Brand Key

Written By: - Date published: 4:51 pm, June 8th, 2008 - 69 comments
Categories: john key, spin - Tags:

We got this in from the ‘sod and we like it so here’s the guest post we swore we’d never give him (taking the piss out of Ian Wishart didn’t count). ‘Sod, don’t let it go to your head.

Brand Key, or the cultural logic of late capitalism in NZ politics

Like others I have been disappointed to see National do so well in the polls despite offering nothing of substance. Unlike others I have not been surprised. Y’see for a long time now I’ve been arguing that we are now playing a whole new game. No. It’s not a whole new game it’s a whole new era and it’s one in which the foundations of left (and indeed traditional conservative) thought are no longer available to use.

To explain this situation I’m gonna use Fredric Jameson’s watershed essay, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, as an analytical template. This may mean that this post gets a little harder to read than a blog post should be but I’m gonna try and keep it as simple as possible.

The basic argument of Jameson’s work is that the cultural era we are in (loosely labeled postmodernism) is a cultural reflection of particular brand of capitalism we are currently engaged in multinational speculative capitalism. And that as in every era this means of production creates our cultural logic. By which he means the logics of the way we do business and feed ourselves become the logics of our day to day life including our art and our perception of the world. Jameson uses this critical lens to distinguish cultural postmodernism from cultural modernism (the last significant cultural era).

So what does this mean politically?

As the title of my post suggests it provides a way to understand the phenomenon that is “Brand Key” and I’m gonna compare this to “Helen Clark”. You may think it’s unfair to describe Key as a brand and Clark as a person but with any luck my reasons for this dichotomy will become clear as you read this post.

I figure the best way to do this is to take the steps of Jameson’s argument, simplify them for mass-consumption and replace his examples with domestic political examples. So let’s begin…

The Deconstruction of Expression

The idea behind this is that the difference between modernist and postmodern cultural expression is that modernist expression relies on innate meaning while its postmodern counterpart relies on a series of interrelations with a marketplace of meanings. Jameson uses a juxtaposition of Van Gogh with Warhol to describe this Van Gogh’s work is about human depth and implied stories and Warhol’s is about surface and relationships to exterior, commodified narratives. The former requires thought, the latter actively discourages it.

To see a local political example of this you only need to go as far as the way in which the two main parties market to the Maori electorate. In a typically modernist way Helen Clark will talk at length about wins made for Maori and about policy. In doing so she is deliberately using stories that reach forward and backwards in time and creating narrative of cause and effect just as Van Gogh’s painting of peasant shoes relies on a sense of history and pathos to do its work on the viewer.

John Key on the other hand takes a brown kid to Waitangi and wears a tiki teeshirt or orchestrates a hongi photo-op with Tama Iti. By doing this he is (or rather, his advisers are) creating a story by attaching his brand to other “brands” through a surface association just as Warhole’s art gathers its meaning though reference to other brands (such as Campell’s Soup or Marilyn Munro).

Which brings me onto “the Waning of Affect”

Jameson argues that a trope of the postmodern cultural experience is that “affect” or emotional depth is replaced by surface or perhaps more accurately by multiple surfaces. Jameson again uses the example of Warhol but this time compares it to Munch’s famous painting, the Scream. The idea being that the Scream is about human experience and the tragic human struggle to express the inexpressible while Warhol’s Marilyn gets its meaning from the flattened repetition of a single image reduced to an abstracted brand in fact, I would argue, reduced to a logo.

We see this exact thing happening politically. John Key’s use of lines involving the “block of cheese” work to create a meaning that is no longer based on the real price of cheese or on the real relationship between cheese prices and people’s budgets but has become a catchphrase tied into a commodity but bereft of real human meaning. I was very interested to note his careful use of terms like “caramello” in his post budget speech as, like Warhol does with his soup paintings, he is invoking a familiar brand to create a surface connection with his audience. This connection does not bear out in terms of any deep logic – I mean, what does a particularly popular type of chocolate have to do with political leadership? But it doesn’t have to. In fact the application of logic is counter-productive as can be seen in the response to Helen Clark (and to others in the Labour party) when they explain policy detail they are often seen as aloof and “out of touch”. Interestingly, Jameson comments on the fact that much of postmodern theory has been focused on discrediting ideologies founded on “truths” – and it is a short jump from there to see that the postmodern condition punishes those who try to say in any explicit manner whatsoever “this is how it is”.

This “surfaceness” extends to the concept of “Euphoria and Self-Annihilation”

Modernism relied a great deal on the individual subject. On human emotion and response. We see this in modernist works like Ulysses in which it is the experiences of the protagonist that are most important. In postmodern works such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 the protagonist is nothing more that an assortment of unstable narratives based on interactions with a world that is constantly shifting.

I would argue that in a postmodern environment the very thing some people criticise John Key for (“he’s anything you want him to be”) is a strength. He has no “self” and as such he exists, like the protagonist of “Crying”, in many different forms in the minds of many different voters and as the product of many different and constantly changing stories.

Clark on the other hand is very much a figure with stable meaning. Again this is because of the fact that she is presented to voters very much in terms of “core-values”, policy and personal history. She is real while brand key is not. But “real” is not something that figures so strongly in the new cultural logic. Because the idea of “self” has been annihilated.

