Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Tag: advertising

Nonstop You

The BBC reports that a combination of CCTV, facial recognition technology and radio frequency identification are paving the way for real-time individualised adverts. Based on our online activity, our physical appearances and so on, we will be presented in public with adverts which cater to our unique personal tastes. This is worrying on many levels, but the one I want to focus on is how it might affect our subjectivity.

The first result will be to urge us into an unchanging, eternal present of ourselves (an extension of a process already well underway). By accessing data on what I like, on what I’ve already bought and so on, it will simply present me with more of the same. In no matter how subtle a manner, it will urge me to continue along this one particular path of taste (within the general cycles of fashion). It will recycle my affect, and in doing so it is effectively designed to prevent the advent of novelty. For if all I am ever confronted with is an extension of a previous version of myself, I am partially stripped of my capacity to be other than I was.

The second result will be an objective narcissism. I say “objective” because here the narcissism is literally inscribed in (what was once) public space itself. As Žižek has observed,Even in a public space, I am still within my private space, engaged in no interaction with other people”. And if I am everywhere surrounded by my inner private world, incapable of experiencing the objective limits of my own desires and introspections, then I cannot fully live. For surely any life worth living is one in which I am able to learn and accept my limits via my interactions with other people and the natural world – with that which is subjectively and materially other than myself. It is no wonder that death has no place in such a society, since it is the ultimate limit on all egomaniacal projects. Likewise, it should make us stop and think when the German airline, Lufthansa, has as its slogan a theological definition of hell: “Nonstop you”.

The political upshot of such subjective dispositions is yet more erosion of our in-built capacity for solidarity. For if I live constantly in the shadow of my own mollycoddled self, a subject who is seriously other than me – one who makes demands on me – can only strike me as at best an obstacle, at worst a monster. So it is, then, that seemingly innocent advances in advertising have quite direct political effects.

In Utopia, of course, this technology will be used for far different purposes. One day, as I’m brushing my teeth, an image of my rotting corpse will suddenly flash up on the mirror in front of me, surrounded by my children – old themselves now ­– and friends. Or as I’m walking to the forum to take part in the collective centenary movie of the saviour of earth from the Anthropocene, I will see an image of another world suddenly appear on the side of the workers’ theatre, a world where everything is different, like a fairy tale in which we are all invited to honour our past selves but not to be shackled by them, to dare to dream in the bosom of the space we have made together.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

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