Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Decontextualized labor

Notwithstanding the rise of so-called virtual work, outside the world of television, workplace activities are located existentially in time and place. Nothing very profound about that. And yet, in the world of television, work is rarely given a context. This too will come as no surprise to those who study television and advertising. The images that TV ads assemble and string together are, by their very nature, photographically decontextualized. Images are taken out of context and reassembled according to the advertiser's agenda.

Photographs always abstract, and freeze, some discrete moment of a wider set of relations. This means, as John Berger has observed, that there is necessarily an "abyss of meaning" which advertisers try to fill in, and which viewers try to fill in.

In the world of TV ads, images of work, employees, and workplaces are more often chosen for their functionality as signifiers. Let us show you. Advertising takes advantage of its capacity for freezing a moment and lifting it out of context to create a more loaded, more focused, signifier. To visually highlight this point, we have assembled a page that identifies commonplace signifiers of work and the ways in which they can be isolated to signify a general rather than a particular meaning.

Look at the image of a man wearing a hardhat. We won't say yet where We grabbed the image from because we want to observe just how severely this man's image has been wrenched from its meaningful context. We have no idea whether this man is part of road crew repairing streets, or driving a bulldozer on a construction site, or demolishing an out-of-favor strip mall, or operating heavy machinery in a factory, etc. What can we assume from this man's frozen image? Foregrounding an isolated signifier like a hardhat or a scene signifying a high-tech assembly line usually has the effect of making the social relations disappear. It steers the viewer away from dwelling with the context of work -- its political economic context, its social-psychological context -- by denying us a sense of the relationships that compose it. The specific place -- the geography -- of where work takes place is generally left unstated in television ads. We noticed this when we recently saw two ads in a row, a Toyota ad and a Ford Motor Company ad, both of which actually identified where the employees shown on camera worked (Toyota in Kentucky, and Ford in Scotland). It dawned on us that in the realm of TV ads, production normally has no geography. Had we become so complacent about the process of photographic decontextualization that we could ignore the obvious -- that production, in ads for Siemens, Motorola, GM, GE, etc. had become reduced to an abstraction that apparently operates independently of place?

These images are taken from a 1998 Siemens ad. They starkly speak to the decontextualization issue. These are resolutely modernist images. The first epitomizes the abstraction of the mode of production in both form and content. The image itself is reminiscent of abstractionist tendencies in modernist painting. By labeling this scene as "industry" Siemens' dislocates the actual place of production in favor of the abstraction - and whatever connotations it might carry.

The scene of the skyscraper is photographed and positioned looking up into space rather than down or around at place. It may not be inappropriate that
Siemens depicts industry and infrastructure in this way -- after all, the thoroughly global firm is nothing if not mobile.

Why would the advent of globalization prompt efforts at reidentifying the site of production? And, does it really make any difference whether or not we see an employee identified along with the place where she or he works -- e.g., a woman employee working at a Ford plant in Scotland? What is gained is a glimmer of the global geography of corporate producers. But what was left unsaid here may be far more important than what was said. That which has been left unsaid could fill several treatises on globalization as a system of corporate production practices. We still don't see any workplace operations. Though many corporate ads now glibly herald an era of new competition in which employees and managers cooperate to generate greater productivity and well-being, the ads rarely acknowledge that the new competition often pits one group of workers at one corporate site against another group of workers within the same corporate system. Ford or GM don't just outsource, they often send production to other plants within their own system, whether that is in Mexico or Louisiana. As the vaunted competition within the new world order ratchets up, corporate managers are just as likely to use the fear of downsizing and outsourcing, not to mention plant closures, as a way of extracting further concessions from workers in one locality or another. Work harder, be more productive, and cause management fewer headaches, and then maybe you can hold onto your jobs. That part of the story is, of course, outside the boundaries of advertising discourse.

Sociologists who study workplaces point out that the workplace can often be a "contested terrain." Workplaces are classic sites of struggle over power, over wages, over benefits, over work rules, over work breaks. These social relations of production are almost never included in the TV signifiers of work, and it comes as no surprise that they are rarely included in the narratives told by corporations in their ads. Ads usually prefer to tell stories based on consensus rather than conflict. Only in headache relief ads do we see employees who suffer from stress and strain because of conflictual relationships in the office. And what conflictual relationship would corporations most like to repress and leave absent from the television ad screen? Their relationship with Unions! Their relationship with production issues.

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey