Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nostalgia for Texture, 5

Eighth example.

Walked down to Times Square with Ari B. last weekend. We stood on the red lighted steps that give you a theatregoer’s view on the light show Times Square’s always been, though it’s “friendlier” now, and far brighter – supersized. One ad, repeating on one of the biggest boards, caught our attention; I’d been going on about my hobby horse, and Ari’s been following this blog, and we agreed, I think, that the ad proved my point, or at least substantiated it. It's the new Microsoft Windows Phone 7 ad:


The first third of the spot shows us typical modern consumer-type folks missing out on physically and aesthetically pleasurable and meaningful life-experiences (urban life, travel, the beach, shower, jogging, massage, coffee, family, sex, exercise, snorkeling) because we’re (too) absorbed in our hand-held devices. After each situation, the snarky refrain: “Really?” (The unspoken answer: “Not! Your (over)use of this medium is blocking your access to reality.") The ad’s second third turns the mode to slapstick when this absorption absurdly interrupts what may be greatest pleasure of all: taking a leak. (It also interrupts the buildup of the Peer Gynt suite, which, if this is an allusion to M, is pretty darn crafty: This is a compulsion, you can’t help yourself.) From here on it’s a loss not directly of pleasure, but of (social) dignity, somewhat in the old “BO” ad mode: we make fools of ourselves at the opera, at our wedding, in bed, at work (as a surgeon: high stakes, high pathos, big laffs), at the dinner table, as a Dad at the Little League game… and the dénouement? – A sweet blonde girl toddler in PJs, facing the camera in some perplexity, her oblivious well-heeled professional mom texting out of focus on the sofa behind, and the baby – get this – the poor mom-deprived past-bedtime baby is holding a sippy cup! Way to get at every working mom’s ambivalent anxiety about not being able to breastfeed/spend time with her children because she’s working! Way, also, to reiterate J.H. Campe’s equation of media with the pacifier, immediacy (“Be Here Now”) with The Breast… So QED. But that’s not all. Here comes my paradox again (that nostalgia seeks fulfillment in simulacra of experience produced by the very media perceived to be blocking access to it), except a bit in reverse: here, a variant of the media-object blamed for effecting distance is touted with the special ability to close it.

Over the sippy-cup sequence (moment of greatest pathos) is where the voice-over comes in: “It’s time for a phone… to save us from our phones.” Ooh, a paradox… So what’s the argument? “New Windows phone: designed to get you in… and out... and back to life.” Cut to romantic dinner for two. OK, first off, is this “in and out” thing a double entendre? Probably, but that can’t be the whole story. “In and out” of what, then? – One’s email, the internet, texting, and so on, is what I imagine is meant; in other words, all those things all those people were losing life to in the rest of the ad. So is the argument that (and am I expected to believe that) the special virtue of this new product is that it will allow me to execute all those personal-device activities that I am obsessively compelled to perform in say, half the time, leaving 50% more time for non-mediated activities such as sleeping with my wife or nursing my baby? Not only is this obviously bunk, it’s a self-contradiction: if our engagement with these devices is as irrational (obsessive-compulsive) as the ad suggests (and as it so clearly is), then the rational time-management argument is beside the point: we don’t text all the time because objectively we need to, we do it because there’s something about the medium that makes us want to. (Ask your average high-school student if she’d spend less time texting if texting went faster.) The interaction is itself a pleasure (though an ambivalent one); what we have in this ad is an array of conventional luxury pleasures set up rhetorically against one that the spot is attempting to sell. The interesting added factor is guilt. (You are ignoring your baby! Your wife! Your family! Your life!) A whole book could be written on guilt as a factor in marketing – maybe one has. But what’s more interesting than the simple presence of guilt as a factor is how the ad employs guilt so to speak dialectically: by letting us laugh at our own captivity to our devices (and also laugh socially: we’re all doing this, and we all can laugh at it, so really it’s not so embarrassing), it grants us permission to continue essentially as before; or as Siegfried Kracauer put it regarding certain cinematic “products of directorial artistry produced for the intellectual bourgeoisie”: “In the end, the audiences for such works read a radical magazine and pursue their bourgeois profession with a bad conscience, in order to have a good conscience” (“Kino 1928”). How then does the sell work? The product the ad allows us to identify with the feeling of catharsis and moral relief produced by its aesthetic solution of the problem is thus affectively tagged as a solution to a problem identified with “other” phones. – Really?

The whole strategy reminds me of the one used in the “Dove Evolution” ad:


about which I wrote about a year ago on one of Dove’s Facebook discussion pages, “What do you think of Dove advertising,”


on which the suckered cluelessness of people’s enthusiasm for the ad

really bothered me:

The Evolution video is a good video, and it makes a good point, and I'd certainly (maybe) recommend showing it to young girls and boys, but the "fan" comments all show that Dove is succeeding perfectly in its sales pitch: WE are the Ben & Jerry's of cosmetics; OUR brand is not appealing to the insecurities & vulnerabilities that others are. But as a matter of fact: it is – and then some; in fact, there's a special danger, I think, in the way Dove masks its self-interest in the form of a public-service announcement with which it's difficult to disagree. Not to mention that a) everyone knows this already, which adds the pleasant thrill of feeling confirmed in one's morally superior knowledge and b) "our" perception of beauty has ALWAYS been "distorted": perceptions of beauty have always been constructs, and "natural" is as much a construction as any (it dates in this form to the mid-18th century, thank you Rousseau).

