I have not read Douglas Coupland’s novel JPod, (nor do I expect I ever shall), but I know how it begins:
[…]four pages of large-font slogans and computer programming fragments; two pages of small-font, un-indented, free-associated sentences such as "Put the word 'implement' in your resume and you won't get phoned back"; two pages of several thousand tiny dollar signs; a page of the words "ramen noodles" repeated 364 times (52 weeks times 7 days, presumably); and a page containing only the words "click here".
So said Patrick Ness in the Guardian Review on Saturday. Mark Lawson had said a similar thing on Front Row the week before. I know this book, and yet don’t know it. Things pervade, which I imagine is the point of the book beginning in this way; it explores that pervasiveness of words, of information, of advertising to some extent; though not exclusively this. Coupland is widely credited for inventing the term ‘Generation X’ in his novel of that name. He didn’t, but people know this ‘fact’ for the same reasons of pervasiveness, the ubiquitous spread of ideas simply by wont of their being mentioned. We ingest information continually from a variety of sources, and the majority of this information is fragmentary, absurd, irrelevant. You are reading this for starters, and heaven knows why you are doing that.
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“My days[…]” wrote Virginia Woolf “[contain] a large proportion of cotton wool, this non-being”, the time between the moments that are important, consequential, felt; and these moments are like those words we take in between each that spurs thought or feeling. This cotton wool of words (this cotton woolf), are the street signs, the metaphorical sauce bottles, the imagined backs of matchboxes, cereal packets and sugar sachets which transmit the history of America or the means of engineering sky rockets from household materials, and of course these fragments of information are not unimportant, it is merely that their transmission is unorthodox. The fact that I learned the date of the Wright Brothers’ first flight from the back of a sachet of brown sugar whilst sitting in Staff House at university does not negate the usefulness of this knowledge. (It was December 17th 1903).
And yet the sugar sachet itself is unquestionably ephemeral, it is cotton wool, the cup of coffee unimportant in the large scheme of the cosmos, the companions with which the beverage was drunk, now forgotten. (I surmise that they were three fellow Filter^ editors, but truthfully it is only the sugar sachet that I remember. Sorry guys.) In the same year I read countless novels, plays, collections of poetry. Some of which I now cannot remember the content of. It is the inconsequential item that is remembered.
Coupland's disruption of his novel with advertising with such ephemera is hardly new of course. Does it differ very much from any of the following examples:
Have a finger in the pie. Women too. Curiosity. Pillar of salt, Wouldn't have it of course because he didn't think of it himself first. Or the inkbottle I suggested with a false stain of black celluloid. His ideas for ads like Plumtree's potted under the obituaries, cold meat department. You can't lick 'em. What? Our envelopes. Hello, Jones, where are you going? Can't stop, Robinson, I am hastening to purchase the only reliable inkeraser Kansell, sold by Hely's Ltd, 85 Dame Street. Well out of that ruck I am. Devil of a job it was collecting accounts of those convents.
James Joyce, Ulysses (1921)
Suddenly Mrs. Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! making letters in the sky! Every one looked up.
Dropping dead down the aeroplane soared straight up, curved in a loop, raced, sank, rose, and whatever it did, wherever it went, out fluttered behind it a thick ruffled bar of white smoke which curled and wreathed upon the sky in letters. But what letters? A C was it? an E, then an L? Only for a moment did they lie still; then they moved and melted and were rubbed out up in the sky, and the aeroplane shot further away and again, in a fresh space of sky, began writing a K, an E, a Y perhaps?
“Glaxo,” said Mrs. Coates in a strained, awe-stricken voice, gazing straight up, and her baby, lying stiff and white in her arms, gazed straight up.
“Kreemo,” murmured Mrs. Bletchley, like a sleep-walker. With his hat held out perfectly still in his hand, Mr. Bowley gazed straight up. All down the Mall people were standing and looking up into the sky. As they looked the whole world became perfectly silent, and a flight of gulls crossed the sky, first one gull leading, then another, and in this extraordinary silence and peace, in this pallor, in this purity, bells struck eleven times, the sound fading up there among the gulls.
The aeroplane turned and raced and swooped exactly where it liked, swiftly, freely, like a skater—
“That’s an E,” said Mrs. Bletchley—or a dancer—
“It’s toffee,” murmured Mr. Bowley—
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
His eyes refocused themselves upon the posters opposite. He had his private reasons for hating them. Mechanically he re-read their slogans. ‘Kangaroo Burgundy—the wine for Britons.’ ‘Asthma was choking her!’ ‘Q.T. Sauce Keeps Hubby Smiling.’ ‘Hike all day on a Slab of Vitamalt!’ ‘Curve Cut—the Smoke for Outdoor Men.’ ‘Kiddies clamour for their Breakfast Crisps.’ ‘Corner Table enjoys his meal with Bovex.’
