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Over the past four years we have been constructing a website
entitled Landscapes of Capital: Representing Time, Space, and Globalization in
Corporate Advertising. Our research is based on a data set that includes 1000
television commercials aired between 1995 and the present. The ads in our
database feature the state of the corporation more than the commodities they
are selling, and our database tilts toward certain sectors of Capital.
Predominant in our sample are ads for companies in the communications,
information technology, financial "services," and energy extraction
and distribution sectors.
Our website is arranged in terms of six interrelated inquiries:
Mapping Global Capital, Global Capital, the Semiotics of Advertising, Grand
Narratives Revisited, Landscapes: the Geography of Capital, and Speed:
Conquering Time and Space. It also contains a glossary, a bibliography and our
searchable video database covering all the commercials in our study. Here, we
have drawn from that project to present one section of our inquiry into how
advertising represents the relations of time and space.
Our project addresses how Capital constructs itself in
advertising discourse. We are interested in how Capital ideologically envisions
its relationship to both Society and everyday life at a moment of vast
historical transformation across the planet. We are interested in how Capital
represents itself in relation to globalization and to the development of high
technology. We are mapping the relationships between the system of commodity
signs that advertising produces and the emerging global system of production
and investment. More precisely still, in this essay, we want to consider how
representations of speed might be related to a global system of producing time
A series of closely intertwined narrative frames recur throughout
the TV ads we have examined. Speed is consistently linked to the values of
freedom. This is especially so in ads aimed at consumers. But speed is also
linked to values of productivity, efficiency and control in ads directed at
investors. It is portrayed as reducing friction and abolishing constraint. It
is often depicted as populist in spiritleveling hierarchy and putting an
end to unfair privilege. Instant information flows are cast as the key to
future profits as if approaching absolute speed can abolish all constraint and
all limits to the growth of capital. In this sense, speed is sometimes cast as
a means to a glorious endheaven on earth.
What we see on TV of course is not speed in and of itself but a
simulation of speedit is spectacular speed. A first obvious but necessary
pointdepictions of Speed, on television, are mostly Visual. Speed does
not eliminate landscapes, but is dependent on the presence of visually
signified landscapes for its own signification. Still, representations of speed
often hollow out space, hollowing out landscapes. Spaces become places to be
passed through. And Speed, though it is sometimes paired with Nostalgia, tends
to be incompatible with any profound sense of history or memory. After all, if
everything is always a perceptual blur of speed, a blur of things rushing past,
how is it possible to grab hold of the referentials that are whizzing past?
Speed negates the referentiality necessary for history and memory to be
Speed becomes the visual semiotic codes used to signify
"speed." And we, as viewers, have learned to distinguish between
multiple significations of speedthere is out-of-control speed, in-control
speed, good speed, bad speed, frenetic speed, frozen time, indices of speed,
internal speed, external speed, pleasure speed, fear speed.
Sometimes a signifier, sometimes a narrative frame, in this essay
we explore some interrelated aspects of speed's representation. First, we focus
on the speed of Capital and how advertising represents infrastructure in
relation to time and distance. We examine the relationship of speed to flexible
accumulation and some of the practices associated with itjust-in-time
production, supply chain management, organizational flexibility, system
integration, and rapid-response time, and the ability to conduct markets in
Second, we look at how Capital represents the relation between
everyday life and these emergent corporate economic formations. Here speed
overflows the boundaries of production and investment into the domain of
everyday life and the world of consumption. And while constant acceleration is
celebrated within production and the marketplace, it has the potential to
disrupt everyday life. Managing a home and simultaneously keeping up with
pressures of work is often a daunting task. Stressing time savings and the
efficiency of electronic communications technologies, this advertising seeks to
balance out the imperative to fill consumption time to the max with the desire
to maintain control over time and space.
Third, we reflect on the representation of Speed itself.
Representation does not stand autonomously outside of Capital. The logic of
representation exists in a dialectic with Capital as a political-economic
formation. We argue that the dominant processes in each of these realms,
abstraction and deterritorialization, are joined at the hip. In both, cultural
signifiers are freed from their material origins and speed through the
electronic circuits of Capital.
What can we learn about time-space compression from the ways in
which it is represented? Bound both to questions of Speed and Representation
are questions about "deterritorialization." The flip side of
time-space compression is deterritorialization. So too, abstraction is
inherently weighted towards representations of deterritorialization. How are
matters of "place," "community" and "collective
memory" represented when older conceptions of time and space are under
pressure? What does it mean to exist outside time and space? What does it mean
to conceptualize our moment in history as taking place outside time and space?
In the larger project from which this is drawn, we see that as
capital spreads across the globe, advertising becomes a legitimation discourse
for the new globalism, representing corporations and their practices as
beneficial to individual and social well-being. Taken as a whole, the ads that
we have examined construct narratives saturated in mythologies of universal
humanism and the wondrous power of technology, science, investment, and free
markets. The same body of ads can be seen building up, and working off of, a
language of images. In this way, a "pop" idiom has evolved,
circulating through the various stations of the advertising cycle, that today
visually establishes the assumptions for any public discussions of relations
between science, technology, capital, the government, and you, the consumer.
But this political goal is not the only agenda at play in these
corporate ads. The ads are also devoted to building up the sign values of the
sponsoring corporation. The sign value is generally viewed as a
"brand." Just as the sign value of a beer has a lot to do with which
corporate beer sells the most, so the corporate sign value can be deployed to
either give the brand an equity valuation pop, or be used to offset tremors in
the marketplace that are the product of anxieties. In our view, advertising is
a mechanism that permits the manufacture of sign values constructed out of the
raw materials that are cultural in their constitution. Advertising is in this
sense an "appropriation" machine, lifting meanings out of context,
putting them into a relationship with a commodity or a corporation. The surge
of Wall Street and the bubble market in the latter 1990s brought into being
rapidly emerging bodies of corporate capital in the telecommunications sector.
Companies such as Cisco, Nortel and Lucent, their market capitalization swollen
on dizzying stock prices for their shares, felt compelled to both identify
themselves as major players in the contemporary capitalist order, and to
bolster their position in a widening investor space by building up an enhanced
brand identity and brand equity. In the course of trying to bolster their
public image and trying to pump up stock prices further, many companies
have attempted to position themselves in terms of speed.
Speed and the Logic of Capital:
Conquering Time and Space
Karl Marx, writing in the Grundrisse in 1857, anticipated how the
contradictions of Capital could spur on the "annihilation of space by
time." He wrote, "While capital ...must strive to tear down every
barrier...to exchange and conquer the whole earth for its markets, it strives
on the other side to annihilate this space with time." (Marx 1973:538-539)
Certainly, advertising has done its best to equate gains in speed with general
notions of progresshow often have you heard an ad refer to gaining time by
using a particular product? In a world seemingly packed to capacity with things
to do and places to be, the technology of speed promises to deliver us to a
Breaking speed-barriers is not a new obsession. Speed of movement
not only signals our capacity for overcoming the fixity of geographical
distance (space), it also has come to suggest the possibility for increased
flexibility, efficiency and productivity. Since its inception, capitalism has
measured value in terms of time inputs since the amount of labor required to
produce a commodity could most easily be measured in units of time. So it
stands to reason that our "common-sense" understanding of
technologies of speed connote a future liberation from material scarcity. In
contemporary society, where time itself has become perceived as a scarce
resource, appeals to instantaneity and immediacy are seductive. Has speed
annihilated spatial distance? Paul Virilio writes that one of the most
revolutionary transformations occurring today "is the invention of a
perspective of real time."
Real time now prevails above both real space and the geosphere.
The primacy of real time, of immediacy, over and above space and surface is a
fait accompli and ushers a new epoch. Something nicely conjured up in a
(French) advertisement praising cellular phones with the words: "Planet
Earth has never been this small". This is a very dramatic moment in our
relation with the world and for our vision of the world. (Virilio 1995)
Virilio sees a dark side to the hegemony of speed. Sometimes
referred to as time-space compression, sometimes as deterritorialization, this
process threatens/promises to transform not only the ways in which we work and
do business, but also the ways in which we conduct and experience our private
lives. Virilio contends that hyperspeed induces a general "loss of
orientation." How do corporate ads represent hyperspeed in our lives?
Here it is important once again to distinguish between what
actually goes on in the world and how it is represented, or at least leave open
the question of how these are related. Our own position is that while
time-space compression and deterritorialization are real processes, not simply
discourses, they produce neither homogeneous time nor homogeneous space.
Capitalism is nothing, if not uneven, in the production of space and time.
Close inspection of the ads in our database does not reveal a
singular kind of hegemonic speed, but a more contradictory set of
representations. Indeed, while "faster" is everywhere presumed to be
the goal in these commercials, the technologies of speed and commodification
are no less obsessed with repetitionso much so that latent meanings of speed
in the ads suggest that efforts at eclipsing space have placed us in an
infinite loop. But the efforts at representing digital networks operating in
"real time" require a shift in our vision of the worlda shift
in our vision of how time, space and culture can be viewed as coordinates on a
Perhaps we should revisit the question of space-time compression
that stems from market-driven races for short-term profit. Few would argue
today that the rhythm of business life is changingtime is compressed, pace
has accelerated, and the materiality of distance is shrinking. Change is moving
at Internet speed!
David Harvey advances the concept of "time-space
compression" to signal "processes that so revolutionize the objective
qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite
radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves." (1989:240). Harvey
points out that many of the transportation and communication technologies
advanced by capitalist corporations have had the effect of shrinking space.
Spatial barriers have been overcome largely through speedier methods of sending
material goods, information, and people. As distance has been overcome, time
too becomes compressed.
Our social spaces are more and more designed and built by
capitalist firms to facilitate greater efficiency of transactions with
customers. Wal*Mart, like the large grocery megamarkets it competes against,
has worked hard to streamline the purchasing/exiting function, so as not to
slow up the transactions that may follow. Soon, we may well see a supermarket
like the one shown in this 1999 IBM ad which follows a trench-coated man who
walks up and down the aisles grabbing goods and stuffing them in his pockets.
Egged on by the dramatic music and the surveillance camera catching his image
as he stuffs his pockets full, we might assume that he is shoplifting. And as
he exits the store, the voice of the security guard calls out from behind him
"Excuse me sir...You forgot your receipt." The speed and invisibility
of total scanning technologies permits the abolition of "check-out
lines"one of the time vortices of everyday life in the modern world.
