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china, chips, seeds, scale, scales

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1. According to Bloomsberg Businessweek, “In 2010, the U.S. added 937,000 jobs; Foxconn, the Taiwan-based maker of nearly every consumer product you wanted this year, added 300,000.” But on the other hand, from another article in the same magazine,

Ah Wei has an explanation for Foxconn Technology Group Chairman Terry Gou as to why some of his workers are committing suicide at the company’s factory near the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

Among other things, Foxconn manufactures the iPhone and the iPad for Apple.

Further, China moved at the end of 2010 to limit its exports of the “rare earth metals” whose supply it almost entirely controls and which are necessary for the production of most electronic devices so as, it seems, to protect its share of the manufacturing market as its workforce begins to expect ever higher wages. In other words, if there’s fancy strange rocks hiding in the engine room of your Device, they’re likely going to have to be made in China for the foreseeable future.

2. On the other hand, the guy who made the art installation pictured above – which seems to me about the most sublimely appropriate artistic representation of the global economy imaginable – had his studio demolished in Shanghai last week.

Chinese demolition workers have torn down the Shanghai studio of the artist Ai Weiwei – a move he says is linked to his political activism.

Mr Ai said the demolition crews arrived without warning on Tuesday and flattened the building within a day.

He originally had permission to build the studio, but later officials ordered it to be destroyed, saying he had failed to follow planning procedures.

Mr Ai has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of China’s leaders.

The work pictured above is “Sunflower Seeds,” which was recently on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Here’s the description from the Tate’s website:

Sunflower Seeds is made up of millions of small works, each apparently identical, but actually unique. However realistic they may seem, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact intricately hand-crafted in porcelain.

Each seed has been individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds form a seemingly infinite landscape.

Porcelain is almost synonymous with China and, to make this work, Ai Weiwei has manipulated traditional methods of crafting what has historically been one of China’s most prized exports. Sunflower Seeds invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.

Without getting all Pater-before-La-Gioconda on you, I hope that you can even vaguely imagine the overwhelming power – at once critical and, well, crushingly aesthetic in some sort of very old fashioned sort of sense – of seeing this work. When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

3. Francis Fukuyama, Sisyphusianly obligated to revise forever his early call of time at the pub of history (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), has recently written a piece for the FT titled “US democracy has little to teach China.” Here’s an extract:

The most important strength of the Chinese political system is its ability to make large, complex decisions quickly, and to make them relatively well, at least in economic policy. This is most evident in the area of infrastructure, where China has put into place airports, dams, high-speed rail, water and electricity systems to feed its growing industrial base. Contrast this with India, where every new investment is subject to blockage by trade unions, lobby groups, peasant associations and courts. India is a law-governed democracy, in which ordinary people can object to government plans; China’s rulers can move more than a million people out of the Three Gorges Dam flood plain with little recourse on their part.

Nonetheless, the quality of Chinese government is higher than in Russia, Iran, or the other authoritarian regimes with which it is often lumped – precisely because Chinese rulers feel some degree of accountability towards their population. That accountability is not, of course, procedural; the authority of the Chinese Communist party is limited neither by a rule of law nor by democratic elections. But while its leaders limit public criticism, they do try to stay on top of popular discontents, and shift policy in response. They are most attentive to the urban middle class and powerful business interests that generate employment, but they respond to outrage over egregious cases of corruption or incompetence among lower-level party cadres too.

Fukuyama focuses, as he would, on autocratic China’s ability to force infrastructral development and to please it’s new and growing – yet still demographically insignificant – urban middle classes. The infrastructure is important sure, and the middle classes may well be happy with the fruits of upward mobility, but we all know that the real competitive advantage – and human cost – of China’s “democracy deficit” is the fact that it is able to manipulate its internal labour market and keep its currency artificially weak, thus keeping standards of living artificially depressed.

Despite the fact that Fukuyama stages his piece as a question begging affair –

During the 1989 Tiananmen protests, student demonstrators erected a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolise their aspirations. Whether anyone in China would do the same at some future date will depend on how Americans address their problems in the present.

– the title gives the game away. Fukuyama hasn’t really described a question so much as yet another equipoised situation, a roadmap of the configuration that, whatever the grumbling of our leaders, is basically the baserock foundation of our current and miserable status quo.