What does figure is euphoria. Jameson’s interpretation of this is that feelings or “intensities” are now free-floating and impersonal. The generic rush has replaced empathetic depth. It’s Iwi/Kiwi over an explanation of how minimum wage rises can make life better for people and it’s euphoric catchphrases such as “violent crime out of control” rather than a contextualised analysis of the causes and effects of crime.

Historicism Effaces History

Another aspect of Jameson’s model of postmodernism is that history is no longer seen as “real” instead history itself become a series of dislocated stories or nostalgias in which are be compiled into a “history”. The important thing to remember is that these stories should not be rendered in terms of cause and effect but as a series of signifying moments they represent rather than reveal. Thus the creation of John Key as a “state house child” has its value in terms of the associations it can conjure rather than as a concrete piece of explanatory information. Despite the fact that many middleclass people grew up in state houses the context such housing has now (and in the postmodern context “now” is all there is) is that it is for the poor. Thus John’s “statehouse childhood” becomes an important way of attaching him to the “poor boy made good” narrative that is already embedded in the cultural logic. And it stops there – the details of this story are immaterial as is any attempt to try to unpack it in terms of what it actually meant because history exists only as a present cultural product. Like the tiki tee-shirt the statehouse childhood story gathers its meaning via its attachment to another story not through any inherent meaning of its own.

A good way to understand this is the marketing of Coke. You will never see advertising in which someone takes a long draw from a can of Coke and then turns to the screen and says “mmm Coke is good and this is why…” instead you see the brand placed amongst stories that will resonate at a surface level such as young beautiful people holding coke cans while playing at the beach. This is the difference between Labour and brand key. Labour’s presentation is modernist it says “this is the product and this is why it is good”. Brand Key recognises the fact that this is redundant. Instead brand Key is about surface association with other narratives. That’s why he talked about cheese toasties after the budget, wore the tiki tee-shirt and made his DVD – because his marketing team understand the current cultural logic. Thus each of these moves was an attempt to provide Brand Key with its meaning by associating it with external stories rather than trying to infuse it with depth.

There are plenty of other examples of the postmodern condition in Jameson’s work but this post is already too long so I’ll jump right to the thesis.

The reason we have this cultural logic is the means of production. The way we think about the world is constructed around the way we materially survive in it. Modernism was the result of the industrial revolution. Its memes were founded on the production of things and on the machines that made them. Postmodernism is founded on multinational capitalism and its speculative nature. There is no gold standard for currency instead there is a whole lot of different currencies that find their value only in relation to each other. Our perception-shapers the journos, the policy makers, the business people have the computer and the internet as their primary tools now and television is the main medium through which people receive their understanding of the world. These are the tools of reproduction not of production and it is inevitable that the logics of these technologies would become the logics that we use to understand the world. That is, surface interconnection and the presentation of reality as a series of interconnected but foundationless stories. But it is not simply changes in technology that account for this change. Rather this technology should be seen as the manifestation of late-capitalism itself in which our economies are reliant on constructed signifiers such as sub-prime debt-packages that have their value and meaning calculated in ways that are more to do with their surface interrelation than any tangible reality.

I suspect that as an ex-currency speculator John Key operates in this floating market of meanings more naturally than Helen Clark does but the thing is these people are campaigning to be our Prime Minister. I know that Helen Clark wants the job in order to make change (a very modernist impulse); I suspect John just sees it as another scene in the story of Brand Key. A man for our times indeed.

69 comments on “Brand Key”

  1. ak 1

    Nice one sod – I think Ranapia’s recent attempt to brand you the “d4J of the left” just took a massive hit….

    (cap: “have beers” – oh all right…)

  2. Cheers ak – it drove me nuts trying to keep it simple rather than use the more precise but specialist language of critical theory and I’m pretty certain I’ve misrepresented Jameson and my own views a little in doing so.

    I’m also worried Lew will start fancying me…

  3. r0b 3

    Interesting read. Two questions. First:

    Because the idea of “self’ has been annihilated.

    Can you say some more about this, because to me the exact opposite seems true. The yuppification of “Western culture” has been all about the self – “greed is good”, “because you deserve it” – and so on (let’s not even mention our Libertarian “friends”)…

    And second question – if I accepted your analysis (and I largely do) – what does it suggest that the Left should do? Recognising a problem is a necessary step to solving it, but not a sufficient one. So now what?

    Post edit: I’m also worried Lew will start fancying me…

    Yeah, you don’t want to two-time Billy, that could end real bad.

  4. djp 4

    sorry sod, you lost me

    anyone care to summarize?

  5. gobsmacked 5

    Very insightful analysis. Can’t fault it at all, really.

    The depressing thing about Key’s approach is not that it’s ingenious or cynical, but that it’s so predictable, almost a second-rate parody. You can see the instructions on the packet. It has been seen and done and written about many times before. It’s one of those incomprehensible ironies that in an era when we all go on about “instant global mass communication blah blah”, New Zealand’s political commentators seem never to have read a book about American politics, from Kennedy through Nixon to Reagan to today. Or for that matter, to have seen any movies.

    Oh well, at least if he gets in we’ll be entertained. Can’t we just give him the job now and get it over with, before handing government back to the grown-ups?

  6. higherstandard 6

    Ditto djp

  7. r0b 7

    anyone care to summarize?

    Clark and Labour = substance.
    Key and National = style.
    In today’s world it appears that style is more important than substance.

