29 December 2008

Black as the "new" white?

Oh, the short-term memory of global capital! In a strange (if not, perverse) twist, it seems that blackness is to be exploited, to be resignified, as the latest marker of super-elite status. In the blink of an avaricious eye, centuries of negative cultural framing and demonizing appear to be eclipsed - forgotten. And by an industry which otherwise so consistently privileges and promotes "whiteness" as the idealized signification of luxury and prestige (see Thurlow & Jaworski, 2009, p. 10-11; also Richard Dyer's well-know critique of "white").

Is this, I wonder, where the voracious culture industries are headed in their search for even newer capitals under the Obama-nation? A shameless aestheticization and commodification of blackness? Is this what they think social justice looks like? In the same way, perhaps, that HIV/AIDs is commercialized by (Product) Red's "call to action"? Or in the way that Bumble & Bumble have recently co-opted the language of political action for their latest range of hair styling products? Strike a blow for global health: shop with a red Amex card!

Anyway, speaking of credit cards, and on the theme of blackness, here are just two recent examples of what I mean.

Visa's latest gimmick is the "carbon graphite" Black Card . We are told that this is "not just another piece of plastic" but rather "the world's most prestigous" credit card which promises "limited membership, 24-hour concierge service, exclusive rewards program, luxury gifts". (Thanks, Jamie Moshin, for bringing this to my attention.) The whole idea of the "concierge" is such a telling one - especially given the racialized and classed histories of the waiters and the waited-upon. Having said which, some things don't change; true to the racialized histories of class inequality, this card is, we are reassured, "not for everyone".

Visa's online sales pitch: "For those who demand only the best of what life has to offer, the exclusive Visa Black Card is for you. The Black Card is not just another piece of plastic. Made with carbon graphite, it is the ultimate buying tool.The Black Card is not for everyone. In fact, it is available to only 1% of U.S. Residents to ensure the highest caliber of personal service is provided to every Cardmember."
There's also a copy of this commercial on YouTube - along with its husky, female voice-over. (So, a gendered production too. Of course.)

Then there's this unconscious (unconscionable?) little cultural production, an advertising campaign for Cunard's Queen Mary II, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria cruises:

What historically myopic - no doubt, White - person thought this one up? Did no-one at the high-paying ad agency notice the tasteless irony in their sloganized "Somewhere between contintents you feel something stirring and realize it's your soul"? Over the last few years, I have gathered together a pretty sizeable collection of luxury tourism adverts (most of them here online). Be rest assured, however, this one from Cunard is the only one - the only one - which features people of colour as the luxury travellers as opposed to the servants. In fact, one of the biggest deceits in many luxury tourism ads is that even the servants are White - as in this one here:

Yeh, right?! So, the White body too becomes resignified as an up-to-the-minute marker of prestige. The service is so luxurious, we are told, even the servants are White! The human geographies of cruise liners tell a very different story - these ships are what Ross Klein calls "sweatshops at sea" staffed almost entirely by the global poor. (See his book Cruise Ship Blues or his latest book Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas).

Oh, and if the online marketing for Visa's Black Card is to be believed, even the concierge's teeth are nice and white - that would be the same concierge service that is "designed to improve quality of life" and enables members "to focus on what is truly important" - er, like luxury shopping and stock-market trading?

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