Monday, December 17, 2012

37 things you should hoard

Consumerism is as much about acquiring stuff as it is about acquiring stuff that other people don’t have. In our advanced industrial age this sometimes involves cultivating elaborate illusions of scarcity. Take the people who queue outside of Apple Stores ahead of the release of a new iPhone. They don’t do it because a slavish obeisance to this ritual is proof of the fact that they ‘think different’, nor because they actually fear that the world might be running out of iPhones. (The Stones aren’t in town. This thing isn’t going to get sold out.) They do it because it enables them to own that particular object ahead of other people. There is a narrow yet psychologically significant slice of time between nobody owning the new iPhone and everyone owning the new iPhone. To live in this time must mean something. It must be worth the emotional and physical labour required to be part of that large group, ahead of the even larger group that is the mass.

Another, more time-honoured way of acquiring stuff that other people don’t have is to throw your money after something that is stupidly expensive. Say, $6,000 for a Hèrmes hourglass, or $7,000 for a coyote fur hammock (‘produced with naturally deceased coyotes’). Or – if you really are in a spending mood – you can go for the Azature black diamond nail polish.

h/t @agatapyzik

Retailing for a trifling £160,000, each bottle of Azature – available exclusively from Selfridges in the UK – contains 267 carats of black diamonds and features a hand-made platinum sterling cap. I’ve actually added the item to my cart and proceeded to the check-out, just for fun, and in the off-chance it might briefly excite a sysop. I am therefore able to report that the website will insist on charging £4.95 for delivery within the UK, and that in a show of unbridled optimism it offers you to pay the total bill of £160,004.95 by credit card. But observe the footnote:
Availability: Low stock
Orders taken today will be dispatched from 13/1/13
This casual note is designed to reassure you that a cosmetic product costing two thirds of the average national house price is actually being sold, and that its makers are struggling to keep up with the demand. Which is another way of saying: some people have this. Other people. Wouldn’t you want to be one of those people?

A perception of scarcity. Coca-Cola introduced it, in what is possibly the world’s most common product, by naming some of the bottles as if they were people, thus making them ‘unique’. Clearly there is no limit to the shit that we’re prepared to fall for. And what a perception of scarcity is designed to trigger is not merely consumption – it is hoarding. Things must be had. Not having them might result in permanent lack, and this cannot be allowed to happen.

I don’t remember when it is that I came across this promotional video by Damian Campbell for the ‘37 things you should hoard’. That’s not the title, by the way, just the hook used by some of the website that link to it – charming places with names like Radio Britannia or The Vanguard News Network, frequented by charming people sporting slogans such as ‘Nobody but Jews want us all to believe the Jew version of 9/11’ (this from a particular gentleman who lists as his location the ‘Jewnited Snakes of Amnesia’). I’m not going to link to any of these places, obviously, but the video itself is somewhat less objectionable and there is a version of it on YouTube.

Not that I’m suggesting one should bother watch it. It struck me, though, as an extreme but nonetheless instructive example of the places consumerism can take you. The premise is that Mr Cambpell, author of the Survive Anything Guide, has information that could be a key to your survival in a civil emergency, terrorist attack or other crisis, when people will panic and loot the food stores or hoard everything in sight before you have a chance to purchase the 37 critical food items that alone would ensure the survival of you and your family. He spends several minutes telling you about this, first warning you about the many dangers that beset America (‘there’re some serious events about to hit the US. Some you know of already, but some will be brand-new in a threatening way’), then cautioning that some foods are good, whereas others are useless or could even hasten your demise, all the time building up to the sales pitch.

The addressee is a prepper or aspiring prepper. A ‘fellow patriot’, in the common parlance of these sites. Therefore male, therefore a father (if not actually, at least for the purposes of self-identification). The society in which the prepper and his family live is savagely Darwinian due to the facts of human nature, or so weakened by the corrosive influence of Government, the unions and liberals that it is destined to crumble in a crisis. The prepper lives therefore already in end times, and must devote his intellectual, physical and financial resources to ensuring the future survival of his family unit when disaster strikers, as it most assuredly will. (Although the prepper is resolutely Christian, this prophecy is of the agnostic kind and salvation comes not through faith but through works.) The pitch involves a wonderful piece of #nodads shaming:
It’s crushing when your kids realize that their Dad was wrong and your wife feels like you failed to protect the family.