  8. Felix 8

    gs,

    I’ve often wondered that too, especially when listening to Rodney Hide. He borrows his slogans and soundbites so openly from right-wing American “thinkers” and presents them as if he just thought of it himself.

    It’s like he thinks no-one else has the internets.

  9. Dean 9

    “Clark and Labour = substance.
    Key and National = style.
    In today’s world it appears that style is more important than substance.”

    I wonder if Labour will be running Clark’s over-photoshopped image in this campaign again?

  10. higherstandard 10

    Fair enough point r0b

    I’d also add that there is the possibility that a large proportion of the population also dislike the substance more than they’re attracted to the style ……….. I suspect politicians in general are still ranked very low in the opinions of most NZers.

  11. Rob – yeah, that’s Jameson’s use of “self” and I agree it seems a little counterintuitive. What he means is that the idea of an essential self is gone and has instead been replaced by a series of narratives. I am as I am the sum of the stories I associate with (mostly through consumption and the narrative surrounding commodities) – kinda like when you hear people talk about them selves as “a coke kinda guy”. The other issue is that it’s “self” as a cultural concept rather than “self” and in “self-indulgent”.

    Jameson argues (a little weakly, in my opinion) that we “need to regain the capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralised by our spatial as well as our social confusion.”

    I would say we have three broad choices:

    Start playing the game and marketing our values like Coke (as the greens have hamfistedly done with their celebrity campaign) in preparation for the next election.

    Try to hijack Brand Key by associating it with narratives that work against it. I’d suggest plenty of humour.

    Hope that when it comes down to it people realise that you really want modernist-types running your country because while the simulacrum may be fine for marketing it ain’t much chop at getting the trains to run on time.

    I’m putting money on the second and third options because, outside of Brand Key, National have very little going for them. The problem is that in the long term things are only going to head further this way and unfortunately postmodernism doesn’t just reflect multinational capital, it reinforces it.

  12. r0b 12

    What he means is that the idea of an essential self is gone and has instead been replaced by a series of narratives.

    OK, interesting, might get back to this tonight (got to go now).

    Glad you had some concrete suggestions to follow up with. Analysis is all good fun and so on, but bottom line I want concrete action plans to take away.

  13. HS – they don’t dislike the substance. The substance doesn’t even figure. The government’s brand has been set by National because Labour was too slow to realise what was happening. Every time the Nats beat up another “scandal” they’re working to brand the government.

    In fact substance versus style is exactly the morally loaded claptrap that the postmodern condition renders irrelevant. There is no good or bad.

    And yes, it has happened before in the US (in fact Jameson’s essay dates back to the 1984) but they have been a media saturated culture for a lot longer than us.

    Edit: So do I r0b.

  14. Andrew 14

    “I wonder if Labour will be running Clark’s over-photoshopped image in this campaign again?”

    The fact that this is seen as important is another example of superficial political soundbite-ism from the right wing.

  15. Former Labour Voter 15

    So what you’re really saying, in short, is that Labour is good, but National is bad. And it took two thousand words of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual crap to get it out. Yet it is the fifth of the last six posts obsessed with John Key.

    As a former Labour voter, it’s no wonder that people are tuning out from the labour party. For all your claims that National has no policy, you don’t actually discuss policy here at the Standard. You certainly don’t spend much time trumpeting Labour policy. Instead you obsess about National and John Key.

    It isn’t working. Try a new record.

  16. You retard – there’s no moral judgment involved in my analysis. If anything I think it shows the Brand Key approach is the better of the two. Oh and baby? I’m surprised you find it pseudo-intellectual ‘cos I dumbed it down just for you.

  17. gobsmacked 17

    Former etc

    Tell us which part of the analysis you disagree with, and why. Debate the issue, please.

  18. Matthew Pilott 18

    DJP and HS – there was almost a parody in your responses to this post – you basically asked for a sound byte. That’s what JK gives you every second day!

    Former Labour Voter – you see what you want to see I guess. As a “former” Labour voter – what is it about Labour’s policies you don’t like?

  19. higherstandard 19

    RS

    I have to disagree with the public not liking the ‘substance’ the government in very recent times made substantive news out of the Railways buy back, blocking the sale of AIA and the Budget on the face of it the ‘substance’ of these actions have not been favourably received by the public.

    However irksome it may be I believe the populace is disillusioned with the substance (and Yes the style) of the present government more than they are ‘turned on to’ the style of National.

  20. higherstandard 20

    MP

    There’s that and the fact that I find reading all of RS’s verbiage almost as bad as trying to get through of one of Travelleve’s posts

  21. HS – I’m sorry you feel that way mate but I had already dumbed it down to the point where a lot of the nuance of my argument was lost. Particularly around the issue of self which Jameson describes by discussion of Heidegger. Perhaps you just need to take a remedial reading course.

  22. AncientGeek 22

    hs: I have to agree with you about the post, but then I like simply doing things rather than talking about it.

    However the ‘sod has verbosely caught the essence of what I was arguing earlier today with you. It isn’t just Key, it is the whole of the National party for the last 30 years. They promise to reform the country. Then they get the treasury benches and screw things up. Why because they’re all fluff and no substance, and grossly incompetent to boot.

    Key is just the most refined version of a long line of political bull.

    To the Former whatever… (why are all of these stupid names so boringly similar). If the National party ever released policy that was more detailed than the Notional Party with its leader Ron Trash, then I’d guess we’d be discussing it.

