Sunday, December 1, 2013
On Advertising and Consumer Capitalism: Let's relativize these two concepts for a minute. That is, put some distance between them and our "postmodern" selves. Why is advertising important? In a way, it's the "nexus" of commerce and culture. It has also become the primary funding vehicle for delivering cultural content, whether that content gets delivered via the radio, television, or internet. And in a way, advertising is the main reason why many people aspire to the values of middle-and-upper-class life. Advertising, therefore, has a homogenizing effect in this regard. But one must dig deeper into the industry's history to uncover its elitist origins. When the ad industry began to "professionalize" in the early 20th century, most of the "ad men" were upper-middle class with Ivy League educations. Consumer capitalists needed these ad men to serve as middle men between customers and the products they wanted to sell. Thus, it became the ad man's job to manipulate consumer demand by creating a kind of "anxiety" within the customer. This anxiety, according to historian Roland Marchand, became the basis from which certain products could be sold. Take the above Listerine ad from the 1920s for example. It's constructed to make you believe the seated woman is unpopular because she has "bad breath."
Friday, November 15, 2013
On Juxtaposing MLK, Jr. with Malcolm X: Both men approached Afro-American civil rights in a unique manner. While Martin Luther King, Jr. proved polished and refined, Malcom X became notorious for his aggression and bluntness. Perhaps one of the best ways to juxtapose their leadership styles was to examine famous public speeches that each had delivered. For King, his "I Have a Dream" speech from August 1963 has become entrenched in American civil religion as a kind of "Sermon on the Mount" for civil rights. In it, he advocated a non-violent end to racial discrimination in the United States, especially institutional racism. And King believed it was only a matter of time before the U.S. lived up to its founding principles, replacing racism and hate with freedom and equality. On the other hand, Malcom X's "Ballot or Bullet" speech in April 1964 struck a very different chord in the Af-Am civil rights community. At that time, Senate "Dixiecrats" (Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, etc.) planned to thwart passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And X did not hold back in labeling them "white political crooks" who made violence almost inevitable. For X, the ballot served as a kind of political bullet. Thus, unlocking black America's pent-up emotional rage to achieve full voting rights became central to X's philosophy.
Friday, November 1, 2013
On Critical Culture Theory: Before diving into cultural theory, it's important to offer a working definition of "culture." For historian Kristin Hoganson, culture is a common framework of methods and references to help one understand the human experience. To put it another way, culture consists of all the basic units that make up a community. A key feature of culture is language, which serves as the primary vehicle for communicating words/ideas and whatever meaning(s) may be attached to them. Take the above image for example. The line separating the written word "TREE" from a common symbol for a tree teaches us that there is no rational or inherent connection between words and their symbolic meanings. It's only through experience that people build an understanding of written/spoken words and the descriptive symbols to which they refer. But aside from language, there are other key features of culture which merit analysis, including "memes" and "texts." Memes effectively transport the units of cultural life. Having emerged from Darwinian thought, memes are to culture what genes are to biology. Their sole purpose is to replicate, especially by capturing the attention of a wide audience. With cultural texts, however, they can be anything that demands meaning from you (a book, a song, a film, a painting, etc.) In short, both memes and texts seek legitimacy by impacting culture at large.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
What Did the War of 1812 Prove?: Not much, is the short answer to this question. After American armed forces battled the British (and British-Canadians - Sir Isaac Brock) for 32 months between 1812 and 1814, status quo ante bellum was the official outcome. And aside from Washington, D.C. burning to the ground and Tecumseh's Confederacy being defeated, there were no major physical/boundary changes that stemmed from the conflict. In fact, the British have mostly written off the war as a kind of annoying sideshow to the larger Napoleonic Wars happening in Europe at the time. For Americans, however, the war had enormous socioeconomic and cultural ramifications. Because much of the war was fought at sea, the British Navy had a 50-to-1 numerical (sailor) advantage over the tiny American Navy, which only formed in the late 1790s. With this vast advantage, the British were able to capture American ships, impress American sailors, and establish crippling blockades around American ports. Ultimately, it was these blockades which destroyed America's ability to conduct not only naval warfare, but also international trade. Even after the war ended, the British continued to make international trade a hassle for American merchants. Thus, by the 1820s, the U.S. had begun to double-down on two emerging industries of the early nineteenth century: homegrown slave labor (as opposed to imported) and cotton textiles (water-powered mills).
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
On DuPont and Wallace Carothers: After General Electric (GE), DuPont established the nation's second corporate research and development (R&D) laboratory in 1902. The main purpose behind an R&D lab was two-fold. First, to create new products for the consumer market, and second, to create new uses for existing products. As one of America's premier chemical engineering firms, some of DuPont's most notable products include gunpowder, spray paint (to be used on automobile exteriors), and freon (for the budding refrigerant industry in the early 20th century). However, it was the discovery of nylon by DuPont chemist Wallace Carothers (pictured above) in 1935 which not only made the company into a household name, but also helped position it for dominance in the new synthetic polymer industry. Other important synthetic polymers to emerge from DuPont's Experimental Station laboratory near Wilmington, Delaware, included neoprene (diving suits) and kevlar (bulletproof vests). Yet despite his brilliance as a chemist, Carothers was a deeply depressed individual. Since about 1931, when he was working on the commercial development of neoprene, Carothers kept a capsule of cyanide attached to the end of his watch chain. And in 1937, he ingested that capsule mixed with lemon juice in a Philadelphia hotel room, choosing not to leave a suicide note.