Death is in the news, but refuses to give any answers. This is my take on recent terrorist attacks and the attention given to these tragic and senseless incidents on news outlets.
In the days following David Bowie’s death. I listened to the songs “Life on Mars?” and “The Bewlay Brothers” from the 1971 album Hunky Dory. The lyrics intrigued me.
I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax
Unbelievable … And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Shooting up pie in the sky
Surely there’s bit of self-portrait in this description. I found a link to a story written by Bowie for the Daily Mail, I went to buy shoes, I came back with Life on Mars, describing 10 favourite underrated songs. Both “Life on Mars?” and “Bewlay Brothers” make the list. About the latter song, Bowie writes:
“The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen – in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.”
I must write Merriam-Webster and suggest they add a new definition for palimpsest: layers of ghosts. The Hunky Dory album has its fair share of ghosts, along with a touch of Nietzsche, aliens, and tributes to other musicians. It’s this mixture of influences, delivered with glitter and angst, that gives Bowie’s work such a unique sense of modernity and other-worldliness.
Bowie helps transition us from the 60s world of peace, love and long hair to a Millennial world of sound and vision, mobile devices and remixed songs. Remixed everything. Among the countless Bowie tributes, I found this delightful illustration substituting Bowie for the Little Prince with the caption; “The man who fell to Earth is back amongst the stars. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Illustration/caption by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.”
The musician starts the conversation and fans keep it going. On a recent CBC News story, we’re told that Canadian DJ Skratch Bastid’s remix of Bowie’s song, “Let’s Dance” has become a Facebook meme with over 8 million views in five days.
When I think of mash-ups and Bowie, his cut-up writing method comes to mind. Taking his cue from William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Bowie used scissors and pen to spark new thoughts. I ask myself, what would a mash-up of Bowie lyrics look like? Let’s give it a try:
It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair (Life on Mars)
He lays her down, he frowns
“Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I
still too young?” (Young Americans)
“You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” (Rebel Rebel)
“Are you OK?
You’ve been shot in the head
And I’m holding your brains” (Seven Years in Tibet)
I’m looking for a vehicle, I’m looking for a ride
I’m looking for a party, I’m looking for a side. (Candidate)
He says he’s a beautician and sells you nutrition and keeps all your dead hair for making up underwear. (Jean Genie)
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear (Space Oddity)
So I’ll break up my room and yawn and run to the centre of things. (Sweet Thing)
News guy wept when he told us Earth was really dying. (Five Years)
“I’ll make you a deal like any other candidate.” (Candidate)
Seems you’re trying not to lose
Since I’m not supposed to win. (Win)
Oh no love! you’re not alone
You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair (Rock n roll suicide)
every chance that I take
I take it on the road… (Always Crashing in the Same Car)
I’ve lived all over the world
I’ve left every place. (Be My Wife)
You will be like your dreams tonight. (Joe the Lion)
I’m the space invader. (Moorage Daydream)
(Turn and face the strange) (Changes)
Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted
It’s a street with a deal, and a taste
It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you … (Sweet Thing reprise)
Multiple conversations. The search for experience. Exhibitionist finds relief in theatre, masks. The future looks bleak. Experience is filtered through news, media, entertainment. Distrust politicians. Rock ‘n roll is a collective experience. Fame is a trap. Keep dreaming. Space aliens. Nothing is permanent. Embrace change.
My final thought on Bowie: he doesn’t just change for the sake of change. He grows. He develops, he educates himself by traveling, working with gifted people, stretching himself through relationships, marriages, films, families. He stretches himself by renouncing a popular path for an uncertain path. He teaches us all how to become an alien and thrive.
Thanks Bowie, it’s been a blast.
Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a visionary ecologist, farmer and author. His pursuit of a balanced life within a healthy productive environment was carried out on a small scale, but with an originality and defiance of accepted wisdom that has inspired others around the world. “The ultimate goal of farming,” Mr. Fukuoka says, “is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” (One Straw Revolution, p. xiv)
Fukuoka began his career as a scientist based in Yokohama working for the Japanese government. He researched ways of combatting diseases in valuable agricultural crops. He was happy and successful. Then, while still a young man, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. During his recovery, he had a spiritual awakening, which led him to question everything he had previously been taught. He scoured the countryside in search of traditional farms, asking about farming methods before the arrival of modern chemicals and large machinery. Could it be that the technology used in industrial farming was creating more problems than it solved? Were the designers of ever-more powerful fertilizers, pesticides and genetically-modified crops moving in the wrong direction? Was there an alternative path that would not be so disruptive of native eco-systems?
