Bill Murray says: stop capitalizing brands
And guest writer Oriana Tang rethinks how we think about China
Hi. Thanks for reading Sintext IV. I’m very excited to have need for a numeral other than I. If you haven’t read that first issue, its twIIn, the IIIrd, or even the intro post, take a few minutes and link yrself clean.
Also, feel free to write me (just respond to the email you receive) with any thoughts or concerns. As you’ll shortly see, all feedback hugely informs this newsletter. If you enjoy reading, please like this post and share it with a friend. (I’ll gladly take foes, too.)
This is a follow-up to the last Sintext. (As I will inevitably do here again), I left issues unaddressed, implications unvoiced. Readers wrote back.
One friend related Affectiva, the expression-reading AI company, to Ancestry.com’s privacy-eroding nature: when your family member signs up for the service, they also sign away your ownership of your own DNA, since it’s nearly identical to theirs. The thought of an app watching you watch it sure does spark a similarly intense feeling of helplessness. (For clarification, as far as I can tell, Affectiva’s software is still only used on consenting participants in research trials.)
Another friend wondered if I was overstating the need for a facial recognition tech ban — if it’s our biometric data we’re concerned about, why don’t we worry about Apple reading our thumbprint when we unlock our phone, or authorize payment? And how different is that accepted practice from more alarming developments like Amazon’s palm-reading automated grocery stores? (The difference might seem to lie in how the former company claims to protect your data from the government while the latter… doesn’t.)
A third wanted to know my thoughts on the future of genuine expression in a time of surveillance. I’ll take a stab at that last.
Then, Oriana Tang, my friend and brilliant former editor, pushed back on how I’d offhandedly characterized China: “China represents our dystopian tomorrow,” I wrote after an example of the coded political speech Chinese dissidents are forced to use. That was lazy of me. I fell in step with the prevailing discourse, which expects we speak, write, and think about China without space for self-awareness — the very thing I want Sintext to promote.
After some back-and-forth, I asked Oriana to write something for Sintext. Enjoy.
Rethinking how we think about China, by Oriana Tang
China holds an interesting place in the American imaginary. It’s ancient, outmoded, and backwards and futuristic, tech-infused, and alien. It’s a rising economic power, a looming challenge to American capitalist hegemony, and a paragon of communist ideology, bad taste, and poor quality. Its government is insensitive to its people and constantly in violation of human rights laws. It is, in short, everything America doesn’t want to be — and, more importantly, doesn’t think it is.
I don't care so much about debunking accusations or defending China from whatever claims US media have leveled against it, many of which are legitimate. Instead, I simply want to point out how useful it is to American national identity to think of China as its perpetual inverse. American media, left and right, criticize Chinese policy more than that of any other single country. As long as China represents our terrifying dystopian future, then America is — for now — no dystopia. Never mind that every trace we leave of ourselves online, incognito browser or not, is tracked, analyzed, and stored by corporations whose use of our data is minimally regulated: at least we aren’t subject to state surveillance. Never mind that the concept of “free speech” is mobilized to oppress marginalized voices just as readily as outright censorship: at least we don’t have to communicate in code. (Never mind that speaking plainly makes dissent easier to interpret, or that sharing plans on Google Drive gifts Google a list of every IP address that viewed them...)
Last fall, David Von Drehle proposed in the Washington Post that the trade war and the Hong Kong protests were tests of Xi Jinping’s ability to employ soft, rather than hard, power. I wonder if the distinctions we claim to observe between China and the US in fact cleave along similar lines. Censorship and state surveillance are hard power, but free speech and corporate surveillance are soft. They’re rooted as much in culture as in politics, flowering easily in the all-American soil of independent choice, individual expression, and self-made, free-market innovation. Yet are they really means towards such different ends? I’m thinking of Clearview AI and the police state whose way forward we have cheerily paved with Facebook profile pictures and Google Arts & Culture selfies. I’m thinking of China’s WeChat activists and their pun-filled language of coalition. What comparable acts of political solidarity have we, blessed with the right to say whatever we want, invented amid all our glorious democracy?
I’m not trying to say we would be better off living under an authoritarian regime, or that America scores higher or lower than China on some absolute moral scale. Only that we might be well served by considering such critiques of China not just as news but as acts of rhetoric, as tugs on the Overton window while we try desperately to recenter its outlook over the shrinking idyll of American exceptionalism. As long as we can criticize China, we can assure ourselves that things aren’t really all that bad. At least America still values liberty, right? At least in America we still have time to act? I for one would hate to wake up one morning and find we’ve been living in a dystopia all the while, having been too intent on other people's problems to attend to the reality of our own.
End of Oriana’s piece.
coronavirus, super bowl sunday, and capital letters
The obvious place to apply this wisdom might be the coronavirus epidemic.
But I know very little about China, and even less about viral epidemics. The coverage is alarming, especially the Party’s role in suppressing early efforts to raise awareness. (State media had announced that the first doctor to try and warn colleagues has died. Now there are conflicting reports on his status.)
So this is all I’ll say on the subject and what it’s saying about us: On Tuesday, at the bookstore, I had a brief, phlegmy coughing fit behind the counter. A nearby customer immediately demanded to know if I’d been to China in recent weeks. Later that day I saw a different customer, who had lent me some cough drops the last time she’d stopped by. She just asked me how I was feeling.
I think what I should do is keep interrogating the reality of our own problems. Oriana got me thinking about the soft power embedded in American culture. I think there’s a wiser point of application.
