In his 33 1/3 book about 20 Jazz Funk Greats, Drew Daniel uses this XTC album cover (designed by Hipgnosis) to make a good point about why it is insufficient to congratulate oneself for “seeing through” advertising (or capitalist ideology in general).
The Hipgnosis sleeve epitomizes a hip-capitalist stance, consoling us that the best way to disconnect from a meaningless system of false options is to purchase one more commodity that marks one as enlightened, “in on it” and hip to the inherent falsity of modern life … The cynical sense that “nothing matters,” far from arming the subject to better resist ideology, in fact works to ensure that in continues to run smoothly.
This is similar to a point that Žižek, drawing on early Sloterdijk, makes in The Sublime Object of Ideology (and probably lots of other places), when he talks of how ideology works because people are conscious of what they are being asked to believe, and not because they are somehow brainwashed. “Even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.” You become complicit precisely by being smart enough to resist.
Daniel argues Throbbing Gristle offer an alternative to the phony illusion of transcendence that seeing “the trick” of capitalism tempts us with. In their song “Convincing People,” he writes, “words become the raw material for a destructive process of transformation. The song is a factory that processes language into sound, taking aim at the principle means of communication and warping and distorting it in and out of recognition.”
That seems, if anything, even bleaker than cynicism, taking communication itself as the fatal flaw in humanity that makes capitalism and its coercive modes of persuasion inevitable. “Communicative capitalism” — turning social interaction and identity formation/representation into forms of exploitable labor and exchangeable commodities — reinforces the plausibility of this bleak outlook.
But there must be a better way out of the double binds that advertisements like the one above set up for us than the nihilistic “fatal strategy” of silence. There must be a way to not hear the call of such come-ons rather than to accept their multivalent flatteries.