Saturday, June 15, 2019

Baby Seeking Bathwater

Reposting another (slightly more challenging) text from the old Steve Erickson's website.

Baby Seeking Bathwater 
Among the metaphors which have seen lots of service in recent years, there’s the one about the baby and the bathwater. Some still favour keeping the former in a splash of the latter. For example, they’ll say all of communism should be thrown out except the idea of communism, which is sublime and pure. Others, less prudent: you get the feeling they want to throw out the tub and even destroy the bathroom. More rare are those who want to show us what it looks like, a baby without bathwater. Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani are clearly among the uncommon few. 
It’s a poignant spectacle, because the ancestor of all bathwater is the amniotic fluid from which every human being emerges – and which, to judge from “the Grand Bleu generation,” is so desperately lacking to our children. To point where, for fear of being thrown out, they prefer to dive in straight away, instead of sinking later on. 
It’s in this sense that the now-famous Benetton ad is the cynical answer of publicist parents (yesterday’s radicals?) to their unhappy offspring, who have taken to scuba gear like monks take their vows. The ad is the precise and complicitous corollary to Atlantis. Where Besson films the mildest manta like an individual proudly playing his role as a ray in an underwater fashion parade, the Benetton ad photographs the little human animal immediately “immersed” in the void. Curious little human, with an umbilical mother and as the promise of another cord to be plugged in as quick as possible (something like SOS Image).
Thus it is via the billboard that the mythology of the postmodern individual will be signified. For there is always mythology whenever the origin is questioned, even by means of the image. Confided so quickly to our sole gaze, the Benetton baby – it’s a girl, her name is Giusy – has been captured at the very outset of her future course through life as a sexed-and-speaking being (she was born on March 3, 1991, beneath the sign – oh irony! – of Pisces). The Benetton firm is not selling its textiles, nor even its name (after the “did-you-guess-who?” trick, it doesn’t need to anymore). What it signifies here is the power of advertising in general to produce the naked child which, in any case, will have to be dressed one day. Not the future client of Benetton, but the consumer in general, the one who will have to be attached to the market (thus the cord). 
And since we’re decidedly in a world where “there’s no room for the lazy” (as they sang in the International), there’s no question of waiting until this baby has finished being born before putting her image directly to work. The currently supreme form of capitalism is no doubt a kind of progress, since the child labour that so saddened Dickens has now been replaced by the labour of the child’s image, which only shocks a few recalcitrant moralists. Outdated? Uncertain, in any case, that humans will never again be forced to suffer the kind of treatment being publicly inflicted on their image.
Worthy souls have been moved by such crudeness. Some might accept the ungracious looks of the little object (how to escape it? fathers now witness the birth of their children), but still balk at the disappearance of a warm and humane environment for the barely-born. Shall we ridicule such tender sentiments? The obstinate desire for Nativity, for the cow and the donkey? Shall we wax nostalgic for Sunday-school images, normal, “intimate” ads showing innumerable well-washed babies gurgling in bales of maternal cotton? Not sure. But since Benetton is such an ace among pollsters, let’s be as brave, dumb, and average as the polled, and get this tongue-wagging symptom talking.
Its message is first of all aesthetic. The ad shows that when the bathwater has vanished, the former foetus has a tough time getting immersed in anything at all. Looking it over closely, you’ll find it’s plunged into nothing. Neither air, nor water, nor artistic blur, nor pure colour. Just the material medium of any ad destined for the billboard: white paper, left white, delivered as such. A Mallarmean infant born amid the anxiety of the blank page. Well can we understand her tears. 
Is this an abduction? It’s definitely a case of amputation, and there’s nothing new about that. For years now, almost decades, one of the most meaning-fraught operations of contemporary aesthetics has been the disjunction between figure and ground, body and environment, detail and whole. People have given the name of “mannerism” to what is only the already-long “history of amputation” (transplants, quotes, appropriations, all kinds of parasitism). The aim is always to break the natural solidarity of bodies with their surrounds. Advertising aesthetics has been the driving force of this operation
That said, the message is not only aesthetic, it’s also semiologic, indeed “semiurgic.” The semiurgic is the omnipotence of the sign – like “demiurgic” – at the moment when it has lost all aura and become a productive force. It is the victory (bitter? oh how bitter!) of an economy of the sign which is all the more totalitarian in that the signs too have finally been “individualised” and set free to “live their lives.” Hence, in passing, the economic miracle of Japanese culture, the most refined empire of signs. 
