Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Précis Posted for Allyn Benintendi -- Naomi Klein’s Patriarchy Gets Funky


Naomi Klein’s Patriarchy Gets Funky argues that the commercialization of advocacy has the ability to promote or undermine that which is being advocated. She poses a dilemma by questioning whether commercialization works to the benefit or the detriment of the advocate. Klein initiates a conversation that ultimately resolves itself by antagonizing corporations that use “brand identities” for market success. In the example given, Klein details her own experience with “identity politics;” the battle against issues of representation, or rather, misrepresentation and invisibility, which are “a loosely defined set of grievances mostly lodged against the media...” The purpose of Klein’s argument is to reveal that for the culture industries, “identity politics, as they were practiced in the nineties, weren’t a threat, they were a gold mine.” The warrant of the argument rests on understanding market influence in advocacy, and vice versa. Klein explores how corporations use youth movements for branding identities, and how this oppositely perpetuates that which sparked the want for change.
This argument is a two-sided coin. On one hand, the opening quote of the text, stated significantly by Jay Blotcher, an AIDS activist, “Let’s face it, when you're a story line on Friends, it’s hard to keep thinking you're radical.” This implies that with the benefit of market forces taking advantage of activism, the all too common invisibility of causes disappears. Therefore, a clear benefit of market influence on advocacy is promotion. And just maybe, markets are truly supportive of youth culture and progress.
However, Klein also questions, does the commercialization of advocacy lead to trivialization? Does commercialization detract from the point? Klein’s position is clear: “For many of the activists who had…believed that better media representation would make for a more just world, one thing had become abundantly clear: identity politics weren’t fighting the system…they were feeding it.” Klein successfully explores both points of view. Although she weighs both the advantages and disadvantages of market influence on advocacy, an explicit thesis can be derived: Klein argues that the relationship between corporations and advocates differs in authenticity, that advocacy is the genuine counterpart, while corporations merely reap the benefits fed to them by activism.
Klein assumes that market influences solely joined forces with activism as a selling point. “The backlash that identity politics inspired did a pretty good job of masking for us the fact that many of our demands for better representation were quickly accommodated by marketers, media makers and pop-culture producers alike — though perhaps not for the reasons we had hoped.”  Therefore, she also finds that market influence is ridden with “complicated motivations and stark inconsistencies,” all at the expense of the integrity of the cause.
Klein is an activist reaching a general audience to shed light on the ubiquitous nature of market influence on advocacy and cultural industries. Klein is attempting to educate the audience. As subjects of culture and participants in markets and culture, most can be considered a part of the intended audience. This audience is supposed to follow Klein as she explores both the benefits and drawbacks of market influence on advocacy, leading her readers to a conclusion none other than her own.

Precis Posted for Darren Zahne -- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction



