“Duchamp Is Our Misfortune,” a comic strip by Art Spiegelman. From MetaMaus (Pantheon, 2011), and originally published in the New Yorker in 2002.
Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally, to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.
Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.
The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:
Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .
The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.
Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:
He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)
Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):
Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:
They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.
“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:
The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.
In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painful it is to wake up to these messages:
It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.
Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.
I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!
Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.
I 1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9
1 The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.
Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”
Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”
Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—
Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.
Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.
Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:
It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.
The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.
Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):
In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.
3 The Elect. The baddies.
4 Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.
Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.
A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:
The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.
6 If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.
The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
Pynchon’s phrasing also echoes William Bright’s 1866 hymn, “Once, Only Once, and Once for All,” which begins:
Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.
7 In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Seems like a Preterite Sermon.
8 Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.
9 Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?
Oh I think you know the answer.
A few paragraphs from Italo Calvino’s 1968 story “The Daughters of the Moon”:
That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.
At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.
The lunar procession zigzagged around uptown, then started down Broadway, and came quickly and silently to converge with the other procession, which was dragging its balloon giant along Fifth Avenue.
At Madison Square, one procession met the other; or, more precisely, the two became a single procession. The Satisfied Customer, perhaps owing to a collision with the moon’s jagged surface, deflated into a rubber rag. On the motorcycles now were the Dianas, pulling the moon with multicolored ribbons; or, rather, since the number of naked women had at least doubled, the female motorcyclists must have thrown away their uniforms and kepis. A similar transformation had overtaken the motorcycles and the cars in the parade. You could no longer tell which were the old cars and which were the new: the twisted wheels, the rusty fenders were mixed together with bodywork as shiny as a mirror and paint that gleamed like enamel.
Read “The Daughters of the Moon” in full at The New Yorker (translation by Martin McLaughlin) (or have novelist Robert Coover read it to you, also via The New Yorker).
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding