Usually I wear a jacket and decent clothes to a protest march: this gives me some sense of control in case I need to confront a cop. He who dresses for the occasion can occasionally create the occasion for which he's dressed.
I was standing at Zucotti Park in the days of Occupy Wall Street, talking to another guy in a suit, a guy who works on Wall Street and who had joined the protests because, as he put it, these kids don’t know the half of it. Suddenly I found myself shoved from behind and some Sarah Lawrence type shouted at me, “We’ve got a march to go to, Sir!” Usually it's the cops that call me Sir! that way; not all the Fashion Police wear badges.
There are no older men in jackets in the now-infamous Pepsi commercial that recently went on the air and off again: some model or something name of Kendall Something is busy doing a fashion shoot when a bunch of generic demonstrators march by with generic signs. Everybody marches, dances and breakdances; then the model hands a cop a can of Pepsi; then everybody cheers and hugs and drinks a Pepsi. There are some nice touches, like a young woman in a hijab, for instance, and the production values are smooth as a bunny’s butt:
That didn’t keep the kids from getting mad about this ad: they say they know their marches, and this is not what marches are about, and I agree on the second point. For one thing, marches include older people and ugly people—the two are interchangeable, apparently. Even older white guys, in fact. But I wish they'd stop acting like a bunch of alte kakers: having fun’s been part of revolutions from way back, all the way back to the Roman Saturnalia when slaves were allowed—for a day—to play the masters. Things got interesting at the very outset of the French Revolution when the masters found themselves unable to figure an explanation for the riots. It must be, then, that the People were burning buildings and mutilating noblemen because they enjoyed it: “Le sang, le feu sont pour nous une fête,” to quote one of the first poems to describe the taking of the Bastille. After all, what other reasons could there be? The answer that emerged, was that marches and art and yes! even fashion and such were the acting in the present of an utopian future, the “Realm of Freedom,” as Schiller put it (with help from Ludwig Van):
[Joy, it’s joy that drives the wheels
Of the great clock of the World.
Run, brothers, run your course
Joyful as a hero to victory.]
To run your course meant dancing to the beat of the Great Tick-Tock of History. As an old friend of the family used to say, “If I can’t dance to it I won’t march to it.”
The question begged here, is what that “it" should be: many have noticed (and complained) that the image of the model handing out a Pepsi paralleled the image of a black woman, Iesha Evans, confronting the police in Baton Rouge; few if any noticed that the opening sequence of the Pepsi ad with its hovering birds-eye view of marchers gathering, follows that masterpiece of Nazi propaganda, Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will:
So far as I know no Nazis have complained of being co-opted; maybe they should, because to a Nazi there's nothing worse than using the cinematic technique that glorified der Führer to promote the idea that demonstrations can be peaceful and can even bring out the humanity in the Police; then again the Nazis, Fascists and alt-rightniks have grasped something the critics of this ad can't figure: some of the more sophisticated among the far-right have even read Georges Sorel, the Marxist and/or fascist sociologist who argued that the fatal flaw of Capitalism is its adherence to a literal, positivist interpretation of events. The Pepsi ad, Sorel would have argued, is not a description of things but an “expression of a determination to act:” a “social myth.” Not a picture of the world as it is, but of the world as it might be.
Of course this is “fake news,” that bugaboo of bourgeois positivism: it's an ad, for Adornosake. To condemn it as untrue is a waste of time, even more so because in actuality the ad takes some pains to define the event: not a violent or illegal march but a rally with a bandstand; cops are not in riot gear; and of course there is the fact that the model who approaches the cop is a white celebrity—like those privileged white folks who marched on the front lines of many a march, not for the photo-op but in the hope their privilege would protect the others. The argument that the Pepsi ad co-opts "the" Movement is little more than the cheap jostling for authority I experienced at Zucotti Park. The only worthwhile distinction to be drawn between the kinds of social myths perpetrated by the New York Times and those perpetrated by some soft-drink company is not their “truthiness,” it's the moral utility of the particular myth invoked.
The Pepsi ad is a slick, standardized version of that commonplace myth the French call “Les Lendemains qui chantent,” the Realm of Calorie-Freedom, as it were. But then that’s what the Culture Industry does, isn’t it? And if a motor of the consumer society proposes marching as a legitimate act of consumption who's to complain? Between the promise that the Realm of Freedom can be found in a can, and the promise that the Realm of Freedom can be found in any mainstream political party's “Morning in America” fantasies, it’s pretty much a tossup: both are products of the same dream factory.
Many, many years ago Paul Gorman noted that the greatest achievement of American Hegemonism was persuading us that Reality is right-wing. The argument hasn't changed at all, only the spokespersons: on the one side the proponents of Revolution as a competitive sado-masochistic fantasy of individual heroism, on the other the harmless fantasy of brother/sisterhood proposed in the Pepsi ad.
Harmless? In Zola’s Germinal the miners in a small town of Northern France are striking. They march across the fields until they encounter a group of soldiers. In the spirit of Freedom one of the miner’s wives begins to dance in front of the guns. Then she lifts her skirt to show her naked ass—a Kardashian of the Proletariat. This proves too much for the soldiers, and she gets a load of bearshot in the butt. I noticed, in the ad, that after the model hands the can of Pepsi to the cop she sashays backwards into the crowd without showing him her back. Smart move.
Sigmund Freud assigned a specific role to artists in maintaining their own psychic balance and perhaps, by extension, a social role as well in maintaining the psychic balance of society as a whole. Individuals, he argued, were torn between two needs, the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle. The first is the primitive demand for satisfaction at all costs. The second brings the realization that satisfaction is constantly thwarted, leading to the various compromises of mental life, some more successful than others. The artist, argued Freud, was one who “turns away from reality because he cannot come to terms with the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction;” unlike the neurotic or psychotic, however, the artist has the ability to “find his way back to reality by making use of special gifts to mold his fantasies into truths of a new kind, which are valued by men as precious reflections of reality.”
On the political side of things it’s been argued more than once, and by those who should know, that marches and riots serve, if nothing else, to teach the participants where power really lies and how it’s used in a democracy. We all know—even the model in the ad knows—that you never show your back to a cop. With its sweetly silly wish-fulfillment the Pepsi ad reminds us of the true goal of political action, which is neither to dominate, nor to renounce the right to pleasure, even in the face of cops. Somewhere, some little flower child is going to see this ad or one like it, see the very real promise of marching and togetherness much as we did when we were young, and go out looking for it and, much as we did, realize how beautiful the promise, how hard the road.
Revolution. I’m loving it.
April 4, 2017