In this essay Walter Benjamin presents a critique about a type of alienation caused by progressive forces of modernity and industrial systems during the rise of Fascism and Nazi rule in 1930s Europe. There was tension surrounding his life at all levels, so several factors were influential for this writing, such as political dynamics, personal struggles, and choosing to engage with propositions and arguments during a time of historical significance. With his theories of Art, Benjamin offers an account of how Capitalism and conventional material practices can shape particular modes of consciousness, as well as providing an analysis of alienation using ideals similar to those of Marxism; in the process, revealing possibilities of Post-Marxist aesthetics and a better understanding about the revolutionary politics of Art itself.
From the beginning of his essay Benjamin brings up the concept of how art can mirror history and contemporary social developments, of how time and art progress and we also develop intellect and better modes of perception to analyze oncoming changes. By stressing the interrelations between Art and advancing technological resources, he reveals to his political audience the premise that revolutionary demands can be made with a better understanding and suitable practice of the politics within Art. With his style of writing and choice of which issues to dwell further into, Benjamin also addresses personal conflicts with his protégé, who also happened to be his editor at the time. However, much of his work was only meant to emphasize how materially different peoples’ modes of consciousness could become as a result of interaction with the complexities of modern industrial networks.
Most interesting of all was Benjamin’s approach to this critique of alienation introducing concepts of an anti-fetishized commodity, which diverges from Marxist format somewhat, but also similar principles. By using the notion of the “aura,” as well as referring to the emergence of photography and film as sources of mechanical reproduction causing the alienation, I think made Benjamin’s arguments stronger. This essay grew in significance for me because of the politics of arts involved, and I have friends and family who are involved with music and creating pieces of artwork. I detect the feeling of authenticity when they finish a recording, a painting, or new sketches of fresh product designs. That I take it might be a type of the auratic feeling Benjamin was proposing, the ability to create something from free will and one’s own expertise, then to appreciate it in its beauty at that precise moment. I noticed the affect produced does stimulate certain areas of the consciousness, inducing a unique experience and a slight change in outlook as well.
On the other hand, I also realize the feelings of alienation, or other changes caused in artists’ perspectives when their work is intended for reproduction in the multitudes. Interaction with the processes of filming and media was also a major case study for Benjamin, recognizing shifts in peoples’ perceptions, sense of place, time, and other basic areas of consciousness. Due to mass communication, the influence and impression that the art piece conveyed in its sole presence, becomes diminished in some standards, but also more tremendous in others. The piece of art is no longer isolated, but can now be seen by an entire population through various media sources. This may seem to deplete its uniqueness, but it can now be used to shape a message, one that can be presented before the public instead of just a select few; for example, a political reference advocating revolution.
This essay produced by Benjamin contained some really complex dynamics, considering all the hardships and turmoil surrounding his personal life and social surroundings during that time. What I found consistent was his criticism against technology, and the belief in Art’s ability to liberalize our consciousness, rather than suffering the same bland characteristics we develop from certain modes of sociality. This is still expectant among our society today, with Capitalism and mechanical reproduction as efficient as ever. Others might see it differently, but I think this essay helps establish an awareness of transformations that industrial systems can still cause within our senses. I believe that awareness is vital to living a meaningful and individualistic existence, instead of just going along with the system.

Precis Posted for Pengcheng(Shawn) Liu- Society of the Spectacle



            We live in a world of increasing connectivity. From the global corporations which span across continents, to technology which allows us to see and talk to people half a world away, our all the cultures on earth are now interacting in ways that people not half a century ago would have imagined to be impossible. It seems absurd to think that in such a melting pot of culture and ideas, people could be more separated than ever before. However, according to Guy Debord in "The Society of the Spectacle", our spectacle based society is digging its self into an ever deepening hole of isolation.
            So what is the spectacle? According to Debord, "The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images"(4). One common misconception about the spectacle people have is that the spectacle is merely media we ingest on a day to day basis. However, it is far more than that. The spectacle is a relation. It's hidden in the brand persona companies develop to relate to their consumers. It can be found in the social media sites which have developed into the primary mode of relation between friends, peers, and businessmen. Of course, the first reaction most people have to this is, so what? These relations bring the world together. They are what allow ideas and cultures across continents to mix.
            The reality however, is that this is exactly how the spectacle wants to appear. "The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification...  it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation" (3). The spectacle appears to be an integral part of society. It promises wealth and unity. All of the technological world is abuzz about connecting through 'the cloud', bringing everything together onto the virtual world, able to exist everywhere in the form of images and binary data. Ordinary people can become extraordinary stars on facebook or twitter by accumulating hundreds of friends and followers. Everywhere, the spectacle promises unity and fame, leaving people desperate to get that extra like on facebook, all desperately hoping that their idea can become the next 'viral' thing. However, this connection is a mere shadow of physical connections that could be made in reality. When going virtual, it becomes extremely easy to make false personas, to present a mask to the rest of society. The anonymity of the web, which many wield with impunity to say things they would never dare to say in reality, is the cause of our own downfall. It only makes it easier for us to never expose our true selves to the world.
            Another way to approach the issue of separation through the spectacle is in the way we try to appear before society. "The first stage of the economy's domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having... The present stage is bringing about a general shift from  having into appearing"(17). Before the prominence of economy in society, life was all about being the hunter, the explorer, the one who performed epic deeds. With the ever growing importance of economy, it became enough to simply acquire rare things, luxurious items which could identify you as someone accomplished. Brands were symbols of power, by owning a brand, you automatically become someone successful and powerful despite not attaining the career or goals you set for yourself earlier in life. With social media, who we are is no longer an issue. We can create whatever appearance we want to others. Through technology, we now have a barrier between ourselves and other both of space and of time. It matters not how we truly feel because in a virtual conversation, we can spend minutes rather than seconds coming up with the perfect reply. We can edit our pictures to appear more beautiful, our status to appear more interesting. What matters is not how good of a friend we are, or how many good friends and meaningful conversations we have. The only thing that matters is the number of friends, likes, and followers that make us appear to be popular important people.
            Of course, the spectacular problem we face isn't just related to social media. This problem is found in all layers of society. "The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation... the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons of for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender 'lonely crowds'"(28). With modern technology, the process of production can be isolated and automated, removing the human aspect. As step by step of the process is automated, as improved transportation technologies allow individual parts to be manufactured on separate continents, commodities lose their human component. No longer can we go to a local butcher and see the butcher slice up a massive carcass. Instead we walk down the sterile frozen aisle with prepackaged meat, picking out food that was probably decimated by a cold unfeeling machine. Of course, in order to alleviate the feeling of separation, companies come up with branding. Instead of relating to a faceless organization composed of committees of businessmen deciding on marketing strategies, we get to see a cute little cartoon pig, a friendly average-joe consumer, or some other ridiculous mascot recommend the quality of the brand based on their own personal experience.
            According to Debord, "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle"(25). Though modern spectacle appear to bring us together, the connections we experience aren't as deep as the physical interactions in reality. "When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings - figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior"(18). Because all the media and relations in society appear to us as images, these images become our reality. We can now make do with skype calling a friend rather than meeting up at a cafe. Brand images are enough to replace the human behind production. Because these images are all we know, we accept them as our reality. But in the end, this reality is a mere figment, a shadowy relation that is the spectacle.

