Landscapes of Global Capital
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A Caterpillar commercial's montage of signifiers mixes Orientalism, modernity, and development -- a person in a dory filled with yellow cartons using muscle-power and a pole to move across the harbor; a parade of yellow flags filled with Chinese lettering; lettered banners unfurled from balconies above a narrow street cluttered with automobiles and pedestrian traffic; two doubledecker buses -- one red and one yellow against a backdrop of windowed skyscrapers; a red-sailed Chinese junk sailing into the harbor with a modern cityscape, an almost indecipherable swirl of red-colored Chinese 'dragon' art; the same modern skyline, but this time with a contemporary boat in the harbor, and several buildings -- including the monumentally large Bank of China tower -- illuminated by the sun into a glistening yellow; a red tail-finned Swiss Air jet flies across the city scape in its landing pattern.

Tradition Modernity
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In this tightly compressed visual narrative, transportation vehicles serve as metonyms of historical development. The Chinese junk stands for the traditional, the premodern. The doubledecker buses are loaded with associations of the British era and provide a marker for the legacy of colonialism. The jet plane names the epoch of integration into the global world system. These disparate signifiers are strung into a narrative that is given visual continuity by a voice-over, Chinese music, along with red and yellow colors embedded in the objects of each shot. Explosions mark the beginning of the second half on the commercial. A montage of heavy earth-moving equipment maneuvers across a barren landscape scraping, carving, dumping -- creating something out of nothing. The scape is continually branded by 'CAT' logos. They appear on the back of equipment juxtaposed by red Chinese lettering and on workmen in their yellow hardhats and red and yellow safety vests.

Hong Kong, it's part of an exciting new world that's
growing so fast you never know where it's going
to grow next.
So with our worldwide reputation for meeting the toughest deadlines,
we at Caterpillar aren't surprised to find ourselves involved in the world's largest construction project Hong Kong's new airport in the only place Hong Kong had room for--in the South China Sea

Unlike the Faustian epic, the contradictions of development have no place in this legitimation narrative. No one is murdered and removed from the land; no environmental damage can be seen. Ironically, the cluttered landscape of Hong Kong signifies the need for more development rather than a problem of over development. While Faust reflected on the destruction of traditional society by modernity, in Caterpillar's world modernity is separated from development. The binary of traditional/modern exists as an unspoken natural relationship. The image of the Chinese junk in Hong Kong harbor positioned against the backdrop of corporate towers is emblematic of how global capital signifies its relationship with the traditional. This image bank clip appears in several commercials. Unlike the Enlightenment project that associated traditional society with irrationality, superstition, and social backwardness, here the premodern stands for that which endures in a world of upheaval, chaos and disorder. It is against modern skyscrapers that the Chinese junk takes on a romantic form. In this montage modern architectural forms are juxtaposed with traditional aesthetic forms. Despite the intrusion of development, the traditional representations of exoticism remain predominant. Paradoxically, modernity values the traditional as desirable and exotic.

This advertisement denies that economic development disrupts previous cultural formations. Here, traditional cultural signifiers are necessary to represent the traditional in order that the modern as a dynamic developmental process can be presented.Caterpillar02-98 The Chinese junk peacefully sails by modern skyscrapers, as passenger liners jet overhead. Seemingly disparate worlds can harmoniously co-exist. The modern no longer needs to wipe out the traditional, at least not on the level of representation. In Caterpillar's narrative the traditional is neither a threat to, nor a yoke on, development. In fact, exoticism or representational traditionalism is a valuable commodity. Using binary signifiers in a harmonious rather than an oppositional relationship dissolves the typical tension between the signifiers of tradition and modernity. Here, culture is freed from its contemporary materialistic roots and yet remains tied to historical material roots. The ad suggests that culture has little relationship with the economic substructure. Essentially, culture appears to be autonomous. The message we take away is that all cultural forms can co-exist in any set of socio-economic institutional arrangements. While the cultural life of Hong Kong is depicted as constant (static) and traditional, its economic life appears dynamic and progressive.


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