Representing Global Capital
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The world is now going through a period of intense and often puzzling global transformations. For a great many people these transformations are mediated through the prisms of electronic media. Television, particularly news and advertising, contributes to the frames that enable us to adjust our cosmologies to make sense of these intense and rapid changes. Embedded in conventional advertising discourse is a teleological vision, a way of seeing that connects the present with the future. Advertising narratives routinely tie the condition of individual well-being to commodity consumption, but they also tie it to the twin gods of social progress and scientific achievement. A prominent -- some might call it hegemonic -- contemporary story of the world situates the corporation and its unleashed (deregulated) capital as the prime mover of economic, social and political progress. Saturated through and through by the ideological assumptions of universal humanism, corporate television commercials construct narratives which intertwine technological development with both corporate and personal investments. Investment in technology is shown yielding individual wealth and the fulfillment of personal dreams. Corporate ads mix technological development with both corporate and personal investment to produce imagery of a utilitarian ethic in full flower. Here technology and investment yield not only individual wealth and the fulfillment of personal dreams, but also enable new economic formations that integrate the most 'backward' peoples and places of the world into the civilizing practices directed by high tech global partners. See for example, GE's panoramic account linking the traditions of great religions with the technology of satellite communications, just as it links the interests of Africa's newest generations to an abstract, but globally pervasive system of GE technologies. The benevolent directors of these fictionalized worlds are constructed as a new corporate class of entrepreneur gods who jet through the heavens armed with personal technology connecting them to global electronic networks (Bauman, 1999). As falsified and ungrounded as this narrative may be, nonetheless this discourse has both a simple coherency and pervasiveness that alternative visions lack.

A central thesis in postmodernist thought concerns the breakdown of grand narratives that characterized modernity. Foremost among modernism's unifying narratives have been an abiding faith in science as the rational discourse underlying -- indeed, guaranteeing -- progress; the centering of Western patriarchal discourses that construct a hierarchy of knowledge based on a European bourgeois perspective; the privileging of markets as the most rational and efficient way of organizing human relations; or alternatively, the socialist grand narrative, positioning the working class as the primary agent in social transformation.

Postmodern interpretations point out that there has been an assault on these narratives, stemming from three sets of forces:

  • the ascent of competing discourses, including feminist, postcolonial, environmentalist, queer, and ethnic discourses
  • the transformation of the production and circulation of information by electronic technologies
  • and the accelerated circulation of commodity signs through the circuits of capital (Lyotard, 1984; Best and Kellner, 1991; Goldman & Papson, 1996)

Postmodern theories have been mainly located in academia, in response to debates taking place within academic institutions. But outside academia, a resurgence of the Enlightenment narratives has occurred in political rhetoric and popular media discourse. In this publicly mediated context a new dominant narrative ties the Enlightenment project to the noisy eruption of information technology -- the so-called information age joined to a free market ideology.

In False Dawn (1998) John Gray argues that "A global free market is the Enlightenment project of a universal civilization, sponsored by the world's last great Enlightenment regime. The United States is alone in the late modern world in the militancy of its commitment to this Enlightenment project. At the same time, in the strength and depth of the fundamentalist movements it contains, America confounds Enlightenment hopes of modernity. Since the 1980s there has been no serious challenge to the economic philosophy of the free market in the United States...a free-market orthodoxy established its ascendancy over American public culture. It became entrenched by the events of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet regime entered the final phase of its collapse. Today's project of a single global market is America's universal mission co-opted by its neo-conservative ascendancy. Market utopianism has succeeded in appropriating the American faith that it is a unique country, the model for a universal civilization which all societies are fated to emulate." (p. 100).

Advertising gives voice to this narrative. From 1990-1996 there were a few global capital ads on business and news channels. By 1998 this trickle had become a steady stream of commercials produced by communication, information technology, and financial corporations, aimed primarily at businesspeople and investors. In the late 1990s, with the steady growth of computer technology and Internet connections, and the advent of populist investment services these commercials have migrated from the business channels into network primetime. The unfolding narrative integrates themes of multiculturalism and universal humanism, undaunted technological progress, globalism, enlightenment, and personal empowerment through access to electronic information flows, aided by the wondrous power of capital in a free market economy. This narrative continues to gain strength despite the growing disparity between rich and poor, both within and between nation states. This type of advertising discourse articulates a corporate vision of the future as a technotopia -- a technotopia made possible by science, technology, and investment. These commercials are more than rhetoric; they form a pervasive, coherent, hegemonic vision of the future.

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