Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

24 JULY, 2012

Anti-Suffragette Postcards from the Early 20th Century

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A brief pictorial history of socially sanctioned sexism.

Among February’s vintage Valentine’s Day postcards from the early 1900s was some anti-suffragette propaganda. That brand of misogynist messaging, it turns out, wasn’t reserved just for Cupid’s favorite holiday — in fact, as the suffrage movement swelled into a groundswell in the early 20th century, the picture postcard industry was enlisted in producing propaganda that discredited and denigrated women fighting for the vote. Here are a few more anti-suffragette postcards from the period, a reminder at once amusing and appalling of our culture’s history of socially sanctioned bigotry. (No doubt, Tea Party signage on marriage rights and immigration will appear in similar contexts in the cultural criticism of tomorrow.)

If this wasn’t amusingly appalling enough for you, up the ante with this Victorian list of don’ts for female cyclists, but then lift your spirits with a look at how the bicycle actually emancipated women.

History Extra @matthiasrascher

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23 JULY, 2012

Cultural History Gem: Saul Bass’s Original Pitch for the Bell Systems Logo Redesign, 1969

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The greatest graphic designer of all time traces the evolution of consumer culture via the telephone.

For many of us, Saul Bass endures as the greatest graphic designer of all time and an unmatched master of the film title sequence. But Bass was also a keen branding savant, who helped shape the identities of clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Minolta, Quaker Oats, Kleenex, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

In 1969, Bass was tasked with reimagining the visual identity of the American Bell Telephone Company, commonly referred to as “Ma Bell,” in an effort to modernize the old-timey bell-and-circle logo by eliminating its datedness but preserving its comforting familiarity. This rare footage captures the full half-hour of Bass and his team’s original pitch to Bell, which envisioned an entire ecosystem of identity well beyond the logo — signage, print, outdoor, and even executive cufflinks. The pitch could well have been masterminded by Don Draper, itself a fascinating and layered piece of cultural history covering the evolution of consumerism through the story of the telephone and the larger context of changing social expectations.

We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive.

Business has its particular problems — young people refusing good jobs; investors are more influenced by publicity than performance; customers complaining about the finest products produced anywhere in the world….Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.

[…]

How a thing looks today is as important as how well it works. As never before, people are influenced by what they see.

In 1983, after the breakup of Bell Systems, Bass also designed the famous AT&T “globe” logo, which AT&T didn’t update until 2005. (And, many have said, never should have.)

For a glimpse of how logo design has changed since the age of Bass, see this fantastic recent PBS Off Book micro-documentary, featuring Brain Pickings favorites Kelli Anderson and Steven Heller, complete with a Curator’s Code mention:

[A logo] is informed and reinforced by the things we see every day, and it’s important to acknowledge that entire invisible vocabulary.” ~ Kelli Anderson

For the ultimate Bass gold, don’t miss the indispensable Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, one of the best art and design books of 2011 and quite possibly among the best of all time.

Open Culture

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20 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

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“Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking.”

In devouring the newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), I came across two passages addressing something that concerns me daily — the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky soundbites and catchphrases, a practice that in the three decades since Sontag’s writings has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the “ideas economy.” Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same.

In an entry dated April 26, 1980, Sontag offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking:

Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.

Then, ten days later, on May 6, she continues:

With the (1943) epigraph of Canetti. ‘The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.’

One wonders why. Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics?

The traditional thematics of the aphorist: the hypocrisies of societies, the vanities of human wishes, the shallowness + deviousness of women; the sham of love; the pleasures (and necessity) of solitude; + the intricacies of one’s own thought processes.

[…]

Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard …

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is a remarkable read in its entirety. Sample it further with Sontag on writing, sex, boredom, and censorship, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated wisdom on art and on love.

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