Berger days

Berger days – a re-contextualistion of the final essay from “Ways of Seeing”

The ‘Ways of Seeing’ started life as a television series aired first in 1972, the programmes are available via Youtube – here –  and are recommended as so much is as pertinent (at least to this reader) as it was when the programme was made. In the final essay Berger explains the position of the image in terms of the times in which the programme was made. I felt that there was huge difference between then and now – time will probably counter that notion – and I wondered about re-contextulalising the essay with, how I see, the contemporary economic and political environment. I have not concerned myself with imagery mentioned in the essay, it was enough to offer a hostage to fortune with the comparing of the “then and now” without the discussion entering visual territory………..

The exercise was also partly as a practical way to better comprehend the issues that Berger was discussing prior to an event with the Thames Valley group, where in the next meeting we will be discussing the book as a critical text.

The ‘city’ as a spectacle of imagery has become fully ‘democratized’. In an age where the internet is a ubiquitous facility, the vista of the city as a gallery is now, 40 years since this series was first aired on television, more commonplace as newsprint was back then . In 1972, two years after Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act, the panorama was entirely different. The city is being played into the homes in a multiplicity of ways. When the typical household often didn’t have a telephone, the residence now has as many telephones as there people, and in many cases homes have many more than that ratio. These telephones, televisions and computers all connect to anywhere in the world at the touch of a button, we are now as familiar with the Shanghai skyline as we are with Paris’ own. The publishers are aware that we are complicit in the workings of marketing, we invite them into our houses, our workplaces, our leisure areas, in fact all the areas that we inhabit are now shared with the publisher, the marketeer

In the early 1970’s, when, it might be said, the presence of colour photography was juvenile by comparison, Berger suggests that whilst we were aware of these billboards, magazine images, there were, by today’s elevation of mammon’s intrusion, many havens of quietude. Inside busses are not only advertising images pasted onto the superstructure, but there are screens that scroll to display messages of information and more advertisements; similarly in taxis, airplanes and boats, all public transport carry us with the accompaniment of opportunities to invest. The sides of streets still carry the same sort of messaging, however they seem to not have developed their vernacular of merchandising from Berger’s day.

We now though have an ever increasing sophistication in the processing of imagery that invades our spaces, in the early 1970’s we had options like moving to the television and changing the channel – to one of the other two channels, or to reduce the volume of the transmission, leave the room. Contemporary controls enable the viewer to switch to another of any number of channels, mute the sound, switch from tv to internet screen as well as those other time worn therapies to dissipate the advertisers messages. However the sophistication has been mirrored by an acknowledgement that the user, the consumer, has the ultimate immediate control of delivery. Instead of the mass broadcast publishing, the providers and consumers can now control what is consumed and the fiscal transaction is now dependent on the actual delivery. Google and Youtube now offer the consumer the option to ‘skip’ adverts, and if the viewer decides not to consume the publicity then no fee is passed between marketeer and service provider. This element of control is dependent on a paradigm impossible to have been conceived in the early 1970’s, that of time phased viewing. It is now possible to view a programme later than originally transmitted. In 1972 Philips introduced the first video recorder, which theoretically enabled the viewer to edit out the images associated with merchandising, but their reliability and cost were prohibitive for the mass market.

It appears to us now that the message will find us wherever we are. The television in the lounge controlled by the patriarch now finds its place in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car, on our mobile ‘phones, our tablet computers, on the tube train; it is no longer a static communication transporter. All this imagery in motion, with perhaps radio (the first licensed commercial radio didn’t start until 1973) and the personal music player left devoid of pictures promoting the virtue of one brand over another.

But still the principals of advertising are as base as they were some 40 or indeed 140 years ago. It was about the business of creating a need where none might have existed before, and it still is. To extol the virtues of a ‘free market’, in a ‘free world’ that champions ‘free choice in a free world’. In 1989 the Berlin Wall was breached and fell. In 2001 China signed the world trade agreement; an act in itself that confirmed what was already in play, that China was on an inexorable journey to becoming the world’s dominant economy and that America would soon be in total hock to it’s one time ideological counterpoint in a (final) play that would try and suggest that the hegemony of consumerism over a planned economy will win the day.

