Advertising Missionaries

Advertising Missionaries, Fragmented Globality: Irony, Paradox, Uncertainty


“What, if anything, is truly new about our times?” is the crucial lead question for Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s chapter on A Fragmented Globality (2003:47). Trouillot has already demonstrated the long histories of continuous encounters, centuries of global flows that belie the current surprise-story celebrating or lamenting contemporary globalization. I often pairing this chapter with the film Advertising Missionaries to link together several different aspects of this account.

Here too, Trouillot begins with a quote from Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion, first published in 1909, to note that “by the first decade of the twentieth century, some knowledgeable observers had already proposed that the main features we associate today with the word globalization fully obtained in the world of finance and politics” (2003:47). One of Trouillot’s main points is that “if we approach globalization as naïvely as the recent rise of ‘a world without boundaries,’ we find ourselves repeating advertising slogans without knowing how we ended up there” (2003:48).

Nevertheless, Trouillot does designate three processes which seem specific and especially salient in the present period: “the reshaping of the respective markets for capital, labor, and consumer goods; the ongoing rise of finance capital and the social and ideological ramifications of that domination; and the extravagant increase in inequality both within and across political boundaries” (2003:48). While it is certainly always risky to read a chapter that is now over a decade old to tell us about changes in the here-and-now, Trouillot’s diagnosis is remarkably prescient. Most of what he writes about polarization and fragmentation, the rise of finance capital, the fragility of that system, and inequality has not only more than come true, but is now even more apparent to a wider range of people than might have been aware of such issues in 2003.

First, there is the obvious message that this is a new religion:

We are being asked to endorse growth as a moral value. We are asked to take as a religious–that is, unquestionable–tenet the proposition that productivity in any domain, anywhere, anyhow is good for humankind as a whole. . . . We are being asked to renounce worldviews that suggest the ethical solidarity of humankind. In short, we are being asked to accept a prepackaged formula about what it means to be a good and proper human being in all times and places, to endorse one vision of humanity, and an odd one at that. Visions of humankind are, of course, among the favorite topics of sociocultural anthropologists. We have spent much disciplinary energy over more than a century in showing how such visions vary across time and space. We should have a say in that debate. (2003:56; see also Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism)

Second, Advertising Missionaries helps show another aspect of what Trouillot says is perhaps truly new about our times–a global market for consumer goods. Wokabout Marketing sells ways of eating and drinking, ways of dressing and washing and smelling, ways of communicating and interacting, which are to a great extent a recognizable package of consumer goods and behavior, all over the world:

Prompted by global media, more human beings than ever before share similar lists of the products they need to consume and the objects they need to possess in order to achieve individual satisfaction. In that sense we are truly witnessing for the first time, especially among the youth, a global production of desire. (2003:60)

Third, Advertising Missionaries demonstrates that although these product lists may be similar (and there is a brief moment of disagreement when someone asks for local rather than multinational products), there continue to be enormous inequalities of access. From the obvious relationship of PNG to the global economy, to the relationship within Wokabout Marketing as the manager flies into the highlands, to the lifestyles of the advertising missionaries as compared to the highlanders–fraught and intense inequalities abound.

It is also the case, and this is an important fourth point, that even in the market the goals of the PNG highlanders, to incorporate and fuse these products with the best of what they see as tradition, demonstrate that “human beings everywhere have had and will have goals that are not market-oriented” (2003:61).

Finally, Advertising Missionaries helps show–although this point could be better elaborated by talking about sweet potatoes and steel axes–the linkages between this round of globalization and previous histories of interconnection, from missionization that had already made most of PNG Christian, to the fact that even PNG highlanders were speaking English (the film unnecessarily subtitles some of this, as if someone who looks like a PNG highlander obviously could not be understood in English). But this also amounts to a revamping and regeneration of colonial-era relationships in the contemporary:

Fewer human beings are convinced today, than, say, in the 1960s that the whole of humanity is headed in the same direction. Now add to this the not so hidden fact that the greatest number of those who are thought to not be moving, not moving fast enough, or are condemned to never move are also those likely to be described as non-Westerners, whether or not they live–or were born–in North Atlantic countries. The result is a stunning renewal of the symbolic power of the West on the global stage. This renewed global power repairs and revitalizes the Savage slot and resonates in local arenas down to individual encounters. (2003:77)

