Pop Friction: Fuck Yeah, I’m a Consumer

13 Dec

The Culture Industry and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)

I think most of us are familiar with the criticisms that often surround consumer culture: it’s really cultural homogeneity more than anything, the industry is manipulating consumer behavior, brands are just illusions of ‘taste’ created to cheat c0nsumers (blah blah). Mostly, these criticisms often resemble something along the lines of conspiracy theories. While it would be completely foolish to think that consumers are absolutely ‘free’, there is a lot more ‘power’ that popular consumers wield that critics belonging to the pessimistic camp would care to admit. By that, I mean to say that consumers do have some modicum of power in the sense that they get to negotiate their roles and positions as consumers, however first interpellated. Simply, we are not forced at gun point to buy/consume whatever and whenever the ‘social elites’ may fancy.

Popular culture is, as Stuart Hall notes, an ongoing everyday negotiation between the center of the elite culture and the culture of the periphery. For cultural critics like Theodor Adorno and Dwight Macdonald, “mass culture” fits a better description of popular culture in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. For them, popular culture is invariably shaped by the mode of cultural production – namely, the Fordian mode of mass production. It may be a little unfair to sum up Adorno’s concept of the “culture industry” within a paragraph, but if anything it goes like this: It is a popular culture controlled by the elites “whose economic control over society is the greatest” and who are more than happy to feed the masses with cultural “rubbish” for their own profit (Horkheimer and Adorno 39). All cultural products have essentially become horribly repetitive – “cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types” whose formulaic details are ultimately “interchangeable” (Horkheimer and Adorno 41). James Twitchell provides a sardonic account of Adorno’s argument,

“the manipulators, aka ‘the culture industry’, attempt to enlarge their own hegemony by establishing their ideological base in the hearts and pocketbooks of a weak and demoralized populace … [T]he masters of the industry and their henchmen, the media lords, are predators.” (273)

But what has this got to do with Tarantino’s film? Isn’t it mainly an exploration of American small-time crooks and gangsters on the periphery of the American society trying their best to master their own failed realities and to realize their own imagined ‘American dream’ (however unlawful these plans may be)? I mean, there’s Bruce Willis playing an old-timer of a boxer who wants to run away with the bribe paid to him by a match-fixing gang leader, a ‘Bonnie-and-Clyde’ couple robbing the American diner, and pair of trash-talking gangsters (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) realizing their own versions of romancing America. It’s supposed to be gangsta yo. Bitch be crazy, talking about Adorno and shit.

In a way, the gangster ‘spirit’ of Pulp Fiction lies in its commentary on the cultural lives of consumers. If critics or the social elites condemn consumers to their passive roles, Pulp Fiction is a film that tries to re-present and negotiate what it means to be an active consumer who doesn’t take shit from anybody, takes matters into his/her own hands and most importantly, isn’t all that powerless but is capable of mounting resistance from the periphery/Americana suburb. Pulp Fiction is as much a requiem as it is a re-evaluation of the ‘American dream’ from the perspectives of ‘outsiders’ in the American society.

That the film Pulp Fiction was marketed as “a film made by a film buff for film buffs” with a “collection of references to earlier movies” already highlights the consumer aspect of the cultural product. In other words, Tarantino is a film buff, he is a seasoned consumer taking up the role as a producer to make a product for other consumers much like himself. In other words, Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s way of ‘giving back’ to the consumer community of film buffs. This sounds suspiciously like what some theorists have suggested in their description of the “folk” dimension in popular culture. But more importantly, what this really emphasizes is that consumers can become producers themselves. Tarantino may not have gone to film school or other forms of ‘institutions’ in the film industry, but here he was, a film buff/consumer empowered as a film director/producer. Therefore, the boundaries between popular consumers and cultural producers are not as clear and intransigent as critics may sometimes reduced them to be. Here, it might be helpful then to consider the film’s interlocking narratives bleeding into one another as a way of highlighting the porous nature of the discursive lives of consumers and producers.

Also, if Pulp Fiction is a homage to its name-sake – the gritty pulp fictions of the ’50s – only a seasoned consumer would be able to make the most out of the references and allusions made in the film itself. In other words, how much meaning we are able to produce out of our semiotic consumption of the film depends on how ‘well-versed’ we are as consumers. There is a huge amount of references that resonate within Pulp Fiction itself, but perhaps, the most significant one lies in its metatextual commentary of its celebrity-cast:

Bruce Willis is seen to play a version of his Die Hard persona, Rosanna Arquette might be her character in After Hours, Harvey Keitel stages a domesticated reprise of his role in Nikita remake The Assassin, and John Travolta is the street boy dancer Tony Manero of Saturday Night Fever a few years on and a few pounds heavier. (Brooker and Brooker 230-1)

But these cinematic allusions would simply be lost if the consumer-audience is not ‘well-versed’ in the films circulating popular cinemas. Yet it should also be noted that these references are not mere repetitions but are each a repetition with a difference: they were “a series of warped repeats of several actors’ earlier roles” (Brooker and Brooker 230). These differences, highlighted earlier, are not merely “interchangeable”, and to reductively assume that would be proof that one is not atuned to the differences (however marginal) and does not produce meanings at the level of the seasoned film buff/consumer. Semiotic production here therefore is determined by the consumer’s semiotic consumption leading up to the consumption of Pulp Fiction. Simply put, the film celebrates and empowers the consumer rather than merely condeming him or her. In fact, it even goes as far as to suggest that to be a good producer, one needs to be a good consumer in the first place. 

