A number of books1 I’ve read recently have alluded to the following: It is easier to control (i.e., manipulate, influence, or guide) people who can read. For the sake of example: The Church is, perhaps (I am speculating here), one of the oldest institutions still in existence to recognize this. The Bible has been read a lot, like, probably more than any other book, ever2, and Christianity is the most popular religion in the world today3. I don’t think these details are coincidental; as literacy spread, so likely did the religion in tandem. The pre-layperson is more apt to proselytize if he or she can read,4 so missionary efforts have long-incorporated teaching literacy (if necessary) as requisite for Bible study.5 The Bible is important because of the permanence it holds and imparts as a written work. Think in the short term how totally garbled a spoken message can become, like after a single round of “telephone”6. Without the scriptures, and subsequent advancements in printing, the Christian beliefs may have been lost or struggled to penetrate the mainstream.
And likewise, just as the Churches grew by propagating a clear, enduring message, governments began to mandate in the same vein to grow nations: standardized schooling with an emphasis on cultivating literacy.7,8 The idea behind this, I think, is to provide everyone a fair opportunity to become a contributing member of society, or facilitate the assimilation of citizens into the workforce. Being illiterate in a literate society generally limits one’s prospects for employment, and thus ability to sustain an existence. So it’s in one’s best interests to go school and learn how to read, anyway. Plus, by working and chipping in to its economy, the country becomes stronger, which benefits all.
But certain individuals and communities have, at times, shown resistance to the notion of a compulsory education. Despite the apparent, mutual advantages reaped by those who go along with the system, these peoples perceive themselves as being more capable of filling societal niches when left to be, unregulated—that is, without the need for formal schooling. They teach themselves as (and what) is necessary. They pursue that which is of interest. They react to their environment. A standardized upbringing homogenizes a community and diminishes the diversification among itself which lends to niche-filling and survival. Ecosystems, small or large, exist only through a high degree of specialization.
And what has struck me, besides the fascinating interplay of collective- and self-interests, is that the books I read, which touch on the literacy and education components mentioned above, are pretty dissimilar. They range in genre9, country of origin10, subject matter11, and writing style12. So the ideas can be found all over. I encountered this side discussion by chance, and many more works likely talk of the same.
I’ve not read enough prior to when the earliest of these books was written (1877) to know whether the commentary trends further back or how far—but it likely rose with the proliferation of compulsory education throughout Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s.
Here are a few elucidative passages (more than I intended to include…) arranged in a particular, degenerate progression; the sociopolitical backdrop is nuanced:
“Want to cure anybody of anything, find out who doesn’t have it. So who don’t got it? Junkies don’t got it. Oh, incidentally, there’s an area in Bolivia with no psychosis. Right sane folk in them hills. Like to get in there, me, before it is loused up by literacy, advertising, TV and drive-ins.” 13
“The Eskimo, like any pre-literate, leaps easily from the Paleolithic stone age to the electric age, by-passing the Neolithic specialism.” 14
“The degree of a people’s education, it is often said, does not depend on the greater or smaller number of illiterates.” 15
“The man that can read and write is much inferior as a workman.” 16
“Education is healthy when peoples themselves are in a healthy state; but it becomes corrupt with them, being unable to modify itself. […] Education, therefore, can be reformed only if society itself is reformed.” 17
“[…] the important thing is not to be able to read, but to understand what one reads, to reflect on and judge what ones reads.” 18
“To place the means of learning within everyone’s reach, and even legally to forbid ignorance, shows a national awareness of the indispensability of broadened and enlightened intelligence of the individual for the nation’s own existence.” 19
“The alphabet and paper create armies, or rather the bureaucracies which run armies. Paper creates self-contained kingdoms at a distance.” 20
As one can see, this conversation travels from (1) the notion of the unadulterated self-sustaining native to (2) the idea of a communal worker debased by knowledge to (3) an inquiry into the nature/purpose of education to (4) intimations of the individual’s concessions to the self-centered schemes of national development.
