Monday, March 21, 2005


Conde Nast plans to launch yet another "shopping magazine" to accompany Lucky (for women) and Cargo (for men) called Domino (for blacks? for sugar freaks? for convicts?). That these magazines thrive is puzzling, especially when you consider the intense competition in that field from something much humbler and easier to produce, the catalog.

In certain ways, catalogs are the quintessential modern reading material, the medium for which we are prepared all our lives: It requires little attention; it encourages pleasant, projective, imaginative daydreams (while discouraging daydream-dousing critical thought); it pitches itself to our sense of individual importance and reinforces that; and it reinforces the positional-goods hierarchy that stabilizes our identities in a capitalist world. Its copy affords us the haughty tones with which to furnish our interior monologue when judging strangers and, in darker moments, ourselves. The degree to which we read nothing but catalogs is the degree to which we are cooperative, complacent and happy citizens. They are the "CNN of consumerism" (with apologies to Chuck D), the newspaper for ordinary citizens, whose general concerns with the world should ideally not extend beyond what new goods are on offer.

And as Cargo, et al, prove, there's no clear divide between catalogs and other forms of media; there wouldn't be much more than a broadsheet left if you removed all the service pages from the newspaper, and most commercial magazines minus their ad and service pages wouldn't amount to all that much. Thomas Frank has a whole jeremiad against tht Gannett newspaper group, whose "editorial content" seems to consist primarily of repurposed PR material, on the grounds that this sort of "optimism" is what readers want. And that's probably right. Catalog copy closes the world around you, it digs the hole for our ostrich heads.

As usual, this goes back to the beginnings of commercialized culture, the early 18th century. The commercial novel was often a miscellany, read like a shopping catalog by bourgeois in the market for new emotional experiences. This reading remains linear, but consists of skimming, searching for peaks and valleys tied to a narrative predictable enough to not require careful or sustained attention. Identification is not single, to a specific hero or heroine, but instead multiple choices are offered for a variety of potential pleasures, many of which are contradictory. The audience must have been able to ignore the heterogenous methods without having their ability to identify with the characters necessary for the emotional experience their reading experience engendered on any given occasion. A sustained identification was not yet necessary for a plentiful yield of satisfactory emotional tittilation. Readers could partake of vicarious pleasure in unrelated moments through characters diametrically opposed. Sometimes, too, readers must have identified with the storyteller as well as with the characters within the story, for the peculiar pleasure that comes from being the presumably unimplicated observer.

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