“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department” – David Packard
I’m not a vacation kind of guy. Oh, sure I’m a consummate relaxer, but a comfy couch, good book, and some video games with my seven year old son beats a long plane flight, rental car, hotel room, and tourist traps on any day. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to enjoy travelling once I’ve arrived at my destination, but the prospect of getting there in the first place fills me with trepidation. That’s why my wife plans most of the vacations. She loves to travel. I think something is wrong with her, but between the two of us, she is the professional psychologist, so if it comes down to it, I’m likely to be the one getting committed. Ah, the things we do for England (actually, for love, but Prince Charles once said that when diplomatic etiquette required him to sample snake meat). I’ve just recently returned from a quick respite in Kona, Hawaii, which given my rate of coffee consumption should probably serve as my Mecca, and as always my various neuroses compelled me to keep vigilant for signs of the devil in the details. Even while being mauled by a tiger it’s generally prudent to keep one eye out for monsters. Pleased to report that I returned to the mainland sunburned, but otherwise unscathed by anomalistic aberrations. Well, largely unscathed I should say, as I came face to face with the curious phenomenon of monsters as marketing tools.
We all have our rituals. Some people jog before work. Some prefer meditation at daybreak. These activities strike me as borderline insanity. Each morning, I have to reassert my relative functionality as a member of the human race by downing copious amounts of coffee. Thus, I greeted morning in tropical paradise with a semi-conscious excursion to the nearest coffee house. The popular crack house for caffeine addicts in Kona happened to be the Menehune Coffee Company. I’m usually unprepared to cope with the vagaries of the preternatural without at least sixteen ounces of Joe coursing through my bloodstream. At that point, I’m still unprepared, but at least I’m awake and feeling slightly less uncharitable towards the universe. As I waited somnambulantly in line for my fix, I happened to notice their colorful placard stating, “The Menehune are the legendary wee people who live in the deep forests and hidden valleys of the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii’s legendary mystical and shy forest dwellers are small in size (about 3 feet tall), but according to legend, very industrious master builders that use their strength to accomplish mighty feats of engineering and construction overnight. They are also known at Menehune Coffee for working diligently through the night harvesting, processing, roasting, and packaging up all of the wonderful 100% Kona coffee especially for you. So we invite you to taste the fruits of the Menehunes’ labor by taking home some 100% Kona coffee to start your day”. This strikes me as an instance of suspicious labor practices, but more importantly started me thinking about the relationship between folklore, marketing, and the notion of commodified time. That’s how I roll. Shout out to my homies in continental philosophy.
What is commodified time and what does it have to do with marketing monsters? I’m glad you asked. Your average commie pinko post-modern philosopher will smugly explain that “commodified time” is a function of wage labor, an abstract clock-time that allows a calculus of the exchange value of goods based on the amount of time and expertise needed to produce them. Let’s translate this for those of us who think the most interesting thing about post-modern poster boy Louis Pierre Althusser is that he strangled his wife and spent the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital. Basically, once we all started settling into city life, and all the money got concentrated in the hands of the priest-kings, it proved untenable to simply dole out a little bread to keep the unwashed masses from starving to death, feeding a few slaves to the lions as public entertainment, and demanding folks keep building the ziggurat from sunup to sundown. It’s not good project management. We tend to get angry and start praying to different gods for your untimely demise. You have to recognize people’s individual efforts. It also helps if they have to buy their own bread. So we invented the “hourly wage”. It also helpfully puts the onus on you of whether you think your time is best spent on liquor, ladies, lettuce, or contemplating the meaning of life (which traditionally has not paid very well). Consequently, time was chopped up into little bits and assigned a value. It takes longer to learn how to electroplate jewelry than it does to move a twenty ton stone by brute force. Therefore, jewelers get paid more than the guy hauling at the rope. Fry cooks get paid less than software engineers. Most of us would agree that it’s more important to have a well-cooked burger than to post something on Instagram, but them’s the breaks. I didn’t invent society, so don’t harsh my mellow.
At any rate, turning time into an exchange unit had the unfortunate consequence of turning history into a series of empty “nows”, that is “measured empty duration, separate from the contents of existence that fill it up, freely exchangeable with all other time” (Shanks & Tilley, 1992, p10). Essentially, we abolished time by making all time equivalent. Great. No problem. Where’s my paycheck? Unfortunately, making time both empty and homogenous had some unfortunate effects for history. “The exchange of commodities is at once smoothly continuous and an infinity of interruption: since each gesture of exchange is an exact repetition of the previous one, there can be no connection between them. It is for this reason that the time of the commodity is at once empty and homogenous: its homogeneity is, precisely, the infinite self-identity of a pure recurrence which, since it has no power to modify has no more body than a mirror image. What binds history into plentitude is the exact symmetry of its repeated absences. It is because its non-happenings always happen in exactly the same way that it forms such an organic whole” (Eagleton, 1981, p29). I know, I had to re-read it too, but the gist of the argument is that when we peer back into the mists of history, the assignation of any bit of folklore or material culture (you know, like pot shards) to a specific moment in commodified time allows it to then be compared to any other moment in time, as can anything associated with that moment in time. In short, the quanta of culture become discrete, inevitably building the eternal now. Now, at this point it may sound like I’ve misaligned my chakras, having moved from morning coffee made by Menehune to the commodification of time in the eternal now, but have another drink and bear with me.
Folklore is folklore precisely because it is not happening now. Science happens now in its reproducibility. Because we can commodify time, it stands to reason that we can commodify folklore, which is really just a function of history by time. Alexander the Great never really fought monsters, or so they say. The stories of his accomplishments in ridding the world of nasty beasties is a product of the period in time when imaginative scribes were concocting the Alexander Romances, and our assumption that consciousness now is equivalent to consciousness then. Because all time is essentially the same, and the only thing that really matters is the relationship of the past to our present, when we remove ourselves from our day-to-day cultural norms, we find ourselves on a quest for that elusive critter called “authenticity”. No foreigner expects to travel to Paris and be treated with genuine respect. That would not be authentic. And our search for authentic experience always leads us back to monstrosity, as a visceral fear of everything that walks, swims, or crawls is the one constant in the cultural history of our species.
Marketing is the art of communicating the value of a product to a consumer, and history is the practice of cherry-picking what we value now from the distant past. We have been saddled with the supernatural, an unseen world of anomalies that creep in and out of our existence since the first caveman wondered if he really saw that shadow on the fringes of the forest, just beyond the comforting light of the campfire. Perhaps it is our very interconnectedness and the globalization of culture that authored a homogenized fear, and declawed our monsters. We’ve largely given up exorcising our demons and slaying our dragons in favor of a far more insidious retribution. We’ve turned them into mascots and corporate logos. If I was a monster, I would be pissed. Or at least looking for royalties.
Eagleton, T. Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. Vero, 1981.
Shanks, Michael and Tilley, Christopher. Re-Constructing Archaeology. New York, NY: Routledge, 1992.