    However like the notional party, the National Party appears to only have one policy – get visibility for their Dear Leader cult. So we worship and comment on their cult of the Dear Leader. I’m sorry if this offends you, perhaps you’d like to tell us why?

    (I think I’ve probably plagiarized some kiwiblog commentators here – but who really gives a shit)

  23. Oh, great to see that the sod still believes in the delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others.
    Batman couldn’t resist Robin.

  24. higherstandard 26

    AG

    I think you need to take off your Rouge tinted glasses – this country functions despite the interferences of governments both past and present – history will remember the present government for perhaps two major initiatives Kiwisaver and the FTA with little of substance to recommend them apart from that.

    And if you’re serious about a dear leader cult I’d suggest you look to the incumbent government before pointing the finger at Key.

  25. Harpoon 27

    Everything the National Party does is done to achieve one of two things; either
    (a) move money from all the rest to the rich, or
    (b) distract attention from the fact that (a) is happening.

    For example, National’s election strategy is all (b) right now (“never mind our policies — don’t you just want to have John Key round for a beer and a barbie?”).

    National will keep doing this till the last period of the campaign, when there is maximum noise and little chance for people to think deeply about what the Nats’ policies actually mean.

  26. gobsmacked 28

    So far nobody has actually taken issue with anything in the article. ‘I don’t get it but I know it’s crap’ is not the most compelling counter-argument.

    Funny thing is, if Key does win, within weeks there will be loud complaints about exactly the lack of substance that Robinsod outlines … but the complaints will be coming from the Right. The identity of Key is the Change, the Not-Clark. Once he is required to Be rather than Not Be, to act on principles he does not possess, then it is the right-wingers that will be bemoaning his poll-driven emptiness. They will want the government to show “backbone” (as they would see it) and take potentially unpopular decisions – and Key is not going to be their man. He will give them slogans instead.

    It would save them a lot of trouble if they started seeing through John Key now. And to be fair, some on the right do, but most are too fixated on getting Clark out to think beyond that.

  27. AncientGeek 29

    hs: I was being satirical mainly about the kiwibloggers like Former whatever. They have been pushing that stupid personality cult thing forever about HC. I just figured that it’d be fun to poke it the other way. It is hard to see a difference between branding exercises applied to people and for name brand product promotion. Both are designed to puff the value of a product far above their intrinsic value.

    The key difference here is that the personality cult is being deliberately pushed by the national party to cover their absence of any substantive policy (ie puffing). Whereas any puffing around Helen has mainly been done by the damn media.

    It is easier for reporters to explain things as personal attributes rather than have to explain the dogged hard work by large number of people that generates the results like our current unemployment figures, GDP, government debt reduction, and basically every other measure you want to name. Sure Helen is pretty damn effective as a manager of the ministers, and I’d guess that she has considerable input. But then again. so does Cullen, Maharey, Goff, King, Mallard, Peters, Dunne, Anderton, etc etc.

    So far Key’s primary management characteristic from what I can see seems to be that no-one else is allowed to have ideas on policy in their shadow portfolio’s.

    BTW: I’d like to plug a movie here. I got dragged along to see Sex And The City (the movie) this weekend. Now there is movie about brand awareness. It is worth going along to just to see some seriously obsessional brand fixation. The actual movie wasn’t too bad either.

  28. Ag – I would argue that Brand Key is not a cover for the absence of policy but a genuine reflection of postmodernity. In fact, as little as the left like this idea, policy does not count anymore and exposition of policy is to be punished. Remember I am not talking about the game views of a few politically interested bloggers but about the unconscious cultural logic of the majority of the population.

    The fact that my analysis has been interpreted as a style versus substance argument is also disappointing. THERE IS NO SUBSTANCE! The simulacrum is all there is! It’s not “style”, it’s how things are and the left needs to figure out a way to deal with it in the long-term without propping up the ontologies of capitalism. Good luck with that.

  29. AncientGeek 31

    hs: I’d have added the Cullen fund in as well. It goes some way to correcting Nationals superannuation fuckup from the 1970’s bankrupting us all in the future.

    I think that the setting up of structured research and seed development funds was a major (if under-sung) policy that will be increasingly noticed into the future. The number of organization and people that I’ve been involved in where those funds have been used is steadily increasing. They don’t fund the exercises, but they have in several cases been the difference between cracking a market or not. With the exception of the pure research funds, they’ve been focused to selling offshore, and I think have a massive ROI over time.

    Pulling ACC back into place was important. I see nothing but inefficient market practices offshore for the shambles that the Nat’s were trying to shaft us with.

    But the biggest one. The government has started to put in the infrastructure investment again. They could do this because they concentrated on killing the government debt accumulated in the 1970’s and early 80’s in that spendthrift national government. Now the debt got killed, it means that the aborted flyovers stopped in the 1970’s now have roads on them. There is new infrastructure investment going on in Auckland after effectively 30 years of hiatus.

    I’d say that this government will largely be remembered as returning the process of government to the business of government.

  30. higherstandard 32

    AG

    rE Sex and the City …….. please accept my sincerest sympathies.

  31. AncientGeek 33

    ‘sod: yeah after watching SATC I’d have to actually agree with you. Maybe it is time to have a seriously good recession. I know – lets elect a national government. It is about the only thing they’re good at delivering. Maybe that will focus people less on brands and more on reality.