Precis Posted for Angela Grace Jiang: Saussure and Barthes on Semiotics and Bancroft Cafes



Roland Barthes commences Mythologies Today, the second half of his compiled book of essays, with the following epigraph: "What is a myth, today? I shall give at the outset a first, very simple answer, which is perfectly consistent with etymology: myth is a type of speech”. Barthes intentionally set aside for us (the audience) three lines of isolated text, along with a footnote that reads, "Innumerable other meanings of the word 'myth' can be cited against this. But I have tried to define things, not words”. This dichotomy of the epigraph and footnote perfectly exemplifies Barthes as a critical analyst, constantly defining and refuting as a way to heighten self-awareness.
Barthes devoted a large portion of his work to an explication on the basics of semiotics, originally developed by Ferdinand de Saussure. It is important to note that Barthes did not create the foundations of semiotics himself, nor did he coin the original terms in which he generously used throughout his writing. Mythologies, Today is crafted in the form of an educational lecture for his audience, in order for us to understand the “modern day myths” relayed in the first part of the book with a heightened perspective. He describes a tri-dimensional pattern that is omnipresent in the human experience: consisting of the signifier, the signified, and the sign.
The signifier is an object or image that is perceived through the human eye; it is the form that the object takes. The signified is the concept, often abstract, that the signifier expresses. The relation between image and concept is where meaning is derived; this relation constitutes as the sign. When one is introduced to these terms in the twenty-first century context, it is easy to question Saussure’s neological competence. Did Saussure not take into account that the ambiguous word “sign” carries with it connotations distinct to each idiosyncratic era? Why didn’t the father of semiology create a novel term for the sake of dissertation? Or at least choose a word that is less trafficked in daily discourse? The answer is that he didn’t need to. Saussure didn’t design a system in which we must disregard our prior knowledge of the word “sign” to understand semiotics; through rationalization, Saussure’s definition is proven to concur with today’s definition. In fact, the two actually amplify each other. Take a basic image that comes across as a modern day sign: a stoplight flashing green. In this situation, Barthes (and Saussure) would say that the signifier is the material form of the three bulbs often mounted above crossroads. The signified is the concept of go.  The modern day human that sees a flashing green light, which signifies go, will interpret the situation as a sign to accelerate his car forward. The semiotic definition of “sign” rationalizes its modern day connotation.
            Ferdinand de Saussure died in the early months of 1913, two and a half years before the birth of Roland Barthes. The French literary theorist seemed to pick up where the Swiss linguist left his final marks and expanded this newfound tri-dimensional pattern to another psychoanalytic level. Barthes created a dichotomy of systems. He grouped the signifier, signified, and sign as System 1, and coined it language-object. Barthes then went on to develop his own theory concerning the definition of myth in System 2 and coined it metalanguage (the second language in which one speaks about the first. At this point in the essay I’d like to imagine that Barthes consciously chose to have some fun with literary devices. He personified myth, entertaining sentences with “Myth sees” and “Myth wants to see”. By giving myth human characteristics, Barthes created a divine aura around System 2 that built upon System 1 but exceeded the first in sophistication and influence.  Barthes wrote, “But myth is a peculiar system, in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it: it is a second-order semiological”. The associative total of concept and image called “sign” in System 1 works as a signifier itself in the analysis of myth. On this greater plane, the signified is linked to more abstract, complex concepts. Barthes called the relation between this mythical form and concept “signification”.
Through the methodical construction of semiology, Barthes ultimately guides his audience to the epiphany that the majority of the modern day human experience operates at the mythological level he defined. The first half of Mythologies is comprised solely of a collection of modern day myths through the language of the two systems. I noticed that Barthes’ tone in these essays is surprisingly more casual and relatable compared to that of Myth, Today. Each story is presented on a strikingly specific, often witty object or situation in today’s materialistic world (e.g. soap detergents, toys, striptease) that grounds his writing to modern-day western culture. Barthes revealed in the preface of Mythologies that the essays were written in the span of two years under the sole purpose of exposing topics he found interesting in daily life through the mythological perspective.
