Looking through Coca-Cola: Global Icons and the Popular
April 2002: Plachimada, a quiet village in the Palakkad district (Kerala, South India), awoke to a fracas in the wee hours of the morning. A few irate villagers had blocked the tanker bringing water to the Coca-Cola plant. Their complaint: the coming of Coca-Cola to Plachimada had run wells dry, sending women householders on a three-to-four-kilometer-per-day trek to draw water (see fig. 1).
Soon an everyday object made its first appearance on the scene: a cheap bright colorful plastic pot made for carrying water safely over distances. Village women lined up on the road, pots tucked on hip, redistributing the water captured from Coke. There was talk of arrests, talk of escalating such spontaneous measures. But few thought these sporadic events would blossom into a full-scale agitation within weeks (see fig. 2).
For what began as a spontaneous protest that morning, soon gained momentum when a vigil outside the gates of the Coca-Cola factory in April 2002 became a daily matter. Mobilized as the Anti-Coca-Cola Struggle Committee, led by a
The empty plastic pots made a spectacular reappearance in 2005, when Coca- Cola filed a suit against the internationally renowned photographer Sharad Haksar (who runs his own advertising company) for what was perceived as a speech act against Coca-Cola.2 Haksar had memorialized the popular David-and-Goliath pot-and-bottle wars in a giant, twenty-by-thirty-foot billboard, evocatively titled “Thirsty,” in Chennai, 2004 (see fig. 4).
Claiming infringement of its trademark, Coca-Cola demanded an unconditional apology in lieu of damages worth 20 lakhs (US$46,000). Haksar refused, noting that he had put a disclaimer on his work. “What is depicted in my picture is a very common sight in Chennai, where the photograph was taken. I did not want to make any point against a particular company. It could have been Pepsi or Fanta and still my photograph would hold,” he argued. “I wanted to show the irony of the situation. When there is such acute water shortage, aerated drinks are freely available.”3 The photograph became a “problem” only after
There were many Plachimadas to come in India: Kala Dera (Rajasthan), Mehdiganj (Uttar Pradesh), and Gangaikondan (Tamil Nadu), to name only a few villages waging their own battles against the corporate giant. There are many Plachimadas all over the world — if one were to plug “Coke” and “protest” into YouTube, one would think that vilifying Coca-Cola was just as ubiquitous as the resplendent Spencerian Coca-Cola graphic splashed across the globe.4 Plachimada, hardly an isolated instance, is paradigmatic of a genre of contemporary new social movements all over the world, micro-scalar agitations against resource extraction gradually evolving/dispersing into sprawling global alliances — a global popular pressing ecological/environmental justice as a common horizon.
Such mobilizations (that work with, rather than against, the logic of democracy) urge us toward a capacious formulation of the popular. More often than not they shore up a historical agent not necessarily determined by its class character, even as the traditional Left (party cadre, trade unions, and student groups) acts in solidarity (rather than as vanguard). Certainly these contours animate my inquiries into Plachimada, but my primary focus is what makes possible the discursive articulation of “a people.” The popular, as I see it, requires “culture” — the performative deploying of symbols — for its very constitution. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, perusals of the popular rarely offer an accompanying theory of the media. If the popular relies on potent symbols as unifying signifiers, what media is best suited to this purpose?
I advance an answer on two fronts, historical and semiotic. First, I argue that we inhabit media cultures where the mass media play a significant role in the formation of the popular. Since we live in environments saturated with mass media flows, and we negotiate mass-media content every day, we need to think of mass media as raw semiotic material for popular culture. Far from producing social alienation, mass media is rife with potentialities for forging the popular. Mass-media icons, in particular, quotidian presences in every part of the world, provide a ready palette of signifiers for contemporary struggles against global institutions. Beyond these conditions of possibility is a second proposition: that, above all other signs, the icon activates a distinctive semiotic economy that lends itself to forging social bonds — to unifying a popular through signification.