This too is old news. Beneath the pretext of selling yogurt and noodles, advertising has long laboured at the production of the autonomous signifiers (visual and linguistic) which it would one day need for much grander causes than yogurt and noodles. That day has come. In a world exchanging before our very eyes the old realist picture of mass production for a brand-new landscape of more personalised simulacra, advertising has played its vital role, which consisted in “liberating” the productivity of the sign. The umbilical cord that mysteriously linked the sign to a signified or a referent is also on the verge of being severed. The Benetton ad, both an image of separation and a separated image, confirms the darkest reflections of Debord (on alienation) and Lacan (on castration). 
Which is why, despite everything, the image cannot merely be semiologic: it is also humanitarian. One cannot amputate something – a sign, a being, indeed, a farmer – from the surrounding environment without racking up a little surgical-aesthetic cruelty. That’s why our animal friends have long paid the dues of this delicate operation, by suffering iconic vivisection and shameless manipulation, of which L’Ours (Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “The Bear”) is a good recent example. Whoever talks amputation and transplant is also talking about risk of rejection. Calculated risk of rejection. Calculation of the risk. The risk market. 
By posting up their newborn, solus, pauper, et nudus, on the city walls and the newspaper pages, Benetton and Toscani have created in each of us the vague sentiment that we should adopt this orphan too (as our children have blindly adopted the abandoned bear cub fostered off by Jean-Jacques Annaud, complete with its faked synthesizer squeals). Our malaise before the gigantic proof of human neotony comes less from the realism of the image than from the obligation that we now feel to “manage” not only with individualism as an ideology, but also with the first powerful icons of individuals without the bathwater. On our side as well, the umbilical cord begs to be knotted. On the social, or why not, the religious side, since religion – that which links, religere – always needs a cord. To adopt this child is to immerse her in something: a little writing, for example, in this newspaper-column-as-bathwater. 
So this article is the charitable act that a journalist has dedicated to the grand, enormous image of a tiny, forlorn child. Is it time to stand up and applaud? Hardly. It’s never difficult to interpret that which has been fabricated precisely for interpretation, and which tends typically toward the self-service market of social phenomena. What’s not easy, on the other hand, when faced with a provocation of this kind – which is finally rather benign – is to adopt a personal attitude, a way of being serene without being cynical. The difficulty is understandable: any individual response to a mass message is necessarily inadequate, frustrating, ridiculous. Even when the message in question is the theatrical display of the naked individual (that nackte Individuum evoked by the young Marx).
To those who would claim they are shocked, it’s hopefully possible to answer that we should be able to live with a share (a “quota”?) of scandal. Not for the sake of spineless tolerance, but because no one should be forced into forgetting the horrible reality on which the social tie is always founded. There is in our societies a potlatch of images which must be lived with. This frivolous waste is perhaps, optimistically, the condition for less frequent genocides: only our images (and no longer our bodies) will be sent off to the front. In any case, the capacity to not always replace what enrages us by what soothes us is just proof of a little maturity. Or simply proof – but the word has so completely disappeared from current parlance that one hesitates to voice it – of “humanism.”
A cute little symptom of our current environment, the Benetton baby asks a question that seems less and less avoidable. So let’s formulate it. Given the disappearance of art from our societies – to the benefit of culture, then cultural tourism, and finally tourism tout court – why not admit that flexible and effective programs of social communication could take up the fallen torch of collective “catharsis,” purging a few passions from time to time and dispensing the unfortunate intellectuals from the public management of “the philosophical debate”? After all, there’s more talent in the Benetton ad than in the pitiful agora constituted week after week by the combined headlines of the news magazines. What if cynicism were the unexpected face of whatever innocence we can still muster? In 1973, faced with an ad that had the public up in arms, Pasolini observed: “The cynicism of this slogan holds an intensity and an innocence which are absolutely new.” Pasolini was being provocative – but the ad was already signed Toscani (and Pirella).
