Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Natural" Selection?

In the above clip, George Carlin, one of my favorite comedians  discusses "saving the planet" in the context of environmentalists, nature, and pollution.  He claims that "the planet has been through much worse than us," and goes on to cite many examples, attempting to put "environmentalism" in perspective. The reason I post this video here is that I want to to say a little about how we rhetorically (visually and verbally) construct "the natural."

In "Framing the Fine Arts Through Rhetoric," Marguerite Helmers analyzes and exhibition of Homer, the American artist, called "Facing Nature."  The curators of the museum decided to contextualize Homer's paintings in an artificial natural environment, complete with nature sounds and 'audio tour'.  Nature is thus framed as something that is pre-existent and represented, but it is really something artificially constructed as the background for Homer's artwork. The exhibit reinforces its artificiality by mimicking some of these artificially constructed environments in commodified form in the museum gift shop. Helmers believes that in this exhibition and in another painting, Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump, Nature is culturally constructed as "the state for human action, on which dramas of command, conquest, domination, and exploitation are played" (83). The exhibit's title "Facing Nature" becomes strange when we consider that an exhibit's title designates the subject, but here the 'art' subject is Homer's painting and 'nature' serves only as a framework. As Helmers puts it, "within the space of the exhibit, Nature is the occluded term: We are facing culture as we sit on the benches and gaze at the oiled sea" (83).

This passive and humanly constructed view of nature is reinforced by advertisements that 'gender' natural spaces, as Diane Hope's essay, "Gendered Environments," demonstrates. Nature is either associated with 'feminine' beauty and passivity, which may also set the stage for "relationship narratives" (159). Or, alternately, as a force to be reckoned with (read: dominated) by a male figure. For instance, Hope points out that in vehicle ads there are rarely humans represented--nature is the locus for a lone figure's adventure and control (161). By associating a wide array of products with images of a (gendered) natural world, these images justify consumer resignation to environmental degradation as 'natural' while reinforcing essentialist notions of gender (162). Although the exhibition discussed above does not explicitly point this out, it plays into the same narratives of these advertisements by suggesting that true 'nature' is as eternal as the artistic representation of it. As we are bombarded by images of untained nature, we tend to believe that nature is immune to human agency and is something that will 'always be there'.

This at first seems to be the view that George Carlin is advocating in this video clip. He seems to be outright claiming that nature will not go anywhere, but he does say that we initially screwed up the planet by 'interferring' with nature. Although there are still some unresolved tensions in his imagining of nature/'the planet', the power of his rant is giving the planet agency: "the planet will wipe us off like a bad case of fleas." The planet is not a passive background, but personifies it as a thinking being, "viruses! viruses might be good". Though he gets a bit 'mystical' at the end, his satirical take on nature avoids the silliness that seems to be involved in some of the more mystical and new agey rhetoric of nature--at least to me.

Commodified nature explored in these two essays comes to a head in Dickinson and Maugh's essay "Placing Visual Rhetoric: Finding Material Comfort in Wild Oats Market." I've always had some issues with organic and natural food stores and Dickinson and Maugh finally give me a well thought out reason for it. In the same way that the exhibition and advertisments do, Wild Oats hides their underlying consumer ethic. I'm not saying, and I don't think D&M are either, that Wild Oats are bad for doings this, but I think it does reveal some interesting contradictions. For instance, WO wooden shelves, baskets of bulk food (initial unpackaged), and food (in packages) labeled "natural" or "organic" all contribute to the idea that the consumer is not separated from the food. Selecting, packaging, and labelling makes it seem as though the consumer is actually doing something to get the food, even though it is clear that the store is just as convenient as the Publix. To increase this feeling, they have a full service stop that has butchers, fish mongerers, etc. where people can buy fresh cheese and meats. To a lesser extent, this is what Publix does with their meat as well at the 'deli', which seems like a better idea than getting the pre-packaged meat (even if it is the same publix brand meat). The difference is that Wild Oats draws on nostalgic images of older more "authentic" consumption that ultimately mystifies the "social injustices" that inevitably must take place for stores like this to exist (271).

While most of what I have written is summary, I'd like to apply some of these insights to this commercial for McDonalds salads that I found quite disturbing on a couple of levels. The video begins with black text on a white background and it says "Life is not black and white." The ethnicity of the woman in the commercial is a light brown (black, but yet, white enough to appeal to 'white' viewers) except at the beginning when she is filtered through a black-and-white screen. While this might be stretching it, it seems that an underlying ideology in this ad is that whether you are black and white or in between we can all agree on a "green" McDonald's salad. This is reinforced by a very very quick last line at the end of the video, "Green's the new black, dontcha know" said in a particular dialect that seems to indicate the commercial is subtly targeting African Americans. After this black-and-white scene with the woman frowning,  the woman looks up and both yellow M (the Mcdonalds arches) and branches start to spread across the screen as she says/sings (this kind of 'rapping' tone is another thing that seems to be targeted to a stereotypically hip hop culture--or actually, now that i think about it, it is the rhetoric of a slam-poem)  "My mood is lush and green." As she says green, there is the word "green" imposed on a darker green grass and the woman lays down on top of it and smiles. The juxtaposition of the M arches and leaves merges McDonalds with nature and the word green on green grass reinforces the words and images. Its very interesting that the woman says my "mood" is lush and green--its as if not just her diet but her whole consciousness is oriented toward the McDonald's salad or that the McDonald's salad induces a "green" consciousness. The next shot is the woman walking in the grass as she raps "In the field greens, the kind in Mcdonald's salads." The fact that grass is not used in McDonald's salads (or is it?) does not matter because the scene in the grass morphs into a screen full of fresh looking lettuce leaves, then very quickly switches to hands holding cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and something else. While these are showing the woman raps as the shot once again switches to a background of lettuce leaves and the words the woman is saying, "gorgeous green beauties," remains on top of them, associating the salad with these powerful words. When the three salads are shown, the names of the salads are also in green (but notably, different shades each time--emphasizing the diversity of the greens). Everything is centered on the words "green" as another shot features the woman smelling a flower, with the word "green" on a green background and her rapping "I fill my green noon with McDonald's salads," with the last words of the "poem" proper "and I'm tickled pink," showing the woman in a dress--though I almost wrote 'girl' because she really is portrayed as more of a girl in this one image.

I guess it was only time before McDonald's realized they should appropriate literary forms associated with "alternative" consciousness (and slam poetry thrives on imagery and rhythm) to sell their salads.

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