Fukuoka resigned his government position to become a farmer, moving back to his father’s farm on the southern island of Shikoku to take care of a hillside orchard. Here Fukuoka applied traditional non-invasive approaches to growing fruit and rice. News of his unusual methods spread and visitors began arriving at his farm, many of whom became volunteer workers. Teaching these young recruits led Fukuoka to jot down his ideas. The resulting book, One Straw Revolution, published in 1975, was an astonishing statement of a creed of simplicity and adherence to natural ways.
In his preface to the English language edition that appeared in 1978, poet and activist Wendell Berry comments: “Mr. Fukuoka has understood that we cannot isolate one aspect of life from another. When we change the way we grow our food, we change our food, we change society, we change our values. And so this book is about paying attention to relationships, to causes and effects, and it is about being responsible for what one knows.” (p. xii)
Here is a sampling from the book. I start with Fukuoka’s contrast of his own traditional farm with that of a modernized neighbouring farm.
“Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced rice field ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through the area, leaving the crops in these fields unaffected.
“And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The soil has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields, wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields, which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years, have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation.”
Fukuoka goes on to outline the core ideas that differentiate his approach from large commercial practices. He calls these the “four principles of natural farming.”
“The first is no cultivation, that is, no plowing or turning of the soil. For centuries, farmers assumed that plowing is essential for growing crops. However, non-cultivation is fundamental to natural farming. The earth cultivates itself naturally be means of the penetration of plant roots and the activities of micro-organisms, small animals and earthworms. The second is no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost. People interfere with nature, and, try as they may, they cannot heal the resulting wounds. The third is no weeding by tillage or herbicide. Weeds play their part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community. As a fundamental principle, weeds should be controlled, not eliminated. Straw mulch, a ground cover of white clover interplanted with the crops and temporary flooding provide effective weed control in my fields. The fourth is no dependence on chemicals. From the time that weak plants developed as a result of such unnatural practices as plowing and fertilizing, disease and insect imbalance became a great problem in agriculture. Nature, left alone, is in perfect balance.” (p. 33-34)
In the middle of his book, Fukuoka discusses the need for rethinking long-standing harmful practices. He points out that once a practice becomes habitual, no matter how ineffective it proves, people have trouble changing course because their minds have grasped hold of a fixed idea that seems all but unshakable.
“To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease.” (p. 82)
“When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do … Until the modern faith in big technological solutions can be overturned, pollution will only get worse.” (p. 84)
In the final section to his book, Fukuoka turns his attention to the subject of food. He argues that people’s diets are unhealthy because they are based on ill-conceived notions of what is and isn’t tasty. The prejudice against simple natural foods is an acquired cultural absurdity.
“A natural person can achieve right diet because his instinct is in proper working order. He is satisfied with simple food; it is nutritious, tastes good , and is useful daily medicine.Food and the human spirit are united. ” (p.136)
“Modern people have lost their clear instinct … They go out seeking a variety of flavours. Their diet becomes disordered; the gap between likes and dislikes widens, and their instincts become more and more bewildered. At this point people begin to apply strong seasoning to their food and to use elaborate cooking techniques, further deepening the confusion. Food and the human spirit have become estranged.” (p. 136)
“People nowadays eat with their minds, not with their bodies … Foods taste good to a person not necessarily because they have nature’s subtle flavours and are nourishing to the body, but because his taste has been conditioned to the idea that they taste good.” (p. 137)
Even by the standards of most conscientious organic farmers, Fukuoka’s methods often appear radical. Critics view his ideas as impractical or unsuited for Western climates and conditions. Fukuoka counters that his methods are not quick easy fixes. Patience and experimentation are required. What Fukuoka has achieved is help spark a debate about food and land use, a debate which gains in relevance as concerns mount over the health risks of GMOs, pesticides and land depletion. Fukuoka is now regarded as a pioneer of the permaculture movement. His vision of farming as a seeking of balance in a larger ecosystem offers a healthy alternative to the destructive practices that are currently employed.
I had this conversation with a young person the other day.
Doug: Why not? I grew it myself in my own garden.
Doug: I’ll wash it off.
Doug: That’s the way things grow. Soil, water, sunlight. Fertilized by you know what.
Doug: Well, Precious, where does your food come from?
Young Person: You really want to know? I can’t believe this! It’s like I’m talking to a child. See this. (points to a bag of cookies) It’s clean. No dirt! And it tastes good. It has a brand name everyone’s heard of so you know that it’s safe.
Our conversation breaks off here. We go our separate ways, convinced the other is a lost cause. The young person believes food grows in plastic bags with fancy labels, protected by factory protocols from such harmful things as the outdoors and natural elements. For my part, I think such humble things as soil, water and sunlight may be essential for the growth of food. Furthermore I believe it’s unwise to despise the very things that are essential to us.
