We’ve been pretty technical recently, so figured it was time for another longer macro-trend piece, continuing on from the ones I did on horizontal loyalty, supernormal stimuli, and concentration.
No idea if you guys are into these kinds of thing, but it’s a bit of a palette cleanser for me, so I’ll keep knocking them out as the thoughts come up!
On we go…
‘Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’
– Marlon Brando, The Wild One, 1954
Following my recent piece on the mechanics of rebellion, I got to thinking, and realised there was a bigger story here.
In that piece, I attributed the never-ending revolutionary stance of brands, media, fashion, and bien pensant sensibilities to us being stuck in a sort of 60s time warp. In this vision, the artefacts which emerged from that period came to dominate their respective fields, and thus instilled “revolutionary chic” as the status quo – now paradoxically copied by everyone, even though there is little of substance left to rebel against.
On a basic level I think this remains true. The sexiest, most famous things, in pretty much all fields have that “flavour” now, and thus large scale copying is inevitable. But this empty revolution isn’t only driven by style. There is a deeper, more profound cause here, which any of us who deal in culture (as all strategists do) would do well to understand.
We can call it the “post-cultural myth”.
In this piece I want to explain this idea, how we see it reflected in the world around us, and how it shows up in all fields of strategic thinking.
It’s pretty broad ranging stuff, so forgive the generalisation and imprecision – but hopefully you’ll find something of interest here.
So what is the post-cultural myth? Essentially the idea here is that many of us in the West believe, implicitly, that we have “graduated” beyond having a specific culture, and are now living in a state of “cultural neutrality”.
The easiest way to picture this is to think of it in terms of the progress narrative. By that way of thinking, humanity is gradually moving from the darkness of the past, to the clear reason-driven light of the future. Along that path, people gradually shed their superstitions and parochial baggage (customs, religions, locally specific dress, values, and so forth), and come eventually to meet on an enlightened level playing field.
If helpful you can visualise the idea using the following graph:
Simple enough right?
Of course, a crucial element of this theory is the belief that different nations / people will “arrive” at the post-cultural state at different times – and naturally since this is our myth, we in the hyper-developed West interpret ourselves as being furthest along the path. Indeed, we may even assume that we have already arrived; at least the most “avant garde” among us.
That’s the basic theory.
Now the way the post-cultural attitude manifests in its adherents is twofold:
- It rejects its own ancestral culture
- It positions itself as “above and across” other cultures
The first of these is self explanatory – if you are post-cultural then you will naturally shed the baggage of your own inherited culture. Indeed, you’ll probably find it pretty embarrassing. If you’re nominally English, for example, you won’t strong identify as such, nor will you participate enthusiastically in all the legacies of that particular tradition (flag waving, the Queen, watching Corrie, whatever).
The second point is more subtle. As mentioned above, the post-cultural attitude recognises that not everyone has yet “caught up” to its position – and that indeed it might take them a good while. Therefore, in the meantime, it is happy to accommodate these cultures under its “neutral umbrella”; humouring them while they go through the slow process of shaking off their inherited baggage. It takes a benevolent, respectful, polite, but somewhat paternalistic stance to the cultures of others – seeing them for the most part as quaint relics: nice for the people who still need them, but not really our kind of thing.
When you think about it, you can see that the very idea of a pluralistic, multi-cultural society like Britain requires this concept at the level of corporate or political governance. If you aim to run a nation which is comprised of various highly distinct sub-cultures living side by side, you have to take a position of “detached neutrality”, and being “above the fray” in order to hold that balance – the very definition of the post-cultural assumption.
It’s a bit like saying that you support all football teams. To do so, you first have to abandon the idea of supporting one team in particular, otherwise the idea is nonsensical. Indeed you probably have to abandon the very idea of being a “supporter” full stop. You become more like FIFA – there for the good of the game, and beyond the petty squabbling of partisan competition.
Do you recognise yourself as being post-cultural?
Some intellectuals openly class themselves as such; normally fitting the concept under the rubric of the Enlightenment and “reason” (i.e. “I make my decisions based on reason not tribalism or superstition”). However for most of us (and I probably include you and me within this), it is more of an unspoken reflexive assumption. We operate to what feels like a blank slate; we feel like we are creating culture as we go along, and we believe in little beyond the non-committal mantra of “anything goes so long as it doesn’t harm someone else”, which serves as the philosophical cornerstone of post-cultural thought.
Now of course, the reason that we call this the post-cultural myth is because this attitude is by no means “neutral”, or “free from culture”. On the contrary, it represents a highly distinct culture – just as distinct as that of the most ancient of tribal people.
We could go into this, but that’s not our concern here – nor are its merits / demerits.
Our concern is simply how this attitude manifests in culture and strategic thought.
What does a “post-cultural offering” look like? How do we spot it? And is there any alternative?
To answer these questions, I will direct you to the Marlon Brando quote at the beginning of this piece. “What are you rebelling against?”, “Whaddaya got?”. This indiscriminately destructive impulse sums up the core creative inspiration of pretty much all post-cultural products.