Let’s be cynics for a moment21 and assume a bureaucratic desire for growth, power, and/or control is one of the driving forces behind certain modern pedagogic systems. Because of my academic credentials—CV: formally educated; not illiterate—I am liable to be inordinately influenced by that which I read22 and, with particular thoughtless susceptibility, textual advertising. (That is, visual advertising with printed words.) Textual advertising, which will be the focus of discussion later, totally does work, by the way, to clarify my stance on the matter. The reader is not immune. The medium would not be so incessant and pervasive if it was not effective.
And a further by the way: I went to the movies for the first time in roughly six years this past month, yieldingly—I am not a movie person—after being invited on short notice by an old friend I had not seen in a long while to co-spectate The Avengers: Infinity War (a romcom [I think]). I will not recount the experience in full, but these are the important details:
We met at the theater about 20 minutes prior to showtime to get “good seats,”—these are the ones located directly in front of Ritalin-deprived children with spasmodic lower limbs,—my cohort ducked out momentarily to remap his hard drive (i.e., smoke weed), I refused to acknowledge my pocket-stowed phone (doing this would signify a concession to regrettable circumstances…), and so alone, in the dark, and with nothing less vacuous to do, I counted commercials, which (1) I didn’t even know were rolled before movies these days (more on this soon) and (2) I am seldom exposed to because I don’t watch television or even video content in general anymore (re-exposure was stark), but I tallied ~38 commercials and previews (which makes sense if each is half a minute long). This is a large number. Row eleven lazed unfazed. There was even a commercial for Facebook. Facebook makes most of its money from advertising, itself. So this was a commercial enticing the audience to watch more commercials, essentially. Most people in the theater were either (A) too stoned to realize this (see: cohort), (B) rendered comatose from the combination of a high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened carbonated beverage plus butter-flavored-GMO-corn oil-drenched GMO popcorn, a provisional medical condition also known as “getting lost in the maize,” and/or (C) already browsing Facebook concurrently with the airing of this commercial. A semi-attentive individual blighted by none of the above named Adam felt his intelligence insulted. I also want to complain while I’m at it that the movie ticket—mine was $13.90—should cost less the earlier the movie-goer arrives if they are selfless enough to sit through that many commercials beforehand. I vow to have thrown my phone into a pond by the time the rewards app is released that does provide theater credits by way of gamification for the fervent commercial-watcher.
The movie itself contained even more advertising (as if the pre-feature bombardment was not enough). Much of it probably slipped past my conscious faculties, but there are two instances I am able to recall: (1) an Infiniti-brand car23 was flashed at the opening of the post-credits scene—the camera panned quickly upward so that the front grill of the car, emblazoned with aforementioned brand’s silver-colored oval-encompassed vanishing-point-road logo, trailed almost immediately off screen—probably not all that dissimilarly from the types of advertising tactics deemed “contrary to the public interest” by the FCC in 197424—and (2) there was mention of Starbucks during dialogue in Wakanda that was plainly disjointed from the rest of the script.
These were ad spots. The average movie-goer does not realize this. And sales will increase for both brands. (Such is the brave new world.)
To spend money for the privilege of being exploited (of even more money) is insanity to me. I would propose as a compromise either free admission (with ads) or paid admission (without ads). Many online services operate under this business model, though I will admit that “either-or” is a romantic notion which often does not truly exist (or last). Capitalism forges ahead and abandons stragglers in its wakes. I’ve heard said recently, approximately: “I’m glad professional athletes are finally being paid; the team owners profited unfairly for far too long”; and in the past: “Good on the musicians for cashing in; the record companies reamed them for years.” Okay. Sure. Where does anyone think this money is coming from? From thin air? The people in suits are not taking pay cuts. Is it not apparent that certain other individuals are now being worked over? The money comes from the consumer. You.