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
The first and last of these examples concern men working (or not) in advertising, but in the second the appearance of a plane bearing a banner for toffee, affects the lives of everyday people sitting in a park. In each, advertising acts as an interruption. Bloom's thoughts in the first are halted by each memory of the content of a past advertisement he has worked on, and the adverts themselves; Plumtree's Potted Cold Meat Department, interrupt the list of the dead in the obituaries in the newspaper. In Mrs Dalloway, the appearance of the plane is mistaken by the visionary Septimus to be a message from God, everyone in the park stops what they are doing to try and make out the ethereal words, and Gordon Comstock in Orwell's novel ceases the composition of his poem in order to stare with resentment at the advertisements opposite his shop.
Selection of Aprons and Tabards
The advertisement and ephemeral billet upset the progress of the novel. And it became quite the obsession of many twentieth century novelists. These are merely three examples from a vast list, and I would argue the majority of these follow the same lines of argument that Orwell put forward: Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket. The ephemeral advertisement is the enemy of literature. Is that what we are to believe? In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Comstock must abandon his dreams of being a poet in order to pen copy for The Queen of Sheba Toilet Requisites Co.
People are winningBig every day.
We have -LIVE- tableGames.
Over 60 games to choose from.
Why leave home for vegas style action?
Perhaps the horror stems from the fact that advertising copy is a writing designed not to last. The nightmare of the novelist: to be forgotten. But consider the benevolent advertisement, the Godly stare of Dr. TJ Eckleberg's billboard in the otherwise morally bankrupt landscape of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Woud we wish that undone? The idea put forward by a student in Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections that modern advertising is not exploiting the ideal of the family, but rather helping to promote its moral values. Or here in John Dos Passos' novel Manhattan Transfer:
The plank walls of the slip closed in, cracked as the ferry lurched against them; there was a rattling of chains, and Bud was pushed forward among the crowd through the ferryhouse. He walked between two coal wagons and out over a dusty expanse of street towards yellow streetcars. A trembling took hold of his knees. He thrust his hands deep in his pockets.
EAT on a lunchwagon down the block. He slid stiffly onto a revolving stool and looked for a long while at the pricelist.
“Fried eggs and a cup o coffee.”
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
Here the interruption, the word EAT painted on the side of a mobile restaurant is a salvation, it comes on only the second page of John Dos Passos’ novel written in 1925. On the previous page Bud Korpenning has been on a ferry arriving into Manhattan, on the same page as this he comes ashore: ‘A trembling took hold of his knees. He thrust his hands deep in his pockets.’
With retrospect we can presume that the ‘trembling’ is on account of Bud’s hunger, we might even deduce that he ‘thrust his hands deep in his pockets’ to feel for money, though equally as we read it for the first time it could be to ward against the cold, to close himself inwards against the vast exposure of the city. The intervention of the signage is our first signifier that hunger is the cause. The novel contracts at this point, the description becoming suddenly limited, focused only on that one word EAT, until Bud has duly been fed.
Soap creators like Agnes Nixon and Bill Bell credit Charles Dickens with most successfully developing techniques of attracting – and holding – a mass market. Like soaps, his novels incorporated a large (40+) cast of characters; multiple subplots inter-cut within each part issued installment…
But it is not just advertising that I wish to consider here, I feel it is something more general. What concerns me, I suppose is that way of knowing without knowing. That way of gaining information through the pervasive means that advertising uses, rather than the ideology of advertising itself. The fact that I have learned the date of the first heavier-than-air flight, has not sold me anything. The fact that I have acquired knowledge about the opening of Douglas Coupland’s latest novel has not made me want to buy the book. Neither of these things were solicited acquisitions. They are part of a generalized flow of information that interrupts, implants itself in us without our request for it.
A NEWS ITEM as casual as any comic’s throw-away line informed us that Lady Violet Bonham Carter is numbered among those distinguished women who are introducing Miss Marlene Dietrich during her season at the Café de Paris. Of course Liberals have little enough to do in the political field these days and there cannot be much harm in even their most esteemed members turning instead to such liberal arts practiced by Miss Dietrich.