My conversation with the young person is complicated by two additional factors: religion and psychology. Sociologist Mary Douglas tells us that eating habits reflect religious values. If you’re an ecologist, then industrial farming, genetically modified food and fast food are abhorrent evils. If you worship technology, pop culture and mass media, then you’re likely to scoff at traditional farming methods, organic food, sit-down meals and eating with your family. Fast food goes hand in hand with the belief that what God wants for you is to make your life as easy and convenient as possible, especially in the short term. People’s accelerated eating habits mirror a revolution in people’s religious thinking. We no longer “reap what we sow.” Instead “we deserve a break today.”
How can two sides have a conversation when each side feels their religious values and indeed their very sanity is being called into question? Freud coined a phrase “reality testing,” which he claimed each of us do all the time. We are constantly testing ideas and images with everyday experience. This is not to say we don’t fool ourselves and make up crazy justifications for foolish actions. You might say every act and exchange is a kind of test, but we fudge the results. We cheat, misread and ignore the results of our tests. Freud believed that the perpetual cheaters developed nervous disorders. He believed this could happen to cultures and to societies as well as to individuals.
Is there any way we can reality-test our food, religion, sanity debate? One test could be: try growing your own food. Try growing food outdoors in soil; try growing food indoors without soil, water or sun. We can give a name to this test: self-reliance. Why is self-reliance important? It’s an aid to survival. It develops character and self-confidence. It provides an individual with a solid foundation from which to grow. The opposite of self-reliance is dependence on others. In a specialized world, we all come to depend upon the services of others. But with this dependence, we learn to be critical, to compare services and costs. We share notes with our friends and join networks. We are vigilant to avoid scams and traps. When we receive bad service, we protest and boycott. In short, we become wary and diligent shoppers. This is another form of reality-testing.
In a complex world, we need both forms. We need to do things for ourselves and when it’s not practical to do this, we need to join networks that engage in critical evaluation. The young person and myself, we may not always agree on our food, but I hope that we can agree that helplessness, isolation and uncritical thinking are harmful ways of being. When we agree on the importance of productive and active reality-testing then we can start to join together and build a truly healthy community.
Advertising is the great evil, the great annoyance, the less-than-truthful spin of which everyone despairs. Yet adversing may serve as the very foundation of modern media as revenue from ads finance our newspapers, radio, television, Internet and social media. In this blog, I look at 5 theories applied to advertising and consider how the different approaches intersect.
1. The hidden message. The idea that ads mislead and unconsciously manipulate the viewer was advanced by sociologist Vance Packard in his 1957 best-seller, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard argued that advertising is dangerous because it uses psychology to create emotionally-loaded hidden messages. Because the message is hidden, the viewer’s critical resistance is evaded and minimized.
The Cornflakes ad at left suggests this product promotes not just good physical health, but also good mental health. It is a classic instance of “a doctor uses this product, it must be healthy” approach. It also demonstrates how psycho-analysis has entered the mainstream and become something of a joke. The joke is that we are all split personalities, wavering between lazy hedonism and disciplined self-improvement. Happily, cornflakes serve both interests: they are a candy-like treat and they are also a form of breakfast.
2. Shifting loyalties. Ads play upon and reflect conflicted, ever-changing loyalties. While ads try to cultivate a strong sense of brand loyalty, ads also urge consumers to change loyalties, to try something new, to disavow an old loyalty in favour of a new product.
In her study, Advertising in the 60s, (Praeger, 2001), media historian Hazel W. Warlaumont argues that ads changed from the 1950s to the 60s. The look and message of many ads appeared to embrace the anti-authoritarian hippie counter-culture, all the while being designed and distributed by giant corporations promoting the status quo and capitalist interests. Warlaumont argues that advertisers co-opted the anti-establishment’s “ideals, leaders, icons and goals into the existing structure.” (p. 138)
Warlaumont’s argument inverts the concept of détournement, developed by activist Guy Debord and others in the 1960s. Debord was leader of the radical collective, Situationist International and author of The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. Détournement refers to an artist’s reuse of familiar images, by shifting contexts to create a new work with a different often contrary message. Détournement has an element of ‘anti-art’ using blatant theft and sabotage of existing elements, turning the original message against itself. The idea leads to the later strategy of culture jamming. Both strategies are conceived as a method of resistance to the grosser elements of Capitalist culture and raise awareness of corporate ploys and their social effects.
