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Branding beyond the corporation

The world’s mega-brands are no longer owned by corporations. They are social movements. Extinction Rebellion, Pride and BLM are today’s true blockbuster brands in the sense that their iconography is everywhere. They are household names, visually ubiquitous and mythologically massive, taking up imaginary and physical space in the way Nike and Apple once did.

It’s no surprise that commercial brands all want a social purpose – because it’s in social purpose that branding now lives (symbol creation, myth-making, imagination-capturing). Just as social movements once wanted to become more commercial, so commercial movements now want to keep up with their social counterparts. So fascinating to watch the shifting play between social and commercial, public and private.

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Fusions, sensations, inspirations, expressions

Yesterday I bought a bar of Galaxy Fusions for the first time. I’m not sure exactly what was being fused with what here – but I can never resist the allure of the Latinate Plural in product naming.

The Latinate Plural is basically any kind of aspirational Latinate word, rendered in the indefinite plural, to convey a vague sense of premium-ness and innovation. Sensations, Expressions, Inspirations, Fusions, Infusions, Impressions, Explorations…you can find them across almost every category.

The Latinity brings aspiration; the indefinite plural a sense of reverie. Combining them takes us above the mundane to somewhere a little more elevated and poetic. I love to collect Latinate Plurals on trips around the supermarket – if you spot a new one, please let me know!

sri chaktra

What is revolution today?

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition on Tantra — subtitled ‘Enlightenment to Revolution’. It sparked some thoughts on how revolution is typically presented in culture, and how these meanings could be expanded.

Tantra is revolutionary — that much is clear. It comes from early medieval India, where insight grew into the energetic and vibrational generativity of the universe. This creative energy came to be seen metaphorically as feminine (Devi or Shakti), and then refracted through a multiplicity of goddesses, with abundant names, forms and aspects.

Devi’s forms are traditionally organised into two main categories — the raudra (fierce, radical, violent) and the saumya (sweet, beautiful, playful). What struck me about the British Museum’s exhibition was that it was all raudra, and no saumya.

Why? My hunch is that it’s something to do with the way we see revolution — and the exhibition was intended to be about this theme. Revolution from modernity onwards is about transgression, chaos, and explosive, emancipatory energy. So the frenzied energy of Kali was rocket fuel to the anti-colonial movement in Bengal. And again, later in the 20th century, to Western feminism and other counter-cultural movements seeking liberation from oppressive systems and conventions.

The saumya aspects of the Goddess possibly seemd a bit too sweet and unchallenging for the Museum to really explore — given it wanted to talk ‘revolution’. So the exhibition gave a lot of space to the fierce aspects of Devi — self-decapitating Chinnamasta, tusked, boar-headed Varahi, and of course bloodied, skull-bearing Kali herself.

But is this too narrow an understanding? Today, we’re not fighting systems and structures. We’re suffering from chaos, disorganisation and imbalance. In this context, the sweetness and harmony of Devi’s saumya forms come to assume a new revolutionary potential.

Take Lakshmi. She is traditionally seen as delighting in good household management: balancing the budget, keeping the home sparkling-clean and shining with auspicious energy. I’m not surprised the British Museum didn’t really want to talk about her — she doesn’t sound very revolutionary or feminist, according to the paradigm the exhibition was working with.

But on a planetary level, aren’t these qualities exactly the revolution we need? We haven’t balanced the budget, nurtured our resources, or kept our home clean . We haven’t adored beauty, pursued harmony or tended what we have.

So this could be precisely the time to recognise that stewardship, nurturing, balancing and tending can also be revolutionary qualities. Enough has been burnt up in a frenzy of destruction. This no longer signifies revolution — it signifies what we need a revolution against.

I wish there could have been a room devoted to saumya at the British Museum’s exhibition — a room beautifully lit and fragranced, with shining yantras and glowing murtis, pervaded with the breathtaking, mind-blowing beauty of the goddess in her sweet forms. Beauty and care, balance and symmetry, can be revolutionary too — especially now.

Thank you to Sally Kempton for teaching the current value of a devotion to Lakshmi amidst planetary destruction. As she spoke on Zoom from her home in California, she described how she could see smoke from forest fires coming into view – so this was no abstract or academic teaching. 

jp sears

What happened to the holistic left?

 

This morning, on the first day masks became mandatory for shopping in the UK, I went into a plastic-free, sustainable grocery shop in Brighton.  While paying at the till, I asked the sales assistant how the first day of mandatory mask-wearing was going,

Bearing in mind this was around 11am (only a couple of hours into the first day), I was surprised when she said that it had been really difficult. Lots of customers had made a real fuss about wearing their masks, she said. Many of them were heavily influenced by conspiracy theories and saw Covid (and by extension, mask wearing) as a way for the powers-that-be to ramp up social control.