Again, (to swerve back on topic), I don’t watch movies, like, ever, and I’ve been mostly oblivious until recently. So maybe this—advertising within film—is normal today or always has been. And now that I’m thinking about it: The product placement bit in Wayne’s World (released in Feb. ’92, 26 years ago) has forever stuck with me as one of the most memorable scenes of any movie, ever, for flipping the script on subtle, discreet, let’s-not-talk-about-it practice of product placement by undressing the concept, standing up to “the Man,” and making a mockery of anyone who would even consider “selling out.” However, this synopsis is derived from just one aspect of the scene: the dialogue. The visuals clash entirely with the spoken message (Wayne holds up a bag of Doritos, Garth is decked from toe to head in Reebok gear, etc.). By scene’s end, the heroes are regurgitating product names and catchphrases, and audio-visual dissonance has melded into harmony. The layers of contradiction do brilliantly to disarm the viewer. Humor is what allows for this discussion of an objectionable topic.
Fallout: That scene, in all likelihood, helped to normalize product placement by acknowledging the tactic in a way that perceptive viewers would thereafter want to identify advertising within TV and movies—partaking in a sadistic, impromptu “I spy” game—so that they could mock, as Wayne and Garth did, the rapacious business exec, thereby increasing the reach and effectiveness of said advertising. I am becoming self-aware. By the way, again: Has irony been trumped yet?
Anyway. My point is that advertising is everywhere, often point-blank, blatant—and beyond recognition. But it is there, still suffusing the subconscious into action. Remember: Advertising works.
My awareness of its efficacy heightened this past winter when I began experiencing what I will describe as “Lee Dreams.” A Lee Dream is a recurring dream which involves an old friend of mine, forenamed Lee, whom I have not seen or spoken to in five years. (That’s kind of a long time—far enough removed for him to have faded from conscious thought.) The gist of these dreams is that Lee would be present. That’s it. There’s nothing remarkable to relay other than his presence. He would not speak. He would not move. He would not waver. He was always just visually there. Sometimes the dreams contained only an expressionless Lee. He sat, or stood, suspended in midair. More often, other persons took center stage, while Lee idled mannequin-like in the periphery. We made no eye contact. He may or may not have faced me. The backdrop was always nondescript; perspective: first-person.
(“LEE!”—My highest-decibel in-print impression of Lee’s mom summoning a negligent teenage Lee to rebuke for doing something wrong [which happened often while I was over visiting him], like forgetting to take their family dog, Boomer, out for a walk or empty the kitchen trash. The call was deafening; it pierced clear from bottom to top floor of their capacious three-story house.)
The dreams persisted intermittently for two months. I prefer to understand than to carry on ignorantly, so one habit I’ve developed is to write my dreams on paper each morning (if I have or can remember any). The nature of their content typically becomes evident once a few key words are handwritten. Thoughts move so quickly through the brain that they can be difficult to comprehend in vivo. Handwriting constricts the speed at which thoughts whizz past the point of scrutiny, which makes their symbolism or actuality more readily apparent. The most common dream motif (I’ve made out) is for an indiscriminate motley of “daytime” impressions (e.g., perceptions, interactions, musings) to coalesce into a unified and associative scene, or: The web of experience transmutes into a vignette of sorts. But this did not appear to be the case with Lee Dreams (because he and I are so far removed, time- and distance-wise), and I could not decipher what induced them.
And then, one day, Lee™ hit me.
The striped, long-sleeve shirt hanging in my closet (in this photo rotated 22° clockwise for radical effect) (and also readability…) is a Lee™ brand long-sleeve henley with embroidered patch—white type on black background, oval shape—sewn onto the bottom front right corner. The patch happens to face square outward when the shirt is hung. The text is small but discernible: “Lee.”
Like the Lee™ shirt in my closet, the Lee friend in my dreams was distant, tranquil, and expressionless. He was silent. He floated. He was still. The Lee in my dreams represented a remarkably accurate subconscious reverse-personification of object into flesh.
Into view: I cleaned out my closet in January. There was not much left in it afterward (see photographic evidence above). Previously, the Lee™ shirt was hidden, tucked back behind the partition; now exposed, the logo regularly clipped my peripheral vision. I never actively sought to read it. Yet Lee Dreams ensued; in retrospect, this was unsurprising.
The associations were automatic, unconscious, and terribly logical. The brain is always working.
