Sunday, October 31, 2010

Supermarket Ideologies

So two useful lessons to my mind on ideology from your local grocery store:

1) The simplest first: I was thinking the other day how the air pumped into bags of potato chips is a useful metaphor for considering the function of ideology. Althusser in his famous, if incomplete essay (apparently there is a yet to be translated book on the subject, still in French), "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" discusses the function of ideology thusly,"the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their historical respiration and life." Ideology for Althusser is the necessary element that contributes to the reproduction of conditions of production under capitalism (the division of labor, extraction of profit from labor already in the world, etc.). Instead of being a "mistake" made, a blocking of "real" consciousness, for Althusser ideology was more of a practice. "Ideology," He writes, "represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence." Thus ideology, not only "distorts" or misconstrues the social relationships that undergird the persistence of capitalism (more than just the economic state, but also a social and political condition, a social order) which is actively reinforced by institutions, the family, etc. It is a practice of life and a kind of preliminary, limited, knowledge of life and the world, not generated by some malignant cabal working in an unmarked office somewhere, but an active framing by subjects in relationship to an overall order, thus it is a process of life, not the mere negation of truth as others may have argued in the past.

If we can consider potato chip bag, a finished commodity (fetishism aside), as a good model for this understanding of ideology, where on the one hand the air allows the transport of the bags of crisps/chips without much damage to the chips themselves seems logical, and well motivated, people certainly prefer whole chip slices to the debris left over from crushing and being tossed around, and at the same time the air produces the illusion of quantity, we can see the practicality, commonsensical qualities of ideology as well as its status as that which withholds, whose absence is productive but nonetheless some form of misappropriation.

Our reaction to just how many chips/crisps are inside the bag once it's been opened I think speak to this very problem of ideology, we feel slightly cheated by the reduced quantity than we had expected. As much as we know there will be a certain ratio of air to food content in the bag we are nonetheless disappointed by how this ratio actually plays out when we see the bag is less than half full of chips.

2) The Self-Check-Out Lane as Middle Class Ideological Practice

I think all of us have had a moment in the past where we've been in a rather slow checkout lane somewhere and thought to ourselves, "how hard can it be to scan and cash this stuff out. I could do this more efficiently!"

Any cashier of course would tell you that this is never the case, an experienced, and battleworn cashier is easily the most efficient as her/his job and those who tell themselves that somehow they would be more effective or could more rapidly take care of the cashier's job are deluding themselves. Anyone who has ever had a customer service job could easily tell you that there are a number of things that could go wrong, need attention, knowledges that need to be obtained (what to do if something goes wrong, if an item rings up incorrectly), skills achieved etc. before one becomes proficient at these skills.

The self-check out lane at your local grocery store is therefore an ideological practice oriented at precisely the class most fixated on efficiency, and the ostensible "unskill" of service oriented work, the middle class. What is really going on here is the casualization of paid positions that tap into precisely this ideological fallacy, that an unskilled middle class person can best handle the supposedly simple tasks of a cashier without much knowledge or skill.

From my experience, the reality of this change highlights precisely the problems with this attitude. Self-check out lanes always seem to take forever, and are packed with people, but instead of becoming frustrated at particular employees we are frustrated at the other patrons, if only they could be as skilled and efficient as we in accomplishing their purchase. Moreover, labor that was once a single persons position gets distributed to the customers, so hell bent are they on efficiency, and to a singular cashier who deals with all of the frustrations and problems and receives much of the blame and malign of irate, irrational self-check out users. So you've eliminated multiple jobs and redistributed labor whilst playing into middle-class delusions about its competence to run a register and its further delusion that it runs the society.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Box Ghost/Robots

My office has been moved into a corridor that is split between PhD students in my department, robotics graduate students, and an electron microscope. A few nights ago working late into the night a fellow PhD and I spied what we thought to be some sort of moving camera, box robot, scooting across the ceiling of a neighboring building.

On revisiting the issue we wondered aloud whether or not that odd, dark box was actually the ghost of Max Headroom, MTV's quasi-virtual creation, a supposedly artificially intelligent VJ, and main character of a series (similar gimmicks occurred throughout the 1980s where an artificially intelligent agent posited as the show's central protagonist is actually mostly a tool for human betterment in some way or a means of comic relief) as in below:

Examples like this I think unmask internet ideologies that construe the web as a kind of place of play and free interaction by dating them, yoking them to history, and therefore underlining how the internet is not some universal expression of the essence of Modernity. At the same time the centrality of the glitch to Max Headroom's character highlight's a moment when machines were not self-effacing themselves as products of work (as in the iPod).