“This act – the use of the technology of synthesis to repair the damage wrought by the technologies of death – is what characterizes us.”
Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories
Hyperconsumption in the Ethical Charity Machine
Entry into McDonald’s: sleek glass sliding doors framed by stacked stone walls—the modernist’s indoor-outdoor flow, with the rigidity of austere corporate Bauhaus; and within: strict regimentation of monochrome tables and seats, the granite slab floor of a luxury hotel or retreat. McDonald’s had changed from its family-friendly aesthetic, simulating high-class adventures across the cosmopolitan upper crust. The playground was nowhere to be found, in its place a corporate meeting room; yet amidst the sleek modernist oeuvre lay a smattering of postmodern ruptures: pulsating digital screens playing non-stop advertisements of McDonald’s own products and services, gaudy billboards of sports taking up half the wall. There was a schizophrenic procession of images violently churning for attention: coffee flow, glistening burger, minimalist art piece (In the style of Gerhard Richter), highlander in mid-tackle (Jameson, 1991, pp. 4-6, 26-27).
McDonald’s had constructed a contradictory terrain, a space of multiple subject-positions, from up-class, stiff modernist to eclectic, exhausted postmodernist (Hall, 1991, pp. 21-23; Jameson, 1991, pp. 1, 6, 9-10; Sarup, 1996, p. 132). Both, however, had displaced the earlier family subject-position, which had been constructed through a simple and bright, plastic-pop aesthetic. The modernist architecture interpellated one through am older sort of cultural capital, an acquaintance with corporate buildings and hotels, or perhaps, a history of architectural form. One was classy, respectable and powerful (Jameson, 1991, p. 4). The postmodern elements, however, interpellated one through high-tech youth—from the distracted, distractable teen to the tech-savvy start-up: multiple and fragmented, manic and apathetic, gazing and glazing over (Jameson, 1991, pp. 9-10). These new subject-positions differed from the prior in that they addressed one as an individual, rather than a family.
History is not so easily lost, however, even in this schizophrenic space; it leaves traces with every shift in the brand, layers of contradictory styles that flow and ebb. On closer inspection one finds that the family hasn’t disappeared, but rather, shifted elsewhere. Across McDonald’s multiple advertisements the family emerges not as subject but object—a social unit beyond the restaurant’s premise. The family is signified through billboards and videos of sports, children and cheering crowds, a collapse of the national kiwi myth with that of community belonging (Hall, 1991, pp. 21-22; Sarup, 1996, pp. 130-131, 133-135). No longer is the familial subject-position a necessary construction within McDonald’s, for actual families are having too much fun outside to ever arrive at McDonald’s. With McDonald’s as humanitarian provider (a percentage of our proceeds go to charity), the family becomes the ideological ends to every market transaction within the premise (Zizek, 2009, pp. 53-54, 59).
A further video was looping in the corner that was properly apocalyptic in tone. Against a backdrop of crumbling concrete buildings, the video stated culture was a wasteland of hyperconsumerism—that culture was ideology. However, by the end of it an overexposed sun had replaced the desolate cityscape to gleam upon a grassy field where smiling families gathered, supposedly, for some local community event. The video reconfirmed the position of those earlier community sports advertisements; McDonald’s as a restorative/regenerative force to the ailing family unit (Hall, 1991, pp. 26-27; Zizek, 2009, pp. 53-54, 56-57). The video’s outline of the postmodern condition of late-stage capitalism (the fragmentation of the local by the global) existed so that it could present the solution and anodyne to it (the revitalisation of the local by the global) (Hall, 1991, pp. 28-29). Its message was simple: McDonald’s would save us from alienation and bring us back to the real.
There is a painful, self-aware irony to this tactic. Neither hyperconsumerism, nor the imperialism that brought the western bourgeois family to Aotearoa, is troubled. While global forces are implicated in generating our atrophied social condition, McDonald’s cannot dare directly blame nor reject these global forces, itself being one of the biggest. Thus, already present global trajectories are renarrativised as ethical against a backdrop of local desolation. The solution to hyperconsumerism then, is not to slow down nor construct alternative forms of exchange, but rather, to direct our consumptive (dis)affective flows toward McDonald’s, which, as a nexus of ethical investment, will pay it forward to all those families out there—the families global forces (barring itself) have ruined (Zizek, 2009, pp. 53-54). The vital energy and resistance of grassroots organisations is recuperated through a corporate fantasy of imperialist, paternalistic nostalgia (Hall, 1991, pp. 31-33). McDonald’s contains the global-local dialectic by collapsing both global and local identities into its brand image, and thus becoming a simulation of resistance that fights for an identity already destroyed and rebirthed as pure sign (Baudrillard, 2008, pp. 25-28). McDonald’s as brand is reified into a liberal-humanitarian force of good will—a totalising, idealist form, working for all in a seamless merger of the globe. The local becomes an instance of a global model, its resistant energies reabsorbed as pseudo-individualist configurations of the self-same commodity form—the Angus Burger, the Kiwi Burger, ad infinitum (Baudrillard, 2008, p. 27; Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, pp. 124-125).
