Thinking the Box
Meghan Sutherland / Oklahoma State University

On the Wings of Love

The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love

Let the night of ABC programming that took place on January 4th, 2010 go down in history as the most profound staging of the relation between literal and figurative meaning since Paul De Man’s deconstruction of rhetoric in the 1979 Allegories of Reading. Perhaps it was something in the air—and I’m referring here to The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love, the first show of ABC’s prime-time lineup, and the point from which all of the rhetorical intrigue took off. If the titular pun on the newest bachelor’s profession as a pilot did not immediately register as the cue for a rim-shot, the poetic stylings of the ladies hoping join him “in the cockpit”—as more than one blushing contestant put it—would clarify any confusion.1 Perhaps most memorably, a Cambodian hopeful named Channy used the beauty of her native language to assure the bachelor that he “could land [his] plane on [her] landing strip anytime.” Indeed, De Man may have been the first to argue that figurative language grounds our sense of both literal meaning and ontological reference to an extent where “it matters little whether we call the inside of the box [of language] the content or form, the outside the meaning or appearance,” but it was surely Channy whose reference to a decidedly non-linguistic box brought the deepest conceptual implications of this argument into the profanity of material existence.2
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBWkIoKsfE0[/youtube]

Channy’s “Landing Strip” Clip

And yet, Channy’s bid to impress The Bachelor would not mark the last invocation of such literal and figurative boxes on ABC that night; nor would The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love mark the high-point of the evening’s rhetorical lessons. On the contrary, ABC had even more advanced material planned for the evening than a much-hyped franchise debut: the special broadcast of a new dating show pilot, produced by Endemol, called Conveyor Belt of Love. Much as the title suggests, the show presents itself as a campy demystification of The Bachelor’s romantic rhetoric: in the course of an hour, thirty men lined up on a conveyor belt pass before the eyes of five single women. In a flagrant violation of industrial principles of efficiency, though, the belt pauses for 60 seconds while each man does all he can to convince one of the women to invite him into her box—a feature of the mise-en-scene that inspired fits of giggles whenever a contestant shouted “I want him in my box!”—unless and until a more appealing man rolls by and takes his place there. The last men standing get a date.

Battle of the Guy

Sixty Seconds of Fame

Perhaps not surprisingly, the show’s bravado display of high-concept low-humor cultivated considerably more rhetorical ardor than The Bachelor in the television trades and the blogosphere. In fact, I am confident that no other programming event in the history of television—with the possible exception of Bill Clinton’s testimony on the Lewinsky affair—has ever inspired so many TV critics to entertain the vagaries of linguistic reference. When ABC announced the show in early December, for instance, the website TV Squad published an article called “ABC’s Conveyor Belt of Love Will Literally Treat People Like Meat,” which began with the appropriately De Manian declaration, “ABC has officially found a way to turn reality dating shows into a literal metaphor.”3 By the time the show finally aired a month later, it was clear that even the most wizened assessments of the show would be conveyed with the same rhetorical excess that defined the evening’s programming itself. “After ABC’s new Bachelor takes flight tonight,” wrote another giddy reviewer, “stay tuned for a reality dating show that really keeps it moving. Literally.” 4 Several reviews even went so far as to include stock-photography scenes of industrial grade meat portions plopped side-by-side on a conveyor belt. 5

As this last flourish illustrates particularly well, it was the show’s employment of an actual conveyor belt that inspired so much talk of literalism. And it was the apparent matter-of-factness of this flourish that produced an apparently uniform interpretation of the show as a metaphor for the industrial production of contemporary television programming, on the one hand, and the reality dating show’s commodification of bodies, love, and romance on the other. Appropriately enough, this interpretation also has the quality of obviousness that defines the literal as such—especially when one recalls that the show’s triumphantly literal title itself appropriates the proven marketing formula of another mainstream exploitation hit, the illustrious Snakes on a Plane (2006). And yet, if we take seriously the proposition of a “literal metaphor” that these readings both cite and enact, then we must also recognize that an industrialist reading of the show depends on a rhetorical tautology for its sense of matter-of-factness: one “literal” conveyor belt must stand in metaphorically for another “literal” conveyor belt. Or rather, the conveyor belt must serve at once as figure and ground, trope and referent for the material base of industrial production.