The notion of ‘free choice’ was always an interesting conception. In a ‘free market’, what are we free to do? The ‘anti-trust’ laws in the USA are said to be amongst the strongest remedies for governments in our ‘free world’ to control the urges of industry and finance to manipulate markets. Yet these multi national organisations are controlling governments and channeling the flow of monies to the tax coffers of nation states. Globalisation, in it’s infancy in the early 1970’s has now become more powerful than all nation states except maybe that of China, who, in turn control the lines of credit of most of the rest of the world. We see huge ranges of offerings pervading our screen of choice in an imaginary conceit of choice that, in a lot of cases, are in fact all made by one or two global manufactures. These huge industries, like Tesco who receive something like 10% of all monies spent in the UK, conspire to reduce the freedom of choice, by offering more reasons to stay in their store, they reduce the likelihood of other store-owners staying economically viable. The populace is being deprived of choice by marketeers, who are supposedly offering us a wider choice.

And what does this advertising tempt us with, a ‘new life’ that will enrich us with greater satisfaction, comfort and ease. It will provide us with greater pleasure, become more attractive, more alluring. We now live in an age where the sportsmen and women have become as famous as film stars were in the past, it is not uncommon to find sports stars crossing over to become actors and actresses and the promotion of the sports aesthetic is perhaps stronger today than it has ever been, but whilst the publicity promotes the fit and sporting frame, the populace being encouraged to consume these goods are becoming more and more obese. By capita the UK is the most obese nation on earth, yet our nations consumption of sports shoes and football shirts shows no sign of abating. This consumption of the paraphernalia associated with sports goods and indeed any goods at all are bought using the least amount of energy possible. In the 1970’s the shopping expedition was a trip to the town centre and a walk to a variety shops. The shopper today stays in the seat where they consumed the advertisement and, idly, switches to an on-line retailer to make the purchase. Furthermore the internet registers that the shopper has viewed a certain product and will promote similar products them at the next opportunity, promoting further excess. And do we feel better for having an extra pair of sports trainers? An extra shirt? Another Burger Mr. Berger? McDonald’s opened it’s first restaurant in the UK in 1974, it’s image is on all available outlets, billboards, television, sporting events and spilled, of course, on the streets as ample evidence of excess in a consumer age where in 2009 we had 6,700,000 tonnes of food waste in the UK alone and where the reliance on food banks have trebled in the past twelve months to over 500,000 people needing to use them in the UK to get basic rations. And, according to Shelter, every fifteen minutes another family is dispossessed and made homeless in the UK.

The message from these advertisers is still about envying the life out of reach, about how, if we just had a bit more money we would no longer aspire, we could become that which we dream of. These dreams placed there by the ‘dream makers’ to tempt the consumer with more and more of increasingly redundant objects. Fuelled by a post Thatcher economy that had turned banks from a bastion of sobriety into commodity brokers, where the Bank Manager was replaced by insurance salespeople, machines that spit money and imagery of a carefree life in amongst the benevolence of ISA investments. Government savings schemes that once offered 25% “interest free” were advertised in front of images of the ‘grabbing’ hands of the proletariat, now those same bonds will perhaps generate 1% for a year and revert to an even lower rate, left to fester in the Governments coffers. There is an active disincentive to investing your money, buy now and consume now, whilst there is money left to spend. The credit boom of the late seventies and through to the noughties have ‘blown’ the bubble and the pervading imagery is about how to gamble. The High Streets that Berger trod four decades past have transformed into charity shops and betting parlours, our “ideal shopping experience’ is now out of town, undercover, easy parking, homogenous shopping, or rather shop. The portrayed image of these are usually remarkable for their lack of invention. Berger’s view is that we buy the past to live better in the future; the Trafford Centre – an homage to the Renaissance – with it’s ceilings painted reminiscently of the Sistine Chapel, it says about itself “Popularly known for its vivid and quirky rococo/late baroque architectural style – its architecture pays homage to the history of the area.” What does this say about how we present ourselves to ourselves? Do we envisage ourselves as Doge’s in our emporium shopping for goods that will be out of date before the current ‘season’ or model make is over? Where those self same stores are earning more money from the consumer’s fear of loss, by selling the goods with associated insurance, or by credit card that offers more ‘consumer rights’ than if paid for by cash.