It’s common to hear folks say they’re watching the Big Game for the commercials. What seemed unusual about this year’s batch was just how many were derived from existing material — how many leaned on IP, in other words. Brands clearly believe the optimal way to hawk their wares is to enlist who and what is already famous. So, by some inscrutable, yet irrefutable arithmetic, the following equations came to be:
(Bryan Cranston + Tracee Ellis Ross) x Stanley Kubrick = Mountain Dew
Missy Elliot x The Rolling Stones = Pepsi
Maisie Williams x Frozen = Audi
Lil Nas X x Sam Elliott = Doritos
Bill Murray x Groundhog Day = Jeep
That’s this super bowl’s most popular commercial. It’s a clever spot with surprising coherence, both entertaining and legible, nostalgic and current. It relies on a movie I know well despite my inability to remember having ever actually watched it, which is exactly the point.
Fiat Chrysler’s chief marketing executive gave interviews in support of the ad (weird), where he emphasized their attention to detail: they shot it in the same city (Woodstock, IL), aired it on the same date (Groundhog Day), posted it online at the same time (6:00 AM), and, most importantly, cast the same actors.
Also like the movie, the commercial finds Murray “being forced to repeat February 2 over and over again until he discovers real feeling,” as David Shields (a writer I really like it) puts it in his essay devoted to the legendary curmudgeon in Other People: Takes and Mistakes (a book I really like). This time, thanks to the new 2020 Jeep Gladiator, Murray discovers real feeling real quickly.
Jeep’s official video description on YouTube boasts that this is the actor’s “first-ever national television commercial.” Said the marketing executive of Murray: “He is just a free spirit. He will just do what he wants to do just in the moment… It’s in perfect alignment with Jeep’s DNA. And like Jeep, he is a global American cultural icon.”
Following this logic, the bulk of the ad is Murray having fun, improvising his lines. I keep rewatching Murray joke with a chilly farmer from his doorless orange vehicle (captured in the thumbnail).
“Hey, you’re gonna freeze to death,” the farmer informs Murray.
“Who cares! See you tomorrow!” he cheerfully replies.
According to Shields, the reason why Murray is so beloved is simple: “He convinces us that we’re still a little rebellious inside even as we’re finally doing what everyone else is doing.” He who “defies without sabotaging authority,” who presents nihilism as a breakthrough, can even make selling out seem transgressive. American culture, ready for export.
As for domestic influence? Below another YouTube video discussing the ad, user Mako left this comment: “Hahaha Bill Murray is an embodiment of what Jeep represents. Jesus I know we're all cows to be milked by our corporate overlords but this made me laugh.”
In Shields’ mind, what Murray actually embodies is “the way—not around but through.” Murray shows how the best way to get through life is to stick to your guns: “It’s Murray’s fidelity to his own mordant consciousness and the locating of joy within that mordancy that is, to me, the miracle.” The miracle is that Bill Murray can promote a Jeep and still be himself.
There’s a bargain implicit in our embrace of commercials: we consent to watch so long as we’re entertained — so long as we find some aspect of our experience represented. So, commercials continue to proffer consumption as individuation, as reliable affirmation of personhood. They are what tills the “all-American soil of independent choice, individual expression, and self-made, free-market innovation,” as Oriana put it.
So what’s the move?
That third friend I mentioned earlier, Patrick Binder, asked about the future of genuinity.
Earlier in [the last] newsletter you talk about the everpresent surveillance state/company. Pieces like your newsletter inform people that users of social media are always being monitored/watched (whether it be by a government or company). Do you think that all interactions via social media or the internet will eventually not be genuine because people understand that they are being watched?
If yes, where will genuine expression find a home?
If no, how will people reconcile being surveilled with being genuine?
It’s hard to say! Just as privacy matters because it lets us be ourselves, I believe genuinity and its siblings — sincerity, authenticity — measure the same thing. (How genuine you are is how yourself you are.) My gut feeling: genuinity as we know it can exist in a culture of surveillance, but only if we retain an identity independent of that culture.
Since the turn of the millennium, reality TV scholars like Mark Andrejevic have cautioned that, one day, the only subjectivity available will be that “consonant with [the] online economy: one that equates submission to surveillance with self-expression and self-knowledge.” The concern about genuinity is the concern that we won’t feel like ourselves under a system of total surveillance and corporate influence. The scarier prospect is that we will.
Soft power is, well, powerful. We shouldn’t discount the human tendency to find the way through. WWBMD?
I see an opportunity to locate a sliver of my identity, at least, in opposition to an element of corporate influence I can consciously reject. When we capitalize products on our own, we capitulate to the soft power of branding. Even though instruction comes from a corporation rather than an autocratic political party, we have still been steered toward the “correct” behavior. (Autocorrect — your personal communication device fixing your spelling of iphone — is a harder manifestation of that same soft power.)
I’m a writer. For better or worse, a sizable chunk of my self-perception is tied to how I use language. And I think a small act of linguist insurrection might protect a pocket of genuine self-expression: From now on, I’ll be leaving super bowl in lowercase.
Thanks for reading! That’s all for this issue. Sorry it’s late — I got caught up with the final episodes of BoJack Horseman. (I’m not totally immune to nice things.) If you enjoyed, please like and share. Sintext made it to No. 19 on the Substack Top Posts leaderboard in the wee hours of the last morning I published — meager but mighty all the same?