Thinking the Box
Meghan Sutherland / Oklahoma State University
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
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.
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.
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
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?
Please feel free to comment.
- 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. [↩]
- Paul De Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 5. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Theodore Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 70. [↩]
- See Ernesto Laclau, “Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” in Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996). [↩]
- 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. [↩]