Line Up

Men in Boxes

It is here that De Man’s deconstruction of linguistic boxes proves especially instructive for thinking through the rhetorical excess of all these other boxes—the gendered language of constrained transgression that defined one particular night of ABC reality, to be sure, but also the industrialized language of materialism that generally defines how we think about the “real” logics of production and reproduction organized by the boxes in our living rooms. For indeed, De Man’s objection to the metaphor of the box for thinking of language rests on his argument that the literal “ground” of the discourse of reason always already depends for its referential stability on an aesthetic rationalization of the stylistic excesses that, ironically, undo this stability as well. Put another way, the aesthetic dimension of language plays a constitutive role in producing the discursive ground that we point to when we call something true or real. Accordingly, if we want to speak comfortably of economic rationalization or a material “base” for aesthetic affects, then we must ignore the history of irrational tropes that found the philosophical justifications for these seemingly transparent discourses of ontological truth and substance. De Man’s conception of rhetoric thus requires that we recognize the literal and figurative foundation for the dominant Marxist theory of production—which is to say, the “base” of industrial relations—itself depends for its foundational and even literal quality on the very metaphor of foundationalness that designates it. And as Ernesto Laclau has argued, we must thus begin to think not simply of the ways in which material relations produce aesthetic modes of existence, but also of the ways in which aesthetic relations, and style in general, produce the discursive ground on which the ontological production of social and political materiality takes place as such.6

In the case of Conveyor Belt of Love, for example, we might recognize that if the imagery of mass-production works with such transparent uniformity as a high-concept sight-gag about popular media, it is only because this imagery holds such a time-honored place in the rhetorical repertoire of cultural theory and criticism. Or rather, it is because the aesthetic traits of what Adorno and Horkheimer so memorably described as The Culture Industry also furnish the sense of a transparent, rational, and uniform order that we attribute (perhaps rather willfully) to industrial production. On this point it is instructive to recall how Adorno describes the aesthetic of the variety act in “The Schema of Mass Culture”—an essay that precedes The Dialectic of Enlightenment by three years. Reflecting on the endless presentation of different attractions promised by continuous vaudeville, he wryly concludes that variety in fact “already represented the magical repetition of the industrial procedure in which the selfsame is reproduced in time—the very allegory of high capitalism.”7

Conveyor Belt of Love

Judgment Time

Adorno’s choice of imagery here is interesting enough as another instance where the aesthetic figure of total production helps constitute the origin of industrial materiality that seems to ground it. And yet, if we return once more to the eponymous Conveyor Belt of Love, his reference to variety theater also helps clarify the potential rewards of re-thinking the show’s aesthetic beyond the confines of a techno-industrial critical economy. After all, if we do not automatically accept the conveyor belt as a transparent metaphor for the rationalized procedures of the industrial assembly line, then another set of metaphors comes into view—one closer to Adorno’s, but with very different critical, theoretical, and methodological implications for how we might think about the ontological ground of television “production”. Indeed, if we take the object “conveyor belt” seriously as an element of style, then the former becomes recognizable not just a conveyor belt, but also a figure of the “serial assembly” of “timed units” that Raymond Williams dubbed television “flow,” and the organic movement of water and time whose image it summons; not just televisual “flow”, but a figure of the presentational aesthetic that, as Williams also observes, connects the trope of flow to the formal structure of popular variety theater; and not just the formal conceit of “popular” variety theater that so struck Adorno, but also the presentational aesthetic that marks both the taxonomic orders of natural science and the rotating display cases of the early modern department stores where variety shows first began. More simply put, the Conveyor Belt of Love becomes recognizable not just as another metaphor for mass-production, but a fortiori, as a rhetorical condensation of the excessive figurative relation that it shares with the spectacular aesthetic of the variety show, the ontological aesthetic of television technology, and the evidentiary aesthetic of both natural and man-made taxonomies of material plenitude. And while this way of seeing the show may at first sound like an exercise in rhetorical excess itself, it in fact opens up some very provocative ways of re-thinking the claim to transparency and totality that the figure at the heart of this excess makes. Perhaps most importantly, it draws our attention to the resemblance between the trope on spectacular display here—a trope of unity or continuity articulated through the presentation of difference—with the “equivalential chain” of differences that Ernesto Laclau has described as the aesthetic condition of all hegemonic discourse.8 We might thus begin to think of the show’s aesthetic as a staging of the figure through which any particular set of differences can be generalized as an ontological whole—nothing more or less than a spectacular object lesson in the art of hegemonic production. 9

