McClintock, "Soft-soaping Empire"


One of the reasons McClintock is interested in the fetishistic dimensions of imperial advertising is that it calls into question Imperialism's constructed "rational-irrational" binary. Colonial discourses often mobilized this binary (Imperialists-as-rational versus colonized peoples-as-irrational) to justify European imperialism's "rational civilizing mission," which exploited so much of the world. The use of fetishism (i.e., the investing of objects with magical properties) in advertising demonstrates that the logic of colonialism was never "rational." Investigating the fetishism of advertising can reveal some of the fantasies that were operating within cultural imperialism. At the same time, it can also shed light on the ways in which colonial commodities themselves worked to advance the imperial project (whether in the minds of Europeans or in the cultural and economic processes of exchange). Use the following questions to guide your reading:

1. On the surface, soap advertising marketed bars of soap. What else, according to McClintock, was being marketed (i.e., what values, norms, meanings, etc.)?
2. How did soap advertising sell the project of imperialism itself? What kinds of narratives and myths did it use?
3. What does McClintock mean by "commodity racism" (209)?
4. How did soap function as a "fetish object" in the colonial imaginary (211)?
5. What are the 4 fetishes that "recur ritualistically" in imperial soap advertisements? What kinds of meanings did these fetishes produce?
6. What were the things that were hidden from view by these fetishes? Why do you think this was so?
7. How did imperial commodities participate in the "domestication of empire"? What kinds of gendered and racialized meanings did this process produce? (219)
8. McClintock writes, "more than merely a symbol of imperial progress, the domestic commodity becomes the agent of history itself" (221). What does she mean? How does the commodity not only *represent* imperialism, but actually participate in it?


First off before starting this reading I never thought of soap as something that could be a "fetish object", and I'm curious what people think about the Pear soap ad with the coalsweeper. Do you think this relates to what we talked about in class on Tuesday when thinking about what the difference between "a white man" and "a man"? Is the ad in a sense saying that the soap is an way to go from being a man to a white man? I'm curious if anyone else saw this relation to Tuesday's discussion and the Enloe reading.

Throughout the Pears soap advertising campaign in the 19th century, there ere four fetishes that reoccurred ritualistically. They ere the soap itself, white clothing (aprons), mirrors, and monkeys. I thought the use of a white and a black man in the advertisement was showcasing the beginning of imperialism and the racism we see in society soon after. The white boy is clothed in white, showing his grace and purity. He looks down upon his “lesser” black man, and uses the soap to “wash away” any stigma. The mirror is also used in a racial way by changing the black male to a hybrid of colors, both white and black. As his face remains black, displaying his self-consciousness, his body turns white, displaying the white and Victorian dominance of the male over their lesser counterparts.

Soap. This was just the beginning. This was the first time people bought an item associated with a brand becuase prior to this it was just soaps sold as soap. I think marketers were really marketing this idea of "pureness" that, during that time, was only a product of higher, white, powers. With this new era of soap, came a new form of mediation which McClintock refers to as monogomy- clean sex, Industrial capitol- clean money, Christianity- being washed in the blood of the lamb, class control- cleansing the great unwashed, and Imperial Civilizing Mission- Washing and Clothing the Savage. What does everyone think that this means?

Confession: I didn't pay attention in history class, therefor I don't exactly understand what "imperialism" means. I have a general idea given the information in the text, but I would appreciate an explanation if anyone could break this down for me.

Also, the multiple meanings/norms that consuming soap had were shocking. Not only did soap use mean that you were clean and smelled like a bed of roses, but that you were a part of a higher class. Soap wasn't an affordable commodity for everyone during the Victorian era, so those who were able to wash their clothes, bodies, and bedding were regarded in a higher light.

Was the Victorian time period when it was considered fashionable and elegant to be lighter than "Minnesota-winter-pale?" I am pretty certain Queen Elizabeth was super pale because it was a superior statement at the time.

McClintock's reading was not what I expected it to be. Who would have thought soap could be such a controversial media topic. My question is how many different ways do people interpret the soap in the ad campaign?

McClintlock's definition of commodity racism is the transfer of value to a product through racialized means, which relies on the value inherent to racist ideologies of the Victorian era. Racism helps sell the product, therefore racism is sellable. Is commodity racism active in today's media? I think so, however it needs to operate differently in a post-civil rights society. We see the idea of equality as being something that is commodified, and not natural to our discourse when many options for advancement for african americans in our society revolve around entertainment and sports.

McClintlock's reading to me seems really racist. It must have been that time period that it was okay to do that in. Does anyone else think it was racist? I am not familiar with the "Victorian" term and thus my understanding could be off a little. My questions is did these advertisement really work? Did people go running out to buy these products?

What I found so interesting about this article was how the object soap could cause such a cultural change. How can one simple object change society's definition of what cleanliness is? I found the way in which soap was advertised made it a necessity for households to take part in cleaning and washing practices much more often than what was the norm of the time. I wonder how much of the soap campaign was based off of science and the connection between cleanliness and the decrease of sickness and how much was based off the desire for wanting more money from the consumers?

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This page contains a single entry by zimme313 published on February 18, 2013 12:25 PM.

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