The Redrow Man and Dystopia’s Dark Appeal

Jeff SparrowJanuary 08, 2015

Dystopian visions of a cold and emotionless future: so hot right now.

In a bizarre commercial that, following criticism, has been pulled from circulation, luxury developer Redrow London boasted that its fashionable apartments would transport buyers into a totalitarian nightmare.

[Redrow London Luxury Development Promo from Patrick Bateman on Vimeo].

As tumblr user piercepenniless notes, the ads’ protagonist

lives in a world of almost continual night, with the hungry eyes and dead affect of an Ayn Rand wet dream: his world is constituted of chrome, glass, a palette of white-to-taupe, a spatter-pattern rug and one book, a single book, on graphic design…. Our man does not have conversations, but stares out at the city from the fifteenth floor (he does a lot of staring). The concept of conversation is alien to him, though he is shown having a screaming argument; as you see from his inventoried shelves, he has a passion for objects and this is how he treats women, as well.

The footage culminates with our hero perched in his Redrow eyrie, a solitary figure looming above a London that, the narrative implies, he has conquered, incinerated and then sown with salt. “To look out at the city,” a voice intones, “that could have swallowed you whole, and say, ‘I did this.’ To stand with the world at your feet.”

Marinetti’s proto-fascist Futurist Manifesto—“Hoorah! No more contact with the vile earth!”—comes to mind, except we sense Redrow Man would be incapable of an exclamation as colloquial or enthusiastic as that “hoorah.”

“If it were easy, it wouldn’t feel as good,” he says, in the flat tone of someone who feels nothing at all.

It’s that robotic individualism that undercuts the production’s Leni Riefenstahl vibe. The occupant of a Redrow apartment cares nothing for fascism’s ecstatic fusion with the masses; on the contrary, his triumph of the will manifests itself first, foremost and always, in a victory over himself.

And this ad seems to be just one in a trend. Take the recent promotion for the Microsoft Band, featuring a corporate over-achiever flaunting her fitness tracker as she hangs grimly to a bus strap. Again, the dead staring eyes; again, the chiseled features from which all emotion has been bleached. Then, the tag line: “This device can know me better than I know myself and will make me a better human.”

In another era, this slogan would have been bluster from a science fictional villain: “Buck Rogers, if you don’t comply, we will attach the Microsoft Band…and, with it, make you into a better human!” Today, that threat’s become a promise—or, more precisely, a selling point.

Microsoft understands that we want—even need—to improve constantly, and that we’ll pay top dollar for devices that help us do so. The self is a never-ending assignment, a chore demanding relentless attention. In the age of the entrepreneurial subject, being human requires a computer’s icy precision—but maybe, by strapping on Microsoft’s digital monitoring gizmo, we can manage a passable imitation.

It’s dystopia as common sense, as a reddit thread about the Microsoft ad revealed. “It’s like a poster for some movie where people are controlled by drugs…. Fucking creepy imo,” one commenter wrote.

Most of the participants agreed, until one user spoiled the party. “Sooo maybe I’m missing something,” the party-pooper wrote, “but what’s so insane about a world that emphasizes being fitter, healthier, and more productive. Are these not universally accepted as good things?”

Indeed they are, and that’s the paradox. On the one hand, the ad is nightmarish; on the other, it speaks to our genuine desires. Why not use a device to maximize our workouts? It’s a cool idea, even if Microsoft’s crass presentation of the thinking behind it leaves us slightly queasy.

In this contradiction, you can see the problem facing the Left. The market—or, at least, the idea of the market—possesses an energy and a logic that its opponents persistently fail to counter. The pro-capitalist reformers dismantling the welfare state and destroying the natural world invoke freedom and choice and flexibility, all of which are—like fitness, health and productivity—universally accepted as good things. Meanwhile, the Right strip-mines the social gains of the twentieth century, tapping into a genuine and legitimate hostility to sclerotic government bureaucracy, a popular disdain for the tut-tutting nanny state with its pettifogging regulations.

Everyone knows that the world’s hurtling to catastrophe. These days, capitalism makes no promise other than dystopia—but that dystopia still seem seems more attractive than the alternative. The Redrow London commercial, ghastly as it is, taps into the libidinal energy of capitalism, the “everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” in Marx’s words.

That’s the ad’s strange appeal. Redrow Man might be ascending into a mirror-and-chromed hell but at least he’s going somewhere. The need for critics to articulate an alternative, rather than simply defending the bad against the worse, has never been more urgent.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland magazine.