Cargo Cult Culture

It’s time for another highlight from the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles.

Over the years, it has been a privilege to work with Robert Sumrell at AUDC. Robert is one of the most brilliant individuals out there and I count myself immensely lucky that he came to SCI_Arc, became my student and assistant at school and eventually, the other partner at AUDC.

His essay on prop houses in Infrastructural City will be no exception to the high standards he has set at AUDC and will, I suspect, delight those of you who are fans of Blue Monday (well, the whole book will, but this is a particularly good essay).

fake easter island heads at prop house

Here is a brief excerpt:

The shock of new commodities portrayed on television and the deluge of cheap imports flown in from overseas manufacturers underscores consumers’ powerlessness and bewilderment at material goods. This reaction is akin to the wonderment and confusion felt by natives of the pacific rim nations like New Guinea and Melanesia during World War II when foreign armies airdropped war materials onto the islands and set up temporary base camps and occupation zones. At the end of the war, foreign influence disappeared as abruptly as it arrived, ending the cargo drops. The natives, who had no prior exposure to—or understanding of—Western or Japanese culture, assumed that the goods were gifts called down by the foreigners from the gods, and they copied the “ritual activity” and practices that they observed the soldiers making, in order to reinstate the sacred delivery of cargo. Natives wore headphones carved from wood, built control towers, waved landing signals, and constructed runways complete with giant straw airplanes all to no avail. Cargo remained elusive and no amount of imitation seemed to appease the gods. Most of the world’s traditional cargo cults have since vanished as globalization has spread into the islands and incorporated them into the international market economy, or as the natives simply gave up, determining that the gods would never smile upon them. Only a few islanders continue to maintain faith, patiently waiting for cargo.

Unlike New Guinea, cargo never stopped descending upon the Western world. America’s passive consumption, ritualized work practices, and reliance on the construction of environmental contexts strangely [parallels] the practices of cargo cults. Mass media celebrities and television personalities are now transformed into telematic presences, taking on the role of divine spirits presenting the strange cargo that is flown in and dropped from mysterious locations like Japan and China, magically appearing on retail shelves. The inference is that consumers can only draw in the power from these goods if they deserve them and that they will only deserve them if they imitate the rituals as seen on televisions, enacting lifestyles to attract future cargo.

Audiences assembled settings in their own homes to reflect the sets they saw in films and on television in order to make their environments equally worthy of attracting additional goods. It is these contexts and rituals that are essential to cargo cults, whose members understand that such contexts are more important to objects than ownership. Television lamps belong with the television (as do TV trays, recliners, and remote controls) much more than they belong to us. Similarly, a proper bed requires matching bedside tables, a dresser and vanity in order to become a complete bedroom set, even if it is put into a spare room to only rarely or even never be used. Mass-marketed goods suggest the perfect world of media images and department store displays, a world whose artificial, geometric order is ambivalent to human occupation.

 

 

It’s time for another highlight from the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles.

Over the years, it has been a privilege to work with Robert Sumrell at AUDC. Robert is one of the most brilliant individuals out there and I count myself immensely lucky that he came to SCI_Arc, became my student and assistant at school and eventually, the other partner at AUDC.

His essay on prop houses in Infrastructural City will be no exception to the high standards he has set at AUDC and will, I suspect, delight those of you who are fans of Blue Monday (well, the whole book will, but this is a particularly good essay).

fake easter island heads at prop house

Here is a brief excerpt:

The shock of new commodities portrayed on television and the deluge of cheap imports flown in from overseas manufacturers underscores consumers’ powerlessness and bewilderment at material goods. This reaction is akin to the wonderment and confusion felt by natives of the pacific rim nations like New Guinea and Melanesia during World War II when foreign armies airdropped war materials onto the islands and set up temporary base camps and occupation zones. At the end of the war, foreign influence disappeared as abruptly as it arrived, ending the cargo drops. The natives, who had no prior exposure to—or understanding of—Western or Japanese culture, assumed that the goods were gifts called down by the foreigners from the gods, and they copied the “ritual activity” and practices that they observed the soldiers making, in order to reinstate the sacred delivery of cargo. Natives wore headphones carved from wood, built control towers, waved landing signals, and constructed runways complete with giant straw airplanes all to no avail. Cargo remained elusive and no amount of imitation seemed to appease the gods. Most of the world’s traditional cargo cults have since vanished as globalization has spread into the islands and incorporated them into the international market economy, or as the natives simply gave up, determining that the gods would never smile upon them. Only a few islanders continue to maintain faith, patiently waiting for cargo.

Unlike New Guinea, cargo never stopped descending upon the Western world. America’s passive consumption, ritualized work practices, and reliance on the construction of environmental contexts strangely [parallels] the practices of cargo cults. Mass media celebrities and television personalities are now transformed into telematic presences, taking on the role of divine spirits presenting the strange cargo that is flown in and dropped from mysterious locations like Japan and China, magically appearing on retail shelves. The inference is that consumers can only draw in the power from these goods if they deserve them and that they will only deserve them if they imitate the rituals as seen on televisions, enacting lifestyles to attract future cargo.

Audiences assembled settings in their own homes to reflect the sets they saw in films and on television in order to make their environments equally worthy of attracting additional goods. It is these contexts and rituals that are essential to cargo cults, whose members understand that such contexts are more important to objects than ownership. Television lamps belong with the television (as do TV trays, recliners, and remote controls) much more than they belong to us. Similarly, a proper bed requires matching bedside tables, a dresser and vanity in order to become a complete bedroom set, even if it is put into a spare room to only rarely or even never be used. Mass-marketed goods suggest the perfect world of media images and department store displays, a world whose artificial, geometric order is ambivalent to human occupation.

 

 

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