The Anonymous Public and the Consumption of the Void
While ideological analyses are all well and good, McDonald’s self-presentation appeared of little consequence to its actual customers, who seemed mostly lost in their own worlds. Of greatest effect was the layout of the building, for the wide glass doors allowed a flow of traffic without stop. However, rather than a rush, a certain lethargy permeated the space. Customers slunk in, slumped against walls, stared blankly into their cellphone screens; some spoke in groups, others shouted across tables; some blinked vacantly at the community billboards, or at the table they were sitting at; others slept, wandered back and forth, in and out the sweeping glass doors. There were tattooed punks, elderly couples, exchange students; there were kids and teenagers straight out of school. Skaters, drunks and the homeless gathered outside, smoking cigarettes, failing kick-flips and swearing.
It was a space of drifters and lingerers, of turnover and hour long peruses of nothing, of time killed between this or that stop; a place of shelter and warmth. Like the American diner of hyperreality (paintings, photos and television screens), it acted as a pitstop, a site of indefinite passing, of terminal rest until the next drive out, the next destination towards—where?—somewhere else (Ritzer, 2013, p. 75). Chairs without backing, no place to hang one’s coat; a sprawl of school bags, hiker bags, fashion bags. While Ritzer’s (2013, p. 57) analysis of McDonald’s as a site of thorough rationalisation remains apt in many regards—McDonald’s conveyor belt efficiency, its seamless flow of instrumental operations—this rationalisation did not conquer its customers bodily hexeis as drastically as Ritzer’s portrayal suggested.
If anything, McDonald’s felt more anarchic than bureaucratic. Not once did I see anyone kicked out, regardless of what they were doing. The first time I went, I didn’t order anything and was left to my own devices for an hour. Nobody disturbed me, not the other patrons, nor the staff. The second time, I took pictures of its interior. I dropped my phone. It clattered loudly on the ground. Nobody cared. Nobody looked. Surrounded by all these cultural texts that constitute this or that subject position, none of it seemed to matter, for I was allowed to inhabit whatever role I desired, as long as I didn’t disturb anyone else. What McDonald’s constituted was not so much a single habitus then, but rather, a platform for any bodily hexis to be performed. One brought one’s own hexis (from whatever social field), and as long as it remained privately contained around one’s publicly open table, it was allowed. Free of the exclusionary, bourgeois habitus of other more refined cafes and restaurants, McDonald’s constituted a social space without the demand for sociability; democracy without the demand for exchange; an open, anonymous, public stage, where one could perform without being judged. McDonald’s acted as the quilting point of multiple identities—a multicultural nexus that united divergent lines, for a brief moment, but a moment nonetheless. As with its customisable meals, everyone could have their own unique, individual experience.
McDonald’s then, despite its claims towards addressing alienation in its billboards and videos, is the site of alienation par excellence, but one its participants chose to enter themselves. Yes, yes, we’re helping reconnect families to the social, now give me my damn burger and leave me alone. Where other restaurants offer connection, McDonald’s offers disconnection, but a collective disconnection—a solidarity of isolation. I can see you’re alienated, but I’m alienated too. One is mutually supported, by the many other individuals and groups, who completely ignore one another, to everyone’s benefit. One is allowed to be alone, to disengage, to not enjoy the otherwise enforced sociability of the typical restaurant-cafe. McDonald’s relies on there being no formal or singular habitus, for to constitute one would be the death of its most valuable asset—a place of permissible alienation. Am I a failure? Adrift in a directionless void? Alone in a corporate nightmare? Oh, nobody cares. 🙂
This isn’t to say that there is no social field, however, its logic is one of strategic disengagement, performative evasion, asocial ecstasy—the desolation of dialectical exchange (Baudrillard, 2008, pp. 25-28). Capital, in its typical Bourdieuan sense, becomes worthless in a space that exists outside of competition, that destroys competition through absolute ego-death. If narcissism exists to fix the Other’s gaze, to prove to the Other one’s excellence (through the consumption of prestigious commodities), then we have gone beyond it—we have entered the ecstasy of narcissism, a multiplicative turning of the ego upon itself to the point of erasing the Self-Other dialectic, and thus, of erasing itself (Baudrillard, 2008, pp. 25-28).
