Not surprisingly much of the discussions I overheard this Monday had to do with the Super Bowl, the day before. What did surprise me, however—and has not failed to surprise me each time the Super Bowl comes around—is the curious interest in Super Bowl commercials. Every year I have spent in the US, when the Super Bowl comes around I recall all over again that this is ‘a thing.’ Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in the US, it has always struck me as odd. This year the first thing that came to mind—having recalled this oddity yet again—was that this must be some form of ultra modern phenomenon. Something that Baudrillard would have gone to town with, muttering something or other regarding the heightened degree of ‘simulacra’ in America; maybe even identifying a fifth degree of simulacrum.
Several years ago, during a phase in which I found the notion of modern alienation as the most compelling causal explanation around for the ills of the modern world, I would have found such a line of thought compelling. Back then—when I avidly read the scholarship of Jackson Lears and Richard Sennett and tried to understand what the hell Walter Benjamin was talking about—I also read quite a bit of Edgar Allan Poe and was particularly taken with one short story of his, “The Man of the Crowd.” And so, as I reflected this year on the meaning of the above mentioned, supposedly intriguing, phenomenon, I suddenly recalled that Poe set the scene for that short story by casting the narrator in a London coffee shop with a cigar and newspaper in hand, reading the advertisements for his amusement. Subsequently, the early American historian in me recalled that early modern Europeans and Americans commonly read newspapers for their advertisements. This was part and parcel of reading the news, an attempt to acquaint oneself with the affairs of the town. What new businesses or institutions were opening? What fares did the local shops offer? Who’s servants, slaves, or livestock ran away? And so on. Nothing really hyper modern here; not even some heady commodity fetishism. Upon reflection, this was not much different from gossiping with neighbors, or even from my dog sniffing every morning around the block, trying to figure out what the local canines have been up to.
To be sure, in the contemporary case of watching Super Bowl ads the object of watching commercials seems a bit different. Times have changed. Super Bowl commercial watchers seem most interested in the entertainment they can derive from these ads, rather than in information. There is some sense of expectation. What can advertising folks come up with this time around? Nonetheless, as hard as I tried, I still could not find in it anything particularly modern—as I probably would have done just several years ago.
I thought to bring this up here since it seems to me that this isn’t just me, but a larger trend in critical scholarship. Do others, like me, feel that historians and theoreticians have been turning away from an analysis of modernity that stresses a chasm between the modern era and earlier periods? Are critics of western society and culture less anxious regarding change than we used to be not too long ago? In early US history, for instance, no one seems to read Charles Sellers’ The Market Revolution anymore; I haven’t heard anyone alluding to Richard Sennett or even Jackson Lears at length in a while; and more often than not scholars seem to regard capitalism as almost as significant to examining the early modern period as they do the modern era.
I must admit, part of me is disheartened by this. Granted, I would like nothing better than to take another jab at capitalism and its shock troops, marketing people. I wonder however, do we make too much of say commodity fetishism? Since Marx historians of capitalism have sought to capture the slippery concept of commodification/reification/fetishization. Have we been barking up the wrong tree? Maybe not, but I’m not as sure as I used to be that the answers to the failures of our society, or even of capitalism, are necessarily where we thought they were.