To the editors:
So Bush's big issue in the campaign now is that Clinton's a baddie for protesting the Vietnam war, for not supporting our boys. Jesus Christ. Ever get the sinking feeling that you must fight every battle twice? That we are all subject to a kind of institutionalized amnesia that makes all progress forgettable, and therefore useless?
A comparatively minor, though still exasperating, example is the inclusion of my theater company's current show in the Heileman Brewing Company's "Ex Calendar" [Section Three, October 9]. We got stuck in this self-same advertisement four years ago, and as a result of our protest the Reader granted us ad space to give our point of view. The text of our ad was as follows:
"BIG MISTAKE. In Section 2 of the December 9 Reader a listing and publicity photo for Theater Oobleck's current show was placed in the 'Special Occasions Brought to You by Special Export Beer' advertisement without Theater Oobleck's knowledge or permission. VERY BAD. The Reader's policy of mentioning artists in display advertisements paid for by G. Heileman Brewing Company without those artists' consent is ludicrous and dumb and should be halted immediately. Corporate sponsorship sponsors nothing but corporate interests. Sincerely, Theater Oobleck."
I feel a little dorky having to transcribe these words four years of Bush later. I feel like I'm typing out some grotesque deja vu; one which seems to confirm Marx's cranky joke that all history's events occur twice, "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
Marx-quoting is my clumsy segue into bristling about commodity, commodification, and commodity fetishism. The latter refers to, if I've got this right, when the relations between people are themselves viewed as things, as objects of exchange. I like to think of our plays as a kind of People-Relating, but the identification of the play with a specific product gets me to wondering if we're, hmmm, twist-off or zip-lock. Now, I'm aware that the plays we produce are themselves commodities. But we attempt to reduce their status as such: people do not have to pay to see our shows; we try to create a sense of personal ownership on the part of each "producer"; on occasion we have freely employed plagiarism in an attempt to break down the boundaries of ownership. But all such menial efforts to avoid commodification get wiped out when one's name appears above the image of one of Special Export's trompe l'oeil bottle tops, which are planted strategically around the ad like rubber stamps sanctioning the activities described therein.
Commodity fetishism seems more ingrained than ever, as personal identity becomes increasingly tied to things-for-sale. It's crazy: I find myself oddly invested in what athletic shoe Magic Johnson will endorse this season. Erich Fromm, talking about Coke, said: "We drink labels." Now it seems that the labels drink us.
Heileman's Special Export is making its effort to tie itself to personal identity: it's currently waging an ad campaign that seems designed to emphasize the product's "hipness" . . . that it is "Just different from the rest." The ExCalendar seems to be a direct extension of this effort, with an emphasis on what are perceived as "hip" activities, much of it stationed within a paint-balloon's throw of Heileman's Wicker Park "Ex Biker" billboard. We do not participate in bolstering Heileman's hipster credentials.
Things do change in four years. In a sense, the admakers seem to have responded to our old complaint. The text of the ad no longer says the events are "brought to you by. . . . " The implication that the brewmasters are actually providing financial support is thereby largely eliminated. But now there's a blurb that says, "Got an ExIdea for the calendar? Send it to ExCalendar. . . . " Which is all well and good, but then why don't you just list those people with the ExIdeas? Listing others implies that they have actively sought to participate.
A side issue, but one of some significance to people trying to find our show, is that your ad writer lists our performance for October 19. We open October 23. When we canceled our show originally scheduled for the 19th, we called the Reader listings staff to let them know. We did not bother to contact your advertising department, Heileman Brewing, or Anheuser-Busch. We had no idea they would be interested. Unfortunately, their interests extend farther than we can imagine.