Good Company?, or, The Dream of a Non-Ephemeral Catalog (for “One Planet, One Humanity”)
Image: The 1680 Yale Center Panorama, from the British Printed Images to 1700 Website
If you want a throw-away magazine, Whole Earth [Catalog] is not for you. We publish a magazine that readers have hoarded, prowled inside of, stored in garages and cellars. – Peter Warshall (Whole Earth, Summer 1997)
Have you looked at the junk in one of those airline mail-order catalogs recently? Does the world really need a special tool for cutting bananas? – Yvon Chouinard, “The Responsible Economy” (Whole Enchilada 89)
1. Save This (Non-)Book
The contemporary consumer catalog seems the antithesis of everything “green,” everything to which the “One Planet, One Humanity” conference is dedicated. The print catalog is the ultimate ephemeral object, cramming landfills with high-gloss calls to desire and consume. On the web, the boundaries between commercial catalogs and social media have grown disturbingly blurred, with shopping sites soliciting user reviews and photo-sharing media incorporating links to retail sites. And in both of its incarnations the catalog has become so visibly the advocate of conspicuous consumption that entire online memes are dedicated to mocking its excesses; the banana slicer that Chouinard targets is in fact the object of an entire internet meme. Of course, as the manufacturer of the banana slicer happily tweeted “Well, these hysterical reviews [on Amazon] certainly are creating more sales” (Know Your Meme). The capitalist media machine excels at recapitulating bad press into profits. If consumer resistance is futile, at least in the form of media gestures, is corporate resistance even imaginable? Some corporate entities seem to think so. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which began as a print publication in 1968, famously claims to promote alternative values, including the integration of nature and technology and
. . . the shift from hierarchy to heterarchy, which is still in progress worldwide. (‘Heterarchy’ was coined by early cybernetician Warren McCulloch at MIT to designate networked structures in which the center of control constantly moves to whatever is most relevant and useful; he was thinking of brain function.) (“We Are as Gods,” Fall 1968).
Originally designed to promote what is now called “maker” culture by recommending inexpensive “tools” that could be mail-ordered, The Whole Earth Catalog soon expanded to include reader-submitted materials, thus coming to resemble some early modern periodicals (in new media, content types have a fairly predictable cycle). It also made the move to electronic formats relatively early, thanks both to Brand’s involvement with the WELL and to sponsorship from Apple. While Brand is currently a divisive figure in environmentalist circles – he has endorsed nuclear “microreactors” and genetic and geo-modification as essential for human survival (see his TED talk from June 2009) – his use of mass media has consistently been utopian in vision and goals. Brant’s newer project, The Long Now Foundation, among other campaigns supports “genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species” (“Revive and Restore”) and “The Rosetta Project,” an attempt to archive “ALL Documented Human Languages.” However, the main function of the Long Now web site appears to be marketing memberships, which entitle users to access a TED-like system of live talks and digital archives. Typically, Brand has moved from selling a print “catalog” of tools and essays to monetizing a digital version of the same sort of curated collection.
Another countercultural figure currently engaged in a catalog war against environmental collapse is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who in the fall of 2013 celebrated the fortieth anniversary of his company by beginning “a two-year environmental campaign called The Responsible Economy” (Whole Enchilada 15). The campaign was announced in a special edition of the company’s print catalog, entitled “The Whole Enchilada,” perhaps in a nod to Brand’s publication. Chouinard has declared himself disenchanted with traditional political activism: “I’ve kind of given up on government, the idea that government is going to solve our problems . . . And so I’m trying to change corporations, and I’m trying to change consumers. Through our catalogs and through our various campaigns we educate our consumers” (treehugger.com, “The TH Interview: Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia (Part Two),” 2008). “The Whole Enchilada” is an extreme example of what distinguishes Patagonia catalogs from ephemera: its use of dramatic, high-quality nature photography and essays (the web site adds videos to the mix), which make the catalog hard to throw away. The visual images feature intense customer-submitted scenes of climbing, surfing, extreme skiing, and trail running, adding to the overall sense of dedication and seriousness. However, the main ideological payload of The Whole Enchilada is carried by a set of essays that specifically target corporate growth as the problem to be solved:
It is the most ambitious and important endeavor we have ever undertaken. Our other environmental campaigns have addressed travesties such as the depletion of the oceans, pollution of water, and obstacles to migration paths for animals. But these are all symptoms of a far bigger problem; the Responsible Economy Campaign addresses the core. (WE 89)
While this campaign was formally announced in 2013, its thematics are clearly stated in the 2010 film 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless, which details Chouinard’s and Doug Tompkins’ purchase for preservation of undeveloped land in South America. The 180 of the title refers to an image that recurs in The Whole Enchilada: we are walking towards a cliff, and need to turn around. In the context of a company devoted from its beginnings to climbing, this image resonates strongly and synergistically, emphasizing the overall consistency of Patagonia’s rhetorical strategies.
