Sleight of Hand

I recently came across an interesting post Andrew James Myers produced as part of his participation in Henry Jenkin’s PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals. Myers writes about the visual representations Apple deploys to narrate that consummate object of modern consumption, the iPhone.

As Myers writes:

Apple’s recent release of two new iPhone models — the iPhone 5s and 5c — was heralded with a pair of videos celebrating the aesthetics of each of the devices’ design and physical materials. The first, a 30-second spot entitled Plastic Perfected played at the 5c’s unveiling and aired on national TV, shows abstract swirls of liquid colors against a white background, gradually molding itself into the form of the iPhone 5c’s plastic shell. Other components, like the camera and the small screws, emerge spontaneously from within the molten plastic, until the idea of the iPhone is fully materialized, having literally created itself.

More than this disjuncture, of an object so keenly separated from the means of its production, Myers helpfully juxtaposes the presence and absence of hands in the visual depictions of Apple’s products and manufactories. In particular, he reveals how the company’s marketing videos have privileged a particular kind of hand—the disembodied consumptive hand as gestural manipulator—while simultaneously erasing those very hands whose constrained gestures worked to produce these mass objects of consumption.

But make no mistake, despite the literally under-handed representations the company embraces when the source of its labor is found in Foxconn’s factories, these fall away as soon as they are able to rehabilitate the dream of Fordist consumptive society surrounding their manufacture. The marketing for their heralded return to US manufacturing contains all manner of extremities newly realized as the manipulative forces of production. It is not only the case that, as Myers suggests, “human labor at assembly factories like Foxconn is completely erased, written out of Apple’s corporate self-identity,” but that the arbiter of permissible representations is carefully attenuated not only along the dextrous dichotomy between producer and consumer, but to a privileged class of designer hands. This categorization had included prominent individual gesticulators like Ive, but it is now brought to encompass the pristine American digits gloved for Apple’s most expensive digital consumer products.

They move beside robotic arms carrying finely wrought components to the next set of precision operations. They manipulate sophisticated computer interfaces controlling digital instruments of design and assembly. In short, they do all those things we had imagined hands should do in the future of production and manufacture. What they do not do is what the hands at Foxconn invariably must—perfectly perform the same tiny gestures thousands of times in repetitiously rapid succession. The presence, absence, and most importantly, the kind of hand and the gestures to which it is set becomes a representational index prompting the investigation of all manner of sinister productions.

Seminar on Public Intellectuals