…And out: I disposed of the shirt. Lee Dreams went with it. (I’ve not had one since.)
This experience opened my eyes to the great scope of perception. The senses pick up a lot—much more than is relayed as conscious thought. The brain is always internalizing the surrounding environment, forming associations with past experiences, and building upon its schema for life. This happens almost entirely subconsciously. Printed words, in particular, seem to command a disproportionately-high level of perceptual attention. I don’t know why this is the case—perhaps in part because the recognition of patterns is a survival trait, and words are patterns of letters, phrases are patterns of words, etc…—but I’m pretty certain that if something’s readable, my brain will read it. I don’t have much say in the matter. The assimilation of words, for a literate, is passive. (To think critically of them is another matter.) And because words can profoundly impact thought and action, I now actively manipulate those that surround me.
What Lee Dreams made obvious is that there have been other subliminal cues in my habitual environment shaping my behavior. The quintessential example of this is the grocery bag. I sometimes use paper or plastic grocery bags for temporarily storing items around my apartment. Printed on these bags are store logos. Store logos usually contain store names (i.e., words). I read words. By keeping these bags in sight, I am exposing myself to a nonstop whirr of textual advertising that I can’t help but absorb. The words “Home Depot” and “Whole Foods” move in and out of my peripheral vision like the Lee™ logo, and like the Infiniti car logo mentioned before that. And I did notice, in retrospect: I began shopping at these stores more frequently than I would have otherwise when I had the bags lying around. Once I caught on and replaced the branded bags with plain bags, I essentially “forgot” to shop at these places so much; it stopped crossing my mind to go there. (“Drink Coca-Cola”…“Eat Popcorn”…”Shop At Whole Foods”25) Bags are a big deal. Retailers have reason to produce good, attractive, reusable bags besides gratifying the customer: They are super low-cost advertising materials.
Side Note on Symbols: I don’t think symbols (e.g., logos sans text) command nearly as much notice from the cognitive faculties as words. Symbols can convey more than words, but their abstract nature assumes a subjective likeness; words more concretely describe or command. Perhaps this clarity of expression, or bite, is what lends words their vividness.
Beyond routinizing behavior, prolonged brand exposure can also radically alter the way in which a “thing”—object, service, person, or place—is understood. What may, or may not, be hyperbole: The modern society is one where preconception supersedes perception. No longer do citizens need to think for themselves. The true method of knowledge is experiencing whatever the Mad men have cooked up: “We told you already. It is all spelled out. p-l-a-c-e-b-o. See it? Picture. Visualize. You’re always looking at it. Image is everything. Go away; take a hike. What Ding an sich?”
This is “the nature of the beast,” and I am first-hand prey to twenty-first century marketing tactics (more from my closet): (raises hand, stands up, clears throat, takes sip of hideous coffee) “My name is Adam, and I was a J.Crew customer for eight years.” OK—with that out of the way…I did wear J.Crew-brand clothing almost exclusively throughout my 20s during and after I graduated from college. (Yes, I was a pretentious dimbus who paraded slash farted about 24/7 ostentatiously in uncomfortable boat shoes.) Some of their stuff I procured new, in-store, (on clearance…); other items I bought discounted on eBay. Regardless: I was partial to this brand because of their lack of branding. Their clothes (for the most part) do not outwardly project the word “J.Crew” or symbolic logos—no insignias, no whatever. I liked this. I wanted a clean look. Let the cut and materials speak for themselves. I despise what emblazoned attire stands for (viz., a marketing scheme26), and so I was willing to pay extra (J.Crew is overpriced) to not whore myself out as a walking billboard.
Of course, there were still tags. I would be remiss to not mention the tags. (Tags.) J.Crew conspicuously affixes all their clothing with inner information tags that detail laundering instructions and other pertinent tidbits (e.g., an actual J.Crew-brand tag: “J.Crew. Wash cold. Tumble dry low. Made in Portugal. Size XL. J.Crew. P.S. J.Crew.”). Every time I put on something from J.Crew, I knew exactly what brand I was wearing. The tags could be read. And this boosted my self-impression. So what began as disdain for the ostentatious display of a label took on inverse form. Instead of projecting the brand onto others, I projected it onto myself. The attentive reader could define this as hypocrisy. But I loathed the idea of removing the inner tags. It made me sick. To do so would devalue the clothes. They would no longer be recognizably J.Crew. Identity would be lost. Onset anomie.
