Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

19 OCTOBER, 2012

Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels

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A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

One-Minute Animated Primers on Major Theories of Religion

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From Karl Marx to Richard Dawkins in 60 seconds.

Last year, Open University brought us 60-Second Adventures in Thought — a fascinating and wonderfully animated series exploring six famous philosophy thought experiments. This season, they’re back with 60-Second Adventures in Religion — four short informative yet jocular primers on some major theories of religious studies, offering a fine addition to these essential meditations on faith.

The first introduces Karl Marx and his conception of religion as a vehicle of illusory happiness and a means of oppression and social control:

The second explores religion as ritual through the work of pioneering sociologist Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte, better-known as Auguste, who — like Alain de Botton today — tried to start a secular religion based on values of charity, order, and science:

The third episode paints religion as a mother through Swiss antiquarian and Roman law professor J. J. Bachofer’s theories of matriarchy:

The final installment explores religion as a virus, a concept proposed by Richard Dawkins, who famously coined the term “meme”:

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

A Poetic Antidote to City Life

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“You exist by your smile and your presence… Quests, pursuits of concrete securities of one kind or another lose all their importance.”

Last week’s omnibus of everyday happiness recorded by history’s great minds reminded me of a beautiful passage by Anaïs Nin from Diary of Anaïs Nin Volume 5 1947-1955: Vol. 5 (1947-1955) (public library), in which she — very much a city woman, but one with a deep sensitivity to the poetic and a hunger for existential truth — captures the remarkable awakening that happens when we shed our city skin and plunge into nature with joy and abandon:

[Fall, 1951]

To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep. It has something to do with the presence of millions of anonymous faces, anonymous people, and the desperate ways of achieving distinction. Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body. The body comes to life. Quests, pursuits of concrete securities of one kind or another lose all their importance. As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.

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17 OCTOBER, 2012

Action Philosophers: Two Millennia of Philosophy in Comic Form

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John Stuart Mill meets Peanuts, or how to handle mummies like Carl Jung.

Graphic nonfiction has established itself as a storytelling medium for educational entertainment and entertaining education, from the history of the atomic bomb to the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson to the Zen of Steve Jobs. Action Philosophers! (public library), a mega-tome collecting all nine volumes of the celebrated series by graphic artist Ryan Dunlavey and writer Fred Van Lente, takes you on an ideological journey from the pre-Socratics to Jacques Derrida, by way of Rene Descartes, John Stuart Mill, and Carl Jung, giving those literary action figures a run for the money.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.