02 July 2009

I can hear it in every word you say

"Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country."
  Chip took a deep breath, because this hurt. "Great, OK," he said. "Thank you for your opinion."
  "As if you care about my opinion," Melissa said.
  "I beg your pardon?"
  "As if you care about any of our opinions unless they're the same as yours."
  "This is not about opinions," Chip said, "This is about learning to apply critical methods to textual artifacts. Which is what I'm here to teach you."
  "I don't think it is, though," Melissa said. "I think you're here to teach us to hate the same things you hate. I mean, you hate these ads, right? I can hear it in every word you say. You totally hate them."
  The other students were listening raptly now. Melissa's connection with Chad might have depressed Chad's stock more than it had raised her own, but she was attacking Chip like an angry equal, not a student, and the class ate it up.
  "I do hate these ads," Chip admitted. "But that's not—"
  "Yes it is," Melissa said.
  "Why do you hate them?" Chad called out.
  "Tell us why you hate them," the little Hilton yipped.
  Chip looked at the wall clock. There were six minutes left of the semester. He pushed a hand through his hair and cast his eyes around the room as if he might find an ally somewhere, but the students had him on the run now, and they knew it.
"The W------ Corporation," he said, "is currently defending three separate lawsuits for antitrust violations. Its revenues last year exceeded the gross domestic product of Italy. And now, to wring dollars out of the one demographic that it doesn't yet dominate, it's running a campaign that exploits a woman's fear of breast cancer and her sympathy with its victims. Yes, Melissa?"
  "It's not cynical."
  "What is it, if it's not cynical?"
  "It's celebrating women in the workplace," Melissa said. "It's raising money for cancer research. It's encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It's helping women feel like we own this technology, like it's not just a guy thing."
  "OK, good," Chip said. "But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, it's what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment."
  Chad took up the cudgels for Melissa. "That's the whole point of the ad, though. That if you have access to information, it can save your life."
  "So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?"
  "Why not?" Chad said.
  "Does anybody see anything wrong with that?"
  Not one student did. Melissa was slouching with her arms crossed and unhappy amusement on her face. Unfairly or not, Chip felt as if she'd destroyed in five minutes a semester's worth of careful teaching.
  "Well, consider," he said, "that 'You Go, Girl' would not have been produced if W------ had not had a product to sell. And consider that the goal of the people who work at W------ is to exercise their stock options and retire at thirty-two, and that the goal of the people who own W------ stock" (Chip's brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Caroline, owned a great deal of W------ stock) "is to build bigger houses and buy bigger SUVs and consume even more of the world's finite resources."
  "What's wrong with making a living?" Melissa said. "Why is it inherently evil to make money?"
  "Baudrillard might argue," Chip said, "that the evil of a campaign like 'You Go, Girl' consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies 'Desire office equipment.' It signifies: 'Our bosses care about us deeply.'"
  The wall clock showed two-thirty. Chip paused and waited for the bell to ring and the semester to end.
  "Excuse me," Melissa said, "but that is just such bullshit."
  "What is bullshit?" Chip said.
  "This whole class," she said. "It's just bullshit every week. It's one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what's wrong exactly. But they all know it's evil. They know 'corporate' is a dirty word. And if somebody's having fun or getting rich—disgusting! Evil! And it's always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they're free aren't 'really' free. And people who think they're happy aren't 'really' happy. And it's impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what's so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!" she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. "Here things are getting better and better for women and people of color, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad's that great for women—which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything—is to say it's evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang." She closed her notebook.
  "OK," Chip said. "On that note. You've now satisfied your Cultural Studies core requirement. Have a great summer."
  He was powerless to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He bent over the video player and gave his attention to rewinding and re-cuing "You Go, Girl" and touching buttons for the sake of touching buttons. He sensed a few students lingering behind him, as if they wanted to thank him for teaching his heart out or to tell him they'd enjoyed the class, but he didn't look up from the video player until the room was empty. Then he went home to Tilton Ledge and started drinking.
  Melissa's accusations had cut him to the quick. He'd never quite realized how seriously he'd taken his father's injunctions to do work that was "useful" to society. Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplished nothing, had always felt like useful work. But if the supposed sickness wasn't a sickness at all—if the great Materialist Order of technology and consumer appetite and medical science really was improving the lives of the formerly oppressed; if it was only straight white males like Chip who had a problem with this order—then there was no longer even the most abstract utility to his criticism. It was all, in Melissa's word, bullshit.
  Lacking the spirit to work on his new book, as he'd planned to do all summer, Chip bought an overpriced ticket to London and hitchhiked to Edinburgh and overstayed his welcome with a Scottish performance artist who had lectured and performed at D----- the previous winter. Eventually the woman's boyfriend said, "Time to be off now, laddie," and Chip hit the road with a backpack full of Heidegger and Wittgenstein that he was too lonely to read. He hated to think of himself as a man who couldn't live without a woman, but he hadn't been laid since Ruthie dumped him. He was the only male professor in D----- history to have taught Theory of Feminism, and he understood how important it was for women not to equate "success" with "having a man" and "failure" with "lacking a man," but he was a lonely straight male, and a lonely straight male had no equivalently forgiving Theory of Masculinism to help him out of this bind, this key to all misogynies:

¶ To feel as if he couldn't survive without a woman made a man feel week;

¶ And yet, without a woman in his life, a man lost the sense of agency and difference that, for better or worse, was the foundation of his manhood.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001: 42-45)