Conversely, the very preparedness that now attracts ridicule will bestow status and respect in due course:
Sometimes our neighbors or even family say we’re “crazy” or “kooky” but…

People May Say We're “Crazy” Now...
But We'll See Who Was Right When
They're Asking Us For Help!
Whereas those of a less vindictive bent can look forward to
  • Attract like-minded Americans to rebuild our nation based on the constitution – without all the liberal crap…
  • Be a community leader ready to protect and provide for your fellow patriots

About twenty minutes into this carry-on it becomes clear that Mr Campbell has no intention of telling you what any of those 37 food items are, at least not until you’ve forked out $50 plus postage and handling for the entry-level CD-ROM version. The hoarding therefore takes a special form: it is hoarding of information. Having what others don’t have is subsumed to the logic of competitive survival. You will get to those precious items first if your neighbour doesn’t know what they are. I’ll teach you how to prepare in secret. I’ll tell you how to grow a hidden garden.

Like regular consumerism, this extreme kind is the mirror to a society that equates solidarity with weakness in the face of a crisis. That is the meaning of Nancy Lanza’s arsenal. She knew that what a good prepper must have above all is guns, To guard against other people. For safety. This requirement is so implicit that Campbell needs not mention it. Besides, he has this.

The NRA Business Alliance guarantees Damian Campbell and everyone else who is in the business of freedom. Even when it means privatising and ring-fencing something as basic as the advice on how best to prepare for a large-scale emergency. I can think of few more concise illustrations of the violence of capitalism than that seal and the slogan that accompanies it.


This may not be necessarily what I had in mind as an end-of-year, wishing-everyone-a-happy-christmas post, but there it is. Should you wonder what the 37 food items are, a helpful prepper revealed them in a forum. The list comprises water, pasta, rice, canned soups, meats, veggies, fruit, popcorn, salt, milk (condensed or powdered), cereal, beef jerky, grains, cooking oil, sports drinks, nuts, pickles, dried fruits, spices, honey, crackers, baking essentials, power bars, instant rice, coffee, alcohol, hard candies, dehydrated canned entrees, juice powders, protein drinks, peanut butter, long lasting treats (Twinkies, etc.), salsa, ramen noodles, fresh fruit, baby food and pet food. That’s it.

I’ll see you all in the new year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another Skyfall review

Then I understood that I am the world.
But the world - it isn’t me.
Although, at the same time, I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
And then I didn’t think any further.

(Daniil Charms, 1930)

I am the world

See my gun. Drive my car. Drink my beer. Wear these clothes.

My name is James Bond. I am a global brand. The least secretive of all secret agents, I always give my real name. It has been estimated that roughly one third of living human beings have seen at least one of my films. That’s as many people as there are Christians on Earth. And because I don’t belong to any one religion I am the closest thing there is to a universal global experience.

You can own things that belong to me. This suit. It’s by Tom ford. This watch. You ask if it’s a Rolex. I say: ‘Omega.’

I am a brand. I know my brands. England. That is one of my brands. That is the country that I identify with, and my country identifies with me. Bond is GREAT Britain. (They say Great Britain. I say England.) But I play equally well in China. Recently I spent time in Shanghai. Although it was also London. We used the streets of London for some of the action that took place in Shanghai. That’s okay because we made sure that you couldn’t tell the difference.

I travel the world but I always come back to England. We are cut from the same cloth, England and I. It is like the cloth of my Tom Ford suit. Underneath the cloth there is steel, like the steel of my Walther PKK. You too can own one. You too can own me. You too can kill.

But the world isn’t me

Skyfall nearly never got made. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, owner of the rights to the Bond franchise through its controlling interest in the long-since defunct United Artists brand, filed for bankruptcy in November 2010, months after halting production on the 23rd film of the series. Pre-production resumed in 2011 when the studio laboriously emerged from its financial troubles. For its part the film’s co-distributor, Columbia Pictures, is a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc., which is a unit of – you guessed it – the Sony Corporation, whose bonds have recently been downgraded to just-above-junk status by Moody’s and S&P, and to actual junk status by Fitch. The global financial crisis may turn out to be Bond’s deadliest enemy yet. And who knows, perhaps there is an ulterior meaning in the choice of that title. An allusion to another kind of fall.

What seems certain is that the film’s relatively small budget – £93.7m compared to the £125m of Quantum of Solace – and the decision to set a much larger portion of the story than usual in the home country are connected to these crises. To this we must add that anything between a quarter and a third of the capital to cover the production costs of Skyfall was raised through product placement and other marketing arrangements – an approximate but nonetheless remarkable, possibly unprecedented figure. The most widely discussed of these deals was the one with Heineken, leading to two instances of placement of the product in the film, and an ad campaign starring Daniel Craig that reached a feverish intensity in the lead-up to the film’s release. MGM and Sony benefited from the deal twice: in terms of the money they received upfront and in terms of the free help in the marketing of the film. In exchange for that, Heineken got James Bond to hold a bottle of Heineken for about three seconds on screen.

