OXYMORONICA AND THE MYTH OF GLOBAL CULTURE
When it comes to power and the control of populations, there are three elements of society that scoff at the slogan don’t tread on me: governments, businesses, and communities. And while the rights of individuals clash with corporate fascists and our power hungry elected officials, it is in fact leaders of local communities, with their ways and means, that can exercise a special sort of tyranny over their members, manipulating them through the leverage of social and peer pressure. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “Any despotism is preferable to local despotism. If we are to be ridden over by authority, if our affairs are to be managed for us at the pleasure of other people, heaven forefend that it should be at that of our nearest neighbors.” So politicians and businessmen have been trying to stamp out this local cultural power in favor of a single, clear, and numbing strategy since the beginning of recorded history. But Mill had clearly never seen a typical global marketing campaign (Just Do It), so while his words rang true in the 19th century, it’s a bit harder to agree with him today. In fact, it often seems that the first two threats to individual autonomy—government and business—have teamed up, and they’re doing their best to wipe out what remains of the local cultures that once challenged them for people’s allegiance. Collusion is easier than competition, after all. And it sells a hell of a lot more sneakers.
As Adam De Gree argues in his new piece, “When local cultural ties have been made irrelevant, the only sources of meaning left for people are the State and the Market, Capitol and Capital. Yet these are so abstract and impersonal that they always ring hollow. While it’s easy to see that more local associations foster relationships in which, as French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “opinions are maintained with a degree of warmth and energy which written language [slogans] cannot approach,” the same can’t be said of national election campaigns. There, culture is a manufactured product, a matter of marketing. What de Tocqueville called the “art of association” provided an important check on the powers of government in a time when elected leaders put friends and cronies into positions of power. After seeing how party politics worked, the Frenchman declared that “there are no countries in which associations are more needed to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince, than those which are democratically constituted.” Yet while the vices of politics are still with us, our sense of community in some ways is starting to die out.
The stories political leaders tell about their own countries are just that—stories. No country is small enough to represent a real community with its own set of shared values. Narratives of nationalism, with their founding fathers and cheap slogans of unity, are an attempt by politicians to make us forget this fact, but as soon as trouble arises, we immediately remember how different we really are. Why is it that negative emotions are summoned to rile up voters from sea to shining sea? Because fear, envy, and desire have become the motivating forces of modern politics as well as the basis for most of our algorithms. Positivity just doesn’t have much power at scale. The same can be said of the growing globalist movement, which also relies on a contrived idea of the nature of culture itself. While anti-immigrant sentiment holds sway at the national level, international culture needs something even stronger than our everyday fears to hold it together—in fact, nothing less than an apocalypse will do.
Good thing that we have one on hand. Enter climate catastrophe, a moral drama in which science is sometimes prostituted to the vagaries of virtue signaling: Does consumerism leave you feeling empty and without purpose? Well, try ‘green’ consumerism. If you just buy enough of the right products and use just the right hashtag, you’ll be doing the world a favor. Now that religion has gone a bit out of vogue, we have to find new ways to lead meaningful lives. Be rational–if you want to be a good person, buy good things! And of course, take to the streets, and above all, make sure we can all see your Patagonia shopping bag and ‘I Voted’ sticker. There could be no greater evidence of the success of governments and businesses in their usurpation of moral authority from communities unto themselves. In this new world, an anxious populace drifts from shopping malls to voting booths in search of salvation, chanting the vague slogans they’ve heard everybody else chanting. Democracy! Sustainability! Freedom! Make America Great Again! Often these slogans replace true acts of rebellion.
It’s hard to keep up with the shifting narrative on climate-–some say we have 12 years left, others just 8. What’s clear, though, is that a new definition of expertise is afoot. After all, one would think that if we really cared about science, we would leave it to the scientists. And if we really cared about about transforming capitalism we would leave it to economists–-instead of entrusting it all to teenagers, no matter how clever their signs are. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “true terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country,” especially when they haven’t graduated yet. So though it may seem counterintuitive, even a bit oxymoronic to proclaim there is no such thing as global culture, it is in fact true. Culture and society may be everybody’s business, but no one is in charge of this thing. Any attempt at a one-world strategy flattens out humanity in a way that is antithetical to real community, though it certainly makes it easier to target us with ads.
Before brands were culture vulturing via sponsored posts all over Instagram, before they were monetizing climate change movements, they found another way to be seen as global--you know, that one size fits all marketing play? Ah yes, it was the mid-seventies and there was a different form of mania happening in the United States, one that didn’t come from across the pond in the form of a boy band. Nope, this mania was not about bands, but brands. That’s right, it was the start of logo mania and luxury brands were all of the sudden forgoing the difficult process of original designs and instead were merely printing, sewing, and plastering their logos onto everything from handbags to designer jeans. It seems quaint now, with so may nonsensical brand collabs, (including a Supreme x MTA metro card and Vetements x DHL t-shirts) doesn’t it? But it was also around the time when licensing, that truly global creative copout, itself came into play and everyone was walking around looking like a shopping bag. It was becoming outlandish, as exclusive brand names were until then reserved for inside labels only. The point of identity was to recognize the product by its craftsmanship, luxury materials, and original design.
Which is why in 1975 Dawn Steel decided to actually call it all, essentially, shit. It’s a now-infamous story, when after working with Hustler Magazine's Bob Guccione on developing novelty products, she decided to parody the crazy luxury merchandising phenomenon by printing the Gucci logo onto toilet paper. She didn’t get permission from the Italian design house, who we can all safely assume from their response would’ve given a hard no to someone else monetizing their logo. It was a marketing ploy, sure, but it was also a metaphor. Gucci sued, but Steel continued to produce designer toilet paper as well as other press catching novelty items. She ended up at Paramount Pictures, as Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Mathews wrote, "Marketing designer toilet paper seems as good a background for success in Hollywood as anything else." And, he was right. She went on to become Paramount Pictures’ studio chief and chief executive.
What brands, including Gucci, don’t seem to understand is that you can’t just slap your logo onto something and create culture let alone cultural movements. And like renowned retail and apparel expert Robin Lewis once told us about the youth these brands are so desperately trying to reach, “They don’t care about finding a brand, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.” This quote is even more poignant now, in a time when Pepsi puts its logo in Kendall Jenner’s hand and tells her to go hold a protest sign that reads “join the conversation” and Starbucks tries to fix racial tension with a hashtag yet has the police called on innocent black patrons, it seems like the more brands try to simplify culture by stamping their logo onto movements and jumping onto bandwagons as global marketing campaigns, the more they end up knee deep in shit. And it’s really too bad they don’t even have some quality Gucci toilet paper to wipe themselves off with.