Looking at an HSBC ad campaign while reading D.N. Roddowick on “the figural”
I am at the Midtown New York Public Library. I am reading the first chapter of D.N. Roddowick’s Reading the Figural. His concept of a ‘figural’ seems to be one of those post-modern philosophy place-holder terms for everything and nothing… ‘emergence’ ‘becoming’ ‘excess’ ‘the eternal return’… there are a lot of references to a new understanding of “visual culture,” “death drive,” dream theory, and a post-semiology framework (without frame or work, I suppose… Roddowick compares semiology to Newtonian physics failing to conceptualize relativistic thought). …The book is light on examples. I find writers like this clearly intelligent and studious, but I am never entirely certain they aren’t hacks. It is uncomfortable… either they aren’t saying anything, or I am not understanding, both of which are a little insulting. But I really like all the same people… Lyotard, Barthes, even Deleuze sometimes… so I am still reading and looking.
Roddowick quoting Lyotard:
The figural is unrepresentable, beneath or behind representation, because it operates in an other space ‘that does not give itself to be seen or thought; it is indicated in a literal fashion, fugitive at the heart of discourse and perception, as that which troubles them. It is the proper space of desire, the stakes in the struggle that painters and poets have ceaselessly launched against the return of the Ego and the text. [p8]
It is everything.
What I call the figural is not synonymous with a figure or even the figurative. It is no more proper to the plastic than to the linguistic arts. It is not governed by the opposition of word to image; spatially and temporally, it is not bound to the logic of binary oppositions. Ever permutable—a fractured, fracturing, or fractal space, ruled by time and difference—it knows nothing of the concept of identity. The figural is not an aesthetic concept, nor does it recognize a distinction between the forms of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. It describes the logic of mass culture itself; or rather a culture of the mass.
It is nothing.
But I am interested in the premise as given in the Preface: that in order to understand contemporary imagistic culture, we have to re-think the opposition of image to language… that we are long overdue for re-thinking Lessing’s opposition of the simultaneous arts and the successive. With the rise of ‘digital culture’ we really really need to critically deal with cinema. Roddowick relates an epiphany, when he first witnessed early MTV broadcasting and how fluidly text was spatialized and space was textualized in the productions of early non-linear digital editing and effects . I am fairly certain that a host of previous examples can be found in animation, but I, too, remember the astonishment of the new form that was photographic, electric, and abstract.
Roddowick puts his ‘figural’ forward as the cornerstone of a visual studies [32-33]. I think of some more concrete tensions between text and image. Despite Eisenstein’s 1929 demand to “blow up the Chinese wall” that antithesizes the language of logic and the language of images, Visual Studies departments still find it almost impossible to create curriculums that are not text based. How can you describe a ‘methodology’ of the visual without first textualizing it? And so it goes. It is like the comic book—the art of the caption that has never made it to high culture or academia (though Barthes has pointed the way in The Third Meaning and The Photographic Message).
Outside the library on a set of billboards are some popular culture examples of the figural—or at least I take them to be examples of the figural and enjoy the spurious role of making the heady concrete. The billboards are part of a new ad campaign created by the media company Mindshare for HSBC. It is a new variation of what was an omnipresent advertising series in airports that showed two matching diptyches. In the earlier campaign, a single image is repeated with contrasting captions, and then the set repeated with the captions switched (i.e., a picture of a young man in business suit is juxtaposed with a picture of someone in torn jeans and boots; the set is repeated with these captions switched: “leader” “follower”). It toys with the relationship of caption and image. As Barthes puts it in The Photographic Message, the caption rules the realm of connotation, which influences but cannot completely control the denotation of the photograph. These ads play on this and our ability to recognize sameness (we can imagine how different our reading would be if the images were of the same object but different variations… i.e. a suited man with blond hair is labeled “leader,” but with brown hair is labeled “follower”). Recognizing the image as the same, we turn our attention to how the gestalt of our perception changes with the caption– the photograph still provides expressive force to a changed message (really discourse). Through repetition, the realm of desired reading is a meta-level: we are to be made conscious of the meaning caused by juxtaposition. It reminds me of Kulishev’s famous montage experiment, where the same film-shot of an actors face is juxtaposed with different narrative objects (a gun, a sandwich) and the audience reads the expressive force of the face differently. We are unable to control our emotional reading though our minds recognize their manipulation.
In the new campaign, displayed on a set of four triptych billboards across 5th Avenue, a stock photo is repeated three times with three captions, each caption pointing towards a different ‘reading’ of the object based on varying ideologies (ideologies that seem resolutely not based on class or ethnicity).
Image: the back of a bald head repeated with three captions, STYLE / SOLDIER / SURVIVOR.
Image: a field of wind turbines repeated with the captions, NATURE / FUTURE / EYESORE
Image: a fat wallet left dropped on a public floor,
MISFORTUNE / OBLIGATION / TEMPTATION
Image: a new shiny bridge against an urban night skyline,
GLORIFIED / VILIFIED / GENTRIFIED
On all appears the tagline: “Different values make the world a richer place” or “Understanding what one customer values helps us better service another”
This new campaign again plays on the tension between a textual connotation and an imagistic denotation. The images are iconic without being recognizable (we know what they are in general but don’t refer to a specific iteration) and the text is kept to a single word, working against any distinction between a ‘simultaneous’ imagistic and a ‘successive’ textual, instead forcing a meta-reading where I negotiate three image-text gestalts on the basis of a changing subjectivity… “where figure and text are engaged in a mutually deconstructive activity of a seeing that undoes saying” [Roddowick, 11].
