Which came first, the referrer or the referent?

Let’s start here: with the current trend of retroactive self-positation in insurance advertising. Stephen Hawking is the latest celebrity to be killing off the Go Compare man, with his black hole, in the new T.V. ad, whilst Compare the Market are using Robert Webb to counteract Compare the Meerkat’s debonair Aleksandr, and to restore the distinction between those two confused.com-ing websites. We’re in the midst of nothing other than some clever advertising ploys of course, but even if the portly and twizzly-moustached opera singer was originally only meant to be a vehicle for a sloppy ‘tenner/tenor’ joke, and the magnanimous meerkat another instance of a similarly simply-spun pun, they’ve become something more – phenomena in themselves, and also a sign of the times.

Whether or not these two companies intentionally set up one advertising scheme to ‘demolish’ it with another – in an act of intense redoubled hyperreality – we should become sceptical of emerging advertisements in other fields which may deploy ‘cringe factor’ referents only to foretell of future referrers that will come to overcode and multiply these first in a faux-retroactively-posited genealogical metanarrative.

Sceptical as we already are, in our own field, of any idea of origin, why should the setting up of a false one (just to seemingly ‘knock it down’ again) be of any harm? We might be able to see its effects (likewise, causes) in instances of almost infinite referentiality in our own era: in fashion, clothes have become self-conscious, sarcastic, referential; in lifestyle, amenities and activities are produced for the sake of kitsch, modishness and referentiality; and in thinking, ideas are often seen as having (had) their self-life, becoming thereafter referents and little more – where is their emancipatory potential now? Now is instead the then when we can all go along with our tongues in our cheeks and our commodities having our ideas for us. But if postmodernism is becoming the consensus and the new ‘common sense’, this may entail a bumpy ride, not least in the fact that the finer points of its theorisation are destined to become the piffling trifles that will get lost in its transition from theoretical tool to ideological rule…

But back to the origin: there isn’t one. Perhaps, however – instead of seeking out referents, from some somewhere or somewhen, for everything – we should rather look at life in the sense of the French word ‘répétition’, which can mean both the English ‘repetition’ and ‘rehearsal’, and which – as Jacques Derrida often put it – can be rephrased ‘repetition and first time’. Reference is too enjoyable and too useful a tool to wear out; thus, we should become wary of a dawn of endless referentiality, referentiality as an in-itself, that may dull its potential and blind our memory to the fact that this is still the first time we’re alive


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