Friday, April 28, 2017

So Woke

Two weeks ago, social media lit up in a fever dream of outrage. This time, because a corporation hijacked the imagery and aesthetics of resistance movements as part of a daft strategy to sell soft drink to millennials. Most disturbingly, Pepsi’s ad appropriated the imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement, ultimately trivialising police brutality, which continues to devastate black communities across the US. No doubt, as many activists have pointed out, the ad is racist as all hell – a kick in the face to anyone deeply committed to anti-racist and anti-police struggles – and deserves its mass condemnation. However I suspect that there’s another hidden, murkier reason that this ad got the left – particularly the white, woketivist left – into such a tizzy: because it draws attention to our own always-already co-opted, neutered gestures of resistance.

The ad itself is like an old Marxist professor’s dystopian nightmare: activist youth appear as soulless avatars of trendy-materialistic individualism, engaging in politically meaningless outbursts of dissent and self-empowerment. This is a world where our material manifestations of dissent – slogans, signs, marches – have become empty signifiers, devoid of content, and disconnected from any concrete struggle. It’s a world where the logics of branding and commerce are completely interwoven with all aspects of our daily lives, even our rebellions. And when we take an honest look at popular progressive actions – some of which have started to feel more like parties than protests – this world is not so dissimilar from our own.

Some of us on the progressive left earned our weekly wokeness badges by claiming we would boycott PepsiCo, even though that’s almost physically impossible. Such a boycott arguably embodies the kind of vapid activism that drove us all to such distress in the first place: it is the type of protest that’s flashy and public, where you can brand yourself as ‘doing something’ without committing to working towards substantial change. It’s been remarked that ‘protest is the new brunch’ for a newly outraged left that practices social activism by ‘gramming themselves wearing ethical paperclips and holding witty posters.’ In the individualised, entrepreneurial ethos of neoliberal capitalism, it appears that political participation has become part of our own self-realisation project.

I’d wager that, in part, the commercial struck such a severe nerve precisely because it (albeit unwittingly) called these kinds of shallow, self-serving protest actions into question. It conceptualised activism as a series of acts driven by self-gratification, rather than by genuinely altruistic impulses of philanthropy or social justice. Far from delivering an impact on political outcomes, emphasis is placed on what makes activists feel good, whether that be partying, wearing empowering tees, or consuming woke soft drink. Under magnification, many of our own acts of popular ‘protest’ seem as vacuous and stripped of meaning as Pepsi’s PR brain trust has unwittingly made them out to be.

That’s not to say that populist feel-good protests are bad or pointless, per se, but for all the self-righteous huff doing the rounds in progressive social media, it’s surprising and revealing that no one really wants to have a conversation about their effectiveness or political value. Or, what it means that the traditional boundary between ‘activist’ and ‘consumer’ has become so blurred that both identity categories can comfortably coexist. We like to think that brand and commodity culture is completely divorced from our genuine acts of humanitarianism, but as ads like Pepsi’s remind us, that’s simply no longer the case.

by Jeremy Poxon, Overland | Read more:
Image:Jordi Bernabeu Farrús / flickr
[ed. I'm not a fan of the term 'woke' and all it implies (judgement and moral superiority). See also: Are We Having Too Much Fun?]