Sublime Object of Erotic Unrest: The Politics of the Television Car Commercial
by Patrick Pritchett
Of all guilty
pleasures, television must be the most decadent. Its luminous space is pornographic;
it makes red-eyed, enrapt voyeurs of us all. But do we admit it? A recent
factoid seen - where else? on television - stated that 31% of Americans
liked to read in their leisure time, whereas only 23% watched television.
Ah, television, you sweet, sadistic brute - you ravish us, then make us
lie about how much we enjoyed it.
For the whole point of television is to make us "uneasy in our easy chairs." Not uneasy-squirmy, unless you happen to be watching "Survivor," "Temptation Island," or any one of the other bloviated reality shows. But uneasy in the sense of a constant, erotic flaying of the nerves, that feeling of a psychic itch for something that just won't go away, no matter how you try to relieve it. That something is desire. Or more precisely, the endless production of desire. If television viewers worldwide had a theme song, it would be "Can't Get No Satisfaction." Because that's the last thing our TV friend wants. Satisfaction is what destroys erotic tension, and make no mistake, television is the erotic space par excellence in America today. The fact that channel-surfing is not a register of discontent, but an actual way to watch television, only illuminates how enmeshed we are in its net, to say nothing of the fragmentary and insatiable character of desire itself.
All of which leads me to the most eroticized object on the airwaves - no, not Lynne Russell, but the automobile. Car commercials exert a particularly potent and fascinating brand of eroticism. Inside their extravagantly-lit scenarios exists a world of lavish fulfillment so perfect, so sublime, that it seems the very picture of some brave new American utopia. In the car commercial, the everyday is transformed into something glamorous and sleek. What could be more mesmerizing - or necessary - than speed and hand-tooled leather interiors? The very phrase hums with the promise of forbidden and delicious indulgences. Only, there ain't gonna be any. Not just yet anyway. Because the secret mechanism at the heart of television is to keep the audience in a state of perpetual longing. Don't mistake this prolonging of desire with any showbiz adage about leaving 'em wanting more. In that prudent model of entertainment, fulfillment arcs in a nicely rounded crest, and the desiring engine comes to rest with a satisfied "Ah." In TV land, however, desire is the city that never sleeps. And cars are the vehicles that promise to take you there. The car commercial offers what is perhaps the most compellingly seductive image ever crafted of what the poet Paul Valery once called "the conquest of ubiquity." The frontier, which once lay only west, now extends in every direction. All we need to do to reach that mythic space is step on the pedal and wipe that tear away. Or as the school kid in one ad sums it up - a devilish twinkle in his eye - "Zoom, zoom."
Zoom, zoom - the language of the id, all gleeful horsepower and metallic glitter, stripped down to the bare essentials. You might think that beaming up would be the preferred mode of fantasy travel (a process, oddly, that entails destroying you in one place and recreating you in another), but even if it were available, I'd bet that travel by car, whether luxury or SUV - or luxury SUV - would still remain America's valorized darling. The reason is simple: in a culture where ubiquity has been vanquished, the most conspicuous form of transportation will be the one that most visibly displays the sheer embodied pleasure of getting there, the sustained rapturous fusion between driver and machine and road in which arrival is never so important as style.
Why do we buy into this? Or put another way, what dream of longing are carmakers and advertisers so shrewdly tapping into? One answer is that the car commercial has hijacked the transcendental lingo of the 60s. That rhetoric of infinite self-improvement and fulfillment is itself an offshoot of Emerson's gospel of glorious self-reliance and Whitman's song of the open road. The evil genius of the television car ad is to have yoked a new lexicon of images to the idea of an empowerment in which spiritual values have taken on a distinctly materialistic sheen. It's a process the Hungarian Marxist thinker Georg Lukacs called reification and it's the most distinguishing feature of postmodern capitalism. Simply put, reification is that process whereby mere things - material objects - take on the characteristics of human beings, while humans become more and more like things. When a car ad reifies say, a Lexus, or a Ford Explorer, it's basically endowing a mass of metal with something like a soul. It's the ultimate special effect - with some expensive lighting, clever staging, and slick music, a rather ordinary object undergoes something like an apotheosis. The natural inclination of people to infer an entire network of relations from a few tenative suggestions does the rest. And that, of course, is really the story of the commodity fetish, that shiny new, new thing that fills us with lust, that offers the bizarre and enticing drama of a relationship between things, and which you and I simply cannot do without.
It's become commonplace to remark that we live in a society of spectators, as the French theorist Guy Debord called it. What's interesting about the new breed of car commercials is the twist they put on this by sounding the note of post-Cold War triumphalism over and over again. In the car commercial, we are snared by a subtle web of voyeurism that doesn't just seek to turn us into passive consumers, but actively promotes a creepy process of colonizing. This colonizing agenda plays itself out in two ways. On the one hand, we're bathed by image after image of massive SUVs rolling across wild, far-flung landscapes, or pulling into exotic ports of call. Now that the Evil Empire lies coughing in the dust, the world is America's oyster, which we with four-wheel drive shall open. On the other hand, it's us, the TV viewer, who are being colonized in the name of this specious new world order. The reassuring picture of beautiful Americans in enormous cars, whether in a North African bazaar, or on a Rocky Mountain ridgeline, lulls us into accepting without complaint or informed inquiry a world made safe for Ford and GM. Which, after all, was the real point of the Gulf War, NAFTA, and now, Bush's tax cut. The aesthetics of the car commercial projects an unreal sensation of eerie tranquillity which Wall Street analysts are fond of calling "consumer confidence" - remember that? It's hard not to believe that the real confidence they allude to is the kind that grows out of the ideological manufacturing of certain images, the sort of process Walter Benjamin had in mind when he wrote that fascism stages the politics of alienation as an aesthetic pleasure of the first-order.
Ultimately, what the car commercial promises to provide is nothing so crude as mere transportation. Getting from A to B is a mug's game. For after we have succumbed and bought our new car, we will still be haunted by those ghostly, nocturnal TV visions of the eternal car, the uber-auto - an image transformed into pure erotic halo - so that purchasing that dream is never enough, can never be enough. Like Edward G. Robinson's gangster in Little Caesar, we're left forlorn and bereft among our possessions, crying out for "more."
The car commercial, and not the car, the image, rather than the thing, has surreptitiously replaced the bald eagle as our national symbol. Unfettered soaring is so back in the day; now it's all about creature comfort and lumbering gigantism - a first-class cabin on the Titanic. (And just for the record, I drive a Plymouth Grand Voyager - and yes, I love it). Maybe it seems a little too much, too paranoid, too micro-nuanced, to impute such sinister dimensions to anything so innocuous, so seemingly un-ideological as a simple television ad. Besides, they're so beautiful to watch. Thirty seconds of ersatz joyriding in a Jeep Cherokee or Dodge Ram confer a sense of well-being and assurance. In a world of such surfeit, we're grateful for the opportunity to expand, if only just a little. After all, we count on the saving power of beauty to redeem us. It's a bit disconcerting to realize, then, that beauty can also corrupt us, that its lovely packaging might contain a psychic cancer. Never mind all that - in the liberating dystopic space of the car commercial we can leap over all anxiety, arriving at a spurious sense of self-completion so charged with dreamy gratification, that it out-narcissizes Narcissus. What could be more erotic - or narcotic - than that?
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