Because of its apparent neutrality, and “blank slate” nature, the post-cultural attitude doesn’t stand for anything in particular, it can only stand against. I mean think about it – if it stood for something, if it advanced something particular, then it would feel like just another culture, and the myth would be revealed. Thus it must define itself as being against the particular, in general. Against the specific. Against anything with discrete cultural roots.
We can see this destructive impulse pretty much everywhere:
- First, in the phenomenon of blanding which we’ve talked about before, where brands across various categories start to flatten into a single mild and non-specific aesthetic is a post-cultural product. They bring nothing in particular to mind, trade off no pre-existing mental associations, and aspire only to a mild inoffensiveness – whilst of course seeking to attack and replace more “old school”, culturally specific brands in their categories.
- Mirroring blanding in interior design is the concept once dubbed “AirSpace”, thanks to its ubiquity in Airbnb properties and coffee shops the world over. We all know it when we see it: the odd potted plant, “white or bright accent walls, raw wood, Nespresso machines, patterned rugs on bare floors, open shelving, the neutered Scandinavianism of HGTV”. Although the aesthetic contains nominally Scandinavian roots, it is favoured by the post-cultural due to its “placelessness” – a feature which sees it effortlessly proliferate the world over. Let’s face it, your apartment and mine are probably it.
- Both modern architecture and modern art are quintessential post-cultural artefacts, defined primarily by their rejection of traditional styes. Whilst a Gothic cathedral, or impressionist painting are both straight forward attempts to express beauty in a particular tradition, without guile or irony, their modern equivalents would largely be defined as efforts to refute them.
- In movies, much gnashing of nerd teeth is prompted by the continued efforts by Hollywood to “reimagine” iconic properties such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Lord of the Rings. Although one could call Hollywood’s aversion to creating anything original somewhat “traditionalist”, the fact that the remakes generally attempt in some way to “subvert” the original makes the process more one of iconoclasm than tribute.
- Music, as has been well documented, now exists in an ever-tightening loop of sampling and mash ups. Again, as with movies, this trend can’t really be seen as a continuation of the traditions which it exploits, because the artists themselves tend to sit outside of those traditions; using them in the same appropriative way an Airbnb host might hang a vaguely African piece of art in their otherwise culturally neutral property.
I could go on, but you get the idea – destruction of the particular past, to be replaced with the blank slate of the non-particular “open” future.
Coupled with this, unsurprisingly, is the language and aesthetic of the never-ending “revolution”. When we look at this through the post-cultural lens, it makes perfect sense. The two go hand in hand.
If you and your customers live under the assumption that you are the first untethered and unencumbered generation in history, capable of viewing everything with the same objective detachment, then it follows that the reflexive tearing down and subverting of all that’s gone before is going to be mighty appealing.
Indeed more than that, we might even say that this taste for destruction (or perhaps “deconstruction” as you might put it) is, for better or worse, your culture. Our culture. The anti-culture. Little wonder we want all our brands to stand against something, because it is the very act of standing against things that provides our source of meaning.
This sentiment was captured brilliantly in a recent video doing the rounds, taking the piss out of the way modern marketing agencies talk.
Here’s a shortened version of the spiel:
Eating pizza crust first.
Facing the cistern sitting on the toilet.
Boiling eggs in the kettle.
Yeah, we’re disruptive.
Wanna work with us? Fuck you.
Wanna create with us? Hit the contact button, and tell us what’ll get you cancelled.
Wanna work for us? Only anarchists need apply.
Punching traditional media in the face.
Mugging the alogrithm.
Embezzling from the comments section.
Best not tell gran about this one.
The reason this hit home, and was widely shared, is because to a greater or lesser degree it is all of us. It’s like every brand, every movie, every song, and every book of the past decade. Does it put forward any vision in particular? Not at all. But it sure knows what it isn’t – and that’s what really counts.
This then, I believe, is the philosophical engine of strategic innovation in 2022.
I’m not here to denigrate this attitude, nor warn against using it in strategies. On the contrary, much of your market is likely to be post-cultural, so by all means adopting a stance of post-cultural destruction is a smart thing to do. I’ve no doubt I will continue to develop such strategies myself.
However, amidst all that, we should try not to forget that the alternative still exists: the celebration of the particular, rather than the subversion of it. Stating what you’re for, rather than what you’re against. Raising something up, rather than tearing it down.
It might be a particular art form, style, or sub culture. A particular place, tradition, or heritage. A particular genre, story, or piece of iconography. Anything which states “look at this thing, it has value, we love it”. That is the alternative. Instead of “anything goes”, you are saying “no, this thing goes”.
Such passion is lacking in irony, detachment, or any form of cool. It is narrow, exclusionary, and parochial. It’s totally unfashionable. But it’s also passionate, earnest, and capable of holding deep substance.
And for my money, in this age of radical neutrality, it’s the truly disruptive stance.