Landscapes of Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Modernity runs everywhere
All over the world
they take people where they need to go
but wherever the road ends
there's a good chance it started with Caterpillar equipment

This Caterpillar commercial consists of a montage of vehicles traveling on roads throughout the world. In the mix of cars, recreational vehicles, and trucks, there is an Amish buggy, an Arab on a camel, a peasant on a burro, and of course Chinese bicyclists. These stereotyped images of both modern and traditional society are effortlessly juxtaposed and harmoniously tied together by the ironic tone of the voice-over and upbeat piano music. Any conflict between the modern and the traditional is erased, just as are conflicts between human ecology and the natural environment erased in the previous commercial.

Marshall Berman charts the changing nature of modernity reflected in the architecture of the road. "The distinctive sign of nineteenth century urbanism was the boulevard, a medium for bringing explosive material and human forces together; the hallmark of twentieth century urbanism has been the highway, a means for putting them asunder. We see a strange dialectic here, in which one mode of modernism both energizes and exhausts itself trying to annihilate another, all in modernism's name" (1982: 165). Modernity is not monolithic -- Le Corbusier's Paris radically differed from Robert Moses' New York. While the boulevard broke down barriers between neighborhoods, highways cut through them creating new barriers in the process of dissection.

This commercial is shot from the point of view perspective of drivers, creating a sense that the viewer is rapidly transversing landscapes. The speeded up rhythms of movement ironically capture privatization and separation. Vehicles speed through in isolation. Baudelaire's celebration of the sensuality brought to the boulevard by its assemblage of humanity has been replaced by the freedom that speed and the open road represent. Tacitly, the social is no longer an experience to be savored, but rather an imposition to be escaped.

The technology of the road determines social experience. The construction of new highways radically alters the social landscapes that they dissect. I remember the construction of Interstate 80 when I was growing up in New Jersey. It ripped through my neighborhood cutting two blocks from it. I lost several of my boyhood friends whose lives were disrupted when their families' homes were demolished to make way for the interstate. How many times has a similar event disrupted lives? The Caterpillar commercials only show the creative side of modernism, not the destructive. Commercials are always mythic. These celebrate the myth of development as universally and globally positive, as a process without conflict and without opposition. Even traditions appear to benefit. Signification disguises the destruction of the relationship of the signifier and signified by material imposition. The social world from which the sign emerged is transformed. What remains is the signifier.

Marshall Berman (1982) constructs Faust as post-capitalist in the sense that he is interested in development not profit. Caterpillar represents itself in the same manner. Only by inference could one sense that Caterpillar is selling bulldozers. These commercial positions Caterpillar technology as the technology of choice used in monumental projects. Like Marx's sorcerer, Caterpillar magically creates land where there was only sea, water where there was only land, and roads everywhere and anywhere. The grand narrative of progress and development continues unabated. This theme is echoed in other commercials in which capital without the need of bulldozers transforms the landscape.

Contradictions of Development
Stories of Science and Technology
Reason and Progress

Developmental monumentalism < Previous

Next > Orientalism

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