This essay addresses a crucial object world of modern urban China, commodity advertising. It shows how attention to advertisements requires forceful wresting of images out of linear time. That the ads are themselves illustrations of linear time in popular narratives of modern history makes them complex. Plastered on billboards, placards, news kiosks, and trolleys; advertising Sun-Maid Raisins, Ford Model Ts, Pond's, Cutex products, cigarette brands, and Brunner Mond chemical fertilizer; and ubiquitous to all forms of media; the modern Chinese advertisement is a picture of and story about the industrially produced commodity and its explosive value to “society” as such. The evidence of advanced Chinese advertising markets in the interwar years 1919–37 allows contemporary historians to see “society” or “the social” as it was first theorized, the social as the sine qua non of modernity. Advertising objectifies the social. Thus while enlightened social theory in Chinese advertising markets is a phenomenon noted here in great detail, the point is that “society” underlies modernist theory as such. The discovery of the social in philosophy and in the dialectical advertising image in the interwar years offers up a possibility of critique. The central question historians can address and struggle over is What social formation does modern commodity culture support? The dialectical image is not referential, so it does not determine social forms. Rather, it proffers conditions in which possibilities perdure. If modern commodity culture supports restoration, then what sort of neotraditionalism appears in the social? If revolution, then what sorts of revolution?
Tani Barlow; Advertising Ephemera and the Angel of History. positions 1 February 2012; 20 (1): 111–158. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-1471396
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