In the schema of the ‘culture industry’, brands or brand-labels perhaps play the guilty part of constructing illusory differences in an otherwise state of homogeneity. Understood in this light, brands are therefore tools that the industry uses to pull the wool over the eyes of mass consumers. Of course, some of us have in our consumptive experience wondered why are we paying so much more for a particular brand of a product as compared to the other when both strucked us basically as the same thing in our hands. That’s when companies often hire smart-ass marketing consultants to ‘dream’ up brand differentiation and to construct images of their particular franchise, which would otherwise be lost in the sea of seemingly-similar products out there in the market. Pulp Fiction does not disavow the above perspective. Rather, the film expands upon it and uses the framework of such a view to insert its own ‘rebellious’ commentaries as well.

When we think of the term ‘brand America’, what often comes to mind is the fast food industry and the corresponding mecca that is America. Apart from the observation that the ubiquity of fast food globally reflects the cultural imperialism of America, the fast food industry represents the kind of Fordian mass production that American cultural processes has come to be understood popularly (what sociologist George Ritzer termed ‘McDonaldization’). Particularly in the Fordian mode of production, one would think that a burger would taste exactly the same as the next burger in line, that a Big Mac eaten in Boston would taste the same as one in Brussels, Belgrade or Beijing.  A burger’s just a burger, right? And a Big Mac is, well, just a Big Mac. However, in Pulp Fiction, consumption of fast food takes on a different bite.


It’s hard to think of outlandish gangsters as your everyday philosophers. But in Pulp Fiction, that is exactly what happens with Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta). In only the second sequence, Jules and Vincent sit in their car discussing the fast food industry, with Vincent explaining his observations made during his trip to Europe:

Vincent: But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that they got here. But it’s just there, it’s a little different.

Vincent: And in Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald’s. You know what they call a
Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Vincent: They got the metric system. They won’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it Royale with Cheese.
Jules: Royale with Cheese.
Vincent: That’s right.
Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Big Mac’s a Big Mac. But they call it Le Big Mac. (transcription and emphasis mine)

In an industry typified by its standardized mode of production, a burger should technically be just like any other burger. At least, it should taste like any other. Pulp Fiction however alerts both audiences and consumers that consumption does not occur merely at the material or literal level of something as banal as ‘taste’. Here, the film addresses the issue of semiotic consumption and the role that local consumers have in their negotiations with global producers such as McDonald’s. Even if the global brand of McDonald’s could insist on a standardization of taste, the franchise must acknowledge the power that the local consumers (French in this case) have. If it were truly that powerful an industrial producer and consumers were so passive as some critics of mass culture have suggested, then surely McDonald’s could have easily insisted on selling their Big Mac simply as ‘Big Mac’. As a cultural product, the burger is translated across linguistic and cultural borders, taking on different semantic and semiotic networks. The “little differences” here are therefore evidence of consumers’ modicum of power to negotiate and question the limitations interpellated of them.

In Adorno’s conception of the “culture industry”, there is an implicit assumption that the industry, or the producers, are a big homogeneous family made up of the social elites. What this perhaps translates to in terms of the fast food industry is the tacit suggestion that it doesn’t matter if it were McDonald’s, KFC or Wendy’s. They are all one big happy family of manipulators eager to maintain power over mass consumers, constructing differences to conceal their solidarity. This, however, gets questioned in Pulp Fiction. 

In what seems like a typical product-placement shot (above), the fictitious brand of ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ is playfully inserted. On one hand, the film seems to be immediately challenging the ossified line between the real and the ‘reel’. On the other hand, and this is perhaps the larger point, Pulp Fiction questions the ‘actual’ reality of a homogeneous band of producers in the case of the fast food industry. The ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ is not a typical fast food franchise, and it isn’t because it is merely fictitious.  Rather, it is because the brand is a ‘Hawaiian burger joint’ – a minority franchise in an industry dominated by its bigger white American cousins such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s.

Had the audience not have the cultural capital to recognize that the ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ brand was fiction, s/he would have simply glossed past the shot above and ‘condemned’ it to the domain of just-another-burger-joint. In this case, only if one was (perhaps an oxymoron here) a ‘fast food connoisseur’ or a ‘fast food buff’ would one be able to rescue that “little difference” put on display. Again, the film Pulp Ficiton teases the idea that consumers are merely passive and powerless. Here, only the consumer well-acquainted with fast food culture would be the most productive of the pool of audiences, semiotically speaking. If brands are truly mere fiction, Pulp Fiction was able to use fiction (in the ‘Big Kahuna Burger’ brand) to challenge the fiction of the “culture industry”.

All in all, Pulp Fiction dismisses the idea that consumers are like lambs to the slaughterhouse. If you ask me, it shakes down like this: Pulp Fiction is the gun held by film buff Quentin Tarantino, a consummate consumer, who understands the ‘rules’ of the industry and knows enough of it to fashion a tool for himself (as well as other consumers like him of course). Of course, there will be and has always had friction between consumers and producers. But that only shows that consumers are not merely powerless. The film Pulp Ficiton is like an overdose of cocaine shot up the nose of Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman): it awakens us to the possibilities and unfulfilled potentials of being a consummate consumer; it is a moment of clarity/epiphany that resuscitates us from the overdose of ‘reality’ as we think we know it.

“I say, goddamn.”

 

Works Cited

Brooker, Peter and Will Brooker. “Pulpmodernism: Tarantino’s Affirmative Action” Film Theory Vol. IV. Ed. Philip Simpson et al. London: Routledge, 2004. 229-241. Print.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” Cultural Sociology. Ed. Lyn Spillman. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 39-46. Print.

Twitchell, James B. Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. New York: Columbia University, 1999. Print.

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