Lately, I 've found myself amused at a Dr Pepper commercial (originally created, I think, in 2009) set in a self-help group. It seems the animated characters in the spot meet for support in dealing with a particular social handicap: the world refuses to acknowledge their existence:
What caught my eye about this commercial was its comic light touch -- even when alluding to something everyone from therapists, to philosophers, to the great modern writers seem to agree is a serious one: the establishment of a personal sense of "being" -- or, as it's more commonly referred to today, an "identity."
This concern even got translated into a specific form of cultural politics (usually called "identity politics" or "the politics of recognition"). In the 80s and 90s, "identity" movements arose on the liberal side of the spectrum (concerning rights around the issues of gender, ethnicity and sexuality). Later, this style of politics was mimicked on the Right, often around religious beliefs and traditionalist lifestyles.
Cultural Studies scholar Nancy Fraser analyzes the philosophical roots of this tendency:
"The usual approach to the politics of recognition -- what I call the 'identity model' -- starts from the Hegelian idea that identity is constructed dialogically, through a process of mutual recognition. According to Hegel, recognition designates an ideal reciprocal relation between subjects, in which each sees the other both as its equal and also as separate from it. This relation is constitutive for subjectivity: one becomes an individual subject only by virtue of recognizing, and being recognized by, another subject. Recognition from others is thus essential to the development of a sense of self."
As Fraser indicates, a sense of identity is created socially as much as it is internally. One essential for its establishment is that others take you seriously.
What's comic about the spot is that you see this logic applied to establishing a brand identity. The problem the Dr Pepper guy has is signaled by Santa Claus: people think what he stands for (a diet soda with great flavor) is a laughable myth.
Intentionally or not, what this setting also brings to mind is the brand identity issue a soda with a hard-to-categorize taste like Dr Pepper already carries with it. As the Wiki about Dr Pepper puts it:
"W.W. Clements, a former CEO and president of the Dr Pepper/7-Up Company, described the taste of Dr Pepper as one-of-a-kind, saying "I've always maintained you cannot tell anyone what Dr Pepper tastes like because it's so different. It's not an apple, it's not an orange, it's not a strawberry, it's not a root beer, it's not even a cola."
For that matter, even where the name "Dr Pepper" comes from is somewhat of a mystery.
In any case, such a lighthearted take on angst about the "question of existence" brought to my mind, by way of contrast, another version of pop-culture existentialism -- this one from a much earlier era...
"The Incredible Shrinking Man" Ponders His Existence
If you're obsessed with classic Science Fiction films like I am, you may be familiar with the story of "The Incredible Shrinking Man." In the 1957 movie, the hero of this flick runs into a radioactive cloud, while he's out boating. Soon after, as a side effect, he begins to shrink.
As he gets smaller and smaller, common household creatures -- cats and spiders -- turn into horrific monsters. But as the movie progresses, he becomes too small for even them to see (or torment). Then his problems grow more philosophical. As he faces the prospect of becoming as tiny as a molecule, or even an atom, he wonders whether, since living things can no longer recognize him, he even still exists.
Here's the way he resolves his quandary in the closing monologue (which ends "I still exist!"):
Whatever Happened to the Age of Anxiety?
In this clip, it's the gaze of God that assures the hero of his continuing identity/existence. But today, it seems to me, many people look elsewhere for the recognition they need to build their sense of self.
Is not one of the appeals of social media, with all the "friending" it encourages, that it offers a quick, technologic way to make a person feel like somebody? And, establishing an identity this way is certainly achieved with a lighter touch than in previous eras: a modicum of recognition is just a few clicks away. No wonder even "identity politics" seems to be fading from the scene.
But I wonder, does this mean the "search for authenticity" will soon be passe? Any thoughts on this -- or these clips?