    😉 Bet that will offend people

  32. AncientGeek 34

    Oh dear, after reading my comments, I think I’m having shock symptoms from SATC. It is all the fault of the ‘sod. His thesis is so close to what that movie displayed.

    Reminds me of the vision that Frederick Pohl had in The Space Merchants in the 1953. The final triumph of the marketing, is that people are happy to live in a grotty over-populated world with crappy trinkets – BUT they have the right labels.

    The depiction in SATC looked just like that.

    Then ‘sod pushed the exact version of the marketing campaign for politics depicted in his 1984 sequel “The Merchants War”. It can be summarized as “find the right face and market with cross-branding”.

    Now he mentions it that really does feel like the National campaign this time around.

  33. Joel 35

    I’m with you AncientGeek. Things have really been on the up and up, considering this Government spent most of the time thus far rectifying fuck ups from the past. The buy backs are only the beginning, but if National have their way they’ll also be the end, and it won’t be too long until we are wondering what to do with all the nuclear waste we are accumulating… fan-bloody-tastic.

    The funny thing is we always seem to be in such a hurry to repeat the mistakes that other countries make, but 10 or 20 years later. THe fact that most countries are moving away from Nuclear power due to the lack of any real answer to the problem of nuclear waste, and the issue of heavy water not mixing with normal water and so on and so forth (add in the near meltdowns they had in Sweden I think it was…), leave it up to the Kiwis to run in gung-ho and decide we need it now.

    This government has done a world of good for us and we won’t realise it until its all gone again under a National Government. We’ll all be paying around 50 bucks for a doctors visit and god knows with the student loan repayments being discounted for large voluntary repayments we’ll be giving those with the money even more! And we might take a step away from 90% renewable energy. So rather than think how acn we use our energy more efficiently we need National to come in and fix the problem with nuclear power and the like.

    Just for those who flame me and say National are not lifting NZ’s nuke free status = I understand they’re saying that now, but I don’t believe they’ll be saying it for long. Much like the move to move away from MMP.

  34. dave 36

    Key has plenty of substance but he knows its not what most NZs want. He wants to finish Rogering us. So he’s not going to let on until it’s too late.
    Late Capitalism is not different from early capitalism. Key’s mates may be speculators, but his no 1 backers in the US make real money from producing real commodities (like in China). Not to let China steal a FTA they would like to screw us a bit more on their own account so Key is their man.
    The style thing is a delaying tactic. Ironically it says something about our ability still to tell substance from style. Despite O’Reilly and Murdoch onside, Key can’t gamble that the media will monster us once his true policies are out there.
    Jameson was always a wanker.

  35. T-Rex 37

    Bravo Sod

    Despite your ‘dumbing down’ (which I for one certainly appreciate) I think what you wrote would, rightly, be labelled inaccessible if you tried to spread it around. As FLV illustrated. Sadly, people being inaccessible doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

    Agree with the suggestions – I’m working on the humour one. Turn Keys Coke into Pepsi (I wonder if the Greens realised how apt their labelling of the two parties was! Doubt it…)

    I’ll be spreading what you wrote around among the few people I know who’ll make an effort to read it. Well done.

  36. Ari 38

    Robinsod- very thorough analysis that resonates highly with what the people I talk politics with have been saying- ie. that national is making an emotive argument for power rather than a rational one, and we need to get emotive too if we’re to have comparable draw for the election, instead of just bullet-pointing what we’ve done.

    Personally I think you still managed to overcomplicate it a little, but it’s an idea elegant enough that it deserves some complication, I suppose. 🙂

  37. T-Rex 39

    AG – I was informed by a reliable source on the topic that SATC (both the movie and the series) is purely about the “frocks”. Really. To the extent that she was surprised I thought it ever might have been about the characters. It’s a catwalk show.

  38. ak 40

    Sod: THERE IS NO SUBSTANCE!

    Precisement mon frere. Amply demonstrated by the utterly vacuous and blatantly incorrect slogans from the right (eg “one law for all” – when not a single law not “for all” could be found) which are nevertheless accepted as gospel by the swinging voters.

    Two caveats but, to an impressive analysis:

    One, I don’t think the postmodernist paradigm is as pervasive as you suggest (particularly in my age group!) Remember we’re only talking about those swinging voters here (and sorry to harp on but remember too that 70% refusal rate, so it’s still only around 3% of the population that swung to provide the “15%” gain – albeit crucial). The vast bulk of the electorate are not sound-bite suckers and have always voted either on the “real beef” of achievement and ability, or as punishment for (real) betrayals and failings.

    Two, this “simulacrum state” relies on repetition to take effect: any and all of the comments from HS and burt are sterling examples. In short, the “Corrupt, corrupt, corrupt” approach actually works – much to the astonishment and dismay of rational beings. Hence the rage at the EFA and the continued crucial role of the media.

    So I’d add a fourth strategy to sod’s suggestions: Repeat, repeat repeat – the Labour “brand” of achievement, experience, and SUBSTANCE. In sodspeak, use a postmodernist narrative to establish brand modernism – beef over cheese flakes. Just how to go about this is another matter entirely…..

  39. roger nome 41

    ‘Sod – an interesting read. Reads a bit like one of my third-year anthropology essays.

    One nuance that might be added to it is that existing governments are judged more by substance than the opposition parties. i.e. it’s well known that unemployment kills governments. So if you aren’t competent it will soon come to impact on your image.

    On the other hand if you’re in opposition and you aren’t able to ruin the economy, your “substance” doesn’t matter so much.

    Though on further thinking, right-wing governments have been able to create certain “theatrical” events in order to elevate image above substance to suit their purposes. i.e. take John Howard’s “Boat People” deception, which allowed the Liberals the opportunity to paint themselves as the protectors and heroes of Australia.

    http://www.abc.net.au/insiders/content/2002/s483269.htm

    Then we’ve got George Bush senior’s “baby’s thrown from incubators fabrication, which made the war electorally possible, and allowed the Republican administration to paint itself as a civilising hero.

    In fact, the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah…..Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” Nayirah said. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.

    The story of babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush told the story. It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council.

    … Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father, in fact, was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Ambassador to the US.

    H&K vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached Nayirah in what even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony.

    http://www.prwatch.org/books/tsigfy10.html

  40. roger nome 42

    AK:

    “One, I don’t think the postmodernist paradigm is as pervasive as you suggest (particularly in my age group!) Remember we’re only talking about those swinging voters here”

    I agree that ‘sod creates a false absolute or binary there (though perhaps for the purposes of brevity and simplicity?).

    But the problem is that they account for around 45% of the voting populace (National’s core is about 20% while Labour’s is about 30%, while the Greens sit at about 5%.

    Also, their votes unfortunately “decide” elections.

  41. Bollocks nome and I do miss you on kiwiblog.
    Kind regards
    d4j
    xx

  42. roger nome 44

    Dad, cheers. Don’t get too smug though. Your next ban is for two months no?

  43. George 45

    John Key is a ‘consumer item’ politican. He is packaged and marketed and somem people want to ‘buy’ him. The Nats ran something like this with Brash but he wasn’t good enough to pull it off, Brash was too ackward and gaff prone. Key is presenting himself to the Kiwi public as a consumer item rather than a politican with agency (the power+
    to do things and create change). Are we seeing the ‘coke’ Key or a ‘MacDonalds’ Key? His approach was summed up for me on 3 news tonight. People were commenting that it is time for a change from Labour but many were not exactly sure why. The marketing of Key is aimed to convince them to change from their usual brand of consumer commodity even if the new commodity has no superior function to their current one. Mazda cars ‘zoom zoom’, people are apparently ‘loving it’ an McDonalds or ‘eating fresh’ at subway. They are ‘timing a change’ with John Key. A hollower man indeed?

  44. Lyn 46

    Ak and roger nome –

    ” “One, I don’t think the postmodernist paradigm is as pervasive as you suggest (particularly in my age group!) Remember we’re only talking about those swinging voters here’

    I agree that ‘sod creates a false absolute or binary there (though perhaps for the purposes of brevity and simplicity?).”

    One thing to bear in mind is that the argument presented makes reference to the operation of the current system. Those of you old enough to have been socialised during a more modernist moment will probably be thinking in a modernist way. It might be a shortcoming of Jameson that there’s no detailed discussion of the overlap in our lived experience of historical moments and how this operates on the ground, but the macro/micro divide seems to plague all metanarrative theories. I don’t think it’s a simplification, at least, not by RS, especially given that he’s reading closely with Jameson. I would say the binary is a core theoretical problem for Jameson, but it doesn’t invalidate RS’s argument. I doubt anyone would argue that once the baby-boomers all die off, postmodernism will be the fullscale mode du jour – and god knows what that’s going to mean for the democratic endeavour.

  45. AncientGeek 47

    T_Rex:

    SATC (both the movie and the series) is purely about the “frocks’. Really.

    Yes, I did come away from it thinking that there was something fundamental that I was missing.

    But to a functional minimalist like myself it was like the first time I watched one of those brutal film festival films doco’s about year zero in cambodia. I was watching people with a totally alien set of values.

    Then to have the ‘sod explain that John Key was being marketed as a brand accessory was a total revelation. An epiphanic event ensued

    BUT the movie was actually quite good fun to watch. Watching someone teetering on very high heels in pajamas and a fur coat on a snowy New York street on new years eve was classic slapstick.

    Sort of like watching JK with that video clip of him wandering around porirua market sniffing vegetables and trying to make contact with the local populace.

  46. RedLogix 48

    This thread has been a great read..lots of excellent contributions. Sod’s original post can best be described as a ‘learning experience’ as far as I am concerned.

    Along the same theme I spotted this in New Scientist this week;

    Review: The Political Mind by George Lakoff

    Politics, says Lakoff, is not about changing minds through arguments and evidence. It is about configuring and reconfiguring neural pathways. Repetitive, comforting, emotionally attractive and morally appealing narratives, metaphors, mottos and mantras are most likely to gain neural traction. Politicians who control brains win elections.

    Looking up Vance Packard’s classic “The Hidden Persuaders”, I was surprised to see that it was first published in 1957, and that he was questioning the morality of using these techniques even then. Legitimate substance SHOULD win over medacious style, but the polls tell us differently.

    In the right wing mind, morality is simply a question of adhering to the letter of the rules (witness National’s total lack of contrition over it’s use of secret trusts to flagrantly subvert their own 1992 Electoral Act)…winning is all and morality is for losers. It begs the question then; if the electorate doesn’t know that it is being manipulated (nor care much even if it did)…then which path do we go down? Is substance and truth redundant in a world where the right simply creates it’s own reality?

  47. MacDoctor 49

    Interesting analysis, Robinsod.

    Of course, it applies equally well to the Obama/Clinton celebrity death match. Obama being considerably better at style than Key.

    There seems to be some confusion about the difference between political agenda and political marketing. It is not true to say labour = substance and national = style. Both have underlying political agendas which would translate to “substance” in government. Or does anyone here actually believe that National might get into power and say “Sorry, but we have no idea how to run the country”?

  48. RedLogix 50

    Or does anyone here actually believe that National might get into power and say “Sorry, but we have no idea how to run the country’?

    Well the fact that behind Key the National bench consists mainly of the same clueless gang of tired old party hacks that buggered the country in the 90’s, and the fact of that this same crew after 9 years in Oppostion have failed to produce ANY substantive ideas or policy about how they WOULD run the country … then I have to ask you what makes you think they are likely to do any better this time around?

  49. Pascal's bookie 51

    “Or does anyone here actually believe that National might get into power and say “Sorry, but we have no idea how to run the country’?”

    I’m starting to think that they won’t say it, but yeah.

    The rhetoric they are using is a modified version of what we have seen from the GOP. And they don’t actually seem to have been that concerned about governing. It’s just cut taxes, react to events, cut some more taxes.

    Pretty much exactly what they say. If you don’t think the govt has much reason to exist, why would you have any plans for doing things as a government?

    Instead, you cut what you can get politically away with, slash taxes to starve the beast, and use everything from wars to disasters to paint your opponents as weak kneed traitors, and govt itself as a failed enterprise. I don’t think it’s a conscious strategy, just the natural policy outcomes of modern right wing thought.

  50. Sod,

    Very interesting and useful, inasmuch as it engenders further thought about the nature of political discourse in Aotearoa.

    Jameson’s frame seems well-suited to the analysis of high culture, but high culture has always been an elitist project, has it not? Warhol wasn’t really aiming to ‘bring art to the masses’, and he never did, despite the wide appeal of his art amongst those in the middle classes with higher education. (Spent an hour once waiting in a queue at the Corcoran Gallery just to meet the man.) Wasn’t Warhol (and conceptual artists) representative of an approach to art that had its strongest following amongst curators and critics? I look at the art that adorns the homes of the middle classes today and it includes a great deal of abstract art — but wait, that’s modernist, no? And what does it say about the human condition?

    In short, do we have the empirics to back up this post-modern interpretation of the appeal across the populace of brand over substance?

    PS Enjoyed the post.

  51. Jafa – as I’ve pointed out Jameson formulated his thesis in 1984. I’d say since then things have moved on a bit and postmodernity has become more pervasive. This is a big picture thesis and looking at a series of individuals isn’t the best way to think about it as each will have their own set of narratives. One could argue that the fact that abstract art will often sit next to a Georgian writing desk or a superreal piece is a sign of the plurality of floating signifiers that Jameson talks about. One could argue even more convincingly that the most people’s experience of the world is now largely hyperreal and gathered through a plethora of mediums – all of which are replicators of the world and of each other and all of which are designed to place euphoria over feeling.

    In my experience much of the world (say for example an event) is not “real” to people until it has been validated and reconstructed by the media. Even if they were there themselves. It certainly isn’t real to those who were not there until it is “published”. And when it is “published” it is represented in a multifaceted manner through an increasing number of mediums. There is the left-wing blog reality, the right-wing blog reality, the RNZ reality, the Press reality etc.

    In short JP, watch the news and then step outside and see how it pertains to the “real” then ask yourself which you spend the most time thinking and writing about. Then ask yourself where most people are gathering the narratives that give them a sense of social and spatial place from. It doesn’t matter if those narratives are modernist or renaissance (in fact it is likely to be a blend of many “eras”) as postmodernism subsumes and provides all narratives. The single truth of postmodernism is that there are many truths and none of them are True. Neither Jameson or I am unaware of the irony of that statement.

  52. Billy 54

    Check out the big brain on ‘sod.

  53. Aw shucks billy. Now you’ve made me blush…

  54. roger nome 56

    redlogix –

    I’ve watched Lakoff’s lecture regarding “moral politics” language and psychology several times now. It’s fascinating a must for any campaign strategist.

    key words:

    “Familiy and Security” – Associate your brand positively with those words and you’ve gone a long way toward success. Of course the specific semantics will change from culture to culture, but those are the essential and universal themes that tap into the emotions like no other.

    The lecture can be found here.

  55. outofbed 57

    where?

  56. roger nome 58

    Sorry, stuffed up the html:

    here it is

  57. outofbed 59

    no it isn’t

  58. Billy 60

    RN,

    Reminds me of the 2002 election when every time Dunne said the meaningless “common sense” the worm went off the scale.

  59. dave 61

    Robinsod, would you say that the people rioting for food in various countries are doing it so they can go home and watcb it on TV?
    Postmodernism was a fad among middle class intellectuals in the 70s in France, and the US in 1980s and Australia in the 1990s. It had done its dash by the the turn of the century. Do you really want to rehabilitate it for NZ in the 21st century?
    Why rediscover it to explain the sign ‘cheese’ when we have been reliably informed in the adjacent topic that for Key it is intimately tied to his significant investments in ‘cheese’?
    Once this link becomes exposed the ‘reality’ will dawn on those who actually vote Labour outside the incestuous blogosphere. It would be sensible for Labour to re-affirm its rejection of postmodernism and give the people some real ‘bread’ to eat with the Green’s ‘cheese’ before they start ransacking the supermarkets.

