Alienation, Authenticity, and the Analogous in Postmodern Capitalism, by May Olvera
In 1988, the Polaroid Corporation, a giant in the instant film industry, started falling into massive debt, declaring bankruptcy by 2001 (Deutsch, 2001). By 2008, they ceased production of their instant film and in an article published in Wired, the magazine stated, ‘this is one of those quiet moments in tech history marking the end of an era’ (Beschizza, 2008). Ten years later, Polaroid and other instant film companies have had a sort of re-birth despite living in a digital age, largely in thanks to millennials, which Pew Research Center (2018) describes as having been born between 1981 and 1996. Although the return to analogue aesthetics in photography could be described simply as nostalgia, it is substantially more than just that; rather, the deviation from the digital is an unorganized form of resistance against growing alienation in the postmodern digital age. The longing for gritty and imperfect images is a call for authenticity and stability in the face of a seemingly ever changing, hypercommodified world. This is most relevant to millennials as a generation that, in it’s coming of age, has been plagued by volatile economies and incredibly rapid social and technological change. However, because millennials function within postmodernity, resistance to alienation through the resurrection of commodifiable objects and aesthetics is futile. According to political theorist Fredric Jameson (1991), late capitalism and postmodernism are inherently linked and both maintain and shape each other (p. xxi). When critiquing postmodernism as the cultural component, the critique then naturally extends to capitalism as it’s economic counterpart and vice-versa. Therefore, it is impossible to resist one through the other. Nevertheless, millennial’s pursuit of authenticity in the analogue remains a genuine attempt to flee from the alienation of the digital.
In choosing analogous forms of photography, its intended rejection of postmodernity and capitalism is largely seen in instant cameras’ deviation from hyperreality. Hyperreality, a defining attribute of postmodernism, is characterized by an inability to distinguish between reality, simulations of reality, and their subsequent copies (Baudrillard, 1981). Martin Lister (1995) argues that changes in how the world is imaged result in changes in how the world is seen, consequently resulting in changes in how the world is known and, finally, changes in the identities of those who do the seeing and knowing (p. 4). Digital photography has aided capitalism in this particular way by facilitating modifications; through digital means, magazines can easily touch up models and celebrities to the point of perfection, commodify their simulated image, and mass distribute it to the point that people only know them as their modified selves. In contrast, analogue aesthetics are characterized by their unforgiving ruggedness and imperfections. Although the image itself is still only a snapshot of reality, it is based on a more authentic reality that is more difficult to alter. Conversely, because of the cold and detached essence of the hyperreal, the digital age is also particularly alienating. In its states of mass material and ideological reproduction, hyperreality does to human perceptions of existence what a political economy does to a workers relationship to his labour; according to Karl Marx (1844), ‘the worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power in size… The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things’ (p. 2). That’s to say, as the projections in hyperreality are replicated, an individual's relation to what is actually real is increasingly weakened, alienating them from their own essence and from other’s own perceived (and similarly diminishing) realities. Film cameras, on the other hand, produce a concrete product that is unable to be replicated at half the speed of the digital, consequently maintaining a higher organic value. Moreover, the specific relationship between instant cameras and estranged labour is even greater. Marx (1844) states that ‘the object that labour produces - labour’s product - confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer’ (p. 2). While digital photography hardly ever results in a material object and is most often uploaded to the simulatory world of the Internet, and more specifically social media, instant cameras immediately provide a photographer with the physical product of their labour, giving them a sense of realization and ownership of their work.