Not to mention that the ad allows you to enjoy BOTH varieties of beauty, while also permitting you to assume the additionally titillating position of moral censor.

& not to mention also that in this case Dove's implicit promise is STILL that their products will make women more beautiful than they are naturally (i.e. without cosmetics). Which means that in fact they're STILL appealing to the same fears and insecurities that they would like to appear to be declaring obsolete.


Same tactic, no?

Friday, January 7, 2011

On Nakedness at Abu-Ghraib

I'm about to start teaching a class on "The Modern Nude" (i.e., beginning with the Olympia, of course) and in preparing for it, and looking through all my notes on the subject, I found a proposed op-ed piece I sent to the New York Times in 2004, shortly after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced. (I almost wrote "a rejected op-ed piece," though of course no such rejection ever comes, one's submission is just ignored and that's it.) It may seem years out of date--and it is, of course--but upon reading it I realized that the ethical turn toward which it builds has since been my main interest in the study of the nude; indeed the reading list for this semester includes Levinas as well as other ethically-oriented philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, and maybe even Stanley Cavell, though I may end up just having to summarize Cavell's arguments. (At the same time, I'm trying to downplay Marxist/ideology-critique/Lacanian readings, not that they're wrong as far as they go, but that they don't quite go far enough--but I'll elaborate that argument another time.)

In any case, without any further prefacing, here is the text of my submission, all nicely dusted off and blinking in incomprehension as it sees the light of (some kind of) print for the first time in the almost seven years since it came into existence. In op-ed-ish, NYT-ish layman's terms (clearly, I was trying to hew as close to formula as I could) it expresses, or at least suggests, pretty well the ethical concerns at which I'm aiming:


The images of abused Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison disturb not only through their simple documentation of horrific acts; they also have a visual power of their own, though one that has little to do with the designs of their makers. After all, though details of the abuse have been known since January, it has been only with the publication of the photographs that the scandal has entered public consciousness. What accounts for the power of these images? One answer lies in their depiction of nakedness; thereby, the images unintentionally take their place in the complex history of representations of the nude, history that stretches back at least to the days of archaic Greece. Of the many art-historical images with which they resonate, we can select a few that can help us better understand the meanings these photographs suggest, and the reactions they elicit in us.

The pyramid of naked bodies seen in several of the photographs offers us a convincing image of hell. Indeed, very similar imagery was used to represent the damned cast into the netherworld in depictions of the Christian Last Judgment from the Middle Ages until at least the seventeenth century. In relief sculptures such as Lorenzo Maitani’s early 14th century façade for the Cathedral of Orvieto, or in frescoes such as Giotto’s at the Arena chapel in Padua, the damned are shown piled atop each other, naked and frail. They make up a seemingly undifferentiated, wriggling mass of flesh, condemned to be devoured by the infernal fire-pits. They are always contrasted with the saved, who more often than not are depicted clothed, and whose more idealized beauty is supposed to suggest their spiritual nature, as opposed to the unredeemed corporeality of the sinful lost souls. They are also always shown being controlled by the devils, who kick them, shove them, and gleefully manhandle them in many other ways.

Another image the photographs may recall, perhaps by way of contrast, is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleonic-era “Leonidas at Thermopylae.” The large neoclassical canvas, which shows scores of nude warriors embracing each other tenderly the morning before the battle, makes explicit and celebrates the homoerotic bonds that hold an army together. It’s hard to imagine, however, that any modern military force would acknowledge such an explicit statement of the unconscious forces that hold it together; Napoleon certainly did not approve of David’s canvas, though its overt homoeroticism was never mentioned as the cause of his dislike. The behavior of the Abu Ghraib guards looks like a case-study demonstration of the repression and projection of similar psychosexual impulses. Forcing the detainees to simulate homosexual acts, as well as simply forcing them to lie nude against one another, the guards could project homoeroticism upon their demonized enemies, disavowing it in themselves while at the same time taking a very evident pleasure in its display.

Most importantly, however, the images invite comparison with other photographic representations of the human body. Since its invention, the photographic medium has been noted for its power to record the shock value of nakedness. Most photographers, however, have recoiled from this very power. One need only think of the aestheticization of the nude in the works of Imogen Cunningham or Edward Weston, where the naked body is converted into abstract plays of light and shadow, or of the parallel objectification that can be seen every month in the pages of Playboy. In such cases, formal abstraction or the deft use of the airbrush prevent the viewer from experiencing the actual corporeality of the naked body, and, implicitly, the subjectivity of the depicted individual.

A parallel kind of objectification can be seen at Abu Ghraib, carried out for the sake of neither aesthetics nor eroticism, but to strip the prisoners of their most elementary human dignity. Ironically, however, the guards’ own grotesque choice to commemorate their acts visually has helped to reverse that objectification. The deciding factor here was that the photographers were not professionals but amateurs, and thus incapable of, as well as uninterested in, shielding us by aesthetic means from the power of human nakedness. Looking at the photographs, we not only feel ashamed that our own troops have perpetrated such horrors. A further shame arises from our simple identification with those debased bodies, and from our realization that, as human beings, we are always in danger of ending up in the very same situation as theirs.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought that at the root of all ethics lay the simple encounter with the face of the other. In the Abu Ghraib photographs, in a further attempt to dehumanize the prisoners, all the faces are hooded. And yet, isn't there a sense that the process envisioned by Lévinas can still take place—that it is not the faces, but the humiliated, objectified, yet all too real naked bodies of the other that will force a sense of ethics upon us?