But I am the world

I am lying on a bed somewhere in India, holding a bottle of Heineken. The bottle is half-empty. I am a global brand, therefore I must consume global brands. Or maybe this bland Dutch lager is a sign of my despair. I am no longer myself since I fell out of the sky. I am no longer myself since my betrayal.

But the world isn’t me

A Dries van Noten cardigan. A Pretty Green fishtail parka. Several Sony Vaio computers. Cartamundi Poker Cards and Chips. A pair of Acne Wall Street Shark Grey trousers. A Belstaff New Selsey jacket. An Interstuhl AirPad 3C42 chair. A pair of 3M Peltor H61FA British Army Ear Defender earmuffs. An N. Peal cashmere sweater. A John Smedley Bobby v-neck pullover. A pair of Adidas Gazelle 2. A pair of Dents unlined leather gloves. Cosmed fitness equipment. A Carine Gilson satin-silk robe. The AgustaWestland AW101 Helicopter. A pair of Tom Ford Marko TF144 sunglasses. A pair of Crockett & Jones Highbury shoes. A pair of Crockett & Jones Tetbury chukka boots. A Sony ECM-Z60 microphone. A pair of Puma Alexander McQueen Street Climb Mid sneakers. An Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Mid Size Chronometer. An Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean wristwatch. An Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra Automatic wristwatch. A Land Rover Defender Double Cab. The latest Sony Xperia T smartphone. A Globe-Trotter Stabilist Case. The Macallan Whisky. A set of Swarovski SkyFall earrings, necklace and ring. An army PTI Training Jacket. A Billy Reid peacoat. The Pruva Regina yacht. An Anderson Wheeler 500 Nitro Express Double Rifle. A Barbour X To Ki To Beacon Heritage Sports Jacket. A Wild & Wolf Scrabble Q mug. A Polycom SoundStation2. A JBL On Tour XTB. An Artemide Tolomeo Basculante table lamp. A Royal Doulton Bulldog Union Jack. A Honda CRF250R motorcycle. A pair of Orlebar Brown Setter Sky swimming trunks.

A bottle of Heineken beer. (Two, actually.)

The Aston Martin DB5.

A Walther PPK handgun.

All of these products, and likely many more, are ‘placed’ within Skyfall. There are online forums devoted to identifying the ones that aren’t immediately obvious, and so the list is constantly updated and open-ended. Call it brand-spotting. It’s how we know that Daniel Craig wore Orlebar Brown Setter Sky swimming trunks.

That the process of naming the products is at times so elaborate and meticulous is enough to suggest that not all of them are placed in exchange for money. Some are just ‘there’, and few brands are willing to reveal whether they in fact paid for the privilege, or how much. But we know that it’s a major business, and that James Bond is one of the most profitable and costly franchises to be associated with.

And what does it say about capitalism and globalisation that the world’s most coveted advertising vehicle is an assassin?

But I am the world

‘Someone usually dies.’ It’s one of my favourite lines in the new film. I say with a wry smile it in front of this woman, who will also die.

I kill because it’s my job. I kill because it’s what sells. Of all the products that I endorse, the Walther PKK is second only to the Martinis I drink in defining me. In Skyfall, Q gives me this special Walther that only I can shoot. My gun and I have achieved symbiosis.

I drink to excess to drown the excess of death that surrounds me. I didn’t mean for the woman to die.

But the world’s isn’t me

‘Someone usually dies.’ The spectacle of global capitalism is marked by these deaths: as many as there are evildoers, plus half the women and an unspecified but not small number of extras. Are you a security guard working nights on the ground floor of a corporate building? Expect to be shot at point-blank range. The rule is that the shorter your screen-time is, the more clichéd your death will be. The security guards are but punctuation. Death commas. By contrast the villain-in-chief is destined to die a protracted, wretchedly painful, heavily symbolic death in which the process of consumption is both exorcised and sublimated.

The vast and capital-intensive edifice built around the villain crumbles in this final act, offering temporary reprieve and the semblance of resolution. But: ‘James Bond will return’. There will be a new issue, a new gallery of products, a new villain commanding impossibly vast human and financial resources. Bond will make more sales, more kills. This we know.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

We are in a book

There is a little exercise that you can do if you have children: go through their shelves and count how many of their books deal in an overt way with what a book is and how books work. This includes all lift-the-flap books, all pop-up books and tactile books and books featuring physical contraptions or gimmicks, as well as the vast metafictional literature that introduces and at the same time messes with the conventions of storytelling or the medium. You’ll likely find that there are many.