Like the previous campaign it cutely acknowledges the manipulation of captioned advertising—imposed meanings we cannot escape. And again, forced in to a meta-reading, the set of text-images taken as a whole evoke a concept of multiple subjectivities (something you could maybe term ‘diversity’ taken in its current usage to both imply variation and a positive tolerant reaction to it). But in these new ads there is more— the tagline, “Different values make the world a richer place” or “Isn’t it better to be open to other people’s points of view?” or similar references to globalism and post-liberal moral relativism (capitalism is so fascinated with the fact that neo-liberals and corporations share these globalist ideals). The advertisers seem to be perfectly in tune with Lyotard’s/Roddowick’s analysis of post-modernity where the figural has permanently–even dominantly–imbricated itself into the cultural discourse. No longer in an age of the printing press, with absolute edicts, we are in the age of interconnected images, flattened, relative, global, networked… In these ads, it is the advertising image that is immutable yet changeable, and the text that must mutate towards an infinite digression to express every connotation (the dream of cultural studies).
These ads show the obscenity of the ‘figural’.
This is relativism beyond ‘tolerance’. There is the bold statement that multi-culturalism benefits all of society, and the spurious conclusion that heterogeneity helps HSBC conform its services. It is easy to poke holes in this. Most eloquent would be replacing the image of the bridge with the Twin Towers. This simple substitution (which still satisfies the denotative demands of the original photo, still signifying ‘new urban’) completely exceeds the desired denotative limits of the ad. Instead of remaining general yet iconic—really rather text-like—the image becomes extremely specific. And it is in the specific that utopian ideals fail. Though one might respect the general ideal of multiculturalism and all-inclusivity, it is in the specific decision to include or reject that the ideal is challenged. “… Oh, not those attitudes. They do not make the world ‘richer.’” (though understanding the ideals of Islamic fundamentalism may very well make HSBC a more profitable bank). I can quickly extend the list of parody:
Image: a performer in black face,
FUNNY / INSULTING / CLICHÉ
Image: an abortion in progress,
CHOICE / MURDER / MEDICINE
Image: the American flag,
FREEDOM / SATAN / TAXES
All ‘hot-button’ issues. Issues where tolerance of other viewpoints is not considered the ideal.
It is easy to discover the line. These examples are obscene— inflammatory to all sides of common arguments… a refutation of multiculturalism. And it is specifically the equivalency implied in the repetition of the image that insults.
This is the curse and boon of imagistic advertising: the emotional charge of the image cannot be separated from its message. Images are highly associative, contagious, erotic in their juxtaposition. The new HSBC campaign claims to “confront people with choices that will enable them to address their own values and discover what drives and motivates them in their daily lives”— a slightly insulting sentiment, that their ads perform some Rorschach test social function— if they do successfully diagnose us, to what purpose? Is there a therapy session at the end of this test? A gift store? But this is insincere ad-company boilerplate. HSBC does not want to enlighten New Yorkers; they want their business. The clear purpose is to create a brand identity that is targeted at an audience… global, multicultural, tolerant, flexible… But this multicultural brand is in danger of being subverted by the power of the image—overpowered by an emotional excessive denotation. Only the most cowed images can be controlled by these captions and wrangled into the desired meta-reading. Advertising—the dominant realm of text-image hybrids—is not an arena of ‘evocative’ imagery, but of ‘controlled’ imagery. In my photoshopped examples, high-minded concepts cannot be cordoned off from all the emotional charge of the specific image— a fact known by every advertiser seeking out emblems of banality in their stock photos: the smiling couple devoid of specific racial markers, the urban center devoid of either conspicuous wealth or poverty. If HSBC uses an image of Hitler, regardless of their caption, the brand becomes Hitler.
This territory was explored in a more post-modern mode by Oliviero Toscani’s ad campaign for United Colors of Benneton in the 90’s where extremely charged images (a man dying of AIDS, a newborn baby, a water-fowl drowned in oil pollution) jumped from the pages with the irreconcilable caption, “United Colors of Benneton.” Between these campaigns we’ve experience a complete ideological shift, where Toscani’s ads seemed to deny the possibility of the caption and refute the banal stock-photo, the force of the caption, and the delimiting of a brand as meaning (instead pushing a sort-of brand as denotative excess). Instead, the Mindshare ads for HSBC trumpet the power of the textual caption to impose a subjective context, and that meta-reading becomes the brand-identity.
Image: Governor Mark Sanford,
ROMANTIC / LIAR / IDIOT
I could do these all day, like a contemporary parlor game. What is worthy of note in this process—and what is all too commonly forgotten in media analysis—is that imagistic thought is open, multivalent… and it is extremely so now. This adopted role—the manipulator of the image, the artist, prankster, ad maker— is quite empowering. I am in part laughing at myself, mining my own readings and associations for humor— but I am especially laughing at my audience who I imagine succumbing to their discomfiture at these juxtapositions of denotations. Another post-modern principle—one that is for me more comforting than the post-fascist multiculturalism expressed in the advertisements: composing these parodies, I rely on a similar evocative reading by the viewer— a certain empathy… a reliable quality in the expressiveness of the image. Isn’t this the basis of all art? Composing according to my own reactions, I hope to approximate the reaction of my creation by its future viewers.
And a final question: is it the force of the caption shifting the realm of the advertisement signification to a meta-level where I negotiate multiple subjectivities that best encapsulates the “figural,” or is it the excessive force of the image in my jests where I impose the power of the index into a discourse carefully avoiding it… “an Apollonian good form that the figural undermines as a Dionysian force or ‘energetics indifferent to the unity of the whole’” .
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