Overidentification and the Coca-Cola Kid

Mar 12th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles

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“You've got life by the throat when you're drinking Coke!” - fictional Coca-Cola jingle from the 1985 cult classic The Coca-Cola Kid

Here's a question that plagues what I'll call the Facebook Left and probably nobody else:

“Who or what is the revolutionary subject today?”

Couched this way it's an abstract question, one that seems determined to go unanswered, but put into practical terms the problem becomes clearer. Who in the world is sufficiently motivated and equipped to transcend or at least break with Global Capitalism?

The answer, at first blush, is simply nobody.

We on the socialist left have, in the past, put our faith in a group we call “the workers” but that group went out of fashion as far back as the 50s. The colonized Third World peoples were another horse in the race at one point, but today we're reluctant to saddle them with such a responsibility. After all, they've suffered enough, haven't they? This or that vanguard party is also a nonstarter as they've all turned out to be bureaucrats and back stabbers.

Who then? Who can we turn to?

Unable to answer this question the Facebook Left is miserable. We spend our days complaining, fighting with each other, and brushing up on our snark by engaging in hashtag wars and whispering campaigns.

In attitude, if not in action, we are a lot like Peter Gibbons from the movie Office Space. If you remember the movie then you know that the only thing Peter Gibbons can rely on is that every new day will be worse than the day before, and while for Gibbons the cause of his problem was his miserable job, for the Facebook left there are a multitude of causes. Whether it's global warming, police brutality, the seeming failure of Syriza, the ultra-left critics of Syriza, or any manner of “isms,” agencies, or hypocrisies, there are always good reasons to feel hopeless, and most of us on the Facebook left do.

Here are some examples from my newsfeed:

Our most experienced theorists still pretend to a certain innocence. They still write as if we're not all fucked .

I have to learn to love how terrible of a place America is.

Under the soles of his shoes, you can still recognise the dirt of history. “This is all that remains. A mix of straw and shit by which we delude ourselves into erecting cathedrals to the worker’s dream.”

cats-trapped-in-folk-music-environment

Please share this picture to raise awareness of the plight of cats trapped in a folk music environment...

Okay, that last one doesn't count. But, take it from me, people on the left are pessimistic, and what we're most pessimistic about is the possibility that we might, individually or collectively, help usher in the radical change in society that the left (Facebook or otherwise) has been championing and seeking since the French Revolution.

So let's return to the problem. Who is it that will be motivated enough to change the world?

We might start to find the answer to that question if we took a look at the concept of identity itself. That is, what is it to be person, any kind of person? There are lots of answers to that one, but the answer I'm going to offer comes from the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Lacan, and Freud. The answer is that being a person means being self-contradictory or two faced. The answer is that to be a person is to be a hypocritical bastard.

Now why does Zizek say that? The claim is that any identity relies on its opposite and that because of that fact any given set of values around a given identity, for instance the value of intellectual rigor that is attached to being a philosopher, is always acted out in conjunction with its opposite.

Here's a youtube video that explains:

So taking this idea seriously for a moment the question becomes not “Who is the revolutionary subject?” but rather “How do I get rid of the supplement?” That is, if it's true that shedding our hypocrisy will break the machine that produces our circumstances, our identity, then how do we get beyond our hypocrisy?

The answer, in a word, is “overidentification.” Overidentification is the process whereby one ceases to keep a critical distance from one's own identity or position. It's what happens when is a soldier takes military discipline to heart and objects to those obscene chants. It's what happens when a scholar takes his duty to intellectual rigor seriously and never breaks the rules, never lets a vagueness persist in his work, never watches a stupid television program or movie and then writes about it as if it's important, etc...

There are two ways to overidentify that I think are open to the left. The first one is negative. That is, one might overidentify with one's own opposition to one's prevailing identity or circumstances. Given our current mood that's probably the option that's most obviously open to the Facebook left, and, returning to my reference at the start, this kind of overidentification is the approach Peter Gibbons chooses in the movie Office Space. He finds being a computer programmer for a beige corporation intolerable and he commits, with the help of a hypnotist, to do nothing. He decides to stop.

For Peter Gibbons everything is meaningless except the enjoyment he finds in not working. And Gibbons is liberated, for a while anyhow.

Office Space - Damn it Feels Good To Be A Gangster Scene from gangsta assniqqa on Vimeo.

The other way to go is the Coca-Cola Kid method. This is the approach whereby you identify fully with the power structure you find yourself enmeshed in without any cynicism or hesitation. In the movie The Coca-Cola Kid Eric Roberts plays the character who follows this method. The man's name is Becker and he works in marketing for Coke. He's sent to Australia with the mission to increase sales and improve Australian operations generally. He's sent despite the fact that Australian sales are steady, maybe even rising, and he's sent without a plan.

Being overidentified Becker arrives at the Australian Coca-Cola headquarters before the telex announcing his arrival and sets out to fix the company's problems even before he's determined what they are.

The head of the Australian branch explains what what's happening to one of his underlings:

“Our advice from headquarters is to listen to him. Don't get angry, don't get scared either, and do not be surprised. They call him whiz kid and they advise not to try to understand him. They don't. They just know he doubles and triple sales in no time.”

The Coca-Cola kid is the epitome of Coke as it's known from its advertising campaigns. He's energetic, imaginative, atheltic, and seriously committed to the sound and taste of the world's greatest carbonated beverage.

“Listen. The sound of Coke. Mmmm. Dark and bubbly. Why our dark and bubbly liquid is so loved by all those Eskimoes and other Canadians we don't need to know. We need only just to bring it to the people,” Becker tells his Australian colleagues.

Becker aims at finding the pure essence of Coca-Cola and at embodying it. It's not an ironic gesture for him, it is his core. And at first he is immune to the wildness, the lack of discipline, that surrounds him down under. The advances of a gorgeous secretary are easy to put aside in the name of Coke. Being threatened at gunpoint by the henchman of a locally owned cola company is nothing.

It is only when the Coca-Cola Kid wins the day that he is undone. What happens is that, in order to win, he's had to abandon the fizz, the delight, and the honor that is Coca-Cola. At the end of the film the Coca-Cola machine stops working. He loses himself, loses his commitment, because he is overidentified, overcommitted, overzealous.

Now the movies Office Space and the Coca-Cola kid are both comedies and both have happy endings. In Office Space Peter Gibbons ends up winning the love of Jennifer Aniston and at the end of the Coca-Cola Kid Becker ends up with Greta Scacchi. The beautiful secretary triumphs. In these movies both Gibbon's nihilism and Eric Robert's zealous enthusiasm for the product are sublated into a new relation. Nihilism and Coke are replaced by the rules and apparatuses of the rom-com. Hardly a revolutionary conclusion.

And yet, the question for the Facebook left remains. Are either of these Hollywood conclusions the true limit? Do these examples expose the limit of the concept of overidentification or the limitations of Hollywood?

Whatever the answer, it's important that of these two heroes it's Becker who comes closest to revolutionary success, because while the form of his success is identical to Gibbons' success, his material circumstances at the end are much better. The Coca-Cola Kid is not reduced to guilt and repentance. (In both movies the protagonists steal large sums of money, but only in the Coca-Cola Kid does our hero get to keep the money.) Still, it's an open question, one worth debating. Can a positive overidentification lead to revolutionary transformation or is an embrace of our despair the best option?

Up next? Clockstoppers and the Negation of the Negation.

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One Comment to “Overidentification and the Coca-Cola Kid”

  1. Philch says:

    Very nicely written Doug.

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