Monday, June 09, 2008

the unanswerable

"Do you believe your own theory?

-No, Stephen said promptly."

the seventh chapter of Ulysses, set in the newspaper office finds a section of Dublin's intelligentsia discussing the perfection of a rhetoric independent of lowly particulars. The adman Leopold Bloom appears briefly to beg a favour and is sent packing. Mr Bloom brings a quiet dignity to an undignified day of scrabbling around after various errands. These events could be said to illustrate the prehistory of modern advertising, before its accession to logical, ethical and aesthetic preeminence. A new messiah for Ireland indeed.

One of Joyce's devices is an advertising style. As is well known, Ulysses makes few concessions to its audience in terms of intelligibility. I'd suggest that the implied receiver of this work is no longer a supposed other person, with particular involvements in events, rather it's as if the work is submitted to a purely abstract agency, mirroring the abstract style of advertising, or more precisely an imagined abstract agency reconstructible from advertising. Later, (in chapter nine) Ireland's real intellectuals will be satirised. One ought to ask: for whom? Or, who exactly is supposed to really get this bravura display of erudition and pseudoerudition?

We could say, rather preliminarily, that modernism denotes such works as are produced not for people but for an abstract agency of receivership, and that are stylistically sprung round this abstraction. Advertising produces works that evoke the same effect, by other means, since it's proved valuable to be able to show commodities abstacted or reified fom quotidian misery, not least that of their conditions of production. The trick is to appear to have channeled Abbadon, or whoever might be said to represent the impersonal voice of the world of commodities. In fact advertising seems to have perfected the stylistic innovations of modernism formerly applied to art: photomontage, juxtaposition of text and image, absurdism etc.

The most modern relations are impersonal relations. Rebecca West considered the aerial bombing of civillians in the second world war to be, in terms of form and content, an expression of the impersonal relations characteristic of modern industrialised society, and an unfocused resentment this society inculcates, according to her, among those it does not benefit. From a historical point of view this is doubtful, since civillians were first bombed from the air in colonial wars, and this argument that fascism really affranchised the disenfranchised of modern society, who continued to channel an attitude rooted in disenfranchisement - all this seems fairly illogical. The value of this argument is that it expresses clearly and concisely a real impression of these abstract, impersonal relations.

Rousseau's sandwichman pleads his own case: "Though the rain wets the earth/ I wear on my back/ The unanswerable advertisement/ of the broadsheet Éclair"

No comments: