Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

10 NOVEMBER, 2011

Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon


How Milton Glaser subverted Steve Jobs, or what the Mona Lisa has to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

What, exactly, makes an iconic image? You know, the kind that permeates pop culture to become imprinted on our collective conscience, achieving a status of instant recognition and near-universal appeal? That’s exactly what Oxford Trinity College professor Martin Kemp explores in Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon — a fascinating journey into the heart of modern iconography, veering across art, architecture, advertising, religion, science, and a wealth more. From the Mona Lisa to Che Guevara to Einstein’s E=mc² to Milton Glaser’s I♥NY, Kemp uses 11 such iconic images to examine the 11 key categories he identifies, lavishly illustrated in 165 color images. Beneath them all runs a common undercurrent of elements that hold the secret to all icons — among them, simplicity of message, robustness, and openness of interpretation.

Some types of images are specific — like Lisa and Che — while some are generic, such as the heart shape. The generic ones tend to seep gradually into general consciousness. The heart shape appeared on playing cards and became the religious symbol of the sacred heart, before becoming the ubiquitous symbol of love. It takes a designer of genius, like Milton Glaser, to refresh its power in the service of a specific cause. We all know I♥NY. But New York largely surrendered the ‘Big Apple’ to Steve Jobs.” ~ Martin Kemp

Mona Lisa, digitally restored. Photo courtesy of Pascal Cotte

Enrique Avila Gonzalez, Che Guevara. Ministry of the Interior, Havana, Cuba

Felix de Weldon, Marines Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, Virginia, Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery

BFF Architects and Izé, DNA door handles, London, Royal Society.

Kemp has an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal offering five lessons on successful iconography based on the case studies explored in the book.

Kemp also observes that even the icons of modern science, like DNA and E=mc², have taken on a quasi-religious dimension — which, of course, we already knew, even just by looking at the many geek-rebels who inked themselves with science. But, in fact, much of this iconography is based on pop culture mythology that isn’t necessarily rooted in truth. Kemp notes:

I assumed that Einstein’s famous formula for the equivalence of mass and energy, E=mc² had appeared in his renowned set of papers published in 1905. Einstein scholars insisted it was there. But it was not. In that precise form, the equation seems to have been visited on Einstein as a simplification of his ideas, cemented in the public mind by its association with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The well-known tends not to be true in such cases.”

Part Iron Fists, part The Myth of Pop Culture, part The Century of the Self, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon is an essential effort to understand who we came to worship what we worship and why the iconography of consumerism has such an enduring hold on us, whether or not we want to admit it. And though the book was written partly as a blueprint for branding, a subversive reading of it also offers a blueprint to the opposite — how to loosen the grip of commercial culture by better understanding the engineered mesmerism by which it transfixes us.

Images courtesy of Oxford University Press

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09 NOVEMBER, 2011

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors: The Physical Underbelly of the Internet


An anatomical tour of the Internet by way of 60 Hudson Street, a nondescript epicenter of global data traffic.

We keep thinking and reading about the Internet as a cultural phenomenon, but what about its palpable physicality? In 2010, it was estimated that the world produced over one thousand exobytes of new data, or one trillion gigabytes. Most of it doesn’t stay put — instead, it travels through the world’s servers, but where exactly does it go? That’s precisely what Ben Mendelsohn set out to answer in Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors, a fascinating short documentary for his masters thesis at The New School. The film takes us inside 60 Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan — a deceptively nondescript building that houses one of the world’s major nodes of the Internet. The rest…well, you’ll have to see for yourself:

It’s really vital to remember that the Internet is physical. The Internet can be touched, it is material and it exists — because so much of the rhetoric surrounding current concepts of ‘cyberspace’ suggests that it’s somehow just this sort of magic, etherial realm that exists ‘out there’ almost on its own.” ~ Stephen Graham, Professor of Cities and Society, Newcastle University

Technology does not exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by the many people and institutions that extract value from it. With all this infrastructure, all this sunk capital, there is obviously much value to extract from 60 Hudson Street… A combination of historic, technological, and economic forces has embedded this concentrated piece of Internet infrastructure in the dense urban core of Lower Manhattan.”

(Bonus: At 0:20, you can see a shot of our view at Studiomates.)

via The Atlantic Video

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09 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Ecstasy of Influence: Jonathan Lethem on the Author as a Public Intellectual


A self-conscious reflection on literary self-consciousness, or what David Foster Wallace’s true gift really was.

If you’ve ever aspired to write a book — and let’s agree that ‘book’ is not a diagnosis of medium — or understand those who do and have, then Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is for you. It’s part anthology of Lethem’s finest longform writing, part meditation on what it means to be what Lethem calls, not without a good measure of self-conscious self-consciousness, “an intellectual” — and even what it means to be an intellectual reader of an intellectual. He terms this the “white elephant” role of the author as a public intellectual and goes on to explore its burdens, blessings, and cultural responsibilities. (And he welcomes you to the conversation with a “bias spoiler alert” that forewarns: “I think I’m an intellectual, and I think you are too, whether you like it or not.”)

The zesty collection of “uncollected” writings includes some of Lethem’s best-known nonfiction pieces, exploring everything from cinema to graffiti to cyberculture to Bob Dylan, lined with a layer of metadata — epigraphs, quotes, reviews. But, above all, the anthology is about what Lethem calls “negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.” He writes:

I want to bite the hand that feeds me, even if that hand is sometimes yours, reader.

The book’s title is based on Lethem’s excellent 2007 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Curiously, Lethem appears preoccupied — whether in self-conscious jest or in heartfelt reality, the line between which is always elusive in the heart of the novelist — with these “plagiarisms,” “lifts both acknowledged and unacknowledged, both conscious and (surely) unconscious.” Curious because he gladly lists his many influences in writing his newest pieces — Renata Adler, Mark McGurl, David Foster Wallace, to name a few, alongside “usual suspects” like David Shields, Geoff Dyer, and Annie Dillard, as well as his life’s obsession with Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Given this very book is essentially a florilegium of writings and ideas by both Lethem himself and his literary influences, to slap the label “plagiarism” on the fundamental dynamic of what I’ve all too frequently referred to as combinatorial creativity is, at best, a semantic slip in the age of remix culture and, at its most unwholesome, an affront on the very mechanism that fuels creation, literary or otherwise.

(You can catch more of Lethem’s thoughts on influence in the excellent documentary Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age.)

For a taste, here are some favorite quotes that capture the mischievous irreverence and deep reflection with which Lethem approaches his subject.

On David Foster Wallace and self-consciousness:

David Foster Wallace deserves to be remembered as a great writer not because he was capable of doing PhD-level philosophical speculation as well as shunting fictional characters (slowly) through a well-described room but because he mastered a certain area of human sensation totally: intricate self-conscious remorse at the fact of self-consciousness. Wallace’s way of loading up this indistinct area with scrupulous depiction made a lot of people feel less lonely; meanwhile, the possibility that being the depicter made Wallace feel more lonely has become a widely circulated armchair-shrink’s allegory for the usefulness of self-consciousness. Because it doesn’t help. Doesn’t help the depressed person feel undepressed, doesn’t help the storyteller tell the story.

On language and self-consciousness:

Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.

On language and abstraction:

Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream.

On influence itself:

Influence is semiconscious, not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy of.’

On the curse of micro-celebrity:

If you want to drive a person mad in a fame culture, offer him only a little fame, the very least amount you can scrape up. This happens every day, but it happens in slow motion for novelists. We’re like the guy who gets voted off first on Survivor, except instead of departing the island we walk its beaches forever, muttering.

On the crux of writing:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’

On Vonnegut’s famously bitter retort to critics he thought wanted to see him vanish from the literary landscape — “I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books” — and the meta-irony therein:

Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep it in circulation shows he was wrong.

With its meta-commentary and its passionate urgency, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is at once a collection of some of our time’s best longform writing and a welcome reflection, if a self-conscious one, on the writer’s fate in contemporary culture.

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