Hence Coca-Cola: what better way to get at the popular but to examine those signifying practices that consume the “face” of deregulated capital? What better way than to look closely at icons as the runes in which we habitually glimpse the force of the people?5
We began with a singularly banal object. The charge of banality echoes critical dismissals of mass media from the mid-twentieth century onward, where we witness, to use William Mazzarella’s handy term, a globalizing of consumerism.6 We know that media flows are critical to restructuring regimes of global capital; beyond Fordism, in the dispersed production pattern that David Harvey names “flexible accumulation,” the media effectively create “needs” (via spectacle, fashion, the timed obsolescence of goods) to compensate for the overproduction of goods.7 As communications infrastructures evolve, with the vertiginous proliferation of media platforms as well as delivery technologies, iconic images move swiftly within mass-media networks “selling” the mantra of consumer choice as agency all over the world. Consequently, in the image cultures that underwrite this phase of financial expansionism, we see the emergence of a neoliberal ethos — arguably still the hegemonic aspiration even past the crashes of 2008.8 This ethos may well be coming to a bitter end; it is too early to tell. But in the heyday of post – Berlin Wall neoliberalism (and the triumph of Reaganomics), global icons habitually performed the cultural work of legitimating historically and culturally particular aspirations as widely shared “global” ones. Corporate logos such as Coca-Cola sold lifestyles possible in the postindustrial global North as universal standards desired by all, while public figures such as Mother Teresa encoded Christian charity as the universal form of the gift; these powerful signifiers thereby manufactured consent for financial and/or Christian missionary expansionism in a new world order. Such iconic images signify as “global” as they privilege a new universalism where neoliberalism seemed to have won the last war of ideas.
This is precisely why commodities of this sort have met with censure. As critics of contemporary globalization (such as Fredric Jameson and Harvey) have long argued, with late capital comes the ubiquitous rise of mass consumerism both in the flow of consumer goods across national borders and in the marketing of the “ideology of consumerism” anchoring the logic of capital in a striated world system.9 Mass media flows fundamental to selling “foreign” products in newly opened markets pose a threat to social relations, critics of globalizing consumerism argue; these deterritorialized commodities remove people from concrete lifeworlds, binding them more tightly, more securely, more fully, into global systems of exchange.
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I thank Swati Chattopadhyay, Bhaskar Sarkar, and members of the Subaltern-Popular Multi- Research Group (sponsored by the University of California system, 2005 – 8) for their engagement with my work on icons in popular culture; Lauren Berlant for her insights on the first draft and her encouragement to send this piece to Public Culture; Ernesto Laclau for his support of my first presentation of the piece (October 2008); Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar and the editorial collective of Public Culture for suggestions that have strengthened this essay; Stephen Twilley and Diane Grosse for guidance through the knotty process of soliciting permissions for the images; and Amit Srivastava, among so many others from nonprofit organizations, who have generously opened written and visual archives in solidarity with this piece.
- The term adivasi means “original inhabitants,” etymologically quite different from the official categories that register these indigenous groups as the Scheduled Tribes. One of the best elaborations on the term can be found in David Hardiman, The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- Haksar, who won the 2005 Silver Lion at Cannes, is well known for his stylized ads on fashion, jewelry, cuisine, and other consumer goods (see www.sharadhaksar.com).
- Haksar’s Coca-Cola and Nike photographs will be published in a book titled Brand Ironies, in which his photographs “relate advertising pieces to ground reality,” as he argued after the Coca-Cola lawsuit. See Haksar’s comments to Shobha Warrier (in Chennai, July 14, 2005): “Coke Loses Fizz over Photographer,” www.rediff.com, www.rediff.com/news/2005/jul/14coke.htm.
- The Spencerian script (a style prevalent in the United States from 1850 to 1925), penned by the inventor John Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, originated with the invention of Coca- Cola.
- In developing the practice of reading “runes,” I am indebted to Bhaskar Sarkar’s methodology in Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).
- See William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003).
- David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990).
- Giovanni Arrighi has argued for the constant and dynamic restructuring of financial capital as it gradually incorporates large swathes of the world, drawing insightful comparisons between four long systemic financial cycles (starting with the medieval Genoese financial expansion). These cycles, in Arrighi’s view (following Fernand Braudel), explain the “cycle” underlying the long twentieth century and gestures to what lies ahead. See Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994). Arrighi’s work outlines the financial expansionism accompanying what I refer to here as the “neoliberal ethos,” necessary for financial power to remain in the postindustrial global North even as manufacturing moves to the global South (as Harvey has argued in his oeuvre on flexible accumulation). See also Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity.
- The debate on the cultural effects of globalization is too vast to consolidate here, but Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991) poses some of the main arguments, while Harvey’s historical elaboration of flexible accumulation provides a cohesive framework for thinking of globalizing capital at our contemporary moment. See Harvey, Condition of Postmodernity. Flexible accumulation invokes a core-periphery model, where the “periphery” encompasses those locations from where surplus value is extracted (both resources and labor) for accumulation at global financial centers (consolidated through the Dutch-led banking system and maintained by colonialism) mainly in the global North. Immanuel Wallerstein’s “world system” (where the world is interconnected in one economic system; see The Capitalist World-Economy [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979]) has been the basis for this model, while Arrighi has sought to complicate it, elaborating shifting core-periphery relations as capital constantly restructures and reorganizes its provenance. See Arrighi, Long Twentieth Century.