Monday, December 22, 2008

Starbucks, Apple, and AIDS

Okay, so I never got around to writing a post on the election, and my reasons for not voting. But I have wanted to lay out some thoughts bouncing around in my head for the past month.

At the beginning of the month Starbucks participated in the effort to aid World AIDS relief by contributing 5 cents for every specialty drink ordered. On December 1, you could get your coffee and help a great cause as well. At least, that was how it was marketed. Starbucks expanded their advertising for the promotion to facebook, which of course allowed for numerous comments on the event's “wall.” The comments were pretty evenly split between people saying, “greedy Starbucks, 5 cents is hardly anything!” and others saying, “Great! I can get Starbucks and help a good cause!”

My first reaction was to echo the thoughts of the former group, as 5 cents really isn’t much at all. Plus, the event was intended to increase the consumer presence in each national Starbucks, thus actually boosting profits for the day. In short, Starbucks was not sacrificing anything to give 5 cents to AIDS relief per drink, and probably made out better than a typical day.

But all that aside, I began to think about the premise behind Starbucks’ “participation” in AIDS relief. I was particularly struck by a comment a person made on the facebook event. This young man voiced his disdain for Starbucks coffee, but then said, “Besides, I’m already doing my part to help AIDS relief by buying the Apple RED iPod.”

...Did you catch that? “I’m doing my part by buying the Apple RED iPod.”

Jean Baudrillard wrote of what he called the “simulacra.” He utilizes this concept to analyze, in particular, the democratic United States. I would not pretend to understand all that he intimates with this term, but the basic idea is that the simulacra is the copy without an original. It is pure simulation that stands in the place of reality, but to which no reality corresponds. The simulation becomes our reality. Baudrillard suggests that the simulacra is basically how we Americans experience all life. For example, the way we experience a football game is the same way we experience the Civil War; through the television. Or the way we experience the Iraq war is through the media, which is of course a particular narration/simulation of reality that has become the reality of the war as we experience and know it. All of it is simulation. The entirety of our lives is formed by the simulation, the simulacra.

What Baudrillard also observed is the way that simulacra renders citizens immobile. It thwarts social action. It does so by absorbing our activity into the proliferation of images and simulations that shape our bodies. With this in mind, reflect again on Starbucks mode of participation in AIDS relief: buy our coffee. Even more direct, slowly read what Apple says on its site about the RED iPod. “Since its introduction, (PRODUCT) RED has delivered over $100 million to the Global Fund. And now you can make an impact by purchasing (PRODUCT) RED.”

I find this absolutely remarkable, and really quite genius. Participation in AIDS relief is tied to buying an iPod. You participate by consuming. Thus, both Apple and Starbucks have found a way to simulate participation in AIDS relief by reinforcing the shaping of our bodies in practices of consumption. Therefore, simulacra ensures that we will continue to find ourselves trapped between processes of consumption and production, buffeting the continued success of capitalism, and the commodification of the entirety of our lives. I can now be “involved” in AIDS relief without leaving my home, without going abroad, without touching people, without moving outside of habits of consumption. My involvement in AIDS relief is clicking a button on the computer to purchase the RED iPod. Remarkable.

Like I said, I find this ingenious. Our reality is the simulation of involvement, and it is tied to consumerism. American capitalism has in part contributed to the poverty of nations in which AIDS is running rampant. But now capitalism is employed as the way to end AIDS. It is self-reinforcing. And global capitalism has the incredible ability to absorb all of life into itself. This AIDS event is merely another manifestation of capitalism’s ability to enact this absorption. I do think a critique needs to be brought against all of this, in order for our bodies to be freed from being both commodified, and from commodifying. But that’s not my main purpose in writing this brief account. I find the complex connections here astounding, and I am merely giving voice to that. My social involvement in fighting AIDS is tied to purchasing an iPod…now that is amazing.

I hope to write a post soon in which I detail how voting can be/is often simulacra. In fact, voting in the democratic United States is one of the principal ways this state ensures its own survival, and the pacification of its citizens. I also would love to unfold how the office of President is a kind of simulacra, in a way that is not so for most other nation-states. But Christmas break is only so long…. :)


Lindsey Knol said...

This is brilliant...I never really thought about it like that before but it makes perfect sense. The rest I can't put into words, but this really made me think.

Brandon said...

I didn't know you still had this thing going Ben. Keep up the good work. I missed you while Jen was in town a couple weeks ago.