Firms like this will introduce the entire shopping cart barcode scanner
self-service (elimination of labor costs) and greater speed of transaction in
one move, not to mention the extension of the panoptic capacity of the company,
and the elimination of shoplifting.
Most of our electronic devices are dedicated to speeding things
upmore CPU power can mean more cycles per second, and hence more
"work" and greater productivity. In a world obsessed with cutting out
wasted time and going faster, experience may grow more and more ephemeral and
fragmented. Harvey's concern is that spatial and temporal relations become so
destabilized as a result of constant flux that these can provide little in the
way of anchoring social relations and social formations (Harvey 1989: 238-239).
This tension is heightened by the fact that abstract spaces relentlessly peck
away at, and replace, places. Though we are loath to romanticize
"place," we do agree with Harvey that this historical process draws
out "place-bound nostalgias" (1989: 218).
Many corporate ads in our database seek to represent space-time
compression either as a product of high technologies, or as a function of
globalized business. They depict globalization as a serial montage of
landscapes. In the video strings of landscapes that frequently make up these
ads, each scene carries roughly the same weight or significance as that which
precedes it or that which follows. These landscapes suggest spaces defined by
equivalency, bound together by the ad, and by extension, the sponsor. The
panoramic version of this landscape style was evident in a 1995 AT&T ad
depicting the integration of China into the world system. Time and space appear
to dissolve as variables, so that the space of a Chinese peasant can appear to
be simultaneous with that of an urban apartment in a North American city
because now it's all "one world." The various spaces referred to in
this ad are all signified as abstractionscarefully simulated, over-stylized
backdrops. Telephony is presented as the means of shrinking and overcoming the
barrier of distance. A solo male voice draws out this sentiment in song,
"it's all within your reach." And a reassuring male voice-over offers
this closing summary: "AT&T. That's your true choice."
In this vision of technologically integrated globalism, AT&T
wants less to assert the primacy of space over place, than to deny that speed
is antithetical to geographical territory. According to AT&T's cosmology of
globalism, advanced telecommunications do not displace geographically located
cultural identities, but instead unify themleaving intact the cultural
primacy of territory, but overcoming all its limits.
The vision of social relations emoted throughout the AT&T ad
campaign is colored by humanistic connotations of spirituality. The music
orchestrates a sweet (almost saccharine) version of spiritual fulfillment as
rooted in caring personal relations in a world characterized by the global
separation of families and kin groups. What goes unsaid here is that these
people are likely separated by the dynamics of labor migration prompted by
now-global capitalist labor markets. But this does nothing to diminish the
AT&T claim that they have deployed the civil technology to reunite that
which capitalism stretched asunder.
We have previously dubbed ads like this as legitimation ads
because of the way they ideologically promote an institutional system.
"AT&T. That's your true choice." "it's all one world."
Real Time and Time-Space Compression
In the discourse of corporate advertising, the subject of real
time comes up in relation to various agendas: 1) general issues of competition
in the marketplace, where speed becomes its own justification and where faster
to market means more profits; 2) the immediacy of computerized stock trading
brings the promise of lower costs and premise of fairer exchanges 3) organizing
complex and far-flung divisions of labor within a globally extensive corporate
world; 4) being able to monitor sales and inventory supplies on a daily and
even hourly basis in order to control costs and integrate systems management;
5) the video simulacrum where time-space compression is achieved via the magic of cameras and computers.
A 2001 IBM ad addresses the rationale of "real time"
directly as a matter of profit imperatives. IBM's spokesman situates the
question of real time in an ominous and menacing tone:
Here the hegemony of real time is presented as a hostile
necessity, as a fait accompli driven by inexorable market forces that cannot be
resisted or debated. A meta-narrative of speed weaves itself into narrative
assumptions regarding competitive markets. The voracious and the insatiable
appetites of market growth demand greater speed in the circulation of Capital.
The forces of capital driven markets are also likened to the laws of
nature"Time waits for no man or woman or business . . . everything
faster. Products to market, ideas to profits." The IBM ad unfolds this
way, offering an almost structural-Marxian interpretation of how the underlying
forces of capitalism become more and more determinant in the decisions and
choices that actors must make. Here we have the contradictions of capital
circulationas capital matures and there is greater competition and profit
margins grow thinner, then being able to do things faster makes a lot of
sensefaster to market brings with it competitive advantage and offsets
the tendency for the rate of profit to decline. But going faster carries its
own price, it takes competition into the realm of circulation time. But panic
marketing offers a quick way out"powerful software" (scientific
magic) can tame the imperatives of market speed by controlling real
timethe absolute present.
Telecommunications companies intent on selling the technologies
of bandwidth situate the mastery of real time in terms of the immediate
availability of all knowledge, anywhere and anytime. For firms like Qwest, real
time refers to the totality of instantaneous consumption options available in
the here and now. No need for deferred gratification here. In the universe
depicted by corporate advertising all stages of the capital circulation process
begin to be characterized in a similar wayone can consume instantly,
trade stocks instantly (e*trade and Ameritrade), make markets instantly (NYSE),
distribute goods overnight (UPS and FedEx), and share ideas instantly
(AT&T). Hence the insistent repetition of the 1999 NYSE ad campaign's
choral refrain"Right here. Right now. Right here. Right now."
To investors, the speed of a trade's execution is all important.
The trade that takes place in real time is the holy grail, insofar as all
market information is time-sensitive. The bid and ask quotes of ten minutes ago
can be a liability if a trade takes that long to execute. The slower the
transaction of trade request, the less advantaged one is in the marketplace.
Hence, the transaction speed of brokers becomes a signifying highlight in their
competition for business. One Datek ad from 2000 takes viewers on an imaginary
trip inside the electronic circuitry and pathways that constitute the
computerized innards of the trading system, inviting viewers to experience the
simulated speed of an electronic transaction just as if you were on the ride
itself. Datek then promised that every trade would be executed within 60
seconds; by 2004 Ameritrade guarantees the market execution of orders in 5
seconds or less!
AT&T's 2001 commercial for its broadband network services
presented real time in relation to organizational efficiency and the task of
reconnecting the various elements of a now globally dispersed division of
outsourced labor, thus also casting real time in terms of time-space
compression. Visually and aurally this ad shrinks the global landscape in
relation to the matter of speedconceiving a strictly bounded world in
which the flows of information, goods and people are restricted by neither time
nor distance. Such commercials also speak to the time-space compression
implicit in both electronic communications and globalization. According to
AT&T "real-time connectivity" means that a decentralized
corporate division of labor dispersed across the planet can interface
seamlessly and "boundlessly."
AT&T visually compresses spatial distance by presenting the
world system on a scale comparable to that of a model train. Indeed, the speed
of connectivity is presented metaphorically in terms of train speeda form
of modern transport that helped initiate time-space compression. Like
technologies of telephonic long distance, technologies of railroads and
trucking aimed at conquering the limitations of distance by reducing
transit time. Advertisers deploy imagery of earlier technologies in an effort
to make comprehensible a new stage of communications technology that claims to
transcend altogether the limits of time and geographic space.
Like AT&T, other advertisers pursue similar representational
strategies to create a tangible picture of the corporate information economy.
How does one depict the transport of goods that are not objects? The adoption
of the modern train as a visual metaphor for the information economy is not
uncommon. GTE's 1998 campaign explicitly linked the train to a multiplicity of
landscapes to conjure up the concept of an information economyan economy
in which the most the "most precious cargo" [read commodity] to be
moved is "your ideas."
This type of picture seems closely tied to the imagery of a
global civil society suffused by a spirit of prosperity, civility, peace and
freedom from want or conflict. It is interesting that such an aggressively
competitive marketplace could be shown as giving rise to a civil society that
seems marked precisely by the absence of competitive conflicts. Indeed, in
stark contrast to the speed of technology and business, the relationships of
civil society seem caught in a time warp. Jean Baudrillard addresses speed
from almost every angle of his musingsfrom his theory of simulacra to the
paradoxes of history. For Baudrillard history has come to a standstill, even
though its internal mechanism whips along at hyperspeed. Indeed for Baudrillard
it is the logic of hyperspeed that has arrested history. The mechanism is
similar to the weed killer known as Roundup that so accelerates the growth of
the plant that it exhausts the weed, killing it.
Corporate ads (as opposed to consumer goods ads) also seem to
present a curious "end of history" and an "end of ideology"
(as absurd as this might seem given the news of the day). Advertising envisions
an end to history made possible by the mastery of speed in the marketplace.
Given that this is a post-Fordist economy, the question of speed in business
has to do less with production processes than with the circulation time of
exchange. The biggest difference between the cosmology presented in the ads and
that of Baudrillard is that in the ads, hyperspeed produces not a living death,
but a virtual paradise on earth. Hence the curious propensity for so much slow
motion in television ads that aim to signify the advantages of speed in our
lives. Whereas economic time speeds up in these representations, turning
laborers into a ghostly blur, consumers/citizens live at an almost pastoral
pace in civil society.
Microsoft also offers a real time solution to the problems of
business integration in a global marketplace. Microsoft refers to its solution
as "one degree of separation." Here speed is depicted through total
calmness and control. In one ad, an accident in a wine storage room occurs, and
even as the bottles are falling and breaking in slow motion, a manager in Asia
using a handheld device reacts to the sharp and immediate spike in prices for
the wine as supply is diminished elsewhere in the supply chain. Distance and
time are no longer obstacles to perfect information flows necessary to both
inventory controls and integrating supply and demand. Global markets across
space and time become unified and synchronized. Speed, or rather the
perception of speed, also disappears because it is no longer necessary to
accentuate speed when there is but one singular spaceone degree of
Accumulation is a temporal activity. Decades of state regulations
of industries brought a political backlash of deregulation in the Reagan era
precisely because business interests complained that government bureaucracy
created so much friction in the conduct of markets that profits were
restricted. As capitalism matures and becomes dominant, rates of profit become
more and more difficult to sustain. Many commercials for telecommunications,
computing, internet and software portray the solution in the use of new
technologies to both accelerate and integrate the cycle of production.
Productivity is seen as a function of the velocity of the flow of objects,
goods, personnel, services, signs, and data that move through organizations and
extra-organizational systems. But how fast can the flow move before systems
break down? On the flip side, what are the obstacles and friction points that
limit or restrict velocity?
