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Mazzarella Art and Public Life statement

The Mana of Mass Society: The Autonomy in Advertising

William Mazzarella

July 2014


I’d like to join this conversation about art and public life by invoking that hoariest of modernist norms: aesthetic autonomy. And I’d like to think about aesthetic autonomy by way of a genre of public imaging that is usually taken to be the very anti-type of aesthetic autonomy: advertising. Finally, I’d like to consider the aesthetic autonomy of advertising by way of a well-worn anthropological category: magical action, and especially mana, that Polynesian word that anthropologists around the turn of the last century made into a generic term for something like supernatural potency. My hope is that thinking through these apparently perverse linkages might actually point in the direction of some new ways of critically approaching the public life of images and their relation to the selves that we discover ourselves to be around these images. For a while now I’ve been playing around with a name for this assemblage: the mana of mass society.

Why autonomy? Isn’t that a rather dead notion these days? Didn’t Pierre Bourdieu disabuse us long ago by showing that aesthetic autonomy is just an ideological cover for class domination naturalized as taste? Didn’t the post-historical shift from modern to contemporary art (to invoke Arthur Danto’s terminology) around the 1970s do away with the whole precious conception of the autonomy of avant-garde practice? Autonomy from what and for whom, anyway? Actually the interesting thing about aesthetic autonomy, it seems to me, is that it has always been a compromised notion. In its most interesting formulations (Theodor Adorno in the 1960s, Jacques Rancière in the last couple of decades), the question of aesthetic autonomy has, paradoxically, been a question of how our relation to image-objects ties us back into actual and possible worlds. As Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory: “Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it.” Thinking aesthetic autonomy means, among other things, holding on to that uncanny gap between subjects and objects—what Rancière calls “the heterogeneous sensible”—and at the same time, being committed to thinking about the social forms that condition how we experience that gap and what kind of “politics” we might be able to make of it.

Why advertising? For one thing, there’s a lot of it about. By one estimate, each one of us encounters between 500 and 5000 commercial messages a day. But advertising is an interesting way into thinking about art and public life precisely because it sits so ambiguously on the fault lines of capital and culture, of administration and contingency, of ideology and affect. I’m well aware that putting the words “advertising” and “autonomy” anywhere near each other—other than in a mode of furious negation—will have Old Grinch Adorno turning in his grave. But the gap, the heterogeneous sensible, shows up here too. Most people think of Horkheimer and Adorno’s “culture industry” argument as being all about watertight ideological conspiracy and seamless manipulation. But if you look closely, they seem to be saying that the power of the advertising- marketing apparatus may not rest on a great big conspiracy but rather on its opposite: a great big gap: no one is actually in control but everyone has to make it seem like they know what they’re doing. What if the ideological seduction of advertising lies not in the seamlessness of its address, but in its undecidability? That might be another way into thinking aesthetic autonomy, now imagined not as a brittle guarantee of “autonomous art,” but as a kind of “preponderance of the object” (Adorno) that animates even the most apparently heteronomous cultural forms, such as advertising. I say “animates” not “haunts” or “troubles,” because part of what I want to be suggesting here is that the autonomy in advertising may not be, as some might prefer to think, an opening to “resistance.” What if that autonomy, that undecidability is an important part of what allows advertising to compel our attention, what allows it to “work”?

Why magic and mana? Isn’t this just an anthropologist’s rather unseemly primitivist romance? There’s nothing new about calling advertising a kind of magic. Raymond Williams, in an uncharacteristically literal-minded essay, called advertising “the magic system.” As early as the 1930s, Bronisław Malinowski drew a direct comparison between advertising (which he called “modern savagery”) and Trobriand coral garden magic. More affirmatively, Mick Taussig has, during the last twenty years, been developing clues left by Walter Benjamin and others regarding the magical/mimetic powers embedded in commodity images. Taussig’s work helps to cut the cordon sanitaire that, in texts by Freud, Adorno, Levi-Strauss and others, still fastidiously separates pathological (advertising) from non-pathological (art) manifestations of magic at the heart of modernity. What interests me most of all in all this is the way that the category of “mana” appears in the Western sociological imagination at precisely the same moment as it is grappling with other ways of talking about the potentials and dangers of collective life in mass-mediated industrial societies: crowd energies, mass manipulation, and, yes, advertising. In Émile Durkheim’s work, for instance, we see mana as a direct—albeit undeveloped—relay point between the collective effervescence of “primitive” ritual and the power of affectively potentiated modern crowds. And what Marcel Mauss wrote of the magician might provocatively be adapted for the mana-work of advertising. Magicians have, Mauss says, “appropriated to themselves the collective forces of society”—“It is public opinion which makes the magician and creates the power he wields. Thanks to public opinion he knows everything and can do anything.”

Mana, advertising, aesthetic autonomy: these terms cluster, then, around a central problem having to do with the ability of image-objects to potentiate and harness (Gabriel Tarde: to “magnetize”) collective energies, not in spite of the persistent gap between the sensible and the intelligible, but because of the (anxious, affirming, seductive, disorienting) scope for poesis that it affords.