To put matters this way is not to suggest that the conditions of industrial production are irrelevant to television aesthetics, or that we can ignore the economic motivations for television’s logics. It is simply to suggest that we can only understand the full complexity of these logics if we recognize that they do not define the ontological ground of what or how television produces as discursive forms of existence. More to the point, it is to suggest that we might see the “logics” of television in altogether new ways if we begin to explore how the materiality of television aesthetics—the stylistic ground of the television image itself—also works to “produce” the ontological affects that define our social and political reality. In turn, we might also begin to reconsider our sense of what constitutes the logical, unadorned, and indeed transparent “ground” of the industrial “base”—not to mention the methodologies to which we attribute a “material” or “materialist” value in relation to our thinking of it. After all, we have long insisted that television is not simply a “toaster oven with pictures.” Why treat it like a box?

Image Credits:

1. The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love
2. Sixty Seconds of Fame
3. Men in Boxes
4. Judgment Time

Please feel free to comment.

image_print
  1. It should also be noted that the parodic schmaltziness of The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love is hardly restricted to the linguistic. A pillow-shot repeated throughout the first episode shows a lone airplane banking off the clouds of a hot-pink and orange sunset while Jeffrey Osborne’s eighties hit “On the Wings of Love” plays. []
  2. Paul De Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 5. []
  3. Danny Gallagher, “ABC’s Conveyor Belt of Love Will Literally Treat People Like Meat,” http://www.tvsquad.com/2009/12/09/abcs-conveyor-belt-of-love-will-literally-treat-people-like-mea/, 9 December 2009. []
  4. Matt Webb Mitovich, “Conveyor Belt of Love: Wild Show’s Secrets Revealed!” http://www.fancast.com/blogs/2010/tv-news/conveyor-belt-of-love-wild-shows-secrets-revealed/, 4 January 2010. []
  5. In addition to the TV Squad review cited above, see (for just one example): Michael Schneider, “ABC Finds Conveyor Belt of Love: Speed-Dating Reality Special to Air in January,” Variety, 9 December 2009. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118012472.html?categoryid=14&cs=1. []
  6. For Laclau’s most sustained discussion of the role that De Man’s conception of rhetoric plays in the ontological production of social relations, see Ernesto Laclau, “The Politics of Rhetoric,” in Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory, ed. Andrzej Warminski (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 229-253. []
  7. Theodore Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 70. []
  8. See Ernesto Laclau, “Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996). []
  9. I explore this proposition at much greater length in my dissertation, “Variety, or the Spectacular Aesthetics of American Liberal Democracy” (Ph.D. Diss, Northwestern, 2007), and a book manuscript that I am currently adapting from it. []

4 comments

  • I definitely agree there is a certain tendency in media studies to invoke “material” institutions/conditions/techniques as a means of grounding–quite literally–a given reading, theory, analysis, explanation, etc. in a way that is seen as definitive, as if a necessarily contingent understanding of material practice somehow exists wholly outside of language (“in the last instance,” to go back to riffing on the “base”). At its worst, this leads to fixing certain industrial zones (producers/studios/networks) as a place of self-evident and stable meaning, a sort of textual headwaters that flows out into the more uncertain terrain of interpretation (in this respect, John Caldwell’s new book is a welcome step toward examining how media workers–as the figurative/literal hands at the lever of TV’s conveyor belt–conceptualize/fantasize their own identity within “production cultures”).

