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The serial montage and the myth of communicative transcendence

Cisco04-99 WorldCom07-01
MCI06-97 Akami03-01

The serial montage links snippets of statements made by multiracial (signified by skin color), multicultural (signified by clothing styles), multi-accentual (signified by accented English), and multiregional (signified both rural and urban background scenes) speakers.

Within this strategy, each person is presented as a node on the communication network. Instead of a single narrative voiceover, the serial montage compiles the narration as the sum of the participants voices. In such ads, the narrative often takes the form of a litany. Or, more precisely, it registers as litany because of the way it is performed. Recall that the litany is "a form of liturgical prayer that consists of a series of invocations and supplications, with alternating responses in which clergy and congregation joins" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary).

The serial montage aims at interweaving photographic style and musical style to signify a narrative of empowerment or general social well-being. Microsoft seeks to join its overall democratic litany of well-being with itself, to establish an equivalence, and hence a value. And Cisco competes with their version of a democratic litany and WorldCom offers yet another.

The serial montage, because its moves past us horizontally, and not vertically, suggests an absence of hierarchy and power relations. By its form, the serial montage gives the impression of greater inclusiveness of distinctions associated with race, class, gender, ethnicity, and social positioning. This impression reinforces the metanarrative of the communications industry - that free and open and fast communications eliminates discrimination.

The Family of Man montage

Microsoft01-95 Ford08-99
Microsoft Ford

The aesthetic referent for classic humanism is The Family of Man, an exhibition created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. It was composed of 503 photographs from 68 countries covering approximately a one hundred year period. Organized around universals -- death, gestures (smiles, tears,) family relations, play, work, war, etc. The Family of Man exhibit constructed human essence based on participation in these experiences. We are born, we work , we play, we cry, we laugh, and we die. Ergo we are human. In order to universalize experiences they must be decontextualized-- removed from time and place, disconnected from socio-historical context and then recontextualized around 'chosen' universals. In The Family of Man dates are removed. The activity in each frame is given meaning because it shares similarity with adjacent photographs. Moreover, biblical, Native American, and literary quotes, which are also decontextualized, bind sections of the exhibit together. Universality is reduced to a maxim. There is no room for historical detail. Barthes criticized the classic humanist perspective for removing the realm of experience from the flow of history.

Lutz and Collins direct a similar critique at National Geographic. They argue that National Geographic is informed by "static humanism principles that assert universal sameness across boundaries of race, class, gender, language, and politics." This isolates subjectivity from the existential conditions of time and place and reframes it as human essence. They argue that this approach disguises the conflict and suffering associated with class and race and creates a "'foreclosure' of discussion on the issues associated with these social determinants" (1993:165).

We can easily recognize how the logic of advertising parallels this process -- choosing signifiers, decontextualizing them from their historical moments, recontextualizing each signifier in the flow of other decontextualized signifiers, complete the meaning with a slogan. The nature of the photographic image itself supports this process. As Berger and Mohr note "All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of continuity. ...Discontinuity always produces ambiguity." (1982: 91). Decontextualization is the nature of the medium. Given this we must ask: How are images assembled? What motivates their assemblage? How do advertisers use photographic codes to direct viewers to desired readings?

Sign Formulas & Branding
Signifying Clusters
Structural Frames
This is the reign of gnomic truths, the meeting of all the ages of humanity at the most neutral point of their nature, the point where the obviousness of the truism has no longer any value except in the realm of a purely 'poetic' language. Everything here, the content and appeal of the pictures, the discourse which justifies them, aims to suppress the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical alienation introduces some 'differences' which we shall here quite simply call 'injustices'.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 1972: 101

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Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey