Among the metaphors which have seen lots of service in recent years, there’s
the one about the baby and the bathwater. Some still favour keeping the former
in a splash of the latter. For example, they’ll say all of communism should
be thrown out except the idea of communism, which is sublime and pure. Others,
less prudent: you get the feeling they want to throw out the tub and even
destroy the bathroom. More rare are those who want to show us what it looks
like, a baby without bathwater. Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani are
clearly among the uncommon few.
It’s a poignant spectacle, because the ancestor of all bathwater is the amniotic
fluid from which every human being emerges – and which, to judge from “the
Grand Bleu generation,” is so desperately lacking to our children. To point
where, for fear of being thrown out, they prefer to dive in straight away,
instead of sinking later on.
It’s in this sense that the now-famous Benetton ad is the cynical answer
of publicist parents (yesterday’s radicals?) to their unhappy offspring,
who have taken to scuba gear like monks take their vows. The ad is the precise
and complicitous corollary to Atlantis. Where Besson films the mildest manta
like an individual proudly playing his role as a ray in an underwater fashion
parade, the Benetton ad photographs the little human animal immediately “immersed”
in the void. Curious little human, with an umbilical mother and as the promise
of another cord to be plugged in as quick as possible (something like SOS
Thus it is via the billboard that the mythology of the postmodern individual
will be signified. For there is always mythology whenever the origin is questioned,
even by means of the image. Confided so quickly to our sole gaze, the Benetton
baby – it’s a girl, her name is Giusy – has been captured at the very outset
of her future course through life as a sexed-and-speaking being (she was
born on March 3, 1991, beneath the sign – oh irony! – of Pisces). The Benetton
firm is not selling its textiles, nor even its name (after the “did-you-guess-who?”
trick, it doesn’t need to anymore). What it signifies here is the power of
advertising in general to produce the naked child which, in any case, will
have to be dressed one day. Not the future client of Benetton, but the consumer
in general, the one who will have to be attached to the market (thus the
And since we’re decidedly in a world where “there’s no room for the lazy”
(as they sang in the International), there’s no question of waiting until
this baby has finished being born before putting her image directly to work.
The currently supreme form of capitalism is no doubt a kind of progress,
since the child labor that so saddened Dickens has now been replaced by the
labor of the child’s image, which only shocks a few recalcitrant moralists.
Outdated? Uncertain, in any case, that humans will never again be forced
to suffer the kind of treatment being publicly inflicted on their image.
Worthy souls have been moved by such crudeness. Some might accept the ungracious
looks of the little object (how to escape it? fathers now witness the birth
of their children), but still balk at the disappearance of a warm and humane
environment for the barely-born. Shall we ridicule such tender sentiments?
The obstinate desire for Nativity, for the cow and the donkey? Shall we wax
nostalgic for Sunday-school images, normal, “intimate” ads showing innumerable
well-washed babies gurgling in bales of maternal cotton? Not sure. But since
Benetton is such an ace among pollsters, let’s be as brave, dumb, and average
as the polled, and get this tongue-wagging symptom talking.
Its message is first of all aesthetic. The ad shows that when the bathwater
has vanished, the former foetus has a tough time getting immersed in anything
at all. Looking it over closely, you’ll find it’s plunged into nothing. Neither
air, nor water, nor artistic blur, nor pure color. Just the material medium
of any ad destined for the billboard: white paper, left white, delivered
as such. A Mallarmean infant born amid the anxiety of the blank page. Well
can we understand her tears.
Is this an abduction? It’s definitely a case of amputation, and there’s nothing
new about that. For years now, almost decades, one of the most meaning-fraught
operations of contemporary aesthetics has been the disjunction between figure
and ground, body and environment, detail and whole. People have given the
name of “mannerism” to what is only the already-long “history of amputation”
(transplants, quotes, appropriations, all kinds of parasitism). The aim is
always to break the natural solidarity of bodies with their surrounds. Advertising
aesthetics has been the driving force of this operation.
That said, the message is not only aesthetic, it’s also semiologic, indeed
“semiurgic.” The semiurgic is the omnipotence of the sign – like “demiurgic”
– at the moment when it has lost all aura and become a productive force.
It is the victory (bitter? oh how bitter!) of an economy of the sign which
is all the more totalitarian in that the signs too have finally been “individualized”
and set free to “live their lives.” Hence, in passing, the economic miracle
of Japanese culture, the most refined empire of signs.
This too is old news. Beneath the pretext of selling yogurt and noodles,
advertising has long labored at the production of the autonomous signifiers
(visual and linguistic) which it would one day need for much grander causes
than yogurt and noodles. That day has come. In a world exchanging before
our very eyes the old realist picture of mass production for a brand-new
landscape of more personalized simulacra, advertising has played its vital
role, which consisted in “liberating” the productivity of the sign. The umbilical
cord that mysteriously linked the sign to a signified or a referent is also
on the verge of being severed. The Benetton ad, both an image of separation
and a separated image, confirms the darkest reflections of Debord (on alienation)
and Lacan (on castration).
Which is why, despite everything, the image cannot merely be semiologic:
it is also humanitarian. One cannot amputate something – a sign, a being,
indeed, a farmer – from the surrounding environment without racking up a
little surgical-aesthetic cruelty. That’s why our animal friends have long
paid the dues of this delicate operation, by suffering iconic vivisection
and shameless manipulation, of which L’Ours (Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “The Bear”)
is a good recent example. Whoever talks amputation and transplant is also
talking about risk of rejection. Calculated risk of rejection. Calculation
of the risk. The risk market.
By posting up their newborn, solus, pauper, et nudus, on the city walls and
the newspaper pages, Benetton and Toscani have created in each of us the
vague sentiment that we should adopt this orphan too (as our children have
blindly adopted the abandoned bear cub fostered off by Jean Jacques Annaud,
complete with its faked synthesizer squeals). Our malaise before the gigantic
proof of human neotony comes less from the realism of the image than from
the obligation that we now feel to “manage” not only with individualism as
an ideology, but also with the first powerful icons of individuals without
the bathwater. On our side as well, the umbilical cord begs to be knotted.
On the social, or why not, the religious side, since religion – that which
links, religere – always needs a cord. To adopt this child is to immerse
her in something: a little writing, for example, in this newspaper-column-as-bathwater.
So this article is the charitable act that a journalist has dedicated to
the grand, enormous image of a tiny, forlorn child. Is it time to stand up
and applaud? Hardly. It’s never difficult to interpret that which has been
fabricated precisely for interpretation, and which tends typically toward
the self-service market of social phenomena. What’s not easy, on the other
hand, when faced with a provocation of this kind – which is finally rather
benign – is to adopt a personal attitude, a way of being serene without being
cynical. The difficulty is understandable: any individual response to a mass
message is necessarily inadequate, frustrating, ridiculous. Even when the
message in question is the theatrical display of the naked individual (that
nackte Individuum evoked by the young Marx).
To those who would claim they are shocked, it’s hopefully possible to answer
that we should be able to live with a share (a “quota”?) of scandal. Not
for the sake of spineless tolerance, but because no one should be forced
into forgetting the horrible reality on which the social tie is always founded.
There is in our societies a potlatch of images which must be lived with.
This frivolous waste is perhaps, optimistically, the condition for less frequent
genocides: only our images (and no longer our bodies) will be sent off to
the front. In any case, the capacity to not always replace what enrages us
by what soothes us is just proof of a little maturity. Or simply proof –
but the word has so completely disappeared from current parlance that one
hesitates to voice it – of “humanism.”
The article continues tomorrow.
Libération, 30 September 1991.
A cute little symptom of our current environment, the Benetton baby asks
a question that seems less and less avoidable. So let’s formulate it. Given
the disappearance of art from our societies – to the benefit of culture,
then cultural tourism, and finally tourism tout court – why not admit that
flexible and effective programs of social communication could take up the
fallen torch of collective “catharsis,” purging a few passions from time
to time and dispensing the unfortunate intellectuals from the public management
of “the philosophical debate”? After all, there’s more talent in the
Benetton ad than in the pitiful agora constituted week after week by the
combined headlines of the news magazines. What if cynicism were the unexpected
face of whatever innocence we can still muster? In 1973, faced with an ad
that had the public up in arms, Pasolini observed: “The cynicism of this
slogan holds an intensity and an innocence which are
absolutely new.” Pasolini was being provocative – but the ad was already
signed Toscani (and Pirella).
A new scandal of “advertising for advertising’s sake” would be no worse than
the old scandal of “art for art’s sake,” which it would replace to great
advantage. Indeed, products are more quickly digestible than “works,” the
Pavlovian communication of formats is more quickly accomplished than the
transmission of content, and market shares are more quickly figured than
the private emotions of the citizen. Of course there’ll be no more major
scandals (we’ll all be “one big family” in which the “public menace” will
be rare: the stupid Eugénie who derided Manet’s Olympia right there
in the middle of the Salon is long dead and gone). But we’ll all be unfailingly
titillated, stimulated, disgusted, dismayed, teased, tested, polled, in short
saved from the boredom which, since the eighties, has rendered public space
more or less unbearable.
So is it time to turn the page and admit that when it comes to stating the
truth of a society like ours (meeting the “scandal quota,” as it were), mass-oriented
social communication can advantageously replace the vestigial elitism of
outdated modern art? This is obviously the real question. And if the answer
is yes, then it’s clear that the Toscanis of the world (and in Italy alone,
a “creative” country, you also have Testa, Pirella, Sanna, D’Adda, Panzeri…)
would love to be credited as the heros of such a transformation. But is the
answer yes? What if it were more like “yeauh…”?
There is another piece of history here, linked to the history of amputation.
Call it the history of advertising, if you will. Or rather, of the new term
between the spheres of “public” and “private.” Publicity and privatization
define more and more strictly the aesthetic framework of that which can be
displayed, promoted, and sold. In this story of the world’s re-enchantment
after its last destruction (WWII), the “announcement” was initially as servile
as the pilot bird (or fish) that says nice things about the beast it’s perched
on. Gone are the days when the role of advertising was above all to sell
the product. Not much longer lasting, the days when it was a matter of building
up the brand image over time: the era of popular hymns to liquid soaps, when
advertisements, to Barthes’ great joy, inadvertently conveyed “something
ideological” as well. A touching era, itself now liquidated.
Because what happens, at the close of the three golden decades that put the
meat on its bones, when the beast – the market economy – becomes the sole
imaginable reality and the sole horizon worthy of global dreams? What happens
when the last illusions about another possible type of society fade away?
When all the bathwater is declared dirty? What happens is that advertising
no longer works for the market, but the market works for advertising. More
precisely, the market lets advertising climb up on its shoulders so it can
shout down the news of a vast landscape to be explored and conquered.
An extraordinary, unheard-of landscape where it’s no longer a question of
our needs but of our desires, no longer of our pleasures but our caprices,
no longer of our dreams but our fantasies. The market of the coming century
will be that of immaterial goods, psychological and spiritual trinkets. A
whole new world of communicational junk is already threatening. This is the
landscape which the ultramodern Benetton advertising, like a pilot bird turned
Sister Anne, sees coming from on high. And it’s toward that future, with
no time to lose, that it has launched little Giusy, the pure foetus severed
If that’s the story, then it’s easy to see that this “advertising of the
third kind” demands a less stingy, stay-at-home ideology than the old-fashioned
sort (which consequently shrinks back into its corner and pouts). By throwing
out this baby without any bathwater, Toscani, we’ll say it again, is less
concerned with selling the Benetton logo and line than with performing, gratuitously,
a test that combines the advantages of a cultural proposal, an ideological
debate, and even a morality lesson. Is Benetton “disinterested”? It would
be more appropriate to say that its campaign immediately interests any and
everybody. This child will belong to whoever is able to dress it. The blank
page says only that the green light has been given and given to everybody.