Advertising Missionaries to Academia: The Death of Utopia

One of the things that hit me hardest in “A Fragmented Globality” was Trouillot’s take on “the death of utopia” (2003:66). In this section, Trouillot explains how the ability to predict and manage mid-term and long-term futures has become increasingly uncertain. “Until recently, political science, economics, and sociology basked in the glow of this mid-term and related claims of control” (2003:68). This claim of prediction and control is now substantially reduced:

The future as we knew it is now increasingly fractured into two new parts: a near-present that challenges our technical mastery, and an aftermath, out of real time, that our imagination has yet to seize. . . . The exigencies of this near-present now seem to reduce our grip on a long-term forever postponed. The content of that long-term is open to question. . . . The need to adapt quickly to tomorrow’s exigencies, yet the inability to envision beyond them, is now part of the lived experience of an increasing number of human beings. (2003:68)

This has essentially been my experience in the past three years, serving on both a faculty governance body and simultaneously participating in efforts to imagine a future college. On the one hand, the exigencies of immediate enrollment swings, budget variance, and needs to staff courses, as described in Liberal Arts College Planning, lead to almost daily adjustments and re-positionings. On the other hand, the mid-to-long-term future is almost impossible to predict or imagine. That this is happening within academia–the one area in which people are supposed to be able to think, reflect, and plan–is most disturbing: “Anything that takes time to show results–research, slow yet reliable growth, calculated yet potentially rewarding risks–become secondary, engulfed by the rapidity of daily stock market assessments” (2003:52)

As Truoillot writes, “ours are times of paradox and irony. . . . ours are times of uncertainty” (2003:62).

There’s much more that could be said and discussed, which I hope emerges in class conversation. It’s another densely-packed and prescient chapter in a book that in many ways seems to be an outline or précis for a much longer, yet-to-be-written work.

December 2014 Update: See my economist colleague’s The Corporatization Virus for back-and-forth about the efficiency of corporate capitalism in the contemporary university.

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  • John McCreery

    What I find missing here is the one critical difference between religious and advertising missionaries. The former have one product to promote. The latter have a vast and constantly shifting array of products to promote. Even in the same category, the product and the message today is likely to be different today than it was a year ago or will be a year from now. Yes, this difference can be blurred by pointing to consumption and growth as recurrent themes in all advertising. But on the ground it makes a huge difference. The constant churn of “It’s New! It’s Now!” creates a world very different from the one in which (at least monotheistic) missionaries preach from a single revealed Book.

    • I don’t know John, have you ever been to a real Pentecostal revival meeting? It would seem that if there is one single revealed truth, then why the need to keep having revival meetings and re-dedication ceremonies? I suspect there may be hidden overlap!

      • John McCreery

        Why revivals? For the same reasons Coca-Cola runs ads that maintain and refresh an existing brand. What makes the Coca-Cola case different, however, is that cans of classic Coke appear in Coca-Cola vending machines and fast food restaurants alongside other Coca-Cola brands. I’ve never seen a revival where multiple sects, let alone multiple religions were all doing their thing simultaneously in the same space. In any case, Coca-Cola is an exemplary outlier in the world of branding, one so firmly entrenched that it seems like a religion—and even so, the people in charge of the brand are constantly playing with new messages in an endless search for relevance in changing times, not just repeating the Gospel. Most advertising concerns the hundreds and thousands of brands that come and go and never stick in the way that Coca-Cola has.

        • Hi John, thank you again for the comments. I’m really of course not trying to say that these are equivalent, and differences are important. However, when you write that “the people in charge of the brand are constantly playing with new messages in an endless search for relevance in changing times, not just repeating the Gospel” it seems to be a bit unfair to the evangelical missionaries and preachers who are hardly “repeating the gospel” but are in fact always similarly on a “search for relevance in changing times.” And while you may not have competing sects at a revival meeting, there will often be lots of different styles, from the fiery prophet to the reflective analyst, from the ecstatic frenzy to pathos. To an outsider it may look like just another way to sell heavily-sugared beverages, but there’s certainly as much variety at a revival meeting as there is in a Coca-Cola vending machine.

