requires common sense and, given the prevalence of evil in the world,
regulation to prevent its misuse. The culture to which it contributes is, in
many respects, perverse. Is it worse than what it's replaced? As a reader of
history I search in vain for utopias and know of many eras much worse.

I sound confused. I am. But I'm thinking about the confusion, and need
all the help I can get.

John McCreery
March 11, 1996