Because millennials were born into a time where postmodernism is the cultural dominant, they have been described as the quintessential postmodern generation (Berger 2017: 92); this is where an important duality arises between the characteristics of and the reactions to postmodernity. Arthur Berger (2017), a boomer academic critical of millennials, describes the generation as one ‘so caught up in pop culture and contemporary consumer culture,’ one that is inherently commercially driven (p. 92). However, if his assessment is true that millennials were born into postmodernism, then it could be said that the parent generation imposed - and continues to impose - the characteristics of commerciality and capitalism onto them. In effect, millennials have reacted to imposed postmodernity; the notion that millennials are indiscriminately accepting of capitalism is simply not true. In fact, they have been forced to react to the shared trauma of economic instability; years after the Great Recession in the United States, millennials were hit with the lowest employment rates since 1948. As a result, millennials expressed that they feel vulnerable as workers and don’t feel that they can get ahead in their careers (Pew Research Center, 2012). Simultaneously, the digital boom that began in the late 20th century massively accelerated as it entered the new millenium. Though it has been responsible for monumental advances in medicine, facilitating the spread of ideas, and creating a global community, this digital revolution has also hurt job stability. According to Dr. Charlotte Crofts (2008) who specializes in digital cinema and pervasive media, ‘in this era of mass consumption and ‘update’ culture, in which the rate of technological change is more rapid than ever before, our expertise is in danger of becoming out of date even before it is fully mastered’ (p. 7). Additionally, workers are constantly running the risk of losing their jobs to machines due to increasing automation. Though this is widely marketed as being aesthetically driven, it ultimately comes down to finances (Runkel, 2006, cited in Crofts, 2008, p. 4). Rejection to the digital aesthetic, then, is resistance to commodification. Inversely, attraction to analogue can be seen as a desire for a level of stability that most millennials were denied at the hands of digital revolution in late capitalism.
However, this passive resistance remains ineffective. While Baudrillard (1991) acknowledges that authentic reality has become the truest utopia in postmodernity, he states that this utopia is one that is no longer a possibility. He suggest-- nearly prophesizes-- that the era of hyperreality ‘will only be able to attempt to ‘artificially’ resurrect the ‘historical’ worlds of the past… all now empty of meaning and of their original essence, but hypnotic with retrospective truth’ (p. 310). This is perhaps best exemplified by Instagram-- the digital, social media equivalent of an instant film camera. He further diagnoses the period as one of ‘implosion’ rather than explosion and expansion, of striving - and failing - to give simulations the colors of the real. While Instagram and compatible editing apps have given users the ability to achieve an analogous aesthetic, it is devoid of any material product of the photographers labour. At the same time, Baudrillard’s assertions, when joined by Jameson’s claim of the innate marriage between capitalism and postmodernism, also suggest an inevitable roadblock in this embrace of the analogous.To quote columnist JoAnn Wypijewski:
‘There is no liberation movement that has not been meat for the absorptive power of capitalism. The youth movements, the black movement, the gay movement, the women’s movement, every freedom cry… has revealed the octopus-like nature of the system, its singular genius to grasp onto the new, the bold, the angry, and try to turn it into an ad, a product, a consumable pose or cover for its own crude business. That is the power and simultaneous pitfall of social liberation struggles under capitalism, and so the struggle is never finished.’
Even though this particular desire for liberation from the inauthentic does not manifest itself in an organized movement, it remains true that the alienating nature of capitalism makes it incredibly difficult to re-appropriate the essence of what was once genuine. Indeed, capitalists - which had once deemed the analogous obsolete - have now not only re-commodified its aesthetic, but consequently commodified the hunger for authenticity that made it newly profitable. According to Marx (1867), ‘a commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another’ (p. 1). Thus, the authenticity found in the analogous becomes alien, drained of all of its significance; it becomes something to be bought and sold. As a result, authenticity is sought out elsewhere, replicating the relationship between analogue and digital and replacing it with another, creating an endless feedback loop between the cultural and the economic.
The Polaroid Corporation’s initial decline in popularity and eventual halt in production did not mark the end of an era; rather, it was a natural progression in the inescapable postmodern feedback loop. As soon as instant film went out of style, its perceived authenticity slowly increased until it became a source of retrospective truth. Inevitably, it was re-commodified in the second analogous wave. Soon enough it will go out of style again only to rebuild its potential as a tool to break down alienation and the loop will continue. It is then unfair to reduce the drive toward the analogue to “nostalgia.” More accurately, the rejection of the digital is, paradoxically, a rejection of the postmodern and a result of postmodernism. Because postmodernism is so strongly entangled with late capitalism, it is not entirely surprising that a generation that has been plagued by economic hardships and the broken promises of a failed system is reacting in such a way. However, the struggle from alienation is impossible to realize so long as it continues to take place on a capitalist battleground. Until the economic and the cultural are both radically redefined, the past will remain both alluring and empty.
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