iPhone Haiku and The Poetics of Scientific Representation

consumer crowds throng
news reports average Joes’
lines for new Apples

That’s my Apple iPhone haiku. I found another one here written by a consumer who said:

resist temptation
need corp email while mobile
i fear i am not strong

It’s interesting that consumers are writing poetry about their “temptation” by new technology. Everyone in the blogosphere and their sister is writing about the incredible lineups and excitement over the launch of the Apple iPhone. The identity projects, the life themes, the ramifications for our understanding of consumer culture are all fascinating. Why, it’s like another Phantom Menace/Star Woids thing. Another Halo 2. Another PS3….hey, wait, aren’t those the same people in line each time? But I’m not going to go there. Not today anyways.

Today, I’m going to use these blatantly poetic representations of consumer techno-desires to introduce a topic near and dear to my heart: representation in the sphere of marketing science. As marketers, we are constantly being asked to be innovative and creative. Yet marketing science uses a fairly limited set of tools to represent its findings.

As I’ve written about earlier, debates continue in the marketing world about what forms of reality should be presented as “science.” A part of this debate that is only beginning to heat up in marketing (although it has been going strong in anthropology and sociology) is the so-called “crisis” of representation. How should we represent the complexity of our “truths” to one another? Can emotional truths be conveyed scientifically, or must they necessarily be channeled into the realm of “Art”? Even the sub-field of CCT (Consumer Culture Theory) is split on this difficult question.

I want to begin with a citation from an article in JCR that I consider to be very important in this regard. The article was written by John Sherry and John Schouten (two of my favorite writers in the field) and published in 2002. I removed the citations for greater readability, but left all their other language intact.

To communicate the essence of some of our most meaningful consumer experiences, the precise, linear language of science and academia may be, in and of itself, unsuitable. Poetry redresses the “expressive inadequacy of prose” in our yearning to “represent an otherwise eluding clarity of experience”. What is called for may be what Maslow describes as “rhapsodic communication…a kind of emotional contagion in isomorphic parallel.” To clarify his meaning, he reverts to more poetic language, referring metaphorically to: “…a tuning fork (that) will set off a sympathetic piano wire across the room” . Perhaps emotional “truths” are best communicated emotionally. Perhaps we know certain things are true or valid because, like good poetry, they resonate within us and somehow expand and enrich our consciousness. The visceral impact of good poetry is undeniable.

Perhaps because of its paradoxical ability to communicate parsimoniously certain aspects of human experience, and to condense the polyvocal nature of that experience in such a manner that it threatens to explode with additional meanings upon every (re-) reading, poetry is elbowing its way out of its traditional place in narrowly read literary publications and into the realm of science. Even in such “hard-science” disciplines as medicine and mathematics education practitioners have discovered (or re-discovered) the power of poetry to deliver with economy what normal speech, scholarship, or pedagogy can do only with greater difficulty, if at all. Noting that such mainstream medical journals as Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Annals of Internal Medicine all publish original poetry, Forster describes instances where poetry by both physicians and patients “puts us in touch with the layer of feeling and meaning and sheer life that lies beneath the surface of our daily interactions.” Platt describes the case of a 70-year-old patient who, when asked by her doctor to describe her symptoms of hyperventilation, returned the following week with a poem that, according to the physician, described her experience “better than any doctor-patient interview ever could.” Similarly pragmatic, Curcio et al. invoke poetry in the teaching of mathematics. They observe that, “many poems — through rhythm, rhyme, story, and interesting word choices—evoke situations that engage children and can serve as a basis for mathematical problem solving.” This is because, as Graves (puts it, “numbers are always more than numbers,” implying that beneath a study of mathematics lie real people with real problems. Not too different, perhaps, from consumer behavior.

Imagine that we apprehend “reality”—which Nabakov believed to be one of the few words in the English language that should always be placed in quotation marks—as a layering of seeings, or tastings or touchings or hearings or smellings…or synaesthetic reverberations. If, like Oakeschott, we accept that the task of science is to accommodate disparate voices, and attend to the polyphony of science, then poetry is a viable vessel for the conveyance of research experiences. Science and poetry are kindred enterprises. For Frost, poetry is the pleasure of ulteriority. For Bourdieu, science is the revelation of that which is hidden. A common pursuit, undertaken in different keys. Perhaps former Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s belief that poetry makes “the interior life of one individual available to others” can serve as a rationale for the rapprochement of art and science in consumer research.

Poetic language as a part of science. Descriptions having the weight of abstractions. Resonance as a type of validity. What would this rapprochement look like? As a field, we’ve been experimenting tentatively with poetry. With incorporating visual research. With videography. With combinations of these methods. And some have been experimenting with alternative hybridized forms of writing. Over the next series of postings, I’m going to share some of my experimental writing in this area, and then return to discuss it and the role or resonant representations (a term Russ Belk and I used for our video-text hybrid special issues of the academic journal Consumption, Markets, and Culture) in the field of marketing and consumer research.

