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J Generation
Globalization as invention of desire

By Roshanak Keyghobadi
March 5, 2002
The Iranian

An ad for a Sony cellular phone appeared in a daily Iranian newspaper in the summer of 2001. In the ad, six young men, in different poses, are looking straight into the camera with smiles on their faces. There is also a picture of a cell phone with the message on the display screen of the phone: "Lets Party".

The ad copy in Persian reads:

"What makes them different is what they have in common. Join the J5 generation. They are up to date. They are successful. They are from Internet and dot-com generation. They are calm and relaxed. J5 is bringing them closer together.

Don't mistake their self-confidence for arrogance and don't be jealous of them. Join them by purchasing a J5.

Sony CMD-J5, Excellent way for communication."

On the left corner of the ad, "Digital Dream Kids" is printed in unobtrusive letters. There is also detailed information on the web site, phone number and address for representative of Sony in Iran.

In the first encounter, the ad seems like a picture of a "new", calm and relaxed generation which is too sophisticated to be uptight or, unlike the "old" generation, to be worried about what actually is going on around it. It is the picture of a cool generation that has its own world which surpasses the logic of the "old" generation caught in the daily agitations and struggles.

The optics of the ad, while seemingly depicting a "new" generation of Iranians, points to the invisible structure of assumptions that not only mark the way the "new" is manufactured but, more importantly tell us a great deal about Iranian society today.

In his book, Seeing Films Politically, Mas'ud Zavarzadeh (1) theorizes a reading strategy that he calls "renarration". He uses renarration as part of a larger project of "ideology critique" but the technique can be deployed more broadly to unpack some of the basic rhetorical and textual devices which are used in ads to manufacture reality and then represent the manufactured as depiction "natural" reality.

For example, by renarrating a painting,one can reveal the ideological and cultural meaning of it and demonstrate how the aesthetic in fact is itself a rhetorical means for social and cultural logics. Renarration, in short, goes beyond "how" an ad or any other cultural text works and focuses on "why" it does what it does.

In renarration and re-viewing of this ad, I would like, therefore, not only to explain WHAT is displayed and advertised by means of this image and HOW it actually works to persuade the viewer, but WHY. What are the other possible meanings that are imbedded in the ad? How are the advertisers using diverse cultural codes and signs to construct meaning and create a "reality" for the readers?

To understand the ways in which the implied reader makes sense of the ad, one must first sort out the semiotic and cultural codes involved and then, by relating them to each other discover the underlying logic of the text. Having pointed up its cultural logic, it will then become possible to show the cultural codes that work in the underground of the text. Otherwise, each code would seem autonomous.

The ad shows a group of young men who are in their late Teens or early 20s. They are represented with the familiar visual cultural codesˇdark hair, dark complexion and typical features which qualify them as Iranian men (or Middle eastern men in general). They are, by local standards, well dressed in colorful and clean shirts, pants and brand new shoes which are all codes of their affluence and class status.

All six look casual and care free and also in the latest Western fashion which is the code for being worldly and cool. The body language of men suggest an ease with the physical which is one of the marks of their "cool" ness and sharply separates them from the average Iranian youth is much more formal and "stiff" in handing his body. Their smiles portray all six as having fun, a contrast to the norm of cultural seriousness. They all look straight into the camera which emphasizes their self confidence.

But perhaps the most obvious transgression of dominant codes of behavior and assertion of the defiant upper class values represented in the ad is the seductive urging of desire, "Lets Party".
The ad obtains its cultural authority and winning rhetoric by drawing on the present social conditions in Iran which privileges male. But to do what the ad urges the readers to do it is not enough to be male, one has to be also part of the affluent upper-middle class.

The traditional Iranian culture regards self-effacement in social life a virtue. It is thus quite different from the business culture of the West. The "Iranian J5 Generation" breaks this traditional code. It depicts the young men in the ad as self-asserting and almost aggressive. Self-assertion (e.g. looking directly to the camera and casual handling of the body) implies that owning the phone sets them apart from the shy, diffident and quiet naïve youth.

The phone, the ad implies, has turned them into TransIranian, cosmopolitan men and made them different. Owning the phone, the ad implies, puts them in mastery of the daily life because there are only few who can also own the phone and thus compete with them. The phone makes sure that they have no serious rivals. They are therefore calm and relaxed assured of their superiority.

