I was riding an N train to Astoria after work a few weeks ago and I observed something that I had thought was only urban legend. Two guys were on the train discussing, very loudly and very pointedly, their respective iPods. One guy was very obviously meant to be a stereotypical IT guy — long hair, heavy metal T-shirt, an aura of intense geekery. He was showing a guy who looked like a middle-manager yuppie type how to work the new features that were available on the new iPod, explaining at great length all these new features he should be able to access through iTunes. Normally I’m really good at ignoring people’s conversations on the subway, even when they are as annoying and irritating as this one, but this guys were stationed in such a way and talking in such a way that they were impossible to ignore. I noticed other people on the train noticing them too, and I realized that these guys, so obviously straight from central casting, had to be living advertisements, planted on the train to promote Apple, an insidious guerilla-marketing concept often rumored to take place by paranoid anti-corporate types (It gets indicted in the recent documentary The Corporation, which a compelling and overwhelmingly depressing investigation of the sociopathy of big buisness firms).
I always doubted such things occured because it seems so ineffcient from a cost standpoint, but what do I know? Here it is, a month later, and I still haven’t forgotten it (though in no way does it make me want to get an iPod. The smugness with which the brand is saturated repulses me totally). It was just so strange to have these product placements in a random moment in the movie of my life. At first I was amused, as if it made my whole day, as if it were a privilege, and only later was I a bit outraged. My life is not a movie, and I didn’t like being encouraged to feel as though it were, and as though someone else was in charge of scripting it. And their performance upstaged the public sphere and prevented any other kind of discourse from occuring within it. They turned public space into a theatre and turned me into an audience, a spectator, in the midst of my trying to live my life. It’s hard enough not to be a passive spectator by choice, with so much persuasive and compelling entertainment being generated for just that purpose, that I’d appreciate not having staged commercial spectacles thrust upon me. It starts to make you feel that all spontaneity is endangered, that everything you see is staged, as though you are living in The Truman Show, that Jim Carrey film where the protagonist unwittingly lived a life scripted by someone else, with walk-on product placements, and phony conflicts contrived in advance.
Remove one’s faith in spontaneity, and everyone will be awash in a thoroughgoing cynicism that makes all hope and enthusiasm seem naive, as it would eventually turn out that you’ve been duped. And with no hope, there’s no point in resisting, no point in lamenting the ad constuct that houses more and more of our personal lives.
On other subway rides, I noticed that l look at stranger’s faces the way I sometimes view ads, with a momentary curiosity and a muted, assured condescension, looking for what their angle is, what notion of themselves they are trying to pitch, trying to see what appeal they might have designed for me. Judith Williamson, in Decoding Advertisements, makes much of the way ads individuate us and interpolate us into ideology (to use a good Althusserism). They isolate you and make one a “subject,” that is a subject to outside forces who at the same time feels a total mastery over his own subjectivity and subjective point of view. Ads are never addressed to a group, even though many see them simultaneously; they are always designed to single you out and make you feel special, as though a great deal of trouble has been made for you alone to receive this message. This is one of the ways ads are most persuasive, whether or not we accept their overt message, we appreciate their reinforcing our notions of our individuality, and hence our superiority to the collective, to a social body, which is the great promise of capitalism, that it elevates the individual subject over the collective and thereby makes him more free. All of that is ideological, of course, and ads are one the more important material bases for that ideology, sustaining the fiction of our individual autonomy in the face of otherwise obvious contradictions and stabilizing the worldview in which we are accustomed to living.
So when I take in faces this way, like ads, it is as though this person on the train exists only to be seen by me in this moment (like the iPod shills). It’s an automatic, reflexive assumption. And following Althusser’s logic, their look reaffirms my sense of self, my sense of being a subject (and not an object — the other person is that). These people are advertisements to me for what it means to have a self (which denies them an autonomous selfhood of their own, or at least makes it exceedingly hard for me to remain cognizant of it). So if I look out at these faces looking for some sense of community, some shared sense of reality, I end up feeling more isolated and alone, because my apprehension, has been so systematically perverted by the miasmatic climate of ads. Really, other people constitute the most important ads I see everyday — the most pervasive, the ones I attend to the most, the ones selling the single-most crucial product in a consumer society, the ideology of the self.
Perhaps people seem so much like ads is because ads now make up the only universally acknowledged public discourse; ads are the only kind of communication now accepted in public space (obviously, since they are virtually everywhere), thus to register in public space, to participate in public society, one must be like an ad. Strangers feel prohibited from talking to each other, so they display themselves, as expressive objects, tapping into the most expressive language of contemporary consumer society (as Baudrillard argues in The System of Objects and elsewhere), that of commodities, by posing as one themselves.