    Reading your essay, however, I was also struck by how a program like Conveyor comes along every so often that–as you point out–becomes “red meat” for media critics who in their real or feigned outrage are trapped between two rhetorical strategies: 1) decrying the program as some new “excessive” transgression in the medium/culture (judged, of course, against some illusory “norm”); and 2). describing the program as a “true” distillation of the genre/medium as a whole (Jersey Shore would be another good example–a show that either takes The Real World formula “too far” and/or embodies some core truth about the state of TV, youth, American Culture, etc.). It is interesting here how certain programs find a way to capture this ambiguity with such clarity–to somehow embody a “literal” truth about the medium by pushing a figurative logic to its extreme.

    As further proof of how these programs can both “cite and enact” literal metaphors, I can imagine approaching Conveyor’s boxes of meaning from the other side of the belt. Isn’t the show also--quite literally– about “moving units?” “Timed units,” in Williams’ sense of course, but also units of product: eyeballs to advertisers, commodities to consumers, and–to keep things at Channy’s level–“units” to “boxes” (in this case a literal metaphor for the equally “real” and “foundational” libidinal economy that underwrites the narrative/industrial economies of the genre as a whole–“Speedo Guy” certainly understood this to be the true purpose of the program!). In other words, the program’s ability to seemingly “demystify” and expose a more material truth behind both the production and consumption sides of commercial television only reaffirms how both are caught up in the same figurative logic of basic Fordism. Even as Fordism increasingly becomes a distant fiction, it still carries immense power to shape our literal understanding of material determination in the media.

    I guess the question would be the same one leveled at many post-structuralist interventions–after a particular literal/figurative divide has been exposed, noted, collapsed, then what? And please don’t make me say De Man leaves us no opportunity to “think outside the box”–but, in truth, it would appear he doesn’t. I guess this would involve unpacking in a bit more detail your use of Laclau here–especially as his model of hegemony is so different (or at least is perceived as different) from the Gramsci/Hall/CCCS paradigm that has proven so much more dominant in media studies.

  • Meghan Sutherland

    Jeff, thanks so much for this response. There’s so much to discuss here! I like the way you bring out the whole problem of “classically formulaic” TV shows in relation to the literal/figurative divide of TV ur-shows: on the one hand, they are said to distill the “essence” of what television can or should be as a unique technological form, but on the other, they are dismissed as excessive textual perversions of the medium’s capabilities–I think to purify the latter of its apparently “essential” investment in capitalist productions of surplus-value. I suppose I would just add that if we attend to the ontological implications of De Man’s intervention (in all its post-structuralness), then we can hardly see this scenario as a coincidence; if our idea of TV’s technological “essence” and its “material” goal of creating surplus-value depends for its “pure” existence on the metaphors that in time provide it with a sense of self-evidence and a specific set of relational dynamics, then a show that makes this “obvious” could quite literally be defined as one that makes the aesthetic material of these metaphors excessively obvious. At the same time, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that failing to attend to De Man’s point also resigns television to the self-explanatory “base” of capitalism in advance by naturalizing its “true” materiality as an economic (or financial) one, whereas De Man’s way of thinking suggests that television “produces” both money and meaning on the “base” of an aesthetic (or representational) economy, too.

    This is also why your point about Fordism is a good one: if the “essence” of television technology and economics derives not from some raw, mute “base” of original materiality, but rather, from the economies of tropes that have simply effected their discursive sedimentation as such–and precisely by growing familiar in Marxist figurations of the assembly line, in criticism of “moving units,” and even in the well-displayed “package” of Speedo-guy onscreen–then it is hardly surprising that the imagery of Fordism itself can be trotted out to as a campy satire of the “material” economic “reality” of television. Of course, I have to insist that approaching Conveyor Belt of Love in this way does not allow us to speak of approaching it “from the other side” of material precedence since the approach itself (as you rightly point out at the end) problematizes any thinking of television’s profit motive of “moving units” as a pure or stable material origin–let alone a “last instance”–for what happens onscreen.