Finally, a relative newcomer on the scene is Blake Mycoskie’s TOMS company, which matches customer purchases with donations to “communities in need around the world.” Now celebrating its eighth year, TOMS has branched out from its original product line, shoes, to include eyewear (customer purchases fund vision programs) and coffee (matched with “safe water solutions”). Having established itself primarily online, TOMS has just issued its first print catalog, entitled “Vagabond Journal.” This publication features snapshot-style photographs of the TOMS staff traveling and modeling the product line, as well as invitations to “Hang with us on Instagram” and “Explore our travel diary at TOMS.com/stories.” Like Chouinard, Mycoskie explicitly represents his company’s goal in terms of connecting capitalism and global responsibility, and both companies’ print and online catalogs minimize images of product while combining narrative text, “non commercial” photographic images, and the interpolation of customers through direct exhortations to action. Both companies also sponsor other, smaller producers they see as sharing their values. There are significant differences as well: representing a newer company designed to appeal to millenials, the TOMS catalogs seek to expand their media range by emphasizing the visual “languages” and devices of social media. While it has its own customer-oriented blog sites, Worn Wear and The Cleanest Line, Patagonia in its catalogs uses more traditional photo spreads (albeit submitted by or featuring “ambassadors” who appear to combine photographic talents with enviable lives of adventure). The company’s catalog also emphasizes its “old media” chops in the form of feature-length video and book publications. Whole Earth, meanwhile, is now entirely an online creation, and its somewhat cranky web site is oddly recursive, reprinting and extoling its own history and a selection of key articles (members are allowed to purchase an expanded selection of materials as PDFs.).
If one were to label these three approaches to ethical capitalist media, one could perhaps denote Brand’s primary mode as involving innovation, Chouinard’s as conservation, and Mycoskie’s as redistribution. Brand’s work with Jeff Bezos to build the “10,000 Year Clock,” Chouinard’s famous 2011 Black Friday “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign, and Mycoskie’s One for One program each serve as metonymies for these approaches. And although aspects overlap, each approach has its own primary rhetorical mode, in terms of both text and image. Compare these three examples:
Let’s call Brand’s style a grandiose form of technofetishism.
Patagonia tends to use the “big picture,” emphasizing natural beauty and human adventure.
Although Patagonia also has its version of user-centered media community, in the form of this blog, which continues to develop the image of its ideal customers as adventurers and pioneers:
And TOMS? Utopian meta-community, with membership contingent on purchases, and the company’s representatives doing the travel for us.
2. The Play’s the Thing
Such was the devilish mockery of these fraudulent bills that even quite normal adverts began to seem queer. – Gibson and Sterling, The Difference Engine 275
Have these different frameworks been, or could they be, effective in terms of their stated goals of transforming the future, reducing unfettered growth, and creating an economy of ethical consumption? Certainly Chouinard’s purchases of land and Mycoskie’s donations of shoes and funding for eye care can be seen as small but real contributions to ecology and social justice. Brand’s proposals to re-engineer extinct and endangered species are of more doubtful value, both because of their debated science (would a re-engineered passenger pigeon be a “real” specimen of its vanished kind or a chimerical vector for disease?) and because they partake of the more-is-better logic of the pure consumer catalog; one is tempted to compare the 10,000 clock, despite its gee-whiz charms, to the banana slicer. But I would like to put these more immediate practicalities aside in favor of a more theoretical question: to what degree do these “anti-catalog” projects function to subvert or deconstruct the whole discursive sphere of what Gibson and Sterling call “the sullen omnipresence of insistent words and images”? (DE 275).