A new scandal of “advertising for advertising’s sake” would be no worse than the old scandal of “art for art’s sake,” which it would replace to great advantage. Indeed, products are more quickly digestible than “works,” the Pavlovian communication of formats is more quickly accomplished than the transmission of content, and market shares are more quickly figured than the private emotions of the citizen. Of course there’ll be no more major scandals (we’ll all be “one big family” in which the “public menace” will be rare: the stupid Eugénie who derided Manet’s Olympia right there in the middle of the Salon is long dead and gone). But we’ll all be unfailingly titillated, stimulated, disgusted, dismayed, teased, tested, polled, in short saved from the boredom which, since the eighties, has rendered public space more or less unbearable. 
So is it time to turn the page and admit that when it comes to stating the truth of a society like ours (meeting the “scandal quota,” as it were), mass-oriented social communication can advantageously replace the vestigial elitism of outdated modern art? This is obviously the real question. And if the answer is yes, then it’s clear that the Toscanis of the world (and in Italy alone, a “creative” country, you also have Testa, Pirella, Sanna, D’Adda, Panzeri…) would love to be credited as the heroes of such a transformation. But is the answer yes? What if it were more like “yeauh…”?
There is another piece of history here, linked to the history of amputation. Call it the history of advertising, if you will. Or rather, of the new term between the spheres of “public” and “private.” Publicity and privatisation define more and more strictly the aesthetic framework of that which can be displayed, promoted, and sold. In this story of the world’s re-enchantment after its last destruction (WWII), the “announcement” was initially as servile as the pilot bird (or fish) that says nice things about the beast it’s perched on. Gone are the days when the role of advertising was above all to sell the product. Not much longer lasting, the days when it was a matter of building up the brand image over time: the era of popular hymns to liquid soaps, when advertisements, to Barthes’ great joy, inadvertently conveyed “something ideological” as well. A touching era, itself now liquidated. 
Because what happens, at the close of the three golden decades that put the meat on its bones, when the beast – the market economy – becomes the sole imaginable reality and the sole horizon worthy of global dreams? What happens when the last illusions about another possible type of society fade away? When all the bathwater is declared dirty? What happens is that advertising no longer works for the market, but the market works for advertising. More precisely, the market lets advertising climb up on its shoulders so it can shout down the news of a vast landscape to be explored and conquered.  
An extraordinary, unheard-of landscape where it’s no longer a question of our needs but of our desires, no longer of our pleasures but our caprices, no longer of our dreams but our fantasies. The market of the coming century will be that of immaterial goods, psychological and spiritual trinkets. A whole new world of communicational junk is already threatening. This is the landscape which the ultramodern Benetton advertising, like a pilot bird turned Sister Anne, sees coming from on high. And it’s toward that future, with no time to lose, that it has launched little Giusy, the pure foetus severed from everything. 
If that’s the story, then it’s easy to see that this “advertising of the third kind” demands a less stingy, stay-at-home ideology than the old-fashioned sort (which consequently shrinks back into its corner and pouts). By throwing out this baby without any bathwater, Toscani, we’ll say it again, is less concerned with selling the Benetton logo and line than with performing, gratuitously, a test that combines the advantages of a cultural proposal, an ideological debate, and even a morality lesson. Is Benetton “disinterested”? It would be more appropriate to say that its campaign immediately interests any and everybody. This child will belong to whoever is able to dress it. The blank page says only that the green light has been given and given to everybody. The economic war of all versus all is the possibility for each to interpret the object-pretext and extract some information from it. And this information, in the last analysis, is always economic
Now we can get back to our question: has advertising become the privileged vector of social communication? Will it replace the older (tottering and limited) forms of communication? Seized by vertigo, we won’t answer. No doubt the modern societies also needed their hard truths to come from an internal elsewhere: the sacred, poetry, art, but also warfare, politics, and ideology successively occupied these “sites of otherness” that Bataille called “the accursed share” and whose strange economy he sought to understand. And no doubt, in the postmodern societies, the all-conquering plasticity of the market has no more need for that kind of exteriority, but holds in its possession – via advertising as social communication – the means to bend the accursed entirely to its own ends. The “borderline” that the Benetton ad flirts with is not the border between the social and its repressed (what you might call the “good scandal,” the one that awakens fear and trembling), it’s just another disposable tool in the communication kit. Which is the real scandal, the “bad” scandal.
