Getting at the (Quad-) Core: “MAD #515”

[26 April 2012]

By shathley Q

Oddly, with this issue of MAD, it’s the paraphernalia that gets to me first. Don’t mistake this for some backslide away the centerpiece of the issue, the actual eight-page feature of the “50 Worst Things About America”. The issue’s centerpiece is as bitingly humorous and flat-out “idiotical” (the title of MAD’s blog, snicker…) as anything the magazine’s Usual Gang of Idiots has put out. To wit: Thing #37, “Traffic cameras that issue violations—leave it to government to co-opt technology developed for roller coaster photo booths and turn it into something sinister”. Or Thing #26: “Black Friday: because nothing ushers in the Christmas season like gouging out a stranger’s eyes over a $10 waffle maker”. Or Thing #18: “Our deteriorating sense of national unity. Specifically the fact that in one part of the country it’s called a hero sandwich, in a another a hoagie, elsewhere, a grinder, and in others yet, a submarine, poor boy or torpedo. A house divided cannot stand!”

Just reading the “50 Worst” is the beginning of an older feeling. Like the Hope and the Change that was a thematic of the previous election has finally come to pass. That the parochial forms of patriotism that took hold since about 2003, those forms of patriotism that marked dissent as disloyalty to the idea of America, have finally and convincingly been erased from the popular imagination. Just reading the “50 Worst”, it feels exactly like that. And what’s more, the “50 Worst” do honest and caring work in getting you thinking about The Gap, that great chasm between our idealized expectations of ourselves, and our rational acceptance of our day-to-day lives. And that, is the perfect theme for the summer—our pursuit of our better selves, in the face of a simple repose from our days-to-day.

The centerpiece is great, and it’s time well-spent, and it’s probably the most accessible part of the mag. So it’s most likely, if you’re the kind of person who walks around with MAD in your back pocket, that it’s the “50 Worst” you’ll read when you unfold it and read it again. But the full magazine itself is on a far grander scale than the “50 Worst”. MAD #515 is a great and sublime carnival, with the sideshows ever more interesting, and every bit as interesting as what’s playing in the Big Top.

One of the more elegant circuits through the Show, and one of the pathways that seems to strike up my imagination is an evolution of what Jonathan Rabin once referred to as “surveillance culture”. There’s a caveat here, playing out now at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It’s not the classic “surveillance culture” that Rabin had in mind when he first conceived of the idea. Or at least, it no longer is that original notion. What we encounter instead is a kind of “perpetual self-surveillance”.

One of the highlights in this regard is one of the FAQs from the feature “FAQs About Google’s New Privacy Policy”. It’s one of the more purely-funny-honestly-laugh-out-loud moments of this issue. “What should I expect to see change as a result of this?: Nothing at first. The whole point is that you won’t even notice the changes. Then we can quietly collect all your information and slowly take over the world. But in five years when your microwave won’t let you heat up a burrito until you’ve watched a holographic trailer for The Expendables 4, maybe then you’ll start to piece together how things went wrong”.

With self-surveillance, there’s action on both sides of the traditional surveillance equation. On the one side, the organizational architecture has gotten more pervasive, and more monolithic. Google is everywhere. But so is Apple, and unsurprisingly so is Government. The idea of monolithic, corporations acting on a global scale, and acting in the singular absence of other corporations, like the scenario with United Mining Companies in Stephen Donaldson’s dystopian space opera The Gap Series no longer seems entirely so farfetched. Neither, in fact, does the idea of corporate dynasties like the Tessier-Ashpools from Bill Gibson’s original Neuromancer trilogy.

Maybe the perfect symbol for this is the neatly-executed parody of the Apple logo on the Siri/iPhone 4s parody ads. Rather than the familiar Apple logo, where a small bite has been taken from the top left quadrant, this parody logo shows two giant bites on either side, so that only a thin core is left. The three parody ads that appear in this issue build to a silent, irrefutable logic in a very similar way. The ads move from the overworked factory employee, through the employee exposed to hazardous work conditions, through to the monolithic company that now needs to spin its new image as corporate behemoth.

Much has been made about the first ever retraction of a This American Life story, earlier this month. The original story, “Mr. Daisey Visits the Apple Factory”, dealt exactly with theater-performer Mike Daisey’s trip to the FoxConn plant in China, the same plant that produces iPhones and iPads. The tales were certainly horrific, but when evidence came to light that certain incidents and interactions were fictive fabrications on Daisey’s part, TAL producers felt a retraction was in order. Primarily, to ensure the shows reputation as a work of investigative journalism.

While the move by show’s producers was a principled stance, the parodies in MAD point to what Penn Jillette often refers to as “the lie that tells the greater truth” (a saying he attributes to his partner, Teller). Beyond the actual facts on the ground, and whether or not there was N-Hexane poisoning, or whether or not workers as young as 12 or 13 are being smuggled into factory employ, or whether or not armed guards observe factory grounds from watchtowers not at all unlike maximum security prisons… beyond the mere detail of accumulated fact, there is a broader truth that MAD has grasped at. And that is that, at the baseline, conditions are bad, they need to be modified, and that the idea of Apple as an underdog to Microsoft and PC-culture is no longer a culturally viable one.

On the other side of the equation, is the idea of a more loosely-defined, more liminal individual. If “self-surveillance” works, it works around a fulcrum of the traditional “self” being made more available to modes of surveillance. Google, as the “FAQs” underpin, is a choice. As is Apple, as is Siri.

The ideas in this issue are complex, but made easily accessible. There’s the idea of building selfhood in the traditional sense (that E*Trade baby ad is sublime!), and also building an exit strategy from selfhood. But there’s the more basic idea that whichever path you choose will, at least in our world, always be mitigated by technology. In this regard, the runaway star attraction of this issue is Peter Kuper’s “Spy Vs. Spy” in its usual Joke And Dagger Department.

I know Peter’s hinting at a more twenty-first century urban environment. But there’s something just pitch perfect about the color of the brickwork or maybe the rope, or maybe the metal scaffolding, or maybe the sketch-table and blueprints that brings to mind the Italian Renaissance and particularly Leonardo Da Vinci. Peter’s work on Joke And Dagger makes me feel warm, and safe, and better than when I began. It reminds me that there was an earlier time when technology threatened to engulf us. And when vast organizations and banking dynasties threatened to engulf us. And we somehow pulled through.

This issue of MAD #515 in hand, and its easy to realize that we’ve never been closer to some of the nightmare scenarios of Philip K. Dick. And it’s equally easy to realize that forewarned is forearmed, and that paranoia is no longer our only option.

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