The social relations of everyday life in the modern world have grown increasingly disengaged from the coordinates of time and place. The notion of 24/7 may say 'anytime' to us, but it also begins to suggest that all times are roughly equivalent. Conversely, our everyday relationships become more contingent upon participating through abstract systems that are distant from our actual socio-temporal location. Take, as an example, the proliferation of 'unmanned' ATM sites to dispense money and make deposits. An impersonal efficiency is gained in these ways of organizing market encounters, but like going 'online' it tends to privatize activities. Anthony Giddens echoes many observers in the view that modernization, and its later stage, globalization, rests on a systematic process of disembedding/reembedding social relations.
Modernity relies on disembedding mechanisms (symbolic tokens such as money) which "'lift out' social activities from specific localized contexts, reorganizing social relations across wider time-space distances" (Giddens, 1991:53). Once social relations are separated from the deeply embedded recursive histories of everyday locales, trust becomes essential. For modern systems of social relations to work, we must believe they will work - and that they will work, automatically.
Many abstract systems have moved beyond the geographic confines of the nation state and become globalized. This is the difference between money and plastic. Money is a symbolic token of exchange issued and backed by a nation state. Such currency can be exchanged for currencies of other nation states, with the more powerful economic nations the beneficiaries of exchange rate variations.
Money, both paper and coin, is also a cultural object. It signifies the legitimacy of the state that issues it. For example, US currency has a series of presidential portraits, a credo "In God We Trust," and various other signifiers of the nation. What happens when the credit card supplants money exchanges in daily life? At first, it mimics the international system of monetary exchange. However, with the transition to globalization it begins to serve as a marker for a global currency, a global recognition of universal principles of value?
Plastic transactions lend themselves to the transnational. Coupled with advances in computer technologies, credit cards become electron quick. A credit transaction is not culture bound in the same way as handing over currency issued by a nation state.
For some years now, MaterCard, Visa, and American Express have advertised themselves as encircling the planet -- embedding themselves throughout all parts of the world, including the most remote and exciting. Visa competes with its slogan, "It's everywhere you want to be," while MasterCard boasts that it is "Accepted virtually anywhere on earth."
MasterCard. Superimposed over a group of bickering pre-Euro businessmen walking on a beach in white bathrobes is the question "Economic Unity?" A montage of Europeans expressing disagreement, both verbally and gesturally, follows this as the voice-over asks in cool analytic tones:
Can France and Italy, Austria and England, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands ever really agree on a single currency?
Actually they already have.
Gold Master Card.
One remarkably useful card.
Accepted virtually anywhere on earth.
Gold MasterCard. It's smart money
The commercial ends as a young American removes cash from an ATM. He looks around at the argument taking place behind him, and with an air of sarcastic condescension, says "Excuse me, guys!" as he walks away counting his money. Take your choice -- an inefficient, culturally diverse Europe, or the efficient smooth-running credit system of MasterCard. Does economic abstraction mean the loss of national cultures? Does the ATM equate with greater civility?
Giddens argues that reembedding mechanisms are necessary if abstract systems are to function. These are the "processes by means of which faceless commitments are sustained or transformed by facework" (1991:88). Giddens associates facework with specific interactions between participants in these abstract systems of social relations. For example, the flight attendant's calm manner assures us the plane is functioning. We respond to the facework of others. The trust necessary to sustain abstract systems is drawn from this facework. Trust is a form of affect. We might also think of advertising as facework - corporate facework. The friendly skies are not based upon a statistical relationship between air miles and crashes, but on the broad smile of a flight attendant who offers us a pillow as the music swells in the background. Is there a difference between the flight attendant on the plane and the one in the commercial? Advertising is about trust -- trust that the plane will fly, that the hamburger will taste the same every time, that nuclear energy is safe, that our credit card is accepted worldwide, that we are protected in our lives.
As systems become increasingly abstract, as disembedding goes from the local to the national to the transnational, facework is necessary to ensure trust in the system. Advertising facework not only points out the system's efficiency, but also highlights corporations' personal nature. It seeks to allay the fears of the impersonal associated with rational bureaucratic systems.
As corporations become global, the imagined community must also be global. Just as political theory separates the nation and the state, we must separate abstract global systems of social relations and affective participation in the global community. Nevertheless, global systems of social relations need facework to support them. It is not surprising that advertising by transnational corporations often promotes not only the efficiency and predictability of systems of social relations (FedEx, Visa, United Airlines), but also global citizenship. If trade, commerce, and information is to flow freely across borders, it must be supported by imagery which supports the politics of unification.