Selling Modernity

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It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the idea of “modern living” had to be vigorously sold to us.  But there was, and in some parts of the world, the case has still not been made.

SELLING MODERNITY:  Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (eds. Swett, Wiesen, Zatlin, Duke 2007) is about the conversion (or conversions – it’s complicated) of Germany to the modern way of life by means of advertising.

It’s complicated because Germany has a complicated history:  World War I, Weimar, Nazis, Hitler, World War II, occupation, East vs. West Germany, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, the poor years, the Cold War, the rich years.  It’s a messy history, too, and nasty.  All you have to do to get a headache is to read about how the Nazis were anti-American yet pro-American when it came to advertising methodology, and both medieval in philosophy while being simultaneously a very modern, scientific regime.  The contradictions boggle the mind.

But you don’t read the essays in SELLING MODERNITY for the specifics of German advertising.  You read it to get the big picture.

And the big picture is that Germany, like the United States, had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the mass consumption and marketing of the 20th Century, as late as the 1990’s in the case of the former East Germany.  At the same time that citizens craved modern goods – TVs, washing machines, Rayon – their brains craved traditional tribalism and the comforts of old ways.

A professor once said that the Middle Ages did not end until the late 19th Century, or, perhaps, even as late as the 1950’s.  And some places still haven’t caught on.

I’ll buy that.  Because even as we love to jet to Las Vegas or curate our own TV schedules, we still get a kick out of making our own jams and jellies, listening to the blues, and pounding on our own drums.

And no advertising has been invented that can heal that split.

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A Burned-Out Society

Want to read some modern philosophy?  Of course you don’t.

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But if you feel compelled to, try some Byung-Chul Han.  If you want to read someone who is arguably the “hottest” thing in philosophy today AND writes simply (for a philosopher) AND writes really, really short bite-sized books, he’s the only game in town.

The downside is that Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born philosopher who writes philosophy in his second language, German, which is then translated into English.  To me, this makes his pithy style rather robotic, disembodied and humorless.  Trust me, this is a good thing; it makes him far more readable than philosophers who are pressing to impress.

To do the impossible, I’m going to try to summarize his books in the most concise possible way.  This does not do them justice.  But it sure makes my life – and yours – easier.

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THE BURNOUT SOCIETY is about how “achievement society creates depressives and losers”.  “In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside”.  Contemplation fades; multitasking is the norm.  We are reduced to bare survival amidst riches too vast to chose among.

THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY says that in our voluntary vomiting-forth of private data, information, and photos on social media we have lost all hope of finding the trail through the useless muck.  We leave our personal breadcrumbs scattered behind us, but they have gotten intermingled with the crumbs of other digital wanderers.  What is important?  What is the point?  The forest has been trampled beyond recognition.

THE AGONY OF EROS is Byung-Chul Han’s call to arms against the impersonal forces of what he calls “pornography” – far more than what we usually think the word means – and how “higher expectations . . . are responsible for the mounting disappointment experienced in contemporary society”.

We expect our lovers to be brain-dead perform-all-night porn stars at the same time we expect them to be world-class fantasists capable of touching our deepest nerves.  Can’t be done.  Can’t have both.  But porn isn’t just sex.

Porn is sport utility vehicles, information, strip highways, the internet, fast food, and if our burger is too dry, we are . . . depressed.  The objects and experiences are sold as erotic, sensual goods.  We soon discover that they are cold, dead steel, meat, and data.  And we have forgotten how to inject our love into them to make them come back to the life they had when we were younger.

Byung-Chul Han’s PSYCHO-POLITICS:  Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power

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attempts to convince us that we are self-Panopticons, achievement machines that patrol ourselves looking for any misdeeds – eating or drinking too much, failing to run five miles a day, not reading enough, not progressing in a career.  Henry Fords used to stand over us, as Foucault pointed out.  Ford’s thugs physically beat us if we showed up to work late.  Now we beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our personal goals or if we don’t achieve.  And not just in work, but in love and leisure.  Leisure and love ARE work now.

This is the Protestant work ethic on steroids.

We can’t just open one restaurant, we have to open a second, then a third, and so on.  We can’t just get a high school degree and flip burgers, we have to get a college degree and flip burgers, or a doctorate and tell people how to flip burgers.  If we get up at 5 am to meditate, we have to move on to the greater achievement of getting up at 4 am and running before we meditate.

And if we fail at constant acceleration, at constant achievement of new goals, we get anxious and depressed.

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Philosophers are never good at giving helpful hints.  None of Byung-Chul Han’s books end with a list of Top Ten Things To Do To Be Happy.

But his books are bestsellers – honest to God – in Germany, and are being internationally translated, because he helps us to see that it is not us.

It is not our fault.  It is society’s fault.

And the old truism that “we help to create the society that we live in” is no longer true.  Technology has gotten away from us.

According to Byung-Chul Han, being an “idiot” is the best we can do, and the most powerful we can be.  Idiots are outsiders, the politically unallied, the heretical, figures who resist by virtue of being surprisingly uninformed news-bite-wise, and mostly silent.

The idiot is like J. D. Salinger in his last decades:  silent and brimming with life, despite the death camps he witnessed.  An antenna beyond trifling Big Data.

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