Burning Man Bravely Goes

Is Burning Man about to Flame Out? Has Burning Man really sold out? Far from it.

In past research I wrote about the comments I kept on hearing that hearkened back to a mythic “uncontaminated” time in the past past. In that nostalgic time, things were so much more authentic. The “true” “vision” was shared. It seems like so many things in our culture express this tension between a perfect mythic utopia and its commercial encroachment. Consumer discourse on many topics almost unerringly steers towards the idea that this or that has become “too commercial,” and is simply not the way it used to be, for example, holidays like Christmas and Easter, music or theater, pro or collegiate sports, religion itself, vacation destinations, children’s birthday parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and on and on.

I said that this vast range of topics demonstrate the much broader cultural discomfort with the commercialization of the things that matter to us, a feeling of being trapped and at the mercy of distant corporate actors who own the things that matter to us. Although communities did what they could to preserve the meaning, the sense that this really matters, consumers keep finding that sense of what is special drained away as they find more and more corporate and commercial incursions that feel disingenuous, manipulative and exploitative.

I actually wrote this originally about Star Trek’s culture (“Utopian Enterprise” Journal of Consumer Research 2001). But it holds up equally well for Burning Man.

We need to forget dichotomies and p(lural)urisms. In past work, I’ve drawn on Michel Foucault’s notion of a “heterotopia” to explain Burning Man. Foucault used the concept of heterotopia to refer to unsettling or non-ordinary social space, asserting that every culture contains places “which are something like a counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia” in which the world outside of that site is “simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” As developed by my friend scholar Graham St. John, heterotopias possess an aura of mystery or danger, and always contain multiple meanings for participants. Burning Man is less a perfectly unified utopia, with consistent management of communities and markets, as it is a messy, real world, experimental heterotopia.

The debate among Burning Man participants (“burners” as they’re oft-time called) is beginning to heat up over this. You can see some of it within these recent postings on tribe.net. There are many good points, as you’d expect with an educating and thoughtful group like Burning Man participants. I really like this posting by “Ms. Dynomite” a lot. On the tribe.net discussion board, she says:

“I feel like I’m the only person not shocked and appalled by this. For one thing, this isn’t really new news. Some of that info has been available to the public for some time now, such as the involvement of large companies in this year’s green theme. Also, much of what I’m seeing here feels like a reactionary Money Bad, Fire Pretty argument (or the Business Evil, Fire Pretty argument). The reality is that the event cannot be a large as it is and function successfully without operating as a business of some kind. “Business” and “commerce” are not inherently evil, destructive concepts. There are ways to operate in a smart manner without sacrificing humanity.

Burning Man has never been anti-capitalism. It is, instead, an attempt to ameliorate some of the social deficiencies of markets. And here, with its limiting of corporate power to manipulate, but maximizing of corporation’s powers to enact and bring positive change, Burning Man is attempting that experimental social amelioration once again. It is trying to inject some much-needed emotional, creative, and social heat into the corporate soul and into consumers’ relations with it. It is questioning this relationship, as it must, alongside the questions of how to consume and live within the limits imposed by our small and increasingly overloaded planet.

As my JCR article argues, Burning Man isn’t really about a fruitless quest to find a place outside of the market after all. Because there really isn’t a social place outside of social transactions. We trade, we create, we exchange, we live: they are all intertwined in our human beingness. There is no place outside the market in absolute terms. There are only relationships being managed. That’s exactly what Burning Man is doing this year. Managing those sticky relationship. In a more daring way than it has ever been done before.

I don’t know what the reception of Burning Man’s new set of rules is going to be by its community members. The impact seems to be among the more radicalized members of the community thus far.
I don’t know how corporations are going to take to having to display their products as literal commodities, and handing them over to the “artists” of Burning Man. That’s an uneasy compromise solution.

I don’t know how Burning Man’s playful “art” theme is going to try to handle a problem as complex as environmental degradation and devastation. Or what people are going to make of it at the event and afterwards.

But I do know this: it’s going to be a very interesting week.

Burning Man’s Sold Out!

Well of course it is. Every year the event sells out of tickets. But this year there’s lot of controversy over whether the event is selling out the values that have made it so attractive as a countercultural haven and hotspot.

Every year Burning Man has a guiding “theme” that organizes the event and directs some of its art. I find the themes to be a little inconsistent, but often they give rise to some very intriguing and beautiful moments. One of my favorites was the marine theme that gave rise to giant lit up whales and pirate ships roaming the playa. They’re like a physical cogitation of an idea or an issue. They turn the place dreamlike, and the dream has a common thread. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is about the environment. And in order to truly have a social impact—the Burning Man Organization’s goal has always been explicitly experimental and utopian—they have invited in a number of companies to demonstrate their advanced, clean technology.