These young men are clearly part of a different class separate from the majority of young Iranian men who are working day and night and still are having difficulty to make ends met. In contrast to the lonely, hard working young men, the six in the ad are not only relaxed but are connected to their friends who also have cell phones.

The cell phone in other words creates a virtual community that puts them above and beyond the lonely crowd and from which those who do not have a cell phone are excluded. But the ad conceals the fact that owning a cell phone in Iran is a class matter. It promises community and connectivity by having a phone and makes having a phone a matter of personal choice rather than a limit put on young people by their class status. Class is represented as a lifestyle and not as an economic issue.

The reality of the ad is constructed not just by what it says, but also, and perhaps more importantly by its "un-said". The "un-said," for example of gender. There are no young women in this group. Is it because generally women are financially dependent on men and most of them can not afford the phone? Or is it because the image of a financially powerful, care free and relaxed woman will completely destroy the image the ad is attempting to convey to a male-dominated society?

What makes a "woman" the counter-code that has to be muted and erased in the ad? Women, just like underprivileged classes of Iranian society cannot be depicted in the ad without completely changing its meaning and its implied audience. Woman is the "other" is the discursive universe of the ad.

Reality in the "Iranian J5 Generation" text is constructed by the prevailing semiotic codes that reveal other aspects of contemporary Iranian society that the ad conceals. The image of success and wealth in the ad, points to other implied values. According to these codes those who posses objects (cell phone, for example) are not only well-off but more importantly, psychologically part of a different generationˇthey are self-asserting and not shy to display and express their desires.

They are worldly, enjoy life and at the very center of everything. These are all new values in Iranˇthey are values of a transnational business culture that in fact acts to de-nativize the "J5 Generation" and make them ˇ by inventing new desires for themˇ part of transnational consumer community . "J5 Generation" is the first global generation in Iran that acquires its identity not by nationality but by commodities that it owns.

Consequently in Iran today, more and more people are after more "stuff" even the majority of Iranian people who can not afford it and are under immense economic hardship. Most expensive houses, latest model cars, designer cloths, sneakers, appliance Íall, buy people class, prestige and respect.

If you walk in a store with your cell phone in your hand, everyone makes you the "center" of their attention and rushes to help you. The image is so seductive that phone robbing (2) has become rather common. The thieves are stealing not just a phone but the "image" and they put the image on sale just like the ad executives at Sony.

A "Held Back Country" (3) such as Iran with its growing young population and its thirst for modernity, offers companies such as Sony their "dream" (4) market. Pages of Tehran newspapers and magazines, city billboards and TV programs are saturated by ads for products from LG, BRAUN, TEFAL, ROWENTA, NOKIA, PANASONIC, SAMSUNG.

They all manufacture a "new" reality and produce "new" desire. In Iran and many other countries, globalization works as a set of strategies for constructing desire and deploying of these desires to produce "new" subjects. The shopping subject who finds its identity by denouncing the traditional habits of parsimony and self-containment and by going to the mall.

The most visible marks of globalization in Iran is the emergence of the new shopping subject that is contemptuous of the traditional culture of need and instead embraces the culture of desire. Globalization is the local desire for global goods; it is the regime of cool commodities.

The debates in Iran among intellectuals is not very different from what has dominated the discourses of the West: does "shopping"ˇ by articulating desire ˇ have a liberatory dimension? Is it in fact an active resistance? Or the very idea of shopping-as-resistance itself is invented by corporate theorists to justify globalization?

On the other level, the debate is whether one should critique only the creators of these messages or extend the critique to those who respond to these ads and messages? Is the critique of native desire undemocratic or is it in fact assertion of democracy against the discursive machinery of transnational business?

Author

Roshanak Keyghobadi: is an Assistant Professor at State University of New York - Farmingdale, where she teaches visual communications and graphic design.

Notes

1. Masu'd Zavarzadeh, 1991. Seeing Film Politically. Albany: State University of New York Press. To top

2. Similar to murders in the USA for a pair of NIKE sneakers.
To top

3. I prefer to address what Westerners call "Third World Countries" as "Held Back Countries".
To top

4. Is this why these young consumers are called "Digital Dream Kids"?
To top

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