Sunday, December 13, 2015

and now for a brief rant about popular culture iconography

Too often, when Marxists write about popular culture, they come off as grumpy, unhip old poops. Exhibit A: Theodor “Don’t Call Me Sweetie” Adorno. (And although I am aware that Teddy Baby’s reputation for hating jazz is a bit overblown, I think anyone who really understands music can't possibly think that he did. This is in fact why he is Exhibit A.)

At great risk of self-poopifying, I would like to call attention to what I think is a sure sign of the decadence and depravity of consumer culture in our day and age—the cynical, meaning-destroying, emptying contextless repetition of iconic images. I hope to do more than complain, but to sketch an analysis of this capitalist spectacle.

Marilyn Monroe has been dead longer than I’ve been alive, and her image has continued, zombie-like, to roam among us. The image “Marilyn” is a reference without meaning, an icon of sex appeal that is by now rendered totally sexless. It merely indicates when and where one is supposed to respond according to an overdetermined habit of “belief.” That is, as a normal subject, the image “Marilyn” cues you to associate “sexuality” with some object. It operates like a sticky note, if you’ll pardon the expression, that labels an otherwise inert object with the message that you are supposed to believe is sexually charged and obtainable by purchase, contrary to all reality. “Marilyn” is obscene and prurient, an image of sexual death that normalizes the necrophilia of consuming behavior.

Furthermore, I am convinced that normal subjects know this and are capable of appropriate shame about it. As in the case of all our cultural addictions to obscenities, we consume “Marilyn” in guilt, and that guilt provides the excuse for continuing to use, continuing to consume.

In some ways a more curious case is the iconography of the film The Wizard of Oz. Reconfigured as it is here, as imagery in a computer game that functions as a non-gambling form of gambling, it means nothing. It does not actually refer to The Wizard of Oz—not to the film, not to the plot or characters in the film, not to the actors in the film. The “ruby slippers” are only the icon, without reference.

We generally expect cultural signifiers to signify, even if all they signify is the universal command to consume. As part of an advertisement for a game whose primary purpose is to expose users to more advertisement, these signifiers can barely be said to add value as a brand for consuming. These icons simply float, purposelessly and meaninglessly, in a nebula in which all images are juxtaposed without interacting or reacting. It is degree-zero of communication, as Baudrillard put it: the staging of an image that is a non-image because it is not an image of anything. Baudrillard called this the hyper-real, but this is because he was nostalgic for meaning, and such images can only appear as hyper-real in reference to a reality that they deny or destroy. They are hypo-real and hypo-realizing for experience. They defy any attempt to compose meaning.

What does it mean for us, or about us, that we spend so much time among these sepulchral artifacts?

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