Eventually, though, I caved. The Lee Dreams did me in. I could not continue in such a manner so incongruous with my beliefs. On a fateful Friday evening, I unstitched down to and including the iconic red-oarsman tags (the classic ones), utterly castrating the ethos of my wardrobe (the scene was disgusting), and shortly thereafter realized:
Hey, these clothes aren’t all that great. They aren’t that substantial. They aren’t that warm. They aren’t that practical. I can’t do all that much in them besides sit around and look incredibly attractive. I can do better.
I subsequently unsubscribed from the biannual J.Crew mail catalog, sold off my entire collection of J.C. vêtements (under market value because of the missing tags…), and started afresh under the pretext of practicality; Thoreau is likely correct in his assessment of fashion: At all times everyone dresses poorly.27 The field of marketing rests upon the propagation preconceived notions. I had bought into a brand name,—a very careful crafted vision of grandeur,—and it was not until I quite literally dissociated expectation from experience that I was able to perceive more clearly the thing for itself.
Since these epiphanies, I’ve been hellbent on removing labels and branding from my living space. My hope is to persist nearer to true sight. Labels, to clarify, include the tags stitched into clothing, bedding, towels, and more; brand names and logos are often printed or stuck onto appliances. The interjections are everywhere; invasive is a word that comes to mind. The clean-up has felt Sisyphean so far: After slaying one label, another I hadn’t noticed before will leap out, and so on. This pattern may be endless. Most everything that can be bought is entrenched in branding.
These are the tools I use to pare down the noise:
- seam ripper + scissors: to remove clothing tags
- goo gone + scrapers: to remove stickers
- electrical tape: to cover logos (on appliances, mostly)
- plain containers: like clear plastic freezer bags, unlabeled paper grocery or lunch bags, and glass jars and containers (for food storage or organizational purposes)
Note! All these items are (1) simple to use, (2) readily available, and (3) relatively affordable. It is cheap and easy to empower oneself in the effort to recalibrate reality. The most challenging aspect is developing an eagerness to confront and change what’s come to be understood. It can be painful to detach meaning—logos and brand names—from material possessions, or extensions of the self. It feels like loss. Objects change identity without words or symbols to define them, and their nude form can be stark.
Even if a label is not commercial in nature (e.g., “wash cold, dry low heat; here to help”), it will still repeatedly divert attention, so I rip out these labels too. If the eye can see it, the mind will try to make sense of it (see: Lee Dreams). Read the label once, attentively and actively (in the form of note-taking), then trash it.
I think of the brain slash mind sometimes as a three-dimensional wad of Silly Putty which is continuously tugged and teased in all directions by the infinite gamut of sensory perception. Some stimuli impress upon and shape the brain more than others. Almost all leave their fingerprints below conscious threshold. This elastic mind, frozen in time, represents the collision of a multidimensional present moment and the aggregate of past experience. Each passing transitory form dictates thoughts and behavior (i.e., perception), and thus projects or leads an individual into the future. By manipulating the form, the environment is restructured, and vice-versa. That which surrounds the mind reflects it back.
To maintain elasticity, the brain requires movement. An encounter with the unfamiliar heightens its understandings and form. Ideally, the mind is readily shaped—and reshaped—in conjunction with steadily varying, intriguing surroundings. Prolonged exposure to the same, high-registering stimuli (like brand names and logos) diminishes its reactivity; the mind becomes conditioned into rigid conformations that afford little flexibility (i.e., the Silly Putty goes hard and stale). Perception is blunted, and opportunities for environmental interaction are missed.
