Since Zola, however, mental environmentalism has been stuck in a philosophical morass. To claim that advertising is metaphorically mental pollution is one thing, namely an easily dismissible rhetorical flourish. To say that advertising is literally a kind of pollution and that TV commercials and highway billboards are more closely related to toxic sludge than to speech is another matter entirely. And while mental environmentalists have always tried to make the latter argument, they have more often been forced to retreat to the former. Where is the evidence that advertising is a species of pollution? Isn’t it obvious that a corporate slogan is nothing but glorified, commercialized speech?
Into this difficult question has stepped one of the greatest living philosophers, the eccentric Michel Serres, who has written the inaugural philosophical work of the mental environmentalist movement. Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution? is a radical reconception of pollution that cements its primal relation to advertising. The big idea of this recently translated book is that animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim and appropriate territory through defiling it, and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution,” industrial chemicals, and finally to “soft pollution,” the many forms of advertising.
“Let us define two things and clearly distinguish them from one another,” Michel Serres writes, “first the hard [pollutants], and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquid gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writings, signs, images and logos flooding rural, civic, public and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin.”
Adbusters, courtesy the incomparable Wood s Lot
Not that I am not charmed by differentiation by packaging - one block of butter in a white wrapper bearing the word ja! in bold sans serif, another block of butter in a gold foil wrapper with Kerrygold in vaguely celtic lettering . . . Beers differentiated by proprietary glasses, by paper collars for the stem bearing the slogan of the beer . . . (Bitte, ein Bit! [Bitburger] Eine Perle der Natur [Krombacher] Eine Königin unter den Bieren [Warsteiner] and so on)
No, I am contemplating how much of the preparation of a book for publication seems to be a matter of marking territory. Have ordered this uplifting book to read on the plane.