What happens when the unexpected occurs? Can an organization
respond in a flexible and timely manner? It is no longer enough that an
organization run efficiently. Efficiency must now extend beyond organizational
structures into the world of supply and demand. In a marketplace where
consumers come armed with "smart" credit cards and wireless
technology and are encouraged to expect that all commodities and services will
be within 24 hours reach, corporations are expected to design friction-free
response mechanisms. On the other side of the supply chain, B2B technology
providers promise just-in-time delivery of production materials as needed.
Flexible, friction-free integration of the supply chain is an oft-repeated
mantra in the contemporary corporate world. Advertising reflects this in two
ways. IBM commercials often depict episodes of failed integration in which
corporate employees and executives confront system breakdown. Against the
backdrop of overwhelming anxiety associated with failure and the threat of job
loss, IBM presents itself as providing the services that can keep complex
technological systems from failing. On the other hand, with an upbeat musical
score in the background, Siemens' commercials show Siemens' systems responding
fluidly to last-minute changes in corporate decisions. The imagery of
integrated instantaneity permits undisturbed production to continue seamlessly.
The premise of a friction-free economy harkens back to Adam
Smith's model of a market driven by an "invisible hand" that assumes
all market participants share complete access to unrestricted information flows
and act rationally. This is an assumption that even Thomas Hobbes would have
rejected, recognizing that power comes not simply from having access to all
relevant information, but that power often comes to those actors who can take
advantages of disrupted and uneven flows of information. Indeed, the rationally
maximizing market agent is one who may in fact instigate bottlenecks and delays
to maximize self-interest.
Using representations that blend speed and integration, the UPS
"Brown" branding campaign promises integrated supply chain
management. The campaign depicts persons positioned at different points in the
corporate hierarchy: CEO, CFO, logistics manager, shipping manager, and the
mailroom guy. Each figure speaks to UPS's ability to ensure the proper rate
and flow of data and materials under their supervision/surveillance. Speakers
link UPS's integrated system to reduced levels of personal anxiety in their
work lives. A smooth running system proves therapeutic.
In War in the Age of Intelligent Machine, Manuel DeLanda
states that "...a commander must track the points at which
friction may be dispersed within tactical, command systems in order to preserve
the efficiency and integrity of a war machine during battle" (DeLanda 1991: 61). The role of
the commander is to disperse "the 'friction' (delays,
bottlenecks, noisy data) produced by the fog of war" (DeLanda 1991: 23).
In a UPS ad the CEO confidently states that he is able to both
track "minute by minute" and to anticipate unexpected events (a herd
of zebras cross in front of a herd of elephants) in order to avoid chaos and
disaster because UPS provides the necessary supportive structure. Moreover,
like other corporate representatives depicted throughout this campaign he seems
Not only must the organizational apparatus run friction-free, it
must also at any given moment have the appropriate personnel along the supply
chain to locate the position of any object (or the data simulation of the
object) as it moves through the process. UPS presents itself as self-contained
system that will accelerate the flow of objects and data while simultaneously
tracking every element. Scanning technology and tracking numbers function to
position every object in the flow. Increasingly, this technology has been
applied to human movement across borders, through airport terminals, across
toll bridges (EZ Pass), at cash registers, etc. Ironically, the need for speed
results in an expanded demand for panoptic control.
Speed of Capital
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
(1848/1978) penned the famous phrase, "All that is solid melts into
air." Already in 1848, so soon into the era of Capital, Marx and Engels
had noticed Capital's propensity (under the direction of the Bourgeoisie) for
an accelerated pace of change. Later, when Marx wrote about labor time as the
central determinant of exchange value, he dwelt on the fact that speed would be
a crucial variable in the development of capitalist political economies. Still,
Marx might have understated the degree to which a labor theory of value is
dependent on a theory of speedor more properly, a theory of accelerating
production. Teresa Brennan's (1993) reexamination of Marx's argument explicitly
recognizes the role of space and distance in the value composition process.
Drawing on the theory that labor is the source of all value, Marx focused the
labor theory of value on a critique of exploitationwith special emphasis on
the character of capitalist exploitation. Within his argument about the
structural character of unequal exchange, Marx showed how capitalists
recognized time, or more specifically, labor time as the crucial measure of
value in its reified formnamely money. That way, Capital could make every
diverse form of labor commensurate with a universal standard of measure. The
category of wage labor rests precisely upon abstracting out from any particular
kind of labor the time expended in labor as measured in hours and minutes. Our
measures of efficiency depend on this.
Those following in the tradition of Marx observed that
Capitalists have historically sought to wrest (exploit) more value from labor
by means of "the speedup." In pointing to the exploitative power
relationship that drives speedups, this Marxian tradition has located these as
class struggles between Capital and Labor over power on the factory floor. And
yet, though class conflict was the practical matter at hand, there was more
than class conflict at work herebecause speedups of production also aimed
at overcoming another fundamental contradiction of capital accumulation.
Marx pointed to the general speedup in production processes when
he addressed the contradiction between the commodity form and the dead time
that occurred in the cycle of commodity production, distribution, sales and
reinvestment. Marx variously referred to this phase of Capital in the circuitry
of circulation as "fallow time" or time "at rest"but
his point was always that such time represented "negated" Capital
(Marx 1973: 546; 621; Harvey, 1982: 85). When Capital takes the form of stock
inventories, this is time when Capital cannot be "at work."
Delays in the circulation of the commodity through its cycle
represent opportunity costs, for any time that the commodity form spends in
warehouses, or sitting on shelves, means that the money equivalent of that
commodity could not be reinvested and "earning" more return on
equity. In short, time spent in circulation is time not spent in production or
commodity realization. David Harvey puts it this way:
There is, therefore, considerable pressure to accelerate the velocity
of circulation of capital, because to do so is to increase the sum of values
produced and rate of profit. The barriers to realization are minimized when the
"transition of capital from one phase to the next" occurs "at
the speed of thought" (Marx 1973:631). The turnover time of capital is, in
itself, a fundamental measure which also indicates certain barriers to
accumulation. Since an accelerating rate of turnover of capital reduces the
time during which opportunities pass by unseized, a reduction in turnover time
releases resources for further accumulation (Harvey 1982: 86).
Marx defined circulation time in terms of how long it takes
to "realize the value embodied in the commodity through the exchange
process" (Harvey 1982: 62). The speed and efficiency of the transformation
of the commodity form of capital into the money capital is pivotal to the
reproduction/expansion of Capital (Harvey 1982:71).
In the century and a half since Marx began writing, Capital has
come up with many new institutional mechanisms for overcoming drags on
commodity reproduction. The massification of the credit system in the early
20th century still stands out as a dramatic intervention. The nurturing of
marketing and advertising systems to stoke up additional demand for goods
comprises another familiar approach. Each successful intervention was soon
mimicked by competitors, and thus each advancement in shortening cycle time
contributed to a further quickening of commodity circulation, until today speed
and turnover are the watchwords of the Marketplace.
Speed has as its referent not just time but also distance. Speed
refers not only to how quickly or slowly the digital pulse of a timepiece
moves, but also to movement across space. For firms like FedEx and UPS the
question of speed refers to how fast they can transport goods from one
geographic site to another place. FedEx and UPS have defined themselves as
supply chain management specialists. They claim to be able to move as fast as
is necessary to keep up with the integrated global supply chain in such a way
that clients can minimize warehousing costs.
For companies like Intel in the semiconductor chip manufacturing
sector the question of speed refers to how rapidly a processor can cycle and
cycle again, and to the way in which Moore's Law continues to play itself out
(Moore's Law states that chip capacity doubles every eighteen months). Measured
in Gigahertz, every corporate research group is competing to build the fastest
For firms like Amazon.com, the question of speed refers to the
absence of time spent in physical infrastructuresthe effort to overcome the
idle time of products sitting on a shelf that Marx referred to as a barrier to
value realization. Amazon.com's business model touted its being an Internet
businessthe store on-line as opposed to the more prosaic land-locked
storefrontsland and buildings have rents, taxes and insurance costs
associated with them, while Amazon's cyberbusiness promised consumers nearly
immediate shipment of the books at discounted prices. Why leave the house, when
we can rush it to you?
Teresa Brennan (1993:147;150) observes that "speed, measured
by distance as well as time, involves a linear axis, time, and the lateral axis
of space." Brennan's point is that the space-time of short-term profit
comes into conflict with the "generational time of natural
reproduction" and that in the struggle to overcome the contradictions of
the profit mechanism, the market driven space-time of speed eventually
displaces (she says "takes the place of") generational time."
Brennan's distinction hinges on the assumption that generational
time is a biological constant. But is it? Not according to the mass media
which with their own axe to grind have held that generational time itself has
undergone a speedup in recent decades, shrinking adolescence into a series of
fashion cycles. This prompts concerns about how children are growing up too
fast, losing out on the romance and innocence of childhood. Generational time
itself has been turned into a commodity and is thus subject to the same
internal pressures as any other commodity.
Brennan builds her argument on an oppositiona contradiction
between the "competing dynamics" of 1) the Speed of Capital, driven
by the demand to realize short-term profits and further Capital formation, and
2) the existence of a Natural Order, whose rate of reproduction must remain
relatively constant (1993:133). The premise of a natural order driven by
biological imperatives seems to us problematic. Isn"t such recourse to
claims regarding "Natural Entities" yet another socially constructed
fantasy, although always important nonetheless, precisely because it is social
fantasy? Maybe it is one of our most important collective fantasies, a need to
believe that we are part of some natural history.
Brennan's theory poses the contradiction stemming from the Speed
of Capital in terms of the postulate of "organic time." Is this
organic time, the pace at which generational change takes place, a question of
empirical reality or metaphysics? Indeed, why pose the social contradictions of
speed in such Rousseauian terms? Is it because it assumes something of Marx's
critical ideal of "species being?"
Perhaps because we still want to believe that our most inherent
sensibilities will prompt us to snap back against mounting forms of capitalist
alienation, this argument about a fundamental schism between the accelerating
cycle time of commerce and the "natural" time of organic life becomes
inviting. The myth of organic time beckons because it offers the prospect of
achieving a form of spiritual salvation.