4. What causes Foxconn workers to kill themselves is that which permits Foxconn alone to add a third of the number of jobs as the entire US economy in 2010 is that which depresses wages around the world, and is that which renders Ai Weiwei obnoxious to the PRC, and is that which sanctions the race to the bottom that we’re all suffering through, the rise in in what the BBC was chirping away this morning about as the “misery index.”

We are suffering separately, and somewhat differently now. The ebb tide of the economic cycle is rapidly lowering all of our boats – our separate little skiffs that float on the sea of production. Would that we could figure out how to suffer, and thus perhaps to alleviate the suffering, together.

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January 19, 2011 at 1:56 pm

ads in sum

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Spending my Saturday rushing a bit to write… a paper that in a sense will encapsulate quite a bit of the argument of this blog over the years. (I mean especially when I was writing posts about things rather than simply being moody and attitudinal…) Luckily, looking back through my posts on the topic, I’m finding quite a lot of the paper pre-written. Perhaps I’ll post some bits of it up here, new stuff, as I go along and you can reassemble my talk at home…

But for now, let me repost one of the greatest ads ever made, something I know I’ve posted about four times already:

As I’ve said before, the ad

crosses a nascent geopolitical conflict with an aesthetic tension – a tension, actually, between two unreconcilable aesthetics: the collectivized bodies-as-machines of the Chinese against the pouty individualized hotness of the Americans. (Isn’t this, in a sense, the work that international athletics almost inevitably performs? Jesse Owens’s sole black body against the Riefenstahl logic of Hitler’s review platform etc… War by other means – by means that come closer to the aesthetic register than any other…)

Until today, I hadn’t considered the very opening shot – where she is woken up by the shaking glass of water – is playing on a disaster / crisis trope that’s very 2003. Something’s happened out there… And indeed it has – but not the thing that most media were trying to get us to worry about circa 2003. And it further occurs to me today that there’s something more to it than I wrote in the earlier post that brings into the picture something quite uncanny. The conflict, yes. And while the ad is focalized through the Americans’ experience of the confrontation, at the same time it’s utterly clear that the ad isn’t taking sides, isn’t picking a winner… Or, really, if there is a prediction in play, it has to go with the Chinese, who can do all that while the Americans have nothing to counter it with but attitude and haircuts. All this mirrors the fact that the corporation that produced it is hedging its bets between its old marketing base and the booming new markets of Asia, their burgeoning new urban middle classes. The ad was in fact shown both in the USA and China in the run-up to the 2003 Women’s World Cup, thus the dual language titles at the end…. The very fact that Adidas could and would make an ad for both markets is significant subtext of the ad itself, and informs the unsettling strangeness of its content. We still see the world through your eyes, America, but the fact of the matter is that this might be about to change.

Anyway, exciting stuff. Perhaps I ought to write the hard stuff now about Marcuse and Marxism and Bernays and the rest. Tempting to fill up the entire thing with unmediated ad clips that simply tell the whole story I’m trying to tell… Hmmm… Not avanty enough for that, I don’t think. And my wife’s going to come to the paper, at least if the babysitter accomodates, so I’d like to make it, you know, good.

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February 27, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Posted in ads, america, china

impossible is nothing: adidas’s socialist art

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What a strange world we live in. Adidas has made a series of TV ads for the China market that look, well, properly socialist. That is, they seem to me to be the sort of things that an actually-existing-socialist state might make, if they still existed and had hotshit marketing firms on hand to help out. A logical, if very slick, development from the sort of posters the commies liked to do for sporting events and the athletic ideologies of communism.

And the towers of people – people as architectural elements – are particularly interesting and strange in the adidas ad.

Of course, of course, it’d be easy to describe these as more nationalist than socialist. But almost all Olympic themed ads are nationalist – and these are different. Easy test: could you imagine the same ad being made for the American market? For the UK? No, but it’s trickier to say why not…. Some options I’ve come up with:

1) Americans don’t go in for a sense that our athletes are somehow built by society, that they are products or embodiments of the collective. It breaks against the libertarian self-made myth that we love our jocks to live out. (I remember – but cannot find in the usual repositories – an ad that I think Home Depot did a few Olympics ago that would be fruitfully paired with the one above. Working-class athletes in minor sports doing their humdrum jobs only to train, night after night. I think it may even have had something to do with some sort of program that Home Depot had to employ poor Olympic hopefuls. Or was it FedEx? But you see the point – bagging your boxes of nails and mousetraps, not diving into a sea of countrymen….