The Burning Man community might have mixed feelings about letting corporations and venture capitalists promote their wares inside the sacrosanct city walls after keeping them out as “the enemy” for all these years. According to the recent Business2.0 article I cited yesterday, the organization pulled the initial invitation for corporate participants off the website after only a few days, replacing it with a revised version that explicitly stated that

“no marketing whatsoever would be allowed at the event. Clean-tech companies can exhibit their technologiers, but their products can’t display a logo. No marketing materials will be allowed. Company reps can’t even demonstrate their wares in the pavilion: they have to turn them over to Burning Man, which will demonstrate the technologies in whatever artistic form it chooses” (Taylor 2007, p. 69).

As Alice might say, interestinger and interestinger. It’s apparent that Burning Man is walking a fine line, and experimenting yet again. The current statement says that this year marks a “quantum revolution” (strong words) in how Burning Man applies in the real world what happens on its remote and carefully demarcated playa.

In my initial exploration of the topic, I noted how Burning Man sought to keep some of the negative effects of the market at bay. These negative effects have been present at least since Ferdinand Tönnies theorized that communities could come in two idea forms: the caring and sharing variety, and a more transaction-oriented, distanced form of relationship.

As I talk about elsewhere, what resistant groups like Burning Man, fans, Open Source programmers, Mountain Men, and many other groups resist is not the market itself, but what Tönnies calls the Gesellschaft, the distanced, corrosive, exploitative social relations that people associate with the market. What seems to be important is not the actuality of total resistance to markets—which may be pragmatically impossible to achieve in an absolute way—but the appearance of it, its partial achievement.

That’s why this new development is so interesting. Burning Man is, pardon the pun, playing with fire. It is seeking to control the corporate relationship. And its cultural impact and import is so strong that is dictating the terms. And getting away with it, it seems.

The reason for the thawing of relations is also noteworthy. In its never-ending quest to be experimental and to try out pragmatic social solutions, Burning Man’s organizers realize that the utopian daydream is also in many ways an environmental nightmare. It is through its renewed emphasis on Green that it finds itself reaching out to Corporate Gold–and their proposed solutions. It seems very probable that the organizers of Burning Man have been bitten by the same environmental bug that is spreading its way around the world. I love these recent blog posts by Future Boy (the guy who also wrote the Burning Man article) about an eight year deadline for radical change in our environment, and another one about Venture Capitalist John Doerr’s environmental awakening and new mission.

What shocked me just as much as allowing physical corporations in, however, was the semantic use of corporate speak, genuine MBA-style marketing lingo being spouted by the head honchos of Burning Man. I’ve been researching and writing about Burning Man with the permission of great people like Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jim Graham, Lee Gilmore, and Jess Bobier for almost a decade (my first burn was 1999). I have never heard them talk about Burning Man as a brand.

Ever.

In fact, a couple of years ago when I presented to the IEG Conference a little presentation called “What Marketers Need to Know About The Growing Anti-Consumption Movement: Illuminations from Burning Man” I was extremely careful to shy away from this topic. Burning Man is trademarked, yes, but it’s not a brand. We even got into a discussion about this topic, where I carefully avoided saying that Burning Man is a brand. Because it’s not. Um, it wasn’t.
But then I see Maid Marian in this Business2.0 article quoted as saying

“Branding’s important.”

What does this mean? Branding of Burning Man, the anti-brand brand? Is this going to be like the No Logo t-shirts, or the Black Spot Sneakers? Is it already like these hypocritical alt.brands? Can Burning Man now co-brand it’s anti-brands with big brands like Google to lend the, extra countercultural legitimacy and street cred?

It sure sounds like that’s what’s if you look at the sidebar in the article: Lessons from the Counterculture, which starts with a quip by Larry Harvey. The irony doesn’t quite make it into the page print:

“We like to joke that we may end up making money as business consultants.”

In print, this doesn’t sound very radical, countercultural, or utopian. Then the article proposes the Three Big Lessons from Burning Man. Are you ready for these?

  1. Give your “customers” as sense of ownership (what customers?).
  2. Let your “products” speak from themselves (what [products?).
  3. Launch and learn as you go (um, what grassroots or small business would this not apply to?).

Along the way to becoming a Business mag article, a lot of what makes Burning Man special seems to have been lost in translation.

And as my old friend Lee Gilmore brought to my attention with her terrific comment yesterday, maybe the branding emphasis is coming from the legal battle launched by John Law over ownership of the Burning Man trademark (Lee, did you really see me on TV? that’s some strange synchro…). Currently, it is owned by Harvey & Company’s LLC, but Law and others would like to see it released into the public domain. The story is covered thoroughly here. Call it what you want, but that’s very much a battle over a brand in my opinion. And that’s likely to sensitize everyone to the fact that the Burning Man symbol, name, and event have come to carry considerable cultural cachet, and have attached to them significant social and thus economic value.

Burning Man opening its doors to corporations. Burning Man offering product demonstrations. Burning Man emphasizing and protecting its “brand”.

Has Burning Man sold out? What do you think?