Blurred Labor time
A 2001 Cisco commercial hypes the ability of Cisco Systems to
integrate a just-in-time production system for manufacturing and shipping
bicycles. Located in a warehouse/production facility, the commercial distorts
and speeds up motion to create an impression of hyperactive productivity. Most
of the movement takes place around a packing crate (the primary signifier for
on-time inventory). The music races along, relentlessly hyperactive, edgy but
energetic, framing a manufacturing and shipping process that also races along
in a blur of motion. We also see what appears to be a snippet of a speeded up
assembly line of bicycle production. Once again, both the method of signifying
speed and the ultimate signifier of speed is time-lapse photography. Though
time is accelerated, space is held constant here as the camera circles the men
and the packing crate. Space is held constant, while technology races to
eclipse temporal limits, and with them the asynchronous dilemmasi.e.,
inventory problems, too late, too soon bottlenecks that cut into operating
margins. Of course, the goal and the achievement in the advertising narrative
is to get as close as possible to friction-less synchronous time.
The speed of an Internet-facilitated just-in-time production
process is simulated by the acceleration of the video. Here speed is depicted
through video time-compression. The technique is hardly new, but it is pivotal
to the representationfilm a day's worth of activity and compress it down
to 15 seconds. What remains is the perceptible blur of meaningful activity,
rather than the meaningful specificity of the activity itself. And yet as the
ad winds down, as it seeks to drive home its message about gaining control over
the inventory process, the music calms and soothes out, just as the video slows
to focus on a title frame that reads, "Inventory management on the
Internet." This gives way to a computer screen showing part inventories
and an image of the "black widow [bicycle] crank." This image brings
us to a sequence of two nearly-still scenes of an older worker (a craftsman)
checking a bicycle wheel as it slowly rotates, followed by someone wearing a
welder's mask poised as if welding a frame.
Why does Cisco follow the imagery of a high-speed workspace with
two portraits of craftsman-like characters? The pace and duration of these
scenes lead us to perceive the persistence of craft in production. But why?
There is a hint of nostalgia here in this moment of apparent stillness, albeit
a nostalgia for the future of a computer-system facilitated craftsmanship. This
mythological "return of craft" is a product of a semiotic opposition
between the faceless blur of a workday in which, truly, workers have become
just another factor of production (Braverman 1976). By contrast, the image of
an older male's face suggests the revival of craftsmanship because it is, by
far, the least abstracted image in the commercial. Indeed, Cisco suggests that
harnessing the power of the Internet returns the face of humanity to work.
While all other workers have been blurred into fleeting anonymity, his is the
only face recognizable as such, the only face on which we can see the traces of
motivated subjectivity. And yet he performs no activitywe only see him
looking at the wheel, not producing it. An ensuing image of a welder as a
signifier of a skilled producer is also mobilized strictly for the purpose of
signifying the craftworker, since he merely feigns the act of work.
This last portion of the ad aims to distinguish pure speed from
controlled and managed speed. One message that may be taken from this ad is
that a competitive advantage can be gained in synchronizing the division of
labor via the Internet as a technology that permits the asynchronous management
and coordination of data. Managed time in this worldview permits un-alienated
labor. What then does this ad have to tell us about working at hyperspeed? What
values are being promoted in depicting human labor as a time-compressed blur?
And what is the relationship between a time-compressed labor process that
adheres to the competitive logic of capitalist time and the almost paradisiacal
craft labor time that Cisco technology makes possible?
The imagery of accelerated human movements in the workplace is
not new. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times captured the shift from craft to
assembly production taking place in the 1930's. There, Chaplin worked on an
assembly line that was subject to constant speed and panoptic surveillance by
an all-powerful factory boss. Even the lunch break was automated with an
experimental feeding machine designed to adjust the individual to the
predetermined movement of objects. Finally, after one too many speed-ups
Chaplin has a breakdown and runs amok, a wrench in each hand, frantically
tightening anything with a bolt. He is finally caught and carted off to a
psychiatric hospital. The capitalist dream of high velocity production system
reaches a limit: the physiological and psychological limits of the human body.
But the logic of capital as Marx demonstrated is to continually speed up
production to extract more out of labor. Time-motion studies, robotics,
electronic surveillance, cube farms, etc. have one endintegrated and
accelerated production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Both the
practice and the ethos of craft wanes under the continuous assault of demands
for efficiency and productivity, and the panoptic sensibility becomes less
overtly visible and authoritarian, the boss's eye of Modern Times replaced by
Cisco's management systems. What is most intriguing about the difference
between Modern Times and the Cisco account of supermodern times is the
different tone and attitude toward speed. Whereas Modern Times posed critical
questions about the limits of speed in the workplaceabout what human beings
could tolerate both physically and psychologicallythe Cisco ad poses no
critical questions about the workplace or the human condition. In fact, it
could be argued that Cisco presumes that speed goes hand in hand with an
unalienated workplace and work experience.
Speed, Simultaneity, and IdentityCasino Cyborg
Critiques of free market capitalism focus on the structure of
markets and their relationship to social institutions. The instability and
volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in
more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional
economies. Susan Strange (1986: 9-10) calls this instability "casino
capitalism," a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way
in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks
turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and
the shift to self-regulation by banks.
According to Strange the speed at which markets work combined
with their now, near-universal pervasiveness results in a volatility that
extends globally. Approximately $1.5 trillion dollars are invested daily as
foreign transactions (Khor 1998: 2). It is estimated that 98 per cent of these
transactions are speculative. In The Crisis of Global Capitalism, investment
guru George Soros (1998) also highlights the potential for disequilibria in the
financial system, and the inability of non-market sectors to regulate markets.
In False Dawn, John Gray (1998: 74) echoes that "national governments find
themselves in environments not merely of risk but of radical uncertainty."
Gray attacks neo-liberalism for weakening social and political institutions in
both First and Third World nations. "In the late twentieth century there
is no shelterfor corporations or for governmentsfrom the global gale of
creative destruction." (Gray 1998:76)
The rapidly shifting economy driven by markets has real
consequences for the lives of individuals. The velocity of social, economic, and
technological change as well as the shifting of ownership in the forms of
mergers and takeovers results in an unpredictable relationship with work. In
Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett (1999) explores the impact of flexible
capitalism across two generations of workers. For workers in industries as diverse
as baking and software engineering, the rules of success have become increasingly
illegible and job security increasingly tenuous. Technological innovation drives
organizational instability. Shifts in technology can destabilize whole sectors of
the economy both eliminating and creating jobs. Sennett describes Rico's effort to hire
young tech wizards since his knowledge has become outdated. Risk and
uncertainty lurk on the edges of one's work. Adapting to the volatility and
unpredictability of the economy is difficult and anxiety-ridden.
Reflecting market volatility and the creative destruction
energies of the technology sector, the shadows of risk and economic uncertainty
lurk in the background of this genre of advertising. The risk appears in the
form of investment insecurity, failure to innovate technologically, the lack of
flexibility and speed, or being overwhelmed by information. Ironically, the
bottom stratum most susceptible to financial volatility is absented from these
commercials. The risk experienced is by investors or by executives. But with
risk there is opportunity.
This is precisely the premise of an IBM ad (2000) that features a
young businessman sitting on a bench surrounded by pigeons in an Italian
Square. He is wearing a voice-activated computer. As he excitedly buys and
sells commodities and jumps into the air, pigeons take flight.
After his last sale, his computer phone rings and he lets his
wife (or girlfriend) know the meeting went well and he is taking the next
"Traveling light, rather than holding tightly to things deemed
attractive for their reliability and soliditythat is, for their heavy
weight, substantially and unyielding power of resistanceis no asset of
power." (Bauman, 1999: 13)
Capital flows everywhere and this new highly mobile elite
both aids it and travels as lightly as capital does. Our young entrepreneur
travels light in many senses. First, his technology is light, a wearable
computer with a wireless connection to both the Internet and global
communication network. The computer screen is a miniaturized for the eye. The
computer itself is not visible. Voice-activation frees his hands to feed
pigeons as he interacts with a global economy. Second, his relationship to
space is light. He sits on a bench in front of St. Mark's Basilica. An operatic
background connects images of St. Mark's Basilica with the selling of
commodities. The space is weighted with connotations of sacredness and
tradition. And yet, our young entrepreneur has no relationship to history or
meanings associated with it. Third, this space affords him emotional freedom.
Could he express such emotion in an office space? He is freed from
organizational restraints on personality and demeanor. Fourth, his relationship
to the commodity market is speculative. The tonal structure of his voice mimics
the excitement of the crap table. The ad captures a psychological dimension of
casino capitalism. Winning the game has intrinsic emotional rewards for the
player. Fifth, his relationship to family is expressed nonchalantly as if he
were down at the corner grocery store. It does not seem to matter that he is in
Italy. These nomads do not have ties to community but to a scaled down nuclear
Donna Haraway (1991) refers to "a cyborg as a cybernetic
organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as
well as a creature of fiction." IBM's cyborg is juiced on adrenalin, his
methamphetamine-like buzz designed to match the speed of the market. His
animated, out-of-breath style mimics the speed of capital and the kind of
competitive excitement that goes with it. He wheels and deals in the
hypercommodity markets of commodities futures. Here one needs to don the cyborg
apparatus just to stay abreast of the speed of the marketplace. Being a cyborg
is a response to acceleration.
Speed and Everyday Life
Advertisements reference numerous kinds of time. In their efforts
to reference everyday life, advertisements may portray the time of consumption,
the time of labor, the time of capital and markets, the time of reproduction,
family time, and the time of transit. We offer these as heuristic categories,
recognizing that there is overlap between these representations in advertising.
An example from AT&T illustrates an effort to draw together
the multiple spheres of time in everyday life. The ad hails middle class women
who perform the roles of working mom. "If this is you," yours can be
a harried day, divided into distinct blocks of time, each dedicated to a
scheduled activity. The typically busy day may begin with a run across the
great wide open of the Western landscape to keep one's body and mind fit. This
is labeled "breakfast," and it is followed by an image of a commuter
plane labeled as "your carpool." We begin by peeling away one scene
at a time, because each scene has been selected as a way of signifying the
elements of a fast-paced daily life. So after you take a commuter flight to the
city where you work, you check in with your wealth-o-meterthe
"scoreboard" of stock prices, for this has become your measure of
From here, the pace of urban nightlife starts to get pumped up by
a techno beat on the soundtrack. Visually the ad draws on the now-standard
signifier of speedthe blurring, pulsing beams of light, produced by using
time-lapse photographic techniques of urban traffic to stretch out time
visually. We have captured this sequence of scenes and edits from the adbut
we have reduced the number of frames, slowed it down and isolated it from the
signifiers on the sound track. This permits us to defuse the speednot
because we want to downplay it, but because we want to highlight how viewers
"read" the codes for expressing speed. The pulses of light identified
onscreen as "your sandbox"these are supposedly the space and speed
coordinates of your daily life.