    In a lot of ways, I think this same line of thinking might provide at least the beginnings of an answer to your last question–the question of what we can actually *do* with a post-structuralist reading of television textuality, or more to the point, whether such a reading really just reduces television scholarship to an aesthetic hall of signifying mirrors in which we can play language-games that provide no “ground” for what we’d like to call unequivocally real political leverage or critique (if I’m understanding you correctly). As you imply, this line of inquiry can serve in its more disingenuous formulations as a kind of knee-jerk response to post-structuralist treatments of representation (which is also to say overtly theoretical and/or philosophical ones) in fields where cultural materialist methodologies are in hegemonic dominance. But if De Man’s refusal of the “box” metaphor for language is so important to my argument, it is only because it foregrounds the fundamental misunderstanding or simplification of post-structuralism that drives such a response. After all, to refuse the idea that we think of meaningful communication, discourse, language, the economy of representation, or whatever you like as a box is to refuse precisely the dichotomy of only thinking “inside” or “outside” of it. It is to point out that the excessive rhetorical displays of material culture are not antecedent to the materiality of that culture, but instead constitute an ontological ground for the idea of what seems so “pure” and “literal” about its real “outside”. By complicating the border between the “inside” of the televisual “box”–the excessive aesthetic terrain that appears onscreen–and the “outside” of this same “box”–its objective material existence and the relations that supposedly dictate its logic–I am trying to suggest that the economy of representation in fact conditions the ontological “materiality” that we attribute to the capitalist economics of television production in important ways, and that the two are imbricated in any material “ground” that we might imagine for television studies. The problem, then, is not that we are *never* outside the box in De Man’s material world, but rather, that such a distinction still presumes a kind of originary material essence or core that grounds the social and economic “productions” of television.

    As you rightly suggest, Laclau makes the stakes of this scenario especially clear when he argues, for instance, that rhetoric is not simply exterior or excessive to the “real” practice and discourse of politics, but rather, that it constitutes the ontological possibility of forming social and political relations tout court. Drawing directly on De Man’s intervention, his work argues for an ontological understanding of aesthetic relations whereby style itself constitutes the very “ground” of such relations; his rhetorical conception of hegemony, which is indeed very different from the one taken up in television and cultural studies, does the same thing. As Laclau emphasizes throughout his work, there is a big difference between insisting that there is no such thing as a “ground” for existence, and insisting that despite the contingent nature of any “ground,” our social and political existence depends that we hegemonically produce one nevertheless. Whereas the simulacrum of Baudrillard and the knee-jerk conception of post-structuralism ultimately presume a decidedly Kantian, Cartesian, and finally Platonic form of idealism (where pure idea and pure materiality cannot, “in the last instance,” touch), Laclau’s insistence on the “ground” of discourse argues that we necessarily produce the materiality of the “ground” through the contingent relations of discursive figurations, so that style and materiality are originarily inscribed in one another through the hegemonic procedures of representation.

    Above all, then, I would say that I see profound “material” implications for the argument I have tried to make above. Perhaps most importantly, I see methodological implications. While the current model of hegemony that is familiar to our field has served to justify a politics of consumer autonomy, and has produced its own drive to empiricism in the form of ethnographic “viewer diaries” and the like, Laclau’s rhetorical understanding of hegemony suggests the peril of ever disarticulating theoretical and aesthetic modes of analysis from the coordinates of what we otherwise think of as material or literal ones. And while the turn towards treating production as a “culture” is, as you suggest, a definite and highly welcome improvement on older models of industrial analysis, I would argue that the work of Laclau and De Man suggests that we must not restrict our avowedly materialist analysis of the medium to the origin of its offscreen spaces. On the contrary, we need to reassess what we mean by “materialist” research in the first place when we sit so often in the light of the image. How, in other words, does the image itself constitute a material ground for social, economic, and political relations? How do images embody a part of our social materiality? To answer such questions will entail a different form of aesthetic analysis than we have done before in addition to the kinds of work we do now. It will also require that we explicitly take up theoretical and philosophical questions about the nature of the relation between materiality and representation, culture and thought, that seem to have been abandoned to the hey-day of television theory in the eighties–despite the fact that so much of the best historical work on television in the years since have repeatedly implied a more complicated relation between the realities and illusions of television than their theoretical bases allow. There is of course so much more to say here, as there always is, but perhaps this is the most fundamental point of all–so to speak.

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