What Barthes bestowed upon his audience in Mythologies, Today is the ability to understand and examine, through use of this second-order semiological language, how today’s bourgeois society asserts its values in daily life. Barthes also pointed out that everything could be a myth if it is brought to oral existence from a silent state. Mythology was described in lecture as the most ubiquitous form of critical thinking other than stand-up comedy. I take these clues as evidence that this prominent French literary theorist had an underlying aspiration in mind for us, his audience: that we employ his semiotic theory as a portal for bringing our own myths into oral existence; and in the process of doing so, become more critically aware individuals, less susceptible to the manipulative attacks of bourgeois ideology that permeates our generation’s materialistic, capitalistic culture. As a tribute to Roland Barthes’ implicit yet transcendent request, I will entertain a mythology of my own and its analytical dissection thereof.
A recent class lecture on the myth of Soap Powders and Detergent brought my attention to a fundamental reality concerning advertisement and business: the diversity of products oftentimes stems from the same source. This truth reminded me of a thought-provoking scenario I’ve recently witnessed.
Earlier this summer, I found myself in the position of “Account Executive” (aka hustling saleswoman) for an advertisement firm that specializes in connecting the college demographic on campus with local businesses in the Berkeley area, primarily through the use of coupon books. My job was to get in touch with owners of local cafes/food stops and persuade them to buy placement in the firm’s annual coupon book through a “sophisticated” sales pitch. One day, I noticed a peculiarity in the system. I was given the same contact number by three of Berkeley’s best-known cafes that line Bancroft Way: Café Milano, International House, and C’est Cafe. Exhuming the hallmarks of family style coffee shops, Berkeley students are found sliding into the homey seats and sipping on cappuccinos with ease. Unwilling to be left in ignorance, I took my investigation to the Internet and discovered that both cafes, along with 17 other shops in college towns across California, are run by the same Everyville corporation, Espresso Roma, under a multimillionaire named Sandy Boyd. For such a powerful man, he generates very little publicity, but this is what I found: Boyd staked his claim as a dominating force in the area’s coffee industry shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley himself in the 1980s.
According to Barthes, when metalanguage is correctly connected to the situation at hand, the myth of Bancroft coffee shops should sprout into existence. The signifier refers to the physical locations and aesthetics of the cafés. The signified denotes the liberal, anti-branding culture that Berkeley is known around the world for. However, the relation between the signifier and the signified do not align since the money from these Bancroft coffee shops all feed into the same source. Signification is only realized through ignorance of these truths. Thus, the Berkeley population essentially operates under a false mythology.
The mythology of Bancroft coffee shops held true at one time, but was ultimately spoiled by Sandy Boyd who decided to manipulate this myth. With his first-hand experience as a student, Boyd was accustomed to the general anti-branding culture that Berkeley took pride in. Customers wanted the quaint experience of sitting in a local shop grounded with the roots of the Bay. He knew that only cafes that appear independent could prosper so closely together. With this in mind, he started to change the essence of the Berkeley’s coffee shops but left the form in its traditional state. From the outside, these shops still seem to be run by small families, but it is merely a façade now, a remnant of a time gone by, when the everyday American could profitably own a small business. What seems at first glance to be a diverse selection of local businesses is actually a consumer trap, set up by Espresso Roma. By exploiting the anti-branding culture that Berkeley has come to embrace over the years, one man has made millions of dollars. But the blame can be put on all of us, for we accept at face value what is told to us.
The false mythology of Bancroft coffee shops is a result of willful ignorance that permeates the minds of students today. Today’s fast paced society leaves less and less time for us to focus on the essence of things and forces us to judge objects based only on the final form. In the midst of this march against time, we often overlook the mere foundations in which we pride ourselves in, and thus are susceptible to the manipulation of the signification. It is pertinent that we look to Saussure and Barthes to remain critically aware individuals in today’s capitalistic society.

