Grand narratives are not autonomous. They do not float outside history. They grow out of real socio-political economic formations. Too often, postmodern criticism fails to locate grand narratives in the socio-historical conditions that generated them. Enlightenment narratives arose out of the economic transformation sweeping Europe from the doldrums of feudal economies to the rise of industrial capitalism, the democratic political revolutions, and the nascent implementation of a global transportation and industrial infrastructure.
Critics began to identify the decline of modern grand narratives at a time when the West seemed to have exhausted its domination of the capitalist world economy. The US entered a period of high inflation, followed by a period of economic recession. American dominance was faltering -- Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian takeover of the American embassy, the Challenger disaster, a string of environmental disasters (Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez), and the rise of Japan as an economic superpower. There was a sense that the West was in a state of decline politically, culturally, and economically.
But in the 1990s there has been a resurgence of American dominance as both a military and economic superpower within a new stage of capitalist globalization. And while the new economic elites are now more international, the economic template and ideology of this new world economy is American. The corporate ads we are studying afford us an opportunity to look at the narratives that articulate and legitimize this template and the elite that is positioned to benefit from it.
|No image better encapsulates the narrative of infinite progress than this NASDAQ composite index
Socio-economic formations that fueled the rebirth of grand narratives include:
1) The extraordinary stock market boom of the mid to late 1990s, centered on technology companies in the so-called new economy.
Collectively, the NASDAQ 100 serves as a proxy index for the euphoria of this stock boom. The growth of the NASDAQ rode a new enthusiasm for the grand old narratives of science and technology conquering the material world.
At the height of the market euphoria the NASDAQ index giddily crushed the 5000 point mark on the strength of Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Cisco, Amgen and other semiconductor, telecommunications and biotechnology companies. The technology sector has represented the highest growth sector where fortunes are literally made overnight, where stock performance is measured in three figures. The technology sector's vision of the future is given voice in their own narratives as well as those of the news media that hype them. As the sector grows, their commercial presence grows proportionately. This sector has an increasing powerful voice in speaking about social formations parallel to the increasing economic power. Even since the high tech boom collapsed and the Nasdaq has returned less speculative levels, "technological development" in its many forms still drives corporate dreams.
While some in the field of cultural studies have been eager to celebrate resistance against the behemoth of corporate hegemony, there is a sort of cultural lag fallacy embedded in these claims. There is much to be said on the dialectic between hegemonic forces and the politics of resistance (see hegemonic resistance). For the moment, we need merely note that as resistance to some hegemonic practices gets attention, emergent hegemonic forces may "hide in the light."
The high-tech sector has been able to distance itself from issues of economic justice. Unlike industrial firms and retail brand names, third world labor issues disappear from view in the context of high-technology discussions. The primary representation of labor by this sector is the white-coated technician, more like the scientist than the worker. Assembly work (making chips) doesn't have the negative connotations of the production of overpriced sneakers. In fact, the imagery of the ultra clean suit, which has become a marker of high-tech production practices, masks the category of "work" while drawing attention to the category of "technology." Questions of market justice become focused on corporate rivalries. In other words, the news focuses on Netscape vs Microsoft, and not on third world chip production practices.
2) The explosion of the technology sector into business, education, and everyday life.
The products of the technology sector are no longer luxuries. They have been integrated into the fabric of everyday life. The diffusion of computer technologies, Internet connections and wireless connectivity are linked to consumption, political empowerment, education, the pleasure of game playing, and virtual communities. Because this technology is ever present and desirable, the belief that the technological advances produced by these corporations will create a better future is reinforced in everyday life. Despite the ad glitz, such narratives do connect with prevailing paradigms of common sense.
3) Changes in disposable income and growth in consumer confidence.
The United States has enjoyed a long period of economic growth. And although unemployment statistics disguise unemployment and underemployment rates, media constructions represent the economy as robust and healthy. In fact media representations of the economy suggest that the main problem is that it is growing too fast. The role of the State has been to brake its exponential growth. This cultural atmosphere bolsters consumer confidence.
4) The expansion of financial markets to include the small investor.
E-Trade, Suretrade, and Ameritrade as well as more traditional brokerage firms have opened the doors to market investment to the small investor. Put another way, reducing trading fees to $12 per trade invited working people to invest themselves in the apparatus of gain. While the percentage of the American population that has been in a position to benefit from this economic upsurge is around 10 per cent, retirement programs and institutional investments (i.e. University endowments) have also surged creating a sense of positive economic future. Friends, families, neighbors, colleagues formed Investment Clubs
During the 1980s and 1990s, a good deal of postmodern analysis (including our own) associated spreading cynicism, the breakdown of meaning, and the end of the social with weakened perceptions of a linear history linked to a trajectory of progress. What interests about corporate advertising since 1996 is the way in which these commercials reanimate the role of progress in history.
5) The appropriation of alternative narratives.
Grand narratives are paradigmatic. They are broad and expansionary. They provide a worldview. More importantly, they are appropriative. The narrative of technological development imagistically appropriates critical narratives. These commercials are constructed out of images of nature, Gemeinschaft relations, indigenous peoples, and multiculturalism; they are underwritten by a rhetoric of technological development, individual empowerment, and universal humanism. The problematic (third world labor, environmental crises and long term destructive effects, cultural and social dislocations) are simply left out of the story (Greider, 1998). "The function of myth is to empty reality; it is literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a hemorrhage or perhaps an evaporation, in short, a perceptible absence" (Barthes, 1972). In this sense, the narrative of development is self-contradictory -- it is both grounded in economic conditions while also constituting a mythical construction of those conditions.
6) The material separation of the rich from the poor.
"The boom on Wall Street actually widened the income gap between the poorest and richest US families according to a January 200 report released by two Washington think tanks, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute. The earnings for the poorest fifth of American families rose less than 1% between 1988 and 1998 but jumped 15% for the richest fifth. Income for the poorest families -- defined as two or more relatives living together --rose $110 to $12,990 during the 10-year period. For the richest families, it increased by $17,870, to $137,480, more than 10 times that of the poorest sector, the report says. The gap between rich and poor was widest in New York, with the poorest fifth earning $10,770, while the wealthiest group earned $152,350." (USA Today Jan 18, 2000.)
"The latest global numbers on income poverty, based on international poverty lines of $1/day, taken to indicate absolute poverty, and $2/day in 1985 purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars, were first calculated for 1985. These calculations are updated every three years, because updating them requires data on consumption/income and prices which are available infrequently and with a lag of three-four years. The most recent figures are for 1993. The share of people living on under $1/day (in 1985 PPP dollars) over the developing world's population declined slightly from 30.1 percent to 29.4 percent. But the number of people living on under $1/day rose from 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.3 billion in 1993. In 1993, 3 billion people worldwide lived on less than $2 per day." (World Bank )
While these ads support an ideological blindness to the ways in which the human condition is not improving for all, we understand that this blindness is reinforced by real material structures, designed social landscapes, and state practices. Gated communities, technological surveillance, all-inclusives, sweeps of the homeless from tourist areas, the incorporation of the codes of bourgeois decorum into both private and public space (i.e. Disney World and Times Square), the increase in the prison population function to reinforce the myth of progress as an inclusive narrative.