I discussed some time ago a book that belongs to a couple of those categories. In David McKee’s Elmer’s New Friend, a rumour spreads through the jungle that Elmer the patchwork elephant has a new friend, and various animals speculate as to whom it could be. Finally the reader is invited to look through some foliage – there they will find Elmer’s new friend. And there, amongst the trees, is a rectangular strip of reflective paper. The reader is caught in the story. Elmer’s new friend is you.

I remarked at the time how peculiar to print technology this idea is, and that Elmer’s New Friend is a book that would be impossible to digitise (although arguably it could be remediated as an app for a portable device equipped with webcam). However what is more interesting to observe is how common children’s metafictions are. Early readers are about reading and early stories are about storytelling. First books are about book-ness. Like Don Quixote, the ur-texts are already parody of the mature texts to come; rote phrases like ‘once upon a time’ and ‘lived happily ever after’ already hint at their ironic inversion. This is the beginning of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883):
One upon a time there was...
“A king!” my young readers will immediately say.
No, children, you are wrong. Once upon time there was a piece of wood.
The entire novel is almost contained in those three lines: everything from its mischievous play with expectations and insistence to speak for the reader to its being – in the most emphatic sense – not about a king. You could almost stop reading it right there. (Although you shouldn’t.)

A later Italian author, the great Gianni Rodari, also liked to pull his young readers into the fiction-making process. His Favole al telefono (‘fairy tales over the phone’) are stories told by a travelling salesman every night of the week to his daughter while he is on the road. They are short because the salesman has to pay for private phone calls out of his own pocket, and that small, casual observation is a whole thesis on literary form and the constraints of genre. This is the collection that includes ‘A sbagliare le storie’ (‘getting stories wrong’), about a grandfather who cannot tell – or plays at getting wrong – the story of Little Red-Riding Hood, to the immense and vocal frustration of his granddaughter.

However Rodari’s masterpiece was Il libro degli errori (‘the book of errors’), in which the source of the invention are mistakes of grammar and spelling, and the artful inability to get the gist or correctly interpret the moral of a story.
Mistakes are useful, as necessary as our daily bread and often even beautiful: for instance, the tower of Pisa.

Some of the best children’s books are about getting things wrong, or playing at getting things wrong: stories that seem to go hopelessly off-track until things are resolved, by the standard of good grown-up literature, badly. In the case of The Cat in the Hat, literally by a deus ex-machina.

And then there are the stories – is it all of them? – that are about the act of make-believe. My favourite is still Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. ‘And Sophie found she couldn’t have her bath because the tiger had drunk all the water in the tap.’ Mother and daughter are just playing now. There was never a tiger in the house.

And then they go shopping and they buy a big can of tiger food in case the tiger should come to tea again. ‘But he never did.’ That is the last line in the book. It’s a game they only played once, although that is complicated, too, because I would have read the book to my daughter at least one hundred times and it’s likely to have been a ritual in many other households, if not with this book then with others. It’s make-believe and repetition. Savouring the surprise of what you already know by heart.

Lately we are quite fond of Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie books. It took me a few attempts to warm to them, but our four year old was enamoured from the beginning and the rest of the family gradually followed. I think what captured the boy’s attention were the big words and the big expressions. The world of elephant and piggie is full of intense feelings and exuberant theatrics. In I am Going!, Piggie states her intention to ‘go’ and Gerald (the elephant) is terrified that his friend might be leaving him forever, while she really only plans to have lunch. The entire 60-page book consists of that single dialogue, building to a paroxysm of drama. It’s Harold Pinter for children, except with more pathos.

Then last week we got out We Are in a Book!, which is about Piggie and Gerald first noticing that they are being watched by a reader, then realising that they are in a book.The first thing they do with this newly-acquired knowledge is to play a trick on the reader and get them to say the word ‘banana’. But when it’s Gerald’s turn to think of a jape ‘before the book ends’, that new realisation – that the book is going to end – precipitates another nervous crisis.

After some thoughts on how fast – too fast – the book goes and the fact that the pair ‘only want to be read’, a solution is found in a young reader’s habits and the recursive nature of children’s literature.

The book never ends. Like childhood. Or rather, like a model childhood producing and endless chain of model readers, all of them characters, all of them caught in the story.