As If Nothing Even Mattered
2022 was the year that it finally happened.
The year that the connection between signifier and signified finally broke down totally in the world of advertising, and from there, as usually happens, the world.
We still get to use words. For now, we still get to use the written word. Writing sentences, contextualising an idea across a paragraph, punctuation, preposition, question followed by idea… these things had already become so archaic and arcane by the time visual symbolism broke down that consumerism had almost no use for them at all.
(You could have predicted that would happen. At the point, some time in the eighties, when it became possible to describe yourself, or be described as a “reader”, it should have been clear that books and reading were becoming a supplementary activity, rather than an arbitrary part of modern life.)
It wasn’t a sudden shift, in cultural terms. To the dynamic, undulating mono-civilisation we found ourselves in in the early 21st century, common iconography becoming obsolete happened at a snail’s pace – compared to the thirty-minute news cycle, it was almost glacial.
But looked at in the context of the lifespan of a species, it came on like a sudden, massive neurological event. It took two dozen years to get here; from the first advert for perfume that didn’t actually mention or show perfume, to the twenty minute short films advertising supermarkets which at no point mention products or shopping, or feature any clear branding that indicates what they’re for. Two dozen years, but measured against the time it took our species to come aware – to walk upright and start communicating, to invent religion and the drum circle and the printing press and the university and the telephone and emoticons – measured against that, this came on like an embolism. Like a blood-clot on the brain. From eloquent and communicative and firing on all cylinders to having locked-in syndrome.
And it seemed so innocuous, was the thing. We let it happen. When the advertising industry discovered cocaine, they started making art. So we gave them more money with which to buy more cocaine, and pretty soon, without us expecting it, the industry started to breed. Advertising begat marketing begat PR begat spin. News media, afraid of being left behind, started to adopt the same techniques – fire first, fire loudest, get their attention, then work out what you want to tell them. Viral content became sponsored content became viral content again, blooming outward, getting into our heads through any hole available and spreading like a drop of ink in water.
And at the same time, for any number of reasons, we started to drift apart. Still sharing the same mono-civilisation in practice – the same shops, the same tech. But splitting off, dividing up, every clique or subculture or demographic, each with its own slang, and within those groups a hipster progression, a deliberate effort to use language as a gate-keeper, every group with its own palare, and every parlare polarising.
And then in 2022, a singularity.
No deliberate effort, no consensus among media, but in 2022 not one advertisement featured the thing it was advertising. Not one. By some quirk of fashion or trend, every single billboard featured a beautiful, if apparently random, object, and if it had any labels or words on it, they were nonsense. A pithy quote reduced to complete non-sequitur. Brand names so far removed from production or service that if they did appear anywhere, you couldn’t be sure what they meant. Two-minute TV spots composed of actors spouting call-and-answer to each other, but the call never quite matching up with the answer. Movie trailers, in an almost satisfying regression, reduced to difficult to parse sequences of stills from the film, a deep and enthusiastic male voice describing the title, the names of the actors and director, and nothing else.
We still try to talk about the various things we see. We message each other about them on our smartphones. But where there used to be seven definitive, distinct emoticons, now there are well over two thousand, more added every week, and nobody really knows what you’re trying to tell them.
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