  60. Dave – take note of where people are not rioting – what are their cultural conditions? As for your contention that postmodernism (and I assume you include post structuralism) was a fad. You seem to have missed the fact that it is a precondition of most cultural and critical theory today. Sure there are a variety of pragmatic responses to PS but most recognise it as underlying the discourse. You talk about “reality” dawning on people. How will this reality dawn?

    I agree with you that postmodernism is not a nice place to be but a straight out rejection of it leaves one doomed to a niche backwater.

  61. dave 63

    Starving probably.
    Most critical theory is for critical theorists. It explains their careers nothing else. The original critical theory of Adorno et al had workers as ‘dupes’ of ideology, and your version is no different.
    Food riots are examples of ‘reality dawning’. In NZ reality will dawn when the current triple whammy hits and despite the media spinmasters Key will be seen as a hollow parasite.

  62. No Dave – they’ll find out through the media. And I don’t see people as dupes. I just think that people respond culturally to their means of production and survival.

    I agree that most critical theory is for critical theorists but I don’t see that as a reason to discard critical theory altogether. These are powerful analytical tools we can use to unpack and deal with real and tangible issues. There is a danger of falling a victim to theory’s clever games at the expense of action but there is an equal danger of failing to properly analyse a situation and to then act redundantly.

  63. roger nome 65

    Damn google video. Hopefully this time it works.

    Third time lucky

  64. djp 66

    hey sod,

    I came back for a second read and I see where you are coming from (although I didn’t read the entire post).

    You make a fairly good (although laboured) point. All other things being equal I would prefer the modern approach rather then some post-modern claptrap.

    However from where I am standing I see:
    Labour – modernist socialist liars
    National – post-modern marklah, labour lite, slight consideration to libertarian views

    neither Labour or National provide a compelling case for my vote

  65. dave 67

    Robinsod, the media is the media, it has not displaced the reality. People riot because they are hungry not because TV tells them they are hungry. That’s why they are not ‘dupes’. They may try to escape in soap but that doesnt wash because reality intrudes.

    The right does not have a monopoly of the media. It may try but it can’t do it. Witness Venezuela in 2002 when the alternative media (cell phones, cable, internet) exposed the rightwing mediasprung coup against Chavez.

    My point is that the social reality has not changed. Postmodernism is not a social condition but a branch of the propaganda industry. It presents everything as an individual consumer choice. But that doesnt work when you can’t afford the basics.

    Capitalism is still modern. Bosses still exploit workers. Governments still compromise and try to please everyone. By conceding much ground to the neo-liberals Labour has undermined its working class support base.

    The looming triple whammy reality will intrude. Labour can dispel all the right wing media spin with a few policies that are directed at the poor. Get rid of the GST on food and fuel; get rid of Comalco; do a deal with the dairy farmers to tackle emissions by taking a share of Fonterra.

  66. dave 68

    Obviously Robinsod’s attention span has run out, that’s postmodernism for you.

  67. Lew 69

    Aww, Sod, you thought of me when you wrote this. I’m touched.

    I agree with it in principle, too, though I’d have preferred it not be dumbed down since I’ve not read Jameson.

    The discussion of affect is central to all of this. It reminded me of the antipathy between affect and information, which is one of Murray Edelman’s foundational principles of symbolic politics (per Sapir etc.). He argues that in politics `information’ is by definition anything which does not confirm a given belief. So-called information which does confirm a given belief is regarded as truth or is self-evident:

    “Political beliefs and perceptions are very largely not based upon empirical observations or, indeed, upon “information’ at all. More than that, non-empirically based cognitions are the most resistant to revision based upon observations of the world, and accordingly they have the most potent influence upon which empirical observations and social cues are taken into consideration and which ignored.” (Politics as Symbolic Action, p31)

    I use this definition of `information’ below.

    All information is therefore regarded as essentially wrong somehow, and people will often go to some lengths to argue against it because they believe to be wrong. This founds almost all ideological discussions and explains the sort of heated stalemate to which political debate often degenerates. Where affect and information meet, affect almost always trumps information, and in cases where it doesn’t (where information `wins’ if you like), people tend toward either fight or flight responses – the former resulting in more and more untenable and illogical arguments, and the latter resulting in going away to find more rationales to support their preferred belief. In cases where people have apparently been caused by new information to change their opinion on a matter, usually it’s not in fact that they’ve been convinced by the information, but by some emotive or affective baggage contained in it. So the key to having people accept your information is to have them accept the emotive reasoning upon which it is based. It doesn’t matter how good the intellectual rationale is if it won’t pass the emotive sniff-test. This is essentially what lakoff means when he talks about family and security (top-order symbols).

    All quite tricky to prove categorically, but powerful principles upon which to found a political strategy. Essentially, branding is the process of getting people to act with their emotions, rather than with their brains, and it’s been well-harnessed here by National.

    dave: People can afford the basics, and while they can, the propaganda machine matters. According to some of the more insightful Marxists this is the point of capitalism: to give the proletariat a minimal level of comfort so they won’t rebel and break the system which enslaves them. I think this is all a little cynical, myself, but there you have it. Yes, people are still exploited – but they’re led to believe they aren’t. That’s it working.

    L

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