Let’s start by comparing two images that bear at least a surface resemblance to each other:
This first is the above-mentioned “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, displayed not in its original setting but, ironically, as the “Ad of the Day” on the Ad Week web site. Essays in The Whole Enchilada make a point of acknowledging the problems inherent in a business decrying growth; as Rick Ridgeway puts it in the essay “The Elephant in the Room,” “we [at Patagonia] heard from some who charged us with a hypocritical use of reverse psychology” (91). The same essay goes on to point out, in its graphic and its text, that because “growth was overriding the incremental benefits from . . . new technologies,” “Technology will not save us.” (90-91). http://www.patagonia.com/us/patagonia.go?assetid=87970
The paradoxes of these statements and their mode of delivery, the web, take us back to the historical resonances I want to set in motion by comparing “Don’t Buy This Jacket” to this image, from 1641, at the web site British Printed Images to 1700 (bpi1700, for short):
This broadsheet is an example of the print equivalent of, let’s say, a blog: inexpensive and relatively direct to produce, since content creators could hire printers (who were also booksellers) to make the prints, which were then hawked on the streets. The visual images typically were drawn from the printer’s repository of existing engravings that could be adapted or simply appropriated, and which drew on tropes familiar to non- or barely-literate buyers. The relationship of the image to the text is thus illustrative in the same sense that the photograph of “This Jacket” in the Patagonia ad represents a “real” jacket: it is a double metonymy. Let me unpack hat “double” part: the catalog image of an object is already a metonymy, since after all the buyer will not receive the exact object of the photograph; but in the Patagonia “Don’t Buy” ad the jacket pictured represents not merely the whole range of similar objects but the entire consumer enterprise we are urged to shun. It becomes an anti-object, a barred presence. Similarly, the early modern audience for the “Sucklington faction” broadsheet surely knew that the image being marketed was not a true representation of a particular group; as Dr. Malcolm Jones, the resident expert for bpi1700, points out, the “fit” between image and text is clumsy at best. What the broadsheet does is force its immediate political object into the category represented by the image, that of the reckless and destructive “roaring boy.” It is an act of street theater, as subversive as the “devilish” false adverts that in The Difference Engine accompany and precipitate mass riots in an alternative-history steampunk 19th-century London. Of the three subjects of this essay, then, arguably Patagonia despite the acknowledged paradoxes of its anti-growth campaign is participating in a sort of theatrical usage of the mass media “public sphere”: a queering of the catalog that is potentially more radical than Stewart Brand’s techno-fetishism or even Blake Mycoskie’s utopian meta-community.
3. If We Try Real Hard There is Still Hope (WH graphic, pg 90)
Of these contemporary “catalogs,” Whole Earth has made the transition to an entirely online model, which fits its self-proclaimed identity/origin as “evaluation and access device” for ideas and mail-order “tools.” Patagonia has created the most diverse “footprint,” occupying multiple web sites, print catalogs, books, and videos (some of which are housed on external sites). And TOMS has made the jump from web-based to print media as it has become more successful. The pattern is encouraging, if only because it suggests a wide range of media engaging synergistically and creatively. Whether it is transformative or not remains to be seen.
The non-ephemeral print catalog and its web counterpart participate in a dual movement of twenty-first-century media: the print catalog as not a transparent content-delivery “device,” as Brand described the original print Whole Earth, but instead an intentional hybrid visual/text object, chosen for its aesthetic qualities of perdurance and sensual presence. As such it moves the idea of print away from the pre-modern authenticating dynamic identified by Derrida, which makes the written text a sort of fossilized “voice,” and towards a duality in which print defines itself against but in dialog with what Derrida calls “cybernetics”:
If the theory of cybernetics is by itself to oust all metaphysical concepts . . . which until recently served to separate the machine from man, it must conserve the notion of writing, trace, gramme [written mark], or grapheme, until its own historico-metaphysical character is also exposed. — “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,” Of Grammatology 9
The “permanent” print catalog is reimagined as a formal object authenticated not by its resemblance to speech but by its difference from immediacy and desire. At the same time the web catalog, with its ethos of consumer inclusion, potentially becomes less about the endlessly evolving network of desirable objects it features and more about the qualities those objects represent – it takes on the modality of Derridean speech in terms of authenticity and “presence,” as a site where one’s “likes” are exchanged like the signifying and divinely useless objects of gift culture. If one of the intangibles this kind of catalog promotes is the desire for that most intangible of gifts, conservation, perhaps there is indeed still hope. If we’re buying it . . .