Yesterday I attended a reading group that was discussing selections from Adorno’s Minima Moralia. One passage that occuppied a considerable amount of our attention came from aphorism 134, on satire:
Irony’s medium, the difference between ideology and reality, has disappeared. The former resigns itself to confirmation of reality by its mere duplication. Irony used to say: such is claims to be, but such it is; today, however, the world, even in its most radical life, falls back on the argument that things are like this, a simple finding which coincides, for it, with thee good. There is not a crevice in the cliff of the established order into which the ironist might hook a fingernail.
The relevance of this passage to the Trump phenomenon seemed obvious to all of us, as he is proverbially immune to satire due to his overt and unapologetic grotesqueness.
Yet it seems to me that the problem is not just Trump, but a deeper problem in our cultural moment — one that is clearly on display in an alarming series of advertisements, which were already running well before the election. The basic premise is shared between two campaigns for separate companies, Overstock.com and Lexus (and as The Girlfriend points out, this likely indicates that an ad agency has sold the same campaign twice over, an act of transparent bad faith that fits with the cynical nihilism of the ads themselves). In each of the spots, parents are shown attempting to piggyback on their children’s letter to Santa in some way, in order to get what they, the parents, want for Christmas.
There are many variations, but for me this Lexus commercial is the ultimate realization of the theme, the furthest it can be taken:
We see the parents literally forging their child’s letter to Santa, including the details of his handwriting. When the son walks in, he turns on a dime and demands to be cut in. Ultimately, the happy family gets both their Lexus and a puppy. Other children are confused, and others are pressed into service and try to perform well to please their parents — including during high-pressure moments on Santa’s lap — and this lends an air of innocence and idealism to the very cynical premise. In this example, though, even that small veneer is ripped away, as the child is every bit as nihilistically opportunistic as his parents.
All of the spots reward careful study, but there is something exemplary in this Overstock version:
We see a child by the fire, laboriously writing his Christmas list in crayon. We get a brief flash of the list itself, including the suspicious “ottoman,” and the son asks his father how to spell the name of a certain brand of furniture. Dad starts to help, but then tells him to sound it out himself — and get a move on. My first reaction was to see this as a moment of cruelty, a variation on the common theme of the father who does not have time for his children even during the Christmas season. But reflection indicates that this is a strategic move — the letter will be more believable if it’s childishly misspelled. The only small moment of redemption is when the child collapses in frustration, as though he is impatient with his parents’ antics.
These ad campaigns condense the core corruptions of American society into easily digested 30-second chunks. Here we have the pure instrumentalization of children, most often for their parents’ class-aspirational goals (prestige items like cars and fancy furniture). We see parents manipulating their children’s naivety and desire to please for their own ends, which is presented as normal and natural. If this were a classic Christmas movie, the parents would get a lump of coal and learn a valuable lesson — but in this case, the openly selfish wishes are all granted, to the letter.
To return to Adorno, we no longer have the sentimental reference to the “true spirit of Christmas” that is being corrupted by commercialism. No, Christmas just is a site for acquisition and consumption, to be strategically manipulated like any other situation. In an earlier era, we might have expected the children, in their innocence, to push back against their parents’ acquisitiveneses, but now the closest we come is the child who demands his cut of the scheme. How could one satirize a culture that is telling this kind of story to itself? What ideals could possibly provide the leverage for judgment or critique?
And so, as in all things, we almost find ourselves wishing for the totalitarian demands of the “true spirit of Christmas,” a return to the saccharine sentimentality that served mostly to make us feel vaguely guilty and inadequate — because at least it was an ethos! Or more precisely: at least it provided some space for maneuver, some reference to a standard that wasn’t already by definition being actualized. Little did we realize that we would miss the tiny spark of hope that even the most brazen hypocrisy shelters, until it was too late and the full closure of nihilism snuffed it out altogether.