The economic war of all versus all is the possibility for each to interpret
the object-pretext and extract some information from it. And this information,
in the last analysis, is always
Now we can get back to our question: has advertising become the privileged
vector of social communication? Will it replace the older (tottering and
limited) forms of communication? Seized by vertigo, we won’t answer. No doubt
the modern societies also needed their hard truths to come from an internal
elsewhere: the sacred, poetry, art, but also warfare, politics, and ideology
successively occupied these “ sites of otherness” that Bataille called “the
accursed share” and whose strange economy he sought to understand. And no
doubt, in the postmodern societies, the all-conquering plasticity of the
market has no more need for that kind of exteriority, but holds in its possession
– via advertising as social communication – the means to bend the accursed
entirely to its own ends. The “borderline” that the Benetton ad flirts with
is not the border between the social and its repressed (what you might call
the “good scandal,” the one that
awakens fear and trembling), it’s just another disposable tool in the
communication kit. Which is the real scandal, the “bad” scandal.
This is why the fundamental difference between creators and creatives, between
art and advertising, is obviously not a question of talent, audacity, or
technique. It’s a question of desire, of one’s position toward truth.
After all, why can’t I respect a creative? Because he’s a slave, to put it
bluntly. The slave of a social interactivity in which he functions as a sophist
or an overpayed mercenary. Because now that it has become the rule, the interactivity
is currently diluting the idea of responsibility right along with the ideas
of arbitration or of a symbolic dimension. Creatives are superior technicians
in the service of a closed-circuit process which is largely virtual. A process
which needs nothing more than overplayed impresarios, professional exaggerators.
Toscani takes himself for Caravaggio (let’s hope he doesn’t meet the same
fate). He takes himself for a hero of Art. But there’s nothing moral in the
way Toscani rests content with testing (not to say prodding) the morals of
its contemporaries. The proof? Let’s go back for a moment to our newborn
(decidedly abandoned by everyone, even in this article). When some English
group protested over this image, what did Benetton do? “Fair play,” they
said, and retracted the image. Caravaggio never retracted anything.
What does their retraction signify? That the image has shifted entirely to
the side of economic power. And that nothing is ever put up for us to see
(the naked baby) without an aim to see something else (the dressed and dressing
parents). That the advertising image is the very model of the ricochet-image,
the image just to see. Like in poker. Thanks to the reaction of an English
lobby, something unexpected from England has become visible. The cultural
proposal (this article) and the ideological campaign (the English reaction)
are no longer anything more than the natural means whereby a new piece of
information comes to light. What information? That henceforth, the ideological
components of the market must be taken into account.
For it was clearly too hasty when people spoke about the “end of ideologies,”
on the pretext that they haven’t been making much noise over the past ten
years. It’s because they too needed to be (re)constituted as values, on a
“secondary market” internal to the primary one. That’s nothing new, it will
be said quite rightly. Because the new strategy of Benetton is elsewhere.
It does not consist, for example, in simply billboarding an ideological line
that corresponds to the firm conviction of Lucian himself (the playful anti-racism
of United Colors). On the contrary, it lies in the quest for a subtle dissensus,
an internal limit to collective convictions (and conventions).
Small but provocative details (the horns on the little black devil next to
the blond angel) are the springboards in the quest for finer, more precise
information about ideology. No longer the hard-bitten, doctrinaire ideology
that can’t sell anything more (and disgusts people instead), but the “lived
experience” of ideology, its intimate blurring, its changing borders, its
facile contradictions. In this sense, Benetton is like the devil’s advocate
(that’s the final meaning of the “did-you-guess-who?” trick), testing us
for the temptation to think something else, the impulse to thing the contrary
of what we claim to think.
In a period where contradiction is no longer the motor of anything, the compromise
formation that Freudians know so well risks becoming the major trope of social
communication. Just as negotiation stands every chance of becoming the nerve-center
of economic war. And just as economic war looks poised to take over, all
by itself, for the defunct march of history.
It’s in this sense, to conclude, that the message of the ad is political.
The auto-regulation of society, its free-wheeling interactivity, are the
service that advertising (writ large) renders to the market economy (writ
very large) and to its wars of the third kind. It’s an entirely free service,
carried out on the eye and for the eye. Which claims (or prefers) to know
nothing about the hand that guides it. It just blinks its pretty lashes.
Should it be taken on its word?
In any case, we’ll never be miscreants enough for its taste.
Libération, 1 October 1991.
Published in Libération in two parts on 30 September and 1 October
1991. Published in English in Documenta Documents 2, 1996, Cantz Verlag.
Translation by Brian Holmes.