Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Representing capital: invisible and benign

Representations of Capital interconnect with representations of space and time. E.P. Thompson, in his famous essay on the "Industrialization of Clock Time," showed how the transition from peasantry to wage labor -- from a feudal economy to a capitalist society -- entailed dramatic changes in the experience of time. Clock time was essential if industrialists were to measure output per a generalizable unit of labor. The capitalist organization of work made hours the constant variable needed to measure work and wages.

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Today, the relationship between clock time and Capital is cast in terms of Investors. In this Fidelity ad, where the images are choreographed to the fast-paced rock pulse of the Rolling Stone's song, "Time," the focus is on the consumer or the retail investor who races against time.
As Marx observed, workers formally exchanged their labor-time for a wage -- hence the requirement for punching a time clock. Today, we still recognize the relative freedom offered by professionalized occupations where one sells a product or a service (rather than the hours that went into making it) -- the distinction between a salary and a wage.

More recently, the geographer David Harvey (2000) has explored how capitalism structures what he calls "the built environment" -- his abbreviation for how the forces of industry, capital, architecture, and the State structure the social spaces of everyday urban life. If we extend this materialist argument to the reinvention of Capital in the 1990s, how has the "built environment" changed to accommodate new centers of power in the so-called high tech sectors of global finance, semiconductors, networkers, software, and the Internet? What changes in the built environment are we seeing as Capital recasts itself through merger and acquisitions, through technological turnover, through globalization? This question is not merely about how the built environment of Capital is changing, but how these changes are represented. How do corporations conceptualize these changes for public presentation?

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Shapeshifting Capital?

In our previous studies we have taken up questions regarding representations of corporate capital in the context of what we have called "legitimation advertising" (Goldman and Papson, (1996). Since AT&T ran its first campaign aimed at massaging public perceptions of itself away from the imagery of a greedy monopolistic bully some 85 years ago, Capital has devoted some part of advertising to constructing its own self-representations. These self-representations have, in one sense, remained amazingly static over the years. Even with the advent of the television era, Capital for the most part chose to stay relatively invisible -- representing itself as a benevolent, almost ghostly, aura that manifested itself in music and imagery. In the 1970s and 1980s, legitimation advertising painted corporate capital as gentle, kind and caring. In other words, Capital was presented as not really Capital. Even campaigns for the notorious junk bond firm, Drexel Burnham Lambert, sought to disguise its nature as capital in order to justify its activities.

Perhaps the most famous tagline associated with this style of advertising has been GE's "we bring good things to life." The long-running GE campaign springs to mind as an exemplar of this kind of self-representation of Capital as benignly invisible. In those ads, GE only exists only in the festive form of the happiness its products bring into people's personal lives. Though they've gone multicultural, GE's ads still have this flavor.

But Capital has changed, and recent campaigns by newcomers such as First Union Bank offer a far more self-reflexive account of themselves as Capital. This does not mean that Capital's self-representations are any more accurate than those that preceded it. It does suggest however a window into the -- dare we say it -- not the soul, but the psyche of Capital.


Representing capital
Constructing the new global landscape
Grand narratives and global representation
Narratives & representation revisited
The grand narrative of sign value

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© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey