Much like the scriptwriters of American sitcoms, the writers at The Standard can get a little lazy at this time of the year and like those scriptwriters the cheap and easy answer is the clipshow episode.
Let’s get the ball rolling with a robinsod guest post from June 2008 which brought the phrase “brand key” into the political lexicon:
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.