          Point taken about Coca-Cola as exemplary outlier!

          • John McCreery

            Jason, you make some good points here. I wonder, does your library (college or personal) include a copy of John Sherry, ed. (1995) Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook? If so, it includes an article I wrote titled, “Malinowski, Magic and Advertising: On Choosing Metaphors” in which I look closely, and ethnographically, at two competing metaphors, one which likens advertising to religion and the other, taken from Malinowski, which likens advertising to magic. You might find it interesting.

    • Jackie

      The Bible can be interpreted so many random ways. I am sure that missionaries misinterpreted Biblical philosophy enough to create completely different religious sects from the same book with very different views.
      After all, Muslims believe that the Bible is real scripture and have radically different religious beliefs than Christians do from the same New Testament sections of that Book.
      So I am sure that there are clear philosophical differences in Christian sects as well even though they use the same scripture.

      • Hi Jackie, thank you for your comment. I do think there is some newness of interpretation often at work here, certainly between but often within sects. Thanks!

  • John McCreery

    Of course, the faithful fall away and need their faith revived. And, yes, indeed, there are all sorts of sectarian differences over what the message should be.There is also great variation in hymns, passages of scripture, prayers, etc. But a monotheistic preacher at least pretends in public to preach the same message over and over again. People who work in advertising are constantly being asked to come up with new messages for what are presented as totally new things. The insistence on being original is a categorical difference from repeating the same Gospel all the time.

    “Let’s see, this time, let’s have God create Eve first and Adam get it on with the snake….” “No, the snake is old hat. How about a crocodile…” Religions don’t work that way.

    • Hi John, thank you for this. There is no doubt the differences are real and important to track. Neither the Advertising Missionaries film nor the Trouillot chapter I’m juxtaposing here would debate that point–it’s more of an allusive reference, and it’s a similarity that people on the ground in PNG were making themselves.

      That said, and still being a bit playful here, one of their products is Coca-Cola, and doesn’t Coke seem to be a monotheistic religion by now? Look what happened when they tried to introduce New Coke.

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  • Noelani Browne

    Something that struck me as “new” for our time is the polarization of the “post-Cold War era” (2003: 57). Trouillot states that “chunks of humankind are seen as superfluous to world political and economic leaders” (2003: 57) which opposes an earlier idea of North Atlantic universals creating a “modern” society through the hierarchy of others. This in turn shows that our time is unraveling the ambiguity of modernity.

    • Hi Lani, great quote. Indeed, unlike the 1950s, there is much less of a belief that we are all on (or could be on) the same path to development, and huge areas become superfluous. However, we will discuss in class how in some ways that *might* be changing in the last decade or so, although the point is well taken.

  • Juliet H. Foroughi

    “If by globalization we mean the massive flow of goods, peoples, information, and capital across huge areas of the earth’s surface in ways that make the parts dependent on the whole, then the world has been global since the sixteenth century” (Trouillet, 47). Whether it’s religion or it’s capitalism, the world has never been new. Someone bigger is always pushing their way of life off on the someone who is small.

    • Hi Jay, thank you for the comment and see Jessie’s comment for related thoughts. However, as I commented there, see the
      quote from Lani on p.57 as we try to analyze what might be new about the

  • Jessica Hannah

    “What, if anything, is truly new about our times?” Many things can be seen as new to our world that people did not have before, as seen in the movie Advertising Missionaries we have products many people have never seen before from soda to bug spray to birth control. These inventions can be considered new about “our time” but every new generation has a new invention to their time. What is not changing between time throughout the world is the spread of beliefs or inventions onto other societies. For hundreds of years people have pushed their way of living onto others, missionaries have gone to villages to transform them to share the same beliefs, people have traveled to the farthest away lands they can reach to change the way of lives of the natives there. Our inventions may be new to this time, but the way in which these items are being pushed upon people is not new to our times, or any time period within the last few hundred years.

    • Hi Jessie, thank you for the comment–see the quote from Jay on p.47 for confirmation that if indeed we are simply talking about pushing new products, the world has been global for a long time. However, see the quote from Lani on p.57 as we try to analyze what might be new about the now.