An example of an ad using elements of détournement is the print ad below sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation. The “turned” element here is the portrayal of a toxic industrial can as both a kind of giant urban monument and as the polluted life water of the city. The image redirects the pride we might take in the magnitude of our industrial complexes into a fear that we are poisoning the very environments that are essential to our existence.
Changing the intent of public messages is a two-way street however, practiced by advertisers just as readily as by activists and artists. Détournement gives way to recuperation. Originally subversive works and ideas are themselves appropriated by mainstream media. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze speaks of deterritorialization and reterritorialization to describe this ongoing war of counter-ideologies.
These image wars reflect shifts in loyalties and conflicted loyalties. For instance, the Beatles were leaders of the 60s counterculture, with their experiments with drugs, their personal song lyrics, anti-war attitudes and openness to Eastern philosophy and religion. However the Beatles also invented the music video and pioneered the use of cross-branding music, films and related products, as the ad above demonstrates.
3. The mediation of reality. Ads only work in conjunction with other media and environments in which they are embedded and cannot be understood apart from other media and environemnts. Marshal McLuhan noted that it is not the content of ads that makes them so persuasive. Rather it is the way they use media to fuse together a world of actions and a world of fictions. McLuhan writes: “When the movies came, the entire pattern of American life went on the screen as a non-stop ad. Whatever any actor or actress wore or used or ate was such an ad as had never been dreamed of … The result was that all ads in magazines and the press had to look like scenes from movies.” (Understanding Media, 1964, p. 252) InThe Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, 1962, historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes how news and advertising have blended together to such an extent in popular media that they create an impression in which truthful reporting becomes ambiguous and the difference between a serious newsworthy event and a fabricated news event, such as a publicity stunt, is indistinguishable. But Boorstin does more than just describe how ads disguise themselves as news. He sketches the origins of celebrity culture, as fame and overblown public exposure become coveted ideals not just among a small set of people but among the general population of image and media consumers. However the ability to generate publicity and controversy, to saturate and bombard, to get people noticing, talking, arguing is something products do as well as people. We have celebrity brands. Advertising thrives in a celebrity culture and is integral part of it.
In the ad for Guess shown above, Paris Hilton steps off a helicopter accompanied by a male lover/ servant rolled into one. She exudes an air of wealth and glamour, playing her private life out in the public eye as heiress, model and reality TV star. The ad looks like a paparazzi photo, blurring boundaries between reality and fantasy.
McLuhan explains our addiction to media by pointing out that media extends and heightens sensory responses. For example, why do we like to read press stories of events we’ve already witnessed? McLuhan answers: “The press repeats the excitement we have in using our wits, and by using our wits we can translate the outer world into the fabric of our own beings. This excitement of translation explains why people quite naturally wish to use their senses all the time. Those external extensions of sense and faculty that we call media we use as constantly as we do our eyes and ears, and from the same motives. On the other hand, the book-oriented man considers the non-stop use of media debased; it is unfamiliar to him in the book-world.” (p. 229) Media adds an extra level of mediated experience to things we already know, giving to reality a sense of hyper-reality. Ads thrive in this land of extra-mediated hyper-reality.
4. The magic of meaning. Ads don’t just sell products but infuse those products with meaning for the people who use them. In this way, ads influence our values and underlying beliefs. Carlyle put it rather bluntly in the 19th century: “The quack has become God.” In his seminal essay, ‘The Magic System‘ (1962), cultural theorist Raymong Williams argues that advertising “has passed the frontier of the selling of goods and services and has become involved with the teaching of social and personal values; it is also rapidly entering the world of politics. Advertising is also, in a sense, the official art of modern capitalist society: it is what ‘we’ put up in ‘our’ streets … and it commands the services of perhaps the largest organized body of writers and artists, with their attendant managers and advisers, in the whole society.” Williams goes on to remark that as a form of organized magic, advertising obscures the true nature of consumerism and its effects on public attitudes and social goals. Keeping the public away from discontented questions, advertising “is a true part of the culture of a confused society.”
The above ad uses many of the same features as the Paris Hilton ad for Guess, but the message is the opposite. The party girl in the helicopter was looking for adventure and excitement, indulging her own whims and revelling in the exposure and notoriety this indulgence brings to her. In the above ad, the celebrity rock star Bono and his wife Ali Hewson descend from the sky like angels into a pristine African wilderness, which their activities will be protecting. Bono uses corporate sponsor Louis Vuitton, working together with his own company Edun, to produce hand-bags made in Africa. Proceeds from sales are reinvested in the local economy. The ad functions as a fundraiser, but also suggests Bono and wife have come to Africa for other reasons. Returning to the roots of humankind for inspiration, it is the ultimate trip. The ad plays on ideas of youth, travel and self-discovery, mixed in with an altruistic concern for other people and other places.