This is why I’ve found it worthwhile to reassess and reconfigure my surroundings. With less of the subliminal, superseding sway in the way, I feel more perceptive, fluid, and able to react. What I had previously overlooked now tends to “jump out”—needs, curiosities, demands, possible interests—and I am increasingly wont to pursue these rising attractions. My “routine” is interacting with what’s around me in a way that perpetuates change and thus a continual evolution of understanding. I am naturally inclined to move forward. To hold me back, spell it out.
1 Four, to be exact (I know, not really that many; “a number” should be at least five or more; apologies for the letdown): Anna Karenina—Leo Tolstoy, The Global Village—Marshall McLuhan, Naked Lunch—William Burroughs, and On Suicide—Émile Durkheim.
2 It is widely considered the best-selling book, at least, and when considering the deluge of page-thumbing it takes every Sunday, worldwide, I think it’s pretty safe to posit this. Source: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/12/18/the-good-book-business
3 Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christians-remain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/
4 The reasons for this will become apparent later, but generally, what has been read sticks more than what has been heard.
5 Protestantism, in fact, regards scripture as its highest source of authority, which makes literacy (or a ridiculous audial memory) absolutely necessary for the would-be convert.
6 A game, maybe more commonly known as “whisper down the lane” or “Chinese whispers,” typically played in elementary schools, in which a phrase or short sentence is whispered down a line of players, from one player to another. The last player in sequence announces the message they’ve received, which has often strayed from the original message, to humorous effect (e.g., “The countess wears crowns in Constantinople.” morphs into “The cow’s niece sounds insistent. Oval.”). The purpose of the game is to reinforce articulation and listening skills.
7 Aside: So, there’s evidence that many people in the United States (who were not precluded from doing so) did learn how to read, voluntarily, before the advent of compulsory attendance laws8—however, a universal curriculum is probably more likely to foster an aspect of national coherence among citizens.
8 Source: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2003/12/5/4379/-
9 Fiction and non-fiction.
10 Canada, France, Russia, and the United States.
11 Hallucinogenic experiences as the result of taking hard and soft drugs, an unhappy family, reasons why people kill themselves, and psychological affects of media in the 21st century. (Maybe the books are interrelated…)
12 Monograph, post-modern experimental, realist, and philosophical.
13 Burroughs, William S., Naked Lunch, 1959
14 McLuhan, Marshall, Culture Is Our Business, 1970
15,17,19 Durkheim, Émile, On Suicide, 1897
16 Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, 1877
18 Ellul, Jacques, Propaganda, 1962
20 McLuhan, Marshall, The Global Village, 1978
21 For any readers that do not yet own a tin foil hat, now is a good time to procure one, and here is a how-to guide: https://zapatopi.net/afdb/
22 As opposed to that which I hear, smell, touch, see (but am unable to read), etc.
23 Okay, I’ll admit: The Infinity War–Infiniti cars tie-in is clever.
24 Sources: https://transition.fcc.gov/Speeches/Furchtgott_Roth/2000/sphfr011.html, https://transition.fcc.gov/Speeches/Tristani/Statements/2001/stgt123.html
25 “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” are phrases of folklore, allegedly spliced into a film reel used as part of an advertising experiment to gauge the subconscious suggestibility of moviegoers in 1957. Results showed sales increases of 18.1% and 57.7% for the two refreshments, respectively. The experiment has been widely repudiated, but the public interest it raised in part prompted the FCC’s 1974 policy statement which decried the use of subliminal advertising. (Draw from that what you will.) Source: http://plaza.ufl.edu/cyllek/docs/KCrandall_Thesis2006.pdf
26 Most commonly, an article of clothing will cost more simply because it has a brand name attached (and not because the garment is superlative in any way). At the other end of the spectrum, clothing can cost less (or even nothing) when it has been pre-sold as a promotional item (think of the free t-shirts given out at fundraisers, like 5K runs or other community events, that have a wall of sponsors depicted on the back). So there is this odd juxtaposition between paying more to brand oneself and paying less to do the same. Either way, the idea is for the branded item to sell (and resell) itself.
27 This is an approximation of: “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” Source: Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, 1854