The question the ad poses is whether or not "you" have
the tools to keep this lifestyle from flying apart at the seams. The lifestyle
in question refers to a suburban, neo-country space where women raise families
by scheduling their days into personal time, transit time, market time,
work time, and family time. AT&T's message is that "finally communications
has caught up with the way you live." Under the campaign rubric of
"AT&T's personal network," this commercial translates the
struggle to keep spatially scattered everyday lifeworlds integrated into well
adjusted and fulfilling family lives into a story of heroic vitality and
celebration. Speed and busy-ness of schedules are turned from negatives into
the glue of daily life. Where normally having too much to do in too little time
in too many places is a recipe for stress and anxiety, the AT&T ad turns
the psychology of stress into imagery of heroic vitality and accomplishment.
The ad celebrates (toasts) the individual woman who accomplishes the impossible
everyday, and does it with a smile. This is a woman who is more full of love
for her family at the end of the day than at its beginning; this is a woman
able to balance the pressures of professional performance with being a loving
parent, a woman who can be everywhere at once.
...Networks are appropriate instruments for a capitalist economy based
on innovation, globalisation, and decentralised concentration; for work,
workers and firms based on flexibility; for a culture of endless deconstruction
and reconstruction; for a polity geared towards the instant processing of new
values and public moods; and for a social organisation aiming at the
supersession of space and the annihilation of time (Castells 1996:470-71).
Time overwhelms space in AT&T's ad. It does not so much
eclipse space as to "fold" it back in itself to form a new kind of
space. Here, for example, the spatially dispersed family now appears in its
sublated formconnected by communications devices rather than actually
occupying the same space. Visually, the ad makers signify the eclipse of
place/space by carving the temporal frame into three simultaneous partsone
holds your significant other, the second symbolizes your baby (children), and
the last is youor at least, your hands doing the communicating. The network
holds together your lifein this sense, the ad offers a therapeutic solution
to speed insofar as the network becomes the means for holding together the
nuclear family. The need for a therapeutic moment is acknowledged in the
humorous reference to "your analyst," which turns out to be the
family dog. Of course, as Sigmund Freud observed, jokes often reveal more of
ourselves than we are normally disposed to show. Your pet dog as your analyst
is funny because it might be the truest moment in the commercial. It is at once
a clever way of acknowledging the necessity of some therapeutic time and space
in a world as hectic as this one is, while also admitting that maybe things
aren"t so socially and psychologically perfect. After all, if the only one
you can really talk to honestly is the dog...hmmm, how much good is a new
package of communications services going to do?
AT&T defines its new product as a highly flexible, customized
communications solution for "the way you live." They name their
service, "the personal network." What is the relationship between
self and network? AT&T sounds confident that whatever its nature, it will
change "forever, the way you communicate." The last scenes offer a
visual representation of the new way of communicatingthe relationship
conducted between two mobile communications users. Wireless and mobile, they
chat and correspond in transit. Making use of otherwise "wasted"
time, they redefine the way they communicate. Is it any accident that the male
in this pairing appears as an isolated individual in the most abstracted of
Saving Time and Accelerated Consumption
"It goes real fast but it sure feels good."
"It goes real fast but it sure feels good."
"It goes real fast but it sure feels good."
Reverend Horton Heat
"Texas Rockabilly Rebel"
Given the obvious consumption bias of most advertising, it is
hardly surprising that a major pitch concerning time has to do with speed of
delivery, speed of service, speed of cook time, speed of bill paying. This
Chase Bank ad takes a carefree, almost humorous, approach to touting their
on-line banking service as giving you, the consumer, "more time
bonding" which is visually defined as having fast-and-furious fun with
your loved ones.
In this narrative, one gets to pursue pleasure frenetically with
one's "honey" or children or pets. people's leisure consumption space
is defined as a realm of freedoma freedom from the demands of managing
money, especially the amount of free time that it consumes. But with Chase's
on-line banking service, people "all the world over" can now be
"free to spend less time with their money" (the world of necessity)
"and more time with their honey" (the world of personal choice). Or,
as they put it, banking made "easy." The promise of well-managed
technology once again claims to increase our spheres of freedom by giving back
to us our time, wherever we are.
Notice how, in the ad, the time of bill paying becomes calmer and
slower, and seems almost to be ceasing, while the time of being with one's
loved ones accelerates. People like us zoom along in these scenes, carrying
canoes over their heads, devouring pizza and pancakes, being "wacky"
and fun. The pace of their consumption seems to be linked to the pleasure they
appear to be experiencing. Speed, as it is represented here, signifies both
personal mobility and thrilling pleasures.
You must have wondered by now about why leisure would need to be
consumed in such accelerated bursts? What background assumptions premise your
interpretation of this ad? Go back through it now, if you would, and consider
the assumptions the ad makes about you. How does it address you? What does the
ad assume, if anything, about the amount of time spent working and the amount
of time spent on taking care of the many necessities of daily life? And how are
these related to family, leisure and the subject of personal freedom?
Our own interpretation of the ad begins with Juliet Schor's
(1991) study, The Overworked American. Schor's research debunks the
notion that Americans have progressively more free time at their disposal. In
the last decade, hours worked per week have actually increased, making home
life a bit more harried. Moreover, an increasing number of households depend on
more than one income. Here it is not simply a matter of working more, but also
a matter of integrating schedules. And when we factor in the necessity of
'reproduction' activities (cleaning, washing, cooking, repairing,
shopping, and indeed, paying bills), free time becomes even scarcer. Hence, it
makes some sense to represent consumption as a time of energetic expression.
But there is another dimension to this as well. There is a sense
in which such representations address the reality of consumption oriented to
immediate gratificationthe satisfactions of such consumption are relatively
short-lived, and even at that, incessant pursuit of immediate gratification may
indeed contribute to a declining half-life of consumption-based gratifications.
No single act of consumption is sufficient to achieve satisfaction; rather
consumption must be engaged continuously. Here the immediacy of frenetic
gratification forms the flip side of political-economic necessityfor the
economy to function efficiently there must be ever-expanding consumption. Speed
is fun, as the lyrics from The Reverend Horton Heat emphatically declare. And
while excessive speed may strike some as rebellious, it also takes shape in the
underbelly of conformist consumption. As repetitive as they are is, the lyrics
speak to more than just the pleasure of speed; they also speak to hyperactive
Capital's Codes of Speed
The twentieth century witnessed accelerating speed in both the
capital accumulation process and the cultural circulation process necessary to
keep a system of commodities continuously moving alongrelentlessly
spurred along by the pressure of reporting ever-improving fiscal quarter after
fiscal quarter. And not just moving along, but growing at a rate that attracts
investors who seek the high multiples of price/earnings ratios. Inflated
multiples represented very high expectations of future earnings, which in turn
spurs pressure to grow profits in a clockwork fashion.
In this institutional framework we conceptualize advertising as
promoting a "cultural economy of signs." We believe that the cultural
economy bears a structural resemblance to the conventional economy which gave
birth to it. Advertisers seek to invest goods and services with iconic
difference and value to make them stand out. The more vigorously sponsors
compete, the greater their risk of oversaturating image markets. In this
competitive image environment, companies resort to more and more rapid image
turnover. A frenetic competition has unfolded amongst the corporate advertising
industry as they race to stylistically differentiate the value of one good (a
commodity) over another. Advertising is an industry that tries to build values
by rearranging "the meanings of things. By tearing "meanings"
from their contexts and stitching them back together advertising seeks to
establish commodity symbols. But the constant circulation of cultural
references needed to serve these engines of profit also runs the risk of
devolving into a stew of meaninglessness.
For most of the twentieth century, critical social thinkers
worried about the consequences of organizing cultural spheres of meaning around
the operating logic of the commodity form. After nearly a century of treating
culture as a range of commodities, we now confront additional layers of
historical self-contradictions that have taken shape around the practices of
commodity culture. Treating culture as a system of commodities seems to have
followed a similar path of contradictions to those Karl Marx outlined in the
1857 Grundrisse when speaking about a capitalist economy of industrial
production. In the Grundrisse, Marx (1973) demonstrated from one angle after
another how the structures of capitalist markets prompt social contradictions
that, left untended, might undermine institutions of commodity relations.
During the 20th century, commodity culture came to dominate,
first in the US, then in Europe and now globally. In discussions of
globalization, the term "Americanization of culture" generally refers
to this commodity culture, which grew up first in the US mass media. In our
view, this hallmark of the transition to late capitalism shows how the sphere
of symbolic interaction has of necessity become increasingly central to the
capitalist mode of production. This means that the reproduction of Meaning
through languages, whether spoken, or written, or pictorial has become a
central part of the process of generating and reproducing value in the global
We have discussed these processes extensively in Sign Wars (1996)
and Nike Culture (1998). We have argued that the systematic rerouting of
symbolic meaning toward the service of building exchange value lends itself to
the dispersion and fragmentation of Meaning. This is because processes of
cultural commodification feed an accelerating circulation of meaning in the
sphere of culture.
The technology of digital reproduction has transformed industry after industry,
and it now drives marketsespecially stock markets that we view as public
and intersubjectively negotiated social spaces. This same digital revolution
has also transformed the tools for producing and displaying electronic culture.
Hence in order to make our case, we must examine the intensifying
digitalization of cultural space both as a material force in the expansion of
global capitalism and simultaneously as a representational force.
