Commenting on a recent post on this blog, media critic Joseph Frango made the observation that our culture is becoming increasingly disembodied, as more and more facets of everyday life and commerce take up full-time residence on the web. Judging from conversations I've overheard at social events lately, a lot of people seem to be thinking the same thing.
It's as if once, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the world was too much with us, now both the world and ourselves have evacuated the premises for cyberspace. And we miss our bodily selves and the earth they once walked upon.
In this light, I found it amusing how quickly the field of commodity aesthetics -- i.e., advertising -- was able to pick up on this tremor in the social nervous system. And, as always, the solution to the vauge angst such qualms produce is found in the products advertised.
Here are two recent car commercials that take on the theme of disembodiment in different ways. The first is for Dodge (though the version I actually saw didn't have the contest it mentions in it). The second is a new Jaguar XJ spot:
The Dodge ad, despite all its references to web culture, is really quite traditional. How many car spots have you seen over the years that promise you that the machine being promoted offers the perfect escape from the civilization that created it? Or that the car is designed to help you get back in touch with nature?
But what's new about the message here are the metaphors. This Dodge doesn't contain any ordinary motor, but a search engine, to help you escape the other search engines that enslave you (or, at least, keep you chained to you desk).
Nevertheless, the spot seems haunted by the technical reality it would flee. If a car is now a search engine, what does that make the terrain it would explore? Jacque Derrida's deconstructive philosophy once insisted that "there's nothing outside the text"; here, the language of the spot suggests to me that "there's nothing outside the web".
The beauty of this scenario is that it plays to the desire to have your cake and eat it too. You still get the comforts of a midsized SUV. But rather than worry about what price the environment might pay for your pleasure, you are encouraged to think of your Dodge Journey as a way to re-discover that environment's wonder.
Maybe that's why the spot made me think of these lines from a poem by Campbell McGrath:
"Everything yields to the woodsman's axe
but still we are not satisfied.
Now we yearn for the vanished trees!"
Cyborg's Have More Fun
The Jaguar spot also replays elements of classic commercials. Isn't the personal power it promises a familiar theme in car ads? But as with Dodge, something new is added when this message is translated into the tech-obsessed language of today. In fact, you could say the commercial invokes, through its beautiful science fiction film work, a sort of technological sublime, with allusions to everything from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Apple's iconic 1984 TV commercial.
It does all this to make a point about how smart the Jag's driving technology has become. And then it ups the ante to insist that of all the forms of artificial intelligence you meet every day, there's only one brainy enough to meld with not just your mind, but your entire being.
So the point the spot makes is ironic. For it implies that becoming one with this technology, rather than civilize you even more, will enable you to unleash your inner animal. This means that the best way to retrieve your authenticity is to become a cyborg.
That's why I find the tag line so evocative. "How alive are you?" it asks, suggesting, of course, that without this very expensive prosthetic device, you're a mere member of the walking dead. Or worse, a machine.
You could say that both commercials, then, employ a hair of the dog that bit you logic. If it's our increasingly technologic civilization that's getting you down, the best cure is more of that civilization in the form of another (and in Jaguar's case, even stronger) dose of its technology.
It's a contradictory logic, to be sure. But it's one that underpins many of the communications Consumer Culture sends our way. So much so, that the problem with such a message, rather than its oddness, may be that it's not weird enough to make a real impact. Thoughts?