Alienation par excellence: McDonald’s solution to the wasteland of hyperconsumerism is consumption utterly devoid of social and sign value, consumption that signifies nothing, and thus, truly, returns us to the real of boring, material need (Baudrillard, 1990b, 46). One frequents McDonald’s not to affirm this or that identity, but to escape identity altogether and the panoptic judgement identity entails. Perhaps alienation is the wrong word to use, for alienation presupposes an essential self to return to—to reclaim as one’s own (Jameson, 1991, p. 12). McDonald’s is much more nihilistic for it never supposes a self at all (Jameson, 1991, p. 15). There is simply the burger, the soda, the fries, and the fantasy of an unalienated society plastered across its screens and walls that nobody cares about. One is finally free to stare blankly at one’s crotch for an hour, to reject the call for sociability, engagement and exchange, to eat the bland burger without signifying this or that capital, and thus, to pass out of social existence.
McDonald’s and the Precession of the Market
Across both texts and habitus, the spectre of the social recurs through both local family unit and global cosmopolitan individual. Here we see two contradictory myths at play: that of a fascistic return to the pre-modern European family, and that of a techno-utopian acceleration towards a cosmopolitan global citizenry. What is at play is a dialectic between the modern and the postmodern, stability and flux. What unites these contradictory narratives is McDonald’s itself. It does so in two ways: i) by collapsing both the local and the global into its brand image, and ii) by constituting the public as a libertarian space of passing (and thus disavowing the public, for a public requires dialogic exchange). In both cases, the social remains a spook, a fickle haunt that compels us into nostalgia and reverie—a past that never arrived and a future yet to come.
What is so troubling about McDonald’s depiction of the family is that it utilises the rhetoric of the grassroots to support the continuing imperialist project of western capitalism and the bourgeois family. As with the British colonisers who came before, McDonald’s constitutes a national myth through its collapsing of the family with sports, nationhood and capital (Sarup, 1996, pp. 130-131, 133-135). Alternative forms of family organisation are lost beneath the fascism of nostalgia and the epistemic violence wrought by imperialism. Furthermore, McDonald’s outlines the effect of postmodernism to provide itself as solution, disregarding the cause, for to reveal the cause (McDonald and other multinationals) would be to reveal the irrational tautology of the market. Thus, McDonald’s weaves a simple, yet, conceptually-challenging narrative, of itself as both global and local entity. By positioning itself alongside local community organisations, McDonald’s distances itself from its global role in exploitation, alienation and destruction. At the same time, McDonald’s accentuates its global expansionist regime, but as a regime of humanitarian benevolence. A particular colonial image of the local is used as the face of the global, to justify the global’s continuing encroachment on the local. Imperialism and globalisation are rendered innocuous and beneficial to the communities they conquered (Barthes, 1972, pp. 142-145).
While the asocial habitus of McDonald’s would appear autonomous from its surrounding cultural texts, there are connections to be made. Both rely on a sort of liberal multiculturalism, an ethics of tolerance that distances the Other, even as it attempts to close this gap. One is accepted into society as long as one’s contestation of the status quo remains completely withdrawn into the private sphere. From the diversity of subjects residing in McDonald’s, one gets the sense of a cosmopolitan global village, but one predicated on isolation and autonomy, for while McDonald’s paints itself as a nexus of social change, this change arises, not through community engagements, but economic transactions. One of the most private, individual acts becomes the means toward a resurgent social (always somewhere over there). Both McDonald’s and its customers then, do share a certain master subject-position: that of Homo economicus, a social effect retroactively posited as immutable cause. In this precession of the simulacra, the market comes to precede the social, and thus, revision all social interactions as modelled after economic transactions (Baudrillard, 1981, pp. 1-2). The anarchic atmosphere I’d felt in McDonald’s then, was not that of the workers’ council, but the libertarian market.
But to close things off: why this desire for disengagement? This ravenous appetite for alienation, fragmentation or anomie? I was there for a mere hour, but hundreds frequented the premise. Perhaps it is because everywhere one looks there is the call for a public, or at least, a simulation of one; and every time one arrives, one realises the failure and artifice of such claims (Baudrillard 1981, 78-86). Where is the social in McDonald’s? Elsewhere, and that is precisely its attraction; there is no lie claiming otherwise that the premise itself—the concrete manifestation on George Street—will actually solve anything. Drift or linger—it makes no difference. Beyond its imperialist ideology, there is one resonating truth: McDonald’s as a grand anti-public, a place where discourse is permitted die. Perhaps by the time one reaches McDonald’s, there is nothing left to talk about; one can finally revel in the great nothingness of oneself, in the great nothingness of everything surrounding oneself, in the façade of democracy. Perhaps, in the dim murmurings of passing patrons, saints and devils, one finally realises the pointlessness of one’s despairs and joys, and thinks of nothing more but future trips to McDonald’s and the present receding into nothingness.
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