Bring Your Reading Journals To Class

...because I expect you to take notes and transcribe quotes as we screen the film tomorrow. I will be pausing the film throughout -- annoying, I know! -- and we will be discussing it after the screening is over. Tomorrow's class is not missable just 'cause it's movie nite, trust. Btw, all the links for readings this week should now be live -- if you checked earlier and missed one, they she all be online now. See you soon, feel free to bring popcorn.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Precis 1 - No Logo

The multitudes inside me were completely at odds as I approached Naomi Klien’s, No Logo. As a current student of one of the best business schools in the world that boasts the “father of branding” (David Aaker) as one of its professor emeriti, I read No Logo with a hint of dismissiveness, scoffing at the idea of business without branding.

As a former business owner and a strategic marketing consultant, whose life aim is to work towards ending world hunger, I approached this text with hope. Hope that her take on branding might shed some light on the inequities inherent towards those affected by the system.

As a person deeply interested in the commoditization of products and their impacts on necessities like food, I approached the texts with skepticism, questioning the significance of branding in relation to the basic food staples.

Although, I found myself agreeing with her overarching concepts, reading the two chapters, I often found myself consistently disagreeing with her approach. The broad generalizations and nearly incorrect statements that she makes, issues that she tries to overlook, really made me question her credibility as an author.

I tried to dismiss as many concerns as I could writing them off as issues possibly arising from a lack of lacked the content from the other chapters. I tried to remember that given my pro business bias I most likely am not the ideal audience for this book. Had I been a part of the occupy movement or the anti-globalization movement, she would have found a more receptive audience to her approach.

Her basic proposal revolves around the idea questioning the need for and demonizing the idea of brands and branding. The way she explains the idea of branding, it seems like a relatively new concept that has emerged and become a self-feeding monster, where more and more is needed to maintain the status quo or to ward off competitors.

However, that couldn’t be anything from the truth. The oldest example of a brand that still exists to this day is the beer Stella Artois. Originally branded in 1366, Stella has continued to exist to this day. This is just an example of the need for and the longevity of a brand; there have been many brands that have come before and after that have long disappeared.

In fact the idea of branding your product can be traced back to the times when humans were starting to develop agriculture, raising livestock and developing gastronomy. People would brand their food, animals and cooked foods to differentiate themselves from everyone else.

Although it is true that the concept has been taken to absurd limits, it is that need to differentiate that is the key behind people and companies wanting to brand themselves and their concepts. In fact, one could argue that one of the most significant examples of that in our collective history is of the apostle Paul’s attempt to evangelize the teachings of Christ was his attempt to brand Christianity.

The most egregious problem that I find with her writing is the pigeonholing of a companies work. She claims, “Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing” and in one fell swoop, oversimplifies the magnitude of what a corporation does. She completely disregards the multitudes of other factors such as product development, research, quality management, distribution, etc.
All this is not to say that I disagree with her core points, I don’t disagree with her basic premise that branding as a concept has been applied nearly to near detrimental levels. The concept has been applied to that level and there are many issues with it, a reduction of competition, not enough consumer choice, a vicious cycle of one-upmanship in advertising and marketing.

I agree with all those points, I just do not agree with her cavalier approach of overlooking inconvenient issues to fit her needs.