But I do not wish to suggest that it is less important than the information that we actively seek out or request. Quite the opposite. Consider then, the inconsequential; the soap opera, the advertisement, the cotton wool, the Oscar Mayer™ Wienermobile, the lesser-known musical theatre of the 1960s. Consider the matter that does not matter. For something so transitory, I am afraid this has already taken some time. Sometimes I wake in the night, terrified at the thought that I might be the only man alive who does not know what Cialis actually is. Machines attempt to sell me this wonder product daily, hourly perhaps, though most may be netted by my spam filter. I presume that it is like Viagra, as the two seem to go hand in hand in the impossible poetry of the email. But what if it is not? What if it is something that I really actually need? By dismissing the inconsequential I may be condemning myself to a life without vital truths: the date of the invention of the telephone, the average life expectancy of the hammerhead shark, a cheap means of procuring an erection, the fact that a monk invented the fax, or the excitement drawn from a game of online poker played against man, or machine, or God.
Oh let us reconsider the throwaway before it is too late.
Soap time is the hour at which, within the relatively fixed schedule of a housewife’s working day, there occurs the passage through the looking glass of the TV screen into the realm of marvellous intensities that lies beyond.
I wish to look briefly at the 1963 musical She Loves Me. The piece is set in a European perfumery during the 1930s. On the whole it is not very good. Remarkably the piece had a revival in Britain in the mid 1990s with John Gordon Sinclair playing the lead, fresh from starring in the equally unremarkable television sitcom Nelson’s Column, about a newspaper journalist called Nelson, who had a column. Such things probably should not be remembered, but the point is that they are. The musical is a throwaway item, but is itself concerned with inconsequence, and is therefore deserving of our attention. Here, a scene set on the shop floor, three women make requests from the shop clerks for a variety of products. The score presents fragments of the characters speech, interrupting one another in their requests:
1st WOMAN: I would like to see a...
KODALY: ...face like yours...
2nd WOMAN: ...cracked...
SIPOS: ...but we carry...
1st WOMAN: Do you have a cream for...
2nd WOMAN: ...Cherry red...
3rd WOMAN: ...skin?
KODALY: Oh, I see what you mean!
GEORG: You will look enchanting...
2nd WOMAN: …dry…
3rd WOMAN: …lips...
KODALY: ...glamorous as Garbo...
KODALY: I would recommend a...
2nd WOMAN: On sale, did you say?
GEORG: Put a little lipstick...
KODALY: ...on your nose...
3rd WOMAN: Morning and evening.
1st WOMAN: And a little brush for...
2nd WOMAN: ...combing my...
It employs the same techniques that formed the modernist fixation with the advertisement. Here are transitory items: face creams, lipsticks, brushes, all is concerned with beauty, but their interruption of one another creates a distortion: Put a little lipstick / on your nose, is the lasting refrain of the song. As much as this is a satire of the falsity of cosmetics, it is also a celebration, and as such is perhaps Modernism’s undoing. The musical takes the heart of Joyce’s technique of taking the specific consumer item, and fragmenting the narrative with its mention, but we do not leave the theatre having undergone a Popean critique of fallacy and pulchritudinal distortion, but with a sense that beauty and fashion are light and frothy and nothing more, the distortion is not ugly, instead it is rather fun. Appearances are all that matter in this piece. The throwaway prevails.
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Someone related a story to me a while ago that they had heard that the linguistic theorist Randolph Quirk used to frequently tell at parties. I have subsequently learned that there is absolutely no truth in the story whatever, it is therefore an exceptionally throwaway piece of information, not warranting your concern at all, even more so than that bit just now on the 1963 musical She Loves Me. If I were you I’d have stopped reading a long time ago. I mean, don’t you people have jobs you should be doing? Sugar sachets you should be reading? Cialis to buy?
Anyway, this is roughly how it went: at parties Quirk used to frequently refer in conversation to a lecture given by Susan Sontag in which she suggested that the Oscar Meyer™ Wienermobile was without doubt the best example of postmodernism. The claim of this lecture was that the Wienermobile was no different from Claes Oldenburg’s entrance to the Chiat/Day Building only its fusion of pop-art iconography with the figurehead of modernity – the combustion engine, gave birth to an object of such profound satiric quality, that Sontag frequently found herself unable to sleep at night due to cold sweats induced by the thought of the machine. Its moulding was undoubtedly inspired by the streamlining of vehicles, it was at once the essence of speed, but the Oscar Meyer™ Wienermobile, was by no stretch of the imagination designed to move quickly. Though Sontag never gave this lecture, and though Quirk never suggested that she did, it is surprising how often Sontag turns up on the same page as the Wienermobile in searches on Google.
The idea is playful, yes, but it exposes several serious points. Why should we not think of the Wienermobile in this way? It has, like the musical She Loves Me, taken the very essence of modernism and made something of it. Merely because the Wienermobile is inconsequencial does not mean that it is not deserving of our attentions, does not mean that it does not have much to tell us about the modern age. Be it soap opera, be it cotton wool, be it the band flier glued unhappily against our morning bus stop. let us consider even these, for want of understanding better our world.
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