So advertising culture is not only accelerating, it also seeks to
represent economic speed as our already-emergent future. In the commercials
mentioned above, speed has become synonymous with Progress. Such advertising
casts the future in terms of the benefits to be enjoyed by harnessing
technologies of speed. Ultimately for the consumer, this is the speed of
deliveryof pizza, prescription drugs, information, and movies. Particularly
around the emergent Internet, what's important is the speed at which data
move. Qwest ads from 1999-2000 are a case in point: "Moving at the speed
Think for a moment of not one ad but the entire mix of ads that
you have seen. What unites them is a common language of
advertisingconsisting of codes and formulas. Corporate advertising
routinely uses specific signifiers to represent some form of speed. Time must
be a visual concept in the world of television advertising, though the visual
codes are usually supported by sound effects and music. Once time is given
representation, time is never again neutral; it now has an ideological
Signifiers of speed take multiple forms. Referential signifiers
take an object that can be photographed or filmed to connote speed e.g, a
"speeding" bullet, or a motorcycle, or a beam of light. Cinematic
signifiers are film techniques used to speed up motion either within a shot or
externally, the length of time shots are held, or how much the photographic
technique "warps" the usual relations of time and space.
Referential signifiers generally are given perceptual velocity by cinematic
techniques. For example, the speed of light cannot be signified without
referring to the frozen traces left behind by blurred light paths. The blurred
speeding path of streaming or pulsing light is especially appealing to
advertisers because it also offers a metaphor for information flows in an
Cinematic devices are used to create an illusion of perceptual
speed by appearing to accelerate the velocity of the moving image to the point
that recognition of image content moves ever closer to the threshold of perception.
The viewer's eye strains to keep up with the movement and, when accelerated to
extreme velocities, may not be able to decipher actual physical referents. The
internal rhythm of a shot is accelerated by having objects or persons move
quickly across the frame, time-lapse photography, swish pan camera movements,
or rapidly shifting lens focal lengththe zoom. Each technique creates a
blur. Blurring is a form of abstraction in which the accelerated speed of the
quotidian disguises the boredom of the everyday (see Lefebvre 1974).
Light beams seem an ideal signifier because fiber optics utilize
laser beams to carry packets of information. Moreover, the success of the
information economy is contingent on reliable and rapid flows of information
that are instantaneously available on demand. Companies that design or maintain
networks often use the light beam to visually demonstrate the superiority of a
particular network. Beams of light often shoot through electronic circuitry or
across the metaphoric landscape of the semiconductor microchip.
Beams of light moving through a physical landscape have to do
with meanings about the "annihilation of space by time"about
collapsing distance by bridging it with instantaneity. Here, a favorite
signifier used by advertisers to signify SPEED is time-lapse photography of
highway traffic at night. The technique came of age in a film,
"Koyanasquatsi," and has since become a clichéd metaphor
for the speed of life in modern society.
Into the Vortex of Hyperdrive
In Star Trek, Captain Kirk would order chief engineer
Scotty to send the Starship Enterprise into hyperspace at warp speeda
momentary burst of light trails signified the starship's escape from the usual
forces of nature that limit us to the speed of light. Kubrick used this
technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey to signify the passage of humankind
through its next evolutionary stage. Pop science presentations often conclude
with this abstracted imagery of streaks of light bursting outwards into a
distant vortex of the future.
In modernist art and design, stream-lines displace the heavy
physical referents of conventional realism. Many corporate ads turn equations,
numbers, binary and genetic codes into visible, but fleeting, signifiers that
fly across the ad screen on streaming fields of whitish green or blue lights
and enter the mix of abstraction. As signifiers they point back to the power of
pure mathematical abstraction, the power of Enlightenment solutions to life's
problems. This is the positivist dream that a mathematical equivalent underlies
all forms of reality, and once mastered, so too reality can be controlled. As
the camera moves toward the vanishing point, this motif suggests we are
entering the future at a hyperspeed driven by technological innovation. Some
ads complete this cinematic movement with a burst of light, the "dawning
of a new age."
The Train as Digital Metaphor
Paradoxically, while corporate advertising for new technologies
is full of images of jets, rockets, fiber optic cables, and satellites, it is
the train, that early-modern signifier of the Industrial Revolution, that seems
to be a signifier of choice for the Information Revolution. The train speeding
through a landscape is used to signify multiple forms of speed.
As a metaphor for Internet speed, Akamai uses a train speeding
across a horizon foregrounded by five monitors replaying the same scene to the
chant, "The Internet is faster because of us." Likewise, Nortel
juxtaposes the word "faster" over a speeding train to answer their
question, "What do you want the Internet to be?" Qwest signifies the
capacity of the Internet by sending a stream of fused data hurtling down train
tracks that lead into the vortex. MCI-WorldCom's opening ad in 1998 self-consciously used the railroad as a metaphor for the first stage of
American business, and its transition via a burst of light to the networked
society and global business scapes.
Time-space compression is the image sought by a 2002 AT&T commercial that shows a model train traversing from one disconnected landscape to
another, depicting time-space compression of a AT&T managed global network.
The commercial ends with a train speeding around its simulated blue globe.
While the train once symbolized the national landscape, now it speeds across
scenes from various countries and continents. Juxtaposed to the train's
former functionality as a mover of heavy goods, GTE uses the imagery of a train
to signify the transition to light modernity and the movement of the most
precious cargoideasacross networks.
Train travel changed perceptions of time and space in the 19th
century. Train travel "destroy(ed) the close relationship between the
traveler and the traveled space" (Schivelbush 1986:53). "The train
was experienced as a projectile, and traveling on it as being shot through the
landscapethus losing control of one's senses" (54). Vision emerged as
the dominant sense when travelers watched the landscape fly by, even as their
"visual perception was diminished by velocity." (55)
Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer
belonged to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveler saw the
objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus that moved him through the
world. That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his visual
perception: thus he could see only things in motion (Schivelbush 1986:64).
Looking out the window, the foreground blurred away into
nothing, leaving an appreciation for the wider landscape. Glimpses and glances
the fragmentary recognition of a moment and the momentary recognition of
signifying fragmentsemerged as a visual trope for the experience of speed as
rapid transit. The landscape was perceptually transformed into a flow of
discrete fragments speeding past in a continuous stream separated from the
viewer by the window of the train.
How is this different from watching an advertising montage? The
flow of the physical landscape from the train window is continuous and
contextualized; the flow across the TV monitor is composed of disparate
signifiers that, when placed on video tracks, travel across the screen for an
almost imperceptible moment. The ghosts or traces of these rapidly moving
signifiers register after they have actually left the scene, replaced by
others. At best we the viewers inadvertently glance at salient signifiers
In an earlier stage of modernity, Simmel observed an intensified
nervous stimulation in the city, and Schivelbush (1986) notes that 19th century
experiences with increased stimulation associated velocity with stress (Georg
Simmel, 1950). Just as the urbanite's blasé attitude developed as a
buffering response to the accelerating pace of urban life in the early 20th
century, by the end of the century audiences grew blasé, about the
accelerating velocity of decontextualized signifiers that are cut up and forced
through the engines of advertising. On the one hand, this drives sign wars and
the attempt to differentiate advertising and brand identity from the overflow
of clutter. On the other hand, it is also contributes to clutter itself.
Signifying speed accelerates representational flows and boosts the volume of
The Bustling City
When enhanced by time-lapse photography shots of human figures,
the imagery of exaggerated speed of movement on city streets and sidewalks is
often used to establish the pace of modernity. Cars speeding through streets or
hordes of pedestrians streaming into buildings or through subways are favorite
shots for representing the pace of modern life.
Opening with a burst of light, a 2004 SBC montage depicts a fast
moving city life connected by wireless technology. The ad's backdrop is the
architecture of modernity: cloverleafs, freeways, revolving doors and
escalators. Cinematic techniques such as speeded-up superimpositions, bird's
eye shots of freeway traffic, and blurred shots of speeding automobiles quicken
the pace of the commercial. At times the distorted soft focus and
superimposition create a ghostly Kertesz-like impression of modernity with its
spaces of anonymity. Here we may recognize human subjects but we are spared
their subjectivity. The ghostly presences mark them as temporary occupants of
non-places, as they shuttle through the spaces in between home and work,
between an ever-more nebulous here and there. SBC's male voiceover celebrates
the American frontier experience and the mobility of modern life.
SBC invokes cultural history as a way of narrativizing the
imagery of a privatized ghost culture which they promptly rename "mobile
society". Where there seems to be no continuity or connectivity, SBC
deftly inserts its wireless technology to supply the image of new forms of
connectivity. The difficulty of course is that in a mobile society unending
movement makes the matter of social connection a problem. Rather than condemn
the automated circuits of movement that swirl about in a murky sea of
abstraction, SBC hails the social privatization, isolation, and anonymity that
are carried along in the paths of a mobile societythe secret lies in
Representations like this of impersonal speed of city life are
ambivalent images. While they can be framed as the heartbeat of a vast and
efficiently rationalized economic system, or as symbolic equivalent of
unrestricted movement within a market society, the same images also carry
anomic overtones. Advertising uses representations in both ways. Usually the
music functions to code the viewers affect and thus the reading of the advert.
In either event, corporate practices, commodities and/or services make speed
manageable. Advertising offers images of good speed and bad speed. Good speed
is controlled speed or integrated speed. Bad speed is chaotic, debilitating or
In the Information Economy "bad" speed occurs when the
flow of information overwhelms the receiver and turns into Noise. A 1998
Invesco ad opens with a montage of distorted shot clips of the NY Stock
Exchange characterized by a roller-coaster rideturbulent, indecipherable
cacophony of speed. Shots whiz along in a video-editing assault on the viewer's
nervous system. Jumpy camera movements, disruptive transitions, random color
shifts, and lens distortions, all are speeded up to frame the real-time
perceptual disorder and dislocation of the stock exchange floor. The volume and
intensity of data coming at us are like riding a bullet train. The music is
discordant, grating and sounds as if someone were scraping finger nails over a
blackboard. But then we pause in a white light and the screen asks, "How
do you separate knowledge from noise?" Ans. "Call Invesco." The
mood suddenly becomes relaxed and quiet; the corporation buffers the investor
from the stress of the accelerated information flows.
Northern Light, a corporate search engine, uses the cinematic
devices of montage and blurring to demonstrate the difference between a
blizzard of data and the precision of knowledge. A lone individual enters a
white-walled isolation chamber. He pushes "enter" on the keyboard and
a woman intones, "World Wide Web." Suddenly, accelerated information
flows traverse the walls and the ceiling of the cubicle, surrounding him in a
totality of humankind's recorded discoveries. The sound effects are again
grating, discordant, disorderly and stormy. In the Information Society there is
no escape from too much information too fast. The walls flicker with a myriad
of informational forms: symbols from ancient peoples, mathematical formulae,
computer program binary encodings, cells and skeletal forms, suggesting that
all knowledge is immediately available. But how does one make sense of so much
meaning when there are no spaces between the meaning, when all the semes of
meaning blend into one massive seme? Northern Light organizes the info stream
into manageable categories. As the music softens, icons appear on the wall:
artificial intelligence, semantics, intelligent agents, psychology of learning.