The consumer is urged by the beauty and style associated with the perfume/clothing/computer/shop window/magazine to continue on the treadmill of consumption, still using those same images rules that Berger extolled four decades ago, even now when the money has run out. Where the continual drive by capitalist governments to ‘buy’ our way out of depression. We are told that stagflation, that unnerving (for the government) state that has been the order of the day for a couple of decades in Japan, where the inhabitants don’t really want to buy much more, is, we are told, a fearful place; we ‘must’ therefore hasten the urge for growth, to consume more for the public good.

And what has changed in imagery since Berger compiled his list?

  • We now have ‘super-models’ that are the aspirant of choice for many, too many, adolescent girls. A transgressive device in a society that is falling to obesity and which has a new grammar associated with eating disorders. Bulimia sufferers started to be recorded in the late nineties, Anorexia Nervosa – whilst a recognised clinical condition a century or more ago didn’t come into common parlance until the end of the seventies.
  • The end of the “Cold War”. What had defined a political and economic rhetoric since the Second World War came to an end, the crumbling of both “The Wall’ and the “Iron Curtain” the marketization of China – a land that still has the political will to print money, and does.
  • The development of the availability of ‘free to air’ Pornography that provides a new generation with found imagery that will inform them on practice and body image. Disassociating the function of the sexual act with any sense of emotional encumbrance.
  • Cheap flights. It is now cheaper to fly to Africa than it is to drive fifty miles in a car. The public’s acceptance of the ‘nearness’ of foreign and exotic locations that is now almost as cheap as holidaying in the home country. The level of tourist consumerism in these foreign lands often becomes the staple item in their economy. Airlines offer flights to many European countries for less than a meal in a local restaurant – the menu of same is perhaps sourced from the country being visited.
  • Consumer credit has become almost a statement of the wealth of the individual. Whereas in the early seventies credit was firstly difficult to obtain – banks were reluctant to provide it as most people didn’t have the collateral to back it up with – and people would rather go without that suffer the stigma associated with having things on ‘on the tick’. Through the intervening years with the credit boom, finance houses and banks have fallen over themselves to sell money to people who didn’t have the disposable income to support the lives they were being encouraged to aspire to. It wasn’t that unusual to know people who had multiple credit cards all ‘topped – up”. Our indebtedness seemed to know no bounds. These once parsimonious banks would turn to gluttonous usury as their main source of income; and even now, when the money has run out, the marketeers are still encouraging the population to consume more and save less.
  • And there are many more I could list here.

Was there an aristocracy when Berger penned his final essay in 1972? Or have these last few decades provided the marketeers a perfect storm of opportunity to airbrush the golden glow of nostalgia with Silver anniversaries, Golden anniversaries and weddings of our Royal family, who along with the media, still cling to the notion of patronage whilst the vestiges of the aristocracy dwindle into obscurity being replaced by the glamour of the bourgeoisie. The glamorous envy the other glamorous, forever outdoing their excess leaving the proletariat agape at their opulence, at their aloofness, at their untrammelled wealth and privilege. And the poor just get poorer. Where once the poor made the objects that the rich consumed, the providers of the luxuries now turn away from those tradesmen to lower and lower cost economies to exploit, turn to faraway countries without regulation to store their virtual credit; driving a wider and wider wedge between those who have and those who never will, the gulf grows wider by the day. Those towns and villages that were bereft of work, industry and sense of community by the closure of industries because they weren’t ‘cost effective’ are still a legitimate target for the marketeer, sink estates that are now declared as ‘no-go’ areas for police and public alike are reached by the publicity of Chanel just as easy as the skunk supplier, with only one of those brands taking the owner out of their presence, at least for a while.

The segmentation that Berger speaks of in his final paragraph now seems a blunt instrument by today’s instruments of marketing. The disenfranchised that were once divided by capitalism’s desire for margin and bottom line performance are now sub-divided and their opportunity for growth stymied by lack of, well, opportunity. And still we are told that the threat to our life comes from the God of the East, perhaps because these self-same marketeers/politicians haven’t had the penetrative success in both territorial/military, idealistic with mammon as their mentor.

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2 thoughts on “Berger days

  1. I was very pleased to see your review and the link to Berger’s video in advance of the study day. I’ve browsed the book several times but cannot state that I have understood or retained any of it. Your post is very helpful, thanks.

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