2) Westerners don’t like to be portrayed as a gray mass of depersonalized semi-individuals. Sports ads more typically revolve around the fantasy that you have been magically been brought into the game – that you somehow are A-Rod or Beckham or whatever. Look how easy they make it for me:

3) A little more complex, but we tend to figure “nationhood” through emblems, scenes, symbols, and physical / topographical elements rather than as a mass of people. Masses of people as nation is a bit scary, and sends the wrong message.

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece of work, this add, and deserves to be filled-away in everyone’s drawer of hauntological repetitions with a big difference….

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July 21, 2008 at 12:22 am

Posted in ads, china, socialism

banned in china (thread)

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(xposted to Long Sunday)

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber has banned abb1 from further comments on any threads that he authors. I’d rather not rehash the entire issue at hand, so go take a look and come back.

From what I can tell, the tipping point seems to have been reached with a comment of abb1’s on the Tiananmen Square revolt and suppression of 1989.

Marc: remember the students in TS?

Funny, though, that according to wikipedia:

Although the initial protests were made by students and intellectuals who believed that the Deng Xiaoping reforms had not gone far enough and China needed to reform its political systems, they soon attracted the support of urban workers who believed that the reforms had gone too far.

Obviously there are many more urban workers than students and intellectuals, so, why don’t you hold your venom and think about this one for a few seconds.

This drew quite a negative response from several of the other commenters. But, as I’ve said in the comment thread in question, everything that I’ve read – and I’m not an expert, just an amateur – indicates that the story of the June 4th Movement and the suppression of it was quite a bit more complex than “they wanted democracy, votes and Levi jeans, and the commies ran them over with tanks.”

From, for instance, an interview with Wang Hui in One China, Many Paths (2003):

In 1989, why did the citizens of Beijing respond so strongly and actively to the student demonstrations? It was largely because of the adventurist reforms to the price system that Zhao Ziyang had twice imposed, without any benefit to ordinary people. Their earnings suffered from the agreements they were forced to sign by factories, and their jobs were at risk. People felt the inequality created by the reforms: there was real popular anger in the air. That is why the citizenry poured onto the streets in support of the students. The social movement was never simply a demand for political reform, it also sprang from a need for economic justice and social equality. The democracy that people wanted was not just a legal framework, it was a compreshensive social value (64-65).

It seems clear that this point is at least open for discussion, but, it seems that challenging the conventional wisdom on sacred moments of the end of political history, like Tiananmen Square, provokes a flailing response from the Timberites… In short, an inappropriate response…

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March 4, 2007 at 12:30 am

china

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January 7, 2007 at 10:44 pm

Posted in china

humanism in china

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From signandsight on humanism in China:

The term “humanism” in its current Chinese form made its way into the cosmos of Chinese thought as a rather lonely stowaway in a Japanese translation of Schopenhauer: “The belief that mankind is the root”. Of course today, when Chinese people speak about what we in the West would define as “humanism” they find their own idioms and metaphors, where Schopenhauer’s role is naturally only a subsidiary one. So how did the courageous curators in Canton come up with this term? Two simple thoughts perhaps hold the key. “Humanism” has, as already mentioned, the premise that “mankind is the root”. The decisive thing here is the idea of the root. The word “capitalism”, which radiates a so much bigger promise in today’s China, accordingly means “The belief that capital is the root”.

Every Chinese person, if you will excuse the exaggeration for a moment, thinks in signs, in the characters of his culture. “Capitalism” and “humanism” are only a single character apart. Man against capital. A blind storyteller being led over the mountain pass will understand that, as will a mother trying to breast-feed triplets – as will even an onlooker staring through his shades at a victim on the road.

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June 20, 2006 at 9:45 am

Posted in china

eerie modernity

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Eerie paragraph in a nifty piece by Geoff Dyer in today’s FT. He’s talking about the model of Shanghai 2020 at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall (which I was lucky enough to visit when I was there 2 years ago. The picture above is mine…) :

Government is a top-down process in China, which the city models also reflect. It is part of the folklore of the Shanghai museum that when it opened in 2000, many local visitors discovered for the first time that their neighbourhood was to be razed to make way for some new high-rise.

In a similar vein

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June 14, 2006 at 11:21 pm

Posted in architecture, china