Both of these ads use cinematic techniques to accelerate the flow
of images, creating cognitive turbulence. Blurring, speeded-up movements,
distortions, and perceptually disruptive transitions blend together to create a
synergistic explosiveness. Music functions to exaggerate visual stress before
giving way to psychic relief.
These same techniques can also be used to create a human
cohesion, a global community based a time-space compression designed to serve
the human condition. In the late 1980's many advertisers produced hyperactive
ads for commodity goods. Brands such as Levi's and Nike were at the forefront
of this genre of advertising. Heavily influenced by MTV, these commercials
aimed at a young, hip, media-savvy audience. In 1995 Wieden & Kennedy (also
Nike's agency) produced a commercial for Microsoft that typified this drift in
advertising towards accelerating the velocity at which visual information had
to be decoded. This 60-second commercial is composed of 105 shots supported by
a layered voice track which weaves in and out. Microsoft mixes global
signifiers with images of its software in a hyperactive barrage. Subjected to
more than three shots every two seconds, this machine gun pace is supported by
disruptive camera, lighting, and editing techniques such as flickering light,
overexposure, jump cuts, jerky pans, objects passing in front of the camera,
obtuse camera angles, extreme close-ups, use of a fish eye lens, mixing black
and white with color, and decentered subjects (Goldman and Papson 1996). This
accelerated hyperreal style is organized around cutting to discontinuity.
Photographs of physical reality flicker with the new reality of the computer
monitor, simulations. Texts are everywhere, often in fragmented, multi-lingual
This Microsoft commercial is premised on the use of fragmented
and decontextualized images. The flow of visual particles mixes the European
with the Asian, children and the elderly, black and white, home and office, the
natural with the urban and the simulated. Brought together, they signify access
and power in a global arena. Buried in this
"image-in-a-particle-accelerator" approach is a content that
expresses "Humanity-in-itself" powered Microsoft software. Microsoft
celebrates the collapse of boundariesphysical reality and simulation,
representation and reality, the social boundaries of age, ethnicity, gender,
class and nationality.
Like a powerful force of nature, Microsoft has unleashed its
power on the world and "the world will never be the same again."
Video speed serves a purpose here, allowing a never-before-imagined practice of
human differentiation to unfold simultaneously everywhere across the cultures
of the planet. Traditional boundaries and limits are abolished, enabling
individuals to challenge the restrictive boundaries of conventional
wisdomto accept the imperative to be creative and transcendent
"make trouble." Anti-authoritarian connotations mixed with those of
personal creativity suggest the demise of old institutions that have
historically determined and constricted people's lives.
Malcolm Waters' (1995) description of a global culture as a fragmented chaotic form parallels the montage structure of Microsoft's
commercial. The hypercommodification of culture is overwhelmed by signs and
simulations in which status is associated with style choices that are
hyperdifferentiating at accelerating rates. Like the shopping mall, it is
composed of decontextualized signs plundered from a variety of referent
systemsnature, history, and exotic cultures. Like surfing the Internet, there
are no coherent maps, no ultimate authority, just a cultural world in a
permanent state of flux. This view of the global cultural economy is
hyperanomic. There is no center. Sign hierarchies are in constant flux. While
the form of the Microsoft commercial mimics this chaos, the content is given
meaning by the voice-over and the tagline, "Where do you want to go
today?" to create a sense of unfolding freedom and opportunity for
individuals located here, there and everywhere because of the power of
This ad reveals a parallel to the political economy in which
flows of capital prompt anomic formationsand even disarray and confusion
- while corporate public relations legitimize corporate practices as beneficial
to humanity in general. Classical humanism modeled after "The Family of
Man" exhibition is turned into a look, which positions the corporation as
global, humane, and multicultural.
In a 2000 US West commercial communicative speed is equated with
friendship networks and a rich exciting "packed" leisure. The ad
starts with a nostalgic sense of the past: kids talking into two tin cans
connected by a string, telephone lines cutting across a rural landscape, a
young man stands by a fence. Suddenly a flock of birds fly by and the ad moves
into "hyperdrive." The video breaks up, suggesting an ontological leap
into the future. A row of satellite dishes realign setting off a montage of
disparate imagesSeattle at night, a skier kicking up powder, the painted
desert, hay fields. These are mixed with friendship groups of multiracial
children smiling and mugging for the camera. In one, an elderly female artist
photographs and e-mails her painting; a father touches the image of a child on
a computer screen in wonder; even a deaf child receives a text message from a
friend inviting her out to play. Here the speed of connectivity empowers human
relationality. The speed of montage violates the boundaries of perception.
Deterritorialization & Mythologies of Speed
One mythological representation played out in some ads is the
science fiction version of time-space compression and deterritorialization in
virtual reality. Here territorial space is figuratively abolished by the
overcoming of time. Though this vision of a new unitary world space is
predicated on the accelerated development of computerized communications
technologies, there is only minimal visual reference to speed as such in these
representations because, as we have pointed out, there is no need for the illusion of
speed when all relations can be conducted in a unified time-space coordinate.
By annihilating space, time is presented as becoming synchronous and unified.
Harbinger represents itself thusly in a darkly futuristic, neo-Orwellian style.
The space that connects those who conduct market exchanges is a
virtual space. We enter this dark space mediated by a Matrix-like female oracle
and spokesperson who appears as the face of Harbinger: "Welcome to a whole
new world of e-commerceHarbinger.net. Created by the company thats helped
40,000 businesses and 85% of the Fortune 500 succeed in business to business
e-commerce." Her face emerges from darkness before being multiplied
twenty-six fold, defining the video landscape that commands this whole new
world of virtual space. Old-school landscapes disappear in this style of
representation, and the markets of the world are converted into a giant wall of video monitors representing companies' sign presenceDell, Deutsche
Telecom, Genentech, BP, AT&T. As Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri (2000:
347) observe, deterritorialization "imposes a continuous and complete
circulation of signs." The corporate signs symbolically replace the
companies they stand for, so that business to business commerce can occur in
this imaginary world that Harbinger.net represents as the virtual space that
will outmode the spatially far-flung and dispersed marketplaces composing
Though this is a hollowed-out space, it is also depicted as a
completely fluid space. Notice the ceaseless movement of symbols and people
even though their movements seem to lack any apparent direction or agency
unless we presume that their robotic patterns are programmed in pursuit of
profit. Like other ads that cast themselves in cyberspace, the Harbinger ad
ontologically and epistemologically redefines the world via an array of
monitors"welcome to a whole new world of e-commerce." The
monitors form the background, the new landscape, and speed of movement is
embedded in this layer in the form of mediated digital and video information.
Meanwhile, in the foreground, humans perform their duties in a regulated and
The monitors' prominent architectural presence suggests an
encompassing capacity for a total global mediation and synthesis of reality;
they form a necessary structural condition for an emergent world of 24/7
commerce. Where commerce is an uninterrupted stream, these screens do not
simply evoke mediation, they become digitally constitutivethey have come to
define the nature of reality itself, they form its skin.
The membrane of monitors lights up the space, while mediating the
dispersed speech acts occurring in synchronous moments. This video membrane is
a communications device that makes it possible to have an efficiently
rationalized world market decomposed and fragmented into an infinite
array of fields that cannot be fully mastered until re-mediated through the
computerized video apparatus of Capital. Here we encounter not just a series of
blue flickering simulations, but the one true simulacrumthe copy that
precedes the originalfor the assumption here is that this is reality, but
with value added!
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror
or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential
being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin
or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it
survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territoryprecession
of simulacrathat engenders the territory . . . . (Baudrillard 1995: 1)
In a world shrouded in darkness, Harbinger appears as an
intensely focused beacon of brightness. In this representation of casino
capitalism, like Las Vegas, one can no longer tell day from night. Harbinger
claims to abolish the impediments of time and space because of the restrictions
these impose on the possibility of uninterruptible processes of circulation and
exchange of capital, magically compressing the time-space relationship into a
virtual cyberspace where none of the laws of gravity seem to apply anymore.
Hence, the most vivid, and the weirdest, image in the commercial is that of a
floating man, who looks very much like an inflatable balloon in the Macy's
Thanksgiving parade, drifting into position to consummate a handshake (now the
universal signifier of a non-coercive market exchange) in space with another
floating hand. "Here customers and suppliers connect and trade on the net.
Here business is conducted globally in real time." It is worth noting the
contradiction in this imagery of weightlessness to represent the supersession
of time and space. Weightlessness has been a correlate of deterritorialization
and the annihilation of time. This particular imagery of floating man to
represent freedom and possibility, however, transforms the representatives of
capital more and more into puppet-like entities, unable to control their own
movements, but governed instead by the extraordinary magical powers of the new
sorcerer (presented here in female form). What makes this version of time-space
compression possible? Harbinger is unequivocal in its answer. The ensuing image
of giant telecommunications satellite dishes is shown precisely as the
voiceover refers to the conduct of business-to-business exchange in real time.
While the monitors that form the skin of this universe display
the circulation of corporate signs, all references to nations have been
omitted. If deterritorialization refers to the elision of national boundaries
and the authority of states to enforce territorial codes and laws, then
Harbinger depicts itself as the sovereign of this new spatial universe.
Cyberspace defined this way, as an absence of nations or territories, foretells
the end of a Weberian sociology based on the "legitimate use of organized
force within a given territory."
