Why, after forty years, are we still writing and talking about Apple's commercial "1984" launched in 1984? What is it about this commercial that continues to excite us? In his posthumously published Postcapitalist Desire (2020), British cultural philosopher Mark Fisher makes an interesting suggestion. According to him, the commercial in question can be understood as a Freudian ‘dreamwork’. Fisher points out that, according to Freud, the dream always involves a form of condensation: it comprises images or impressions composed of many layers. Hence the interpretive work required to understand a dream and the enduring fascination dream images can have on us. Apple's advertising spot, I believe, can indeed be understood as a ‘dreamwork’: one in which many different historical, political, and cultural discourses converge. Therefore, in this contribution, I aim to somewhat untangle the discursive knot; to reconstruct the different political, historical, and cultural layers by juxtaposing and discussing them sequentially.
Apple's advertising spot, I believe, can indeed be understood as a ‘dreamwork’: one in which many different historical, political, and cultural discourses converge.
Although inspired by Fisher's reference to Freud and psychoanalysis, I do not wish to proceed as a psychoanalyst. Meaning, I am not interested in what the creator of the commercial - Ridley Scott - consciously or unconsciously intended by his work. The focus of my analysis is not the author and his intention, but rather the author and his work as an implicit expression of a specific historical constellation. I will do that from the perspective of social and political philosophy, or, put differently: I will read "1984" as the expression of a historical constellation insofar as this constellation is a specific social and political configuration.
That, as a political philosopher, I feel inspired to write something about the commercial "1984" should come as no surprise. Even a first, superficial interpretation makes it clear that "1984" has an outspoken political character. After all, what do we see? We see an authoritarian leader addressing his brainwashed followers, we see a woman who physically opposes the order imposed by the leader and is chased by riot police. In short, we see a set of political relationships under high tension. This is also confirmed by the voiceover that accompanies the images. The voice speaks of a "garden of pure ideology, in which every worker can flourish," of "one people, with one will" and the "unity of thought" that is considered a more powerful weapon than any army.
"1984" obviously cannot be separated from the geopolitical tensions that characterized the time in which it was made. The authoritarianism and docile masses in the commercial are in full accord with the way the USSR was represented in American propaganda, namely as a country in which one-dimensional, dogmatic leaders and bureaucrats ruled over a homogenized mass of "workers" in a setting of gray, industrial architecture. It is probably no coincidence that in the year preceding the broadcast of the spot, Ronald Reagan explicitly referred to the USSR as an "evil empire.” The commercial represents how this “evil empire” can sustain itself only through indoctrination - the leader's speech - and repression - the riot police. An interpretation, of course, further underlined by the explicit reference to George Orwell's novel 1984.
The Dead Rattle of Fordism
But the commercial "1984" is more than just an extension of Cold War propaganda; the commercial also alludes, in a more subtle way, to an important sociological shift within the Western bloc, namely that from a Fordist to a post-Fordist labor organization. The space in which the uniformed, homogeneous masses look at the screen showing the leader resembles a factory hall, and the color palette used (or lack thereof) alludes to the serial, homogeneous, and authoritatively organized mode of production characteristic of Fordism. Put more simply, Fordism was the era of industrial mass production, of large factory halls in which the pace was machine-driven, in which obedience and conformism were required of workers, and in which creativity, autonomy, and individuality were viewed as a threat to production. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, we see a gradual transition to a post-Fordist mode of production. Unlike Fordism, post-Fordism focuses on individuality, creativity, flexibility, and autonomy. This can be read as a symptom of a more general shift from the secondary to the tertiary sector as the most dominant economic sector, meaning that from the seventies and eighties onwards, we are dealing with an economy that increasingly centers around rather immaterial products: services, images, communication, information, data, financial capital. In this context, a worker is no longer expected to conform or exhibit quiet obedience but rather active, yet controlled, participation, engagement, and creativity.
The rebellion of post-Fordism is that of the creative individual against the mass.
In the mid-1980s, this change from Fordism to post-Fordism was still in full swing. On the one hand, you had continuing de-industrialization that caused old industrial cities and the accompanying socio-cultural world of experience to shrivel at a frightening rate, and on the other hand, you had younger generations assimilating the new values of post-Fordism. "1984" is, to a large extent, also a symbolic representation of that tension, with the gray mass of passive spectators standing for Fordism and the color-clad, rebellious woman symbolically representing up-and-coming post-Fordism. Significant in this context is also that post-Fordism is represented by an individual and Fordism by an anonymous mass: the rebellion of post-Fordism is that of the creative individual against the mass.
The emerging sector of personal computer manufacturers was one of the vanguards of post-Fordism. That "1984" is a commercial for Apple's Macintosh, therefore, cannot be considered a coincidence. The booming computer business in the 1980s attracted nonconformist entrepreneurs who, with a sense of daring and adventure, developed their ideas and products in Californian ‘garage offices’. The self-image they nurtured was that of the pioneer, the artist, the venture entrepreneur, and the visionary. It is enough to look at the (self-)representation of Steve Jobs to ascertain this. In turn, the products that people like Jobs developed furthered that ethos. The personal computer was marketed by Apple as a product that would spark revolutions against established authority, introducing a new era wherein the individual would no longer be enslaved by conformism, ideology, bosses, or leaders. In this regard, a certain vitalist anarchism is woven into the Apple spot that presents the combination of new information technology, creativity, and individuality as an unstoppable, revolutionary, and anti-authoritarian force propelling history forward. The commercial ends not with the establishment of a new order but with the explosive destruction of the old order and thus turns against the idea of a collective order itself.