James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture, 1996, writes: “Mid-twentieth-century American culture is often criticized for being too materialistic…we are not too materialistic. We are not materialistic enough. If we craved objects and knew what they meant, there would be no need to add meaning through advertising … What is clear is that most things in and of themselves do not mean enough. In fact, what we crave may not be objects at all but their meaning. For whatever else advertising does, one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion.” (p. 12)
5. Imitative desire. Ads play upon people’s tendency to desire what others desire. French theorist René Girard argued that we often desire to become the other (when the other is powerful, famous or beautiful). However it is impossible to become another person. This impossibility keeps our desire alive. Girard’s ideas are explained in depth in Kathleen M. Vandenberg’s
“Sociological Propaganda”. Vandenberg argues that ads function as interactive rituals rather than as one-way messages. The essence of a ritual is that people place themselves in communities through imaginative projection toward others.
The ad for a bookstore above, suggests that books function as escapes from ourselves as we take on the disguises of others, stepping into imaginary worlds. Ads serve a similar function. We see a product. Someone in the ad wants the product. We want the product because it is desired by others. This is René Girard’s idea that our desires are always mediated. Ads cannot affect us unless we participate in the social ritual, the imitative act, that they invite us to.
I have outlined 5 ideas concerning advertising. It is remarkable how these ideas appeared within ten years of one another, the span from sociologist Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. Each viewpoint acknowledges that ads reflect, but also distort certain aspects of our lives. Commentators such as Packard and Barthes argue that ads need to be critiqued to reveal hidden messages, hidden ideologies. Raymond Williams suggests that ads are an effective form of propaganda because they play on our patterns of social bonding and our loyalty to symbols. Winning this loyalty involves the shaping of opinions and beliefs. Kathleen M. Vandenberg notes how advertising “exhibits many of the characteristics of propaganda; chief among these characteristics is a speaker’s reliance on self-interest (rather than the good of the audience), anonymity (or the suppression of ethos), the use of saturation or repetition of messages (rather than the delivery of formal speeches), and the employment of emotional appeals (rather than logical ones). Advertising meets these criteria insofar as it is, in the words of Twitchell, “ubiquitous, anonymous, syncretic, symbiotic, profane, and, especially, magical.”
Historian Daniel Boorstin, author of The Image: A Guide to the Pseudo-event in America, 1962, suggests that the critique of ads leads to controversy, the key ingredient of celebrity culture. Critique does nothing to demystify a product, rather just the opposite. Debord suggests that in an ideological war all the rules of rational debate go out the window. If you want to oppose the message of an ad or the corporate aims which it promotes, then you must counter-attack, manipulating language, image and context to turn the message against itself. McLuhan’s approach to ads is to consider them an inseparable part of media and mass communication, part of an on-going technological revolution. Like every other message, ads obey the four laws of media. Applying McLuhan’s laws to ads, one could say: ads enhance our senses, ads make other types of messages obsolete, ads retrieve overlooked areas of culture from the past, ads lead to unexpected side effects which trigger reversals opposing the original initiative. Turning from technology to religion, Girard suggests we should not speak of reforming ads, as much as of reforming ourselves. Humans are great imitators and mimics, in need of a sense of belonging and a sense of meaning. But when we try to fill our deepest needs by imitation alone, we get in trouble.
I personally believe that all of the above positions have merit. The purpose of a critique is not to combat evils, but to enhance understanding and clarify values, to lessen the distance between what we’re doing and what we’d like to do. For those who prefer taking more direct actions, Debord’s strategy of détournement may be more useful. It recognizes advertising is an infinitely adaptable tool that can serve the revolution as well as the corporation. McLuhan helpfully reminds us not to focus exclusively on messages, but to also study the media and environments in which messages are conveyed. We need to keep reinventing media and reconfiguring our social networks. McLuhan believed electronic and digital media were making culture more participatory and interactive. However the more we interact, the more we tend to imitate others. This is why I conclude on Girard’s notion that we need to take responsibility for our acts of imitation.
The Muse inspires; Cubism sees from many angles. This is a blog about inspiring figures and works encountered in the fields of art, film and literature. I reflect on how these figures influence my own creations as an artist, teacher and filmmaker.
The image above is the cover of an exhibition catalogue designed by Paul Rand. Based on Klee’s painting, Seneico, 1922, the large head’s facial features have been abstracted and replaced with the artist’s name. The thin letters give each checkered rectangle an added focus and play with the rhythm of alternating dark and light. Rand perfectly captures how Klee has adopted the difficult formal language of cubism and imbued it with charm and graphic vitality.