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000: 326-27) argue that Capital
in its current historical stage can be understood as "deterritorializing
and immanent" insofar as the governing mechanism shifts from fixed
structures to the fluidity of "sets of equations and relationships that
determines and combines variables and coefficients immediately and equally
across various terrains without reference to prior and fixed definitions or
terms." The premise here is the same as we have already recounted with
respect to Capital's imperative toward speed as a means of reducing circulation
time. Just as friction reduces profit margins, so too does fixitywhether
it be the fixity of traditions or the fixity of place or the fixity of
nation-state boundary locations. How is this aspect of deterritorialization
represented in the Harbinger ad? There is unceasing movement in the adthe
peripatetic movement of feet and legs across this dark space, along with the
numeric shadows that wander across otherwise blank eyes and face. The nonstop
flow of numerals represent the symbolization of the most perfect form of
abstracted knowledge that permit relationships of general equivalence to be
articulated and swept away so that the process can be repeated over and over
Once again, Jean Baudrillard was among the first to warn about
how the representations of time and space were changing, and the possible
political consequences of such changes. Writing over twenty years ago,
Baudrillard observed that:
The body, landscape, time all progressively disappear as scenes. And
the same for public space: the theater of the social and theater of politics
are both reduced more and more to a large soft body with many heads.
Advertising in its new...dimension invades everything, as public space (the
street, monument, market, scene) disappears. It realizes, or, if one prefers,
it materializes in all its obscenity; it monopolizes public life in its
exhibition... It is our only architecture today: great screens on which are
reflected atoms, particles, molecules in motion. Not a public scene or true
public space but gigantic spaces of circulation, ventilation and ephemeral
connections. (Jean Baudrillard 1983:129-130)
An element of postmodern theories has to do with the ways in
which time and space become annihilated. Telecommunications and computer
technologies have materially challenged traditional, and even modern, ways of
experiencing time and space. Just as significantly, when joined to the
mechanical reproduction of images, these technologies have challenged the ways
we represent and conceive of time and space. If we only looked at the Harbinger
advertisement, we might readily agree with Baudrillard about the disappearance
of "body, landscape and time," but if we look across the many ads
touting time-space compression we might see this as hyperbole. Baudrillard's
assessment seems particularly attuned to Harbinger's ad. By transforming
landscapes into the architecture of screens, public space becomes reduced to
darkness illuminated only by the power of Capital's eye, and Capital's eye shines
only on the locus of the most lucrative transactions. Everything else drifts
towards the shadows. Just as landscapes are displaced by the apparatus for
mechanically reproducing photographs, so too the self-motivated body is taken
over by the technological capacity to digitize all relevant market information
Deterritorialization and Abstraction
"No Sense of Place"
Throughout our exploration of how speed gets represented in
corporate advertising, we have tacked back and forth between a series of
related questions. We have talked about the matter of how speed gets
represented. But we can break this down further. There is the question of the
phenomenon that gets signifiedspeed and its relation to
deterritorialization. But then there is also the matter of how it gets
signified. On the one hand, the subject of speed is a content issue; on the
other hand, the manner of its signification can be crudely thought of as a form
issue. The very form of advertising, we shall argue, contributes to the
experience of speed and deterritorialization.
The very medium of television advertising is structurally
constituted towards deterritorialization, no matter what the subject is because
television advertising is predicated on abstraction. This decontextualization
process alwaysand necessarilyinvolves lifting meaningful action out
of its time-space coordinates. These coordinates may be reestablished or
recontextualized through the framing process, but given the premium on brevity
in television advertising, the tendency is almost always towards condensation
In Sign Wars, we argued that the same logic of capital that has
played itself out with regard to material objects throughout prior historical
stages of commodity production, now also applies to the production of images.
The rule can be stated quite simplythere is a tendency toward the
accelerated circulation of commodities in order to offset the tendency toward a
declining rate of profit. When the commodities in question are
already-abstracted imagessignsthe tendency towards
deterritorialization becomes compounded because the duration of images
diminishes while the velocity of turnover increases. Not just in a single
advertising campaign but across the whole of advertising then, there is a
tendency toward a worldview of a world without mooringsa world in which
decontextualized signifiers sometimes float, sometimes rocket about. This is
one meaning of deterritorialization to us.
In a rudimentary way, the historical processes of
deterritorialization have been rooted in historical evolution of commodity
abstraction. As Marx pointed out, the money form permitted all forms of value
to be converted into their general equivalent. Money of course was the
universal currency that facilitated this process. When land became a commodity
that could be bought and sold, the process of deterritorialization was already
well under way. When the forms of value tied to that lande.g., iron ore,
coal, treescould be extracted and shipped elsewhere in exchange for
currency, these too were steps along a path of deterritorialization.
As commodities are made ever more sophisticated to create new
possibilities for profit, markets elaborate ever more abstract forms of the
commodity. The first of these were commodity futures which calculated the
difference between the present and future values of a particular commodity. In
recent decades financial capital has spawned all sorts of new commodity
derivatives to hedge risk and create more potential planes or surfaces on which
to seek profits. The result, as Pryke and Allen (2000) have argued is that
derivatives function effectively as new money forms that not only accelerate
time-space compression but monetize time-space relations as well.
Montage and Deterritorialization
An impression of deterritorialization is conveyed routinely via
the montage approachso routinely that most of us are apt to stop
noticing. The montage is one of the most frequently used signification
strategies in corporate advertising. Viewers may be familiar with this style of
ideologically depicting deterritorialization in ads such as those for GE,
Siemens, and Boeing. When used in corporate ads, the montage series glance
across and over the cultural and natural geographies of the planet, the speed
of the editing and the music dictating our experience of speed through the
The montage permits corporate ads to tie together a collection of
geo-culturally marked spaces that evoke memories of territory. The motive force
connecting these markers is the corporate entity/identity itself defined as a
meta-agent. Using a fast-paced video editing style in conjunction with musical
orchestration, the advertiser seeks to reintegrate the disconnected and
floating markers of territorial space under the aegis of the corporate sign. In
ads such as these it is difficult at times to distinguish between
trans-territorializing and deterritorializing. Though cultural stereotypes
remain as markers of place in this global system, once again the boundary
locations of nations vanish. But unlike, the Harbinger ad where Baudrillard's
prophecy appears to be realized, the montage rarely permits viewers to lose
sight of either landscapes or bodies. Though both landscape and the body are
hollowed out and turned into second-order signifiers, it is clear that this
representation of deterritorialization is based less on the disappearance of
landscapes than on their reverberating echoes and traces mostly visible
now in the floating signifiers of language, garb and gesture.
Indeed, the montage approach signifies speed in part by how
rapidly the sequences of photographically abstracted and isolated landscapes
fly past. Because these ads aim to signify the global reach of the corporation
by flattening the world into a linear sequence of landscapes as well as
signifying how the speed of technology has allowed these firms to make distance
a non-issue"No matter where you are anywhere in the world,
you"re never very far from a Siemens product"the landscape
remains a necessary element in the signification process. So too, the
importance of the human body and its capacity for expressive gesture is crucial
counterweight to speed as a means of legitimating the firm as a force committed
to sustaining communal life.
In ads such as that for Siemens, these quick shots of marked
spaces help create what we might call "grounded montage." Siemens
uses a recurring image of a man leading a camel across a desert dune. But this
desert is not about place, it is instead symbolic of the reach of the
corporation. Siemens sutures together images like the desert scene to construct
a montage of a unified and coherent worlda world made coherent by the
necessity of Siemens' technologies. Siemens also naturalizes this
deterritorialized space with a reassuring male voiceover that states: "No
matter where you are anywhere in the world, you"re never very far from a
Siemens product." It turns out that the overcoming of spatial distance is
a function of the civilization process.
General Electric has long been recognized for its stylized
corporate montages complete with signature songs and signature
slogans"We bring good things to life." Cheerleaders for global
capitalism, GE ads are often considered sappy and celebratory representations
of an empire of peace and prosperity unified by the connective tissue of GE's
technologies. Listen to and read the lyrics to the GE song and think about them
as they seek to reframe the dissociative video logic of deterritorialization
back into a warm sense of place.
Visually the ad exudes speed of movement, but many of its scenes
latch on to images of warm, affective human relations. The ad taps into an
ethos of universal humanism as it relocates "place" in the
deepest human longings to touch and hold our children, to love and be loved.
With the recurring refrain of "what are we doin" here" the ad
repeatedly uses "here" to identify place as the locus of meaningful
human action. Using the device of blurring and rapid cutting, the ad swings
from the particular to the global and back again so seamlessly that we might
scarcely notice the fragmentation of space and time. "What are we
doin" here" emerges as a device for articulating general equivalence.
Just as the money form once provided the means for constructing conditions of
general equivalence, GE uses the advertising form to construct a universal
currency out of images abstracted from time and space.
Speed of Representation
Our exploration of the Representations of Speed in the discourses
of corporate capital cannot be separated from questions regarding the Speed of
Representation. Critics have suggested that "fast capitalism's" slice
and dice strategies for appropriating bits and pieces of cultural value
degrade public discourse (Agger 1989). Representational speed is not simply a
product of pictures of speed, but of the very process of turning culture into
commodity signs. As Capital grows ever more competitive in trying to extract
additional sign-exchange value for commodities, the circuitry of signification
speeds up. Does the accelerated velocity at which semiotic particles pass
through the circuits of capital "whittle down" the capacity for
Just as each particle follows its own trajectory, each fragment shines
for a moment in the heavens of simulation, then disappears into the void along
a crooked path that only rarely appears to intersect with other such paths.
This is the pattern of the fractaland hence the current pattern of our
culture (Baudrillard 1993: 6).
Speed is both a means of countering the tendency for the rate of
profit to fall and a chief culprit in accelerating that process. The culture
industry spreads this tendency from the economy to culture by trying to force
culture into the service of commodities. The obsessive quest for value
undermines the very condition of valuation, yet further contributes to the
speed of abstraction and decontextualization which is a necessity in a
political economy of sign value. But as free-floating, weightless signifiers
proliferate and whiz about in search of meaning, it becomes ever more difficult
to engage in a discourse of critical reflection.
The representational structure that best fits the slice and dice
signification strategies of fast capitalism is the montage. Predicated on a
relentless flow and movement of images past the viewer, the montage reduces the
possibility of reflective critique despite the gross distortions that are
inherent in its use as a signification practice. Unless one is willing to
remove the montage from the flow of television, slow it down, pause it, freeze
frames, and separate sound and narration from image, the capacity for critique
is dulled by the twin forces of representational velocity and decontextualized
referent systems. As each text goes speeding past, what remains is the blurred
ideological framework of global capital. The "blur" turns out to be
the perfect signifier for the current moment of hegemony for global capital.
Agger, Ben. 1989. Fast Capitalism: A Critical Theory of Significance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. "The Ecstasy of Communication"
pp. 126-134,in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal
Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press.
----. 1993. The Transparency of Evil.
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