This is why the fundamental difference between creators and creatives, between art and advertising, is obviously not a question of talent, audacity, or technique. It’s a question of desire, of one’s position toward truth.  After all, why can’t I respect a creative? Because he’s a slave, to put it bluntly. The slave of a social interactivity in which he functions as a sophist or an overpayed mercenary. Because now that it has become the rule, the interactivity is currently diluting the idea of responsibility right along with the ideas of arbitration or of a symbolic dimension. Creatives are superior technicians in the service of a closed-circuit process which is largely virtual. A process which needs nothing more than overplayed impresarios, professional exaggerators.
Toscani takes himself for Caravaggio (let’s hope he doesn’t meet the same fate). He takes himself for a hero of Art. But there’s nothing moral in the way Toscani rests content with testing (not to say prodding) the morals of its contemporaries. The proof? Let’s go back for a moment to our newborn (decidedly abandoned by everyone, even in this article). When some English group protested over this image, what did Benetton do? “Fair play,” they said, and retracted the image. Caravaggio never retracted anything.
What does their retraction signify? That the image has shifted entirely to the side of economic power. And that nothing is ever put up for us to see (the naked baby) without an aim to see something else (the dressed and dressing parents). That the advertising image is the very model of the ricochet-image, the image just to see. Like in poker. Thanks to the reaction of an English lobby, something unexpected from England has become visible. The cultural proposal (this article) and the ideological campaign (the English reaction) are no longer anything more than the natural means whereby a new piece of information comes to light. What information? That henceforth, the ideological components of the market must be taken into account. 
For it was clearly too hasty when people spoke about the “end of ideologies,” on the pretext that they haven’t been making much noise over the past ten years. It’s because they too needed to be (re)constituted as values, on a “secondary market” internal to the primary one. That’s nothing new, it will be said quite rightly. Because the new strategy of Benetton is elsewhere. It does not consist, for example, in simply billboarding an ideological line that corresponds to the firm conviction of Lucian himself (the playful anti-racism of United Colors). On the contrary, it lies in the quest for a subtle dissensus, an internal limit to collective convictions (and conventions).
Small but provocative details (the horns on the little black devil next to the blond angel) are the springboards in the quest for finer, more precise information about ideology. No longer the hard-bitten, doctrinaire ideology that can’t sell anything more (and disgusts people instead), but the “lived experience” of ideology, its intimate blurring, its changing borders, its facile contradictions. In this sense, Benetton is like the devil’s advocate (that’s the final meaning of the “did-you-guess-who?” trick), testing us for the temptation to think something else, the impulse to thing the contrary of what we claim to think.
In a period where contradiction is no longer the motor of anything, the compromise formation that Freudians know so well risks becoming the major trope of social communication. Just as negotiation stands every chance of becoming the nerve-centre of economic war. And just as economic war looks poised to take over, all by itself, for the defunct march of history. 
It’s in this sense, to conclude, that the message of the ad is political. The auto-regulation of society, its free-wheeling interactivity, are the service that advertising (writ large) renders to the market economy (writ very large) and to its wars of the third kind. It’s an entirely free service, carried out on the eye and for the eye. Which claims (or prefers) to know nothing about the hand that guides it. It just blinks its pretty lashes. Should it be taken on its word? 
In any case, we’ll never be miscreants enough for its taste.
First published in Libération in two parts on 30 September and 1 October 1991. Published in English in Documenta Documents 2, 1996, Cantz Verlag. Translation by Brian Holmes.

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