The kind of implicit anarchism that forms the undertone of "1984" has a Janus face. On the one hand, it is an anarchism that looks back to the 1960s and 1970s, as it is an heir to the counterculture that was partly at the root of the crisis of Fordist labor organization. So in "1984", the spirit of '1968' lives. "1984" is almost a visualization of the popular '68 slogan: "cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi." [run, comrade, the old world lies behind you] But on the other side, "1984" can also be seen as a snapshot of how that spirit transformed itself into the new norm. As Boltanski and Chiapello demonstrated in their seminal The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999), the rebellion of '68 can be understood as the confluence of a social critique that emphasized social revolution and an artistic critique that advanced anticonformism, autonomy, and self-expression as new values. That artistic critique, however, has been increasingly incorporated and internalized as a set of new norms by post-Fordism. '1984' illustrates this: individual rebellion likes to present itself as a revolutionary danger, but that so-called revolutionary danger is at the very same time already a commercial. In post-Fordism, the revolution can only be thought of as a commercial product and cliché. The consciousness-expanding artistic critique of '68 flows effortlessly into the consciousness-narrowing individualism of neoliberalism, leaving social critique to appear only as an ultimately powerless individual rebellion.
In post-Fordism, the revolution can only be thought of as a commercial product and cliché.
Towards Societies of Control
Finally, to fully understand in what way "1984" can be understood as an allegory for a transitional historical moment, I would like to advance a more philosophical reading of the commercial in question. My guide here will be Gilles Deleuze's text Post-script on the Societies of Control (1992), first published in French in 1990. That text by Deleuze can help us understand where the transition eventually leads to. In a certain sense, then, I will read "1984" - contrary to what I have done so far - from the future it introduces rather than from the past it breaks with.
Deleuze opens his Post-script on the Societies of Control with the observation that all 'environments of enclosure,' such as the school, the prison, the hospital, the factory, or the family, are, at the time of his writing, in a permanent and seemingly terminal state of crisis. That crisis, according to Deleuze, is one of institutions that rely on a form of what Michel Foucault called ‘disciplinary power’. Disciplinary power is based on enclosure: there is a clear boundary between the "inside" and the "outside"; a boundary marked by walls, fencing, physical gates, property provisions, or barriers. The space enclosed by disciplinary power is always a strictly ordered space: each individual has a fixed place, role, function, and identity within that space, and time is also strictly directed through clocks, schedules, procedures, or planning.
It takes little imagination to interpret the spectators in "1984" as a visual representation of a disciplined ordered space.
The prototype of disciplinary power is, of course, the prison in which each individual is assigned a fixed place (the cell), an identity (the number, the name), and in which time is particularly strictly ordered: the day proceeds according to fixed schedules in which waking, respite, and labor are clearly temporally delineated. Such time-spatial ordering is, of course, also found in the aforementioned institutions such as the school, the factory, and the family, but it is equally characteristic of Fordist social organization as a whole. By extension, it takes little imagination to interpret the spectators in "1984" as a visual representation of a disciplined ordered space: all the spectators sit neatly in rows next to each other, are a collective composed of ordered individuals within a clearly defined space. So the crucial point of Deleuze - and really of "1984" - is that this kind of order is in a state of permanent crisis. But Deleuze looks beyond where "1984" ends. The crisis of disciplinary institutions does not mean the end of the power order per se, but the introduction of a new form of power: a transformation is taking place from disciplinary societies to control societies. Unlike discipline, control has no need for inclusion or closure; walls are broken down, and mobility is encouraged, instead of increasing centralization, decentralization takes place.
If the prison can be considered the prototype of the disciplinary institution, then the airport could be understood as exemplifying the control society. The airport is nothing but a continuous modulation of global flows of people and goods. Nobody has a fixed place in itself; there is just constant movement and changeability at work, a movement that must be there to ensure operation. Those movements and changes are no longer frenetically ordered as much as they are monitored and managed through checkpoints, unexpected individual controls, and a form of surveillance that takes the form of sampling, scanning, and statistical analysis. Individuals move through the various forms of control by having the appropriate codes and passwords. And although those individuals may cherish for themselves the illusion of being able to move more freely and autonomously than within disciplinary society, they actually disappear as individuals. They become ‘dividuals’, Deleuze argues: the individual disintegrates into a scattering of data points, codes, data, and chunks of statistical information. Consequently, the type of machine that Deleuze claims is characteristic of the control society is the computer, which immediately brings us back to "1984."
The individual disintegrates into a scattering of data points, codes, data, and chunks of statistical information.
At the time I write this, forty years after the airing of "1984", it is clear that the introduction of the personal computer rather than the sledgehammer of disciplinary society should be seen retrospectively as the spearhead of a control society that was coming. I am writing these words on a PC that assumes passwords and additional control procedures to even access. That PC is permanently connected to a network that monitors my activities, breaking them down into a collection of data that serves to further drive algorithms that, in turn, further drive my behavior. Rarely is there anyone, like the factory boss of yore, directly commanding me, there is no “garden of pure ideology” neither “one people” or “one leader”, but all the more my behavior is directed through a device of permanent control such as the personal computer. So the verdict forty years after "1984" sounds rather bleak. The new freedom it announced would be accompanied by a form of unfreedom that hangs like a long shadow over the society of control.
Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (1999). The new spirit of capitalism.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. October.
Fisher, M. (2021). Postcapitalist desire: The Final Lectures. Watkins Media Limited.