Now this shop is at the very heartland of lefty, liberal Brighton. Everything is organic or Fairtrade. Shoppers there wear babies in slings, home-school, practise yoga, grown their own veg – I probably need say no more to capture the typical demographic. In this past, we might have assumed they’d be avid mask wearers, keen to signal their social conscience and community spirit.

But these labels and assumptions no longer work. What’s striking now is how the whole idea of ‘organic’ lefty liberalism is fading in relevance. Many of these erstwhile holistic liberals are moving towards forms of conspiracy-theory thinking and libertarianism that we’d be more likely to associate with the US alt-right.

It’s not the first time I’ve had a sense of this happening in Brighton. Last year, I went to a climate protest. We ended up in a park where I saw an acquaintance – a forest school facilitator. She ticked all the boxes you might expect from a traditional Brighton organic liberal – home-schooling, anti-vax, organic veg growing, and so on. I made a quick assumption that these characteristics meant she’d likely be on the protest. But no. She regarded the climate movement as a George Soros-instigated conspiracy designed to sow fear, control and distract the populace, and so on.

I was shocked at the time. But now the shift is plain to see. The idea of the holistic, organic liberalism (beautifully described by the Guardian as the ‘esoteric left’) is on its way out. This section of what used to be the left is moving towards the radical right.

Zooming out from Brighton anecdotes to the wider context, we can see some key themes propelling this shift. In the UK, it’s the anti-vax movement that has pulled a large section of the esoteric left rightwards. And that’s likely to be in part because of US influence. In the US, to be anti-vax is far more likely to align you with a radical, sceptical libertarianism than it is with holistic, pro-social, progressive liberalism.

At the same time, wellness more generally in the US is moving rightwards, and has been for a while.

For a long time, the wellness industry was dominated by the image of the ‘skinny white girl’ with impeccable (if superficial) liberal credentials, downing green juices and meditating in her warehouse apartment.

But then something happened to this feminine, liberal code: masculinisation. Male personalities such as Joe Rogan, Sayer Ji, JP Sears (pictured, in a typical yoga satire) and Charles Eisenstein began to rise to guru status in the wellness field – bringing with them a new discourse rooted in personal sovereignty, medical libertarianism, and a combative, sceptical approach to wellness. When Joe Rogan describes yoga as a ‘martial art you practise against yourself’, we get a clear view of the de-coding and re-coding taking place.

While this evolution has been most pronounced in the US, it’s happening in the UK too. The ‘esoteric left’ seems to be easy prey for the conspiracy theories of the alt right. The reasons for that are probably beyond the scope of this post. But what is really important to note – progressive holistic liberalism is uncovering new ideological affinities with the American radical right. In the process, a new appetite for conspiracy theory and a more hard-edged scepticism is emerging in the heartlands of middle-class liberalism.

monarcas

Let heaven and nature sing

Thinking beyond European rationalism – might not sound like a fun theme for a Christmas post but maybe it is, if we look a bit closer.

I wanted to write about this subject as it feels like a major challenge currently. The need for a fair redistribution of ‘voice’ globally has become a pressing theme in climate action. Culture is starting to look harder at who is speaking, and who is listening – at whose voices, perspectives and agendas are being represented and platformed.

It’s possible that the redistribution of ‘voice’ (of the people and cultures doing the talking) could produce major shifts in our understanding of the natural world and of the urgency of its preservation.

We can take an example referenced by Donna Haraway in her recent work of fiction-theory Staying with the Trouble. To the Mazahua people of Mexico, the Monarca butterflies which migrate from North America in the winter are the souls of their ancestors.

That’s a proposition that makes their preservation extremely urgent (and they are nearly extinct). If they stop coming to Mexico in the winter, the ancestors have stopped coming back – and that’s an unthinkable tear in the existential, narrative fabric that holds this world together.

But what happens when European secular thinking encounters a proposition like this? How do people steeped in a culture of secular thinking respond and feel?

Donna Haraway rightly says that a common response will be to see it as a ‘metaphor’. For the Mazahua, the butterflies are a metaphor for the ancestors – a symbolic substitute.

That probably sounds completely reasonable. But if we look closer at what happens when secular thinking says ‘it’s a metaphor’, we meet buried, historically-entrenched workings of power and denial. Often, the phrase ‘it’s a metaphor’ contains an implicit ‘just’. ‘It’s just a metaphor’ Similarly, we says ‘it’s just a story’. Or, to a child having a nightmare: ‘it’s just a dream’.

In the thinking of rational, secular modernity, the imagination is always implicitly subordinated, contained and neutralised. It’s always ‘just’. Even in Romanticism, it may have been fetishized – but also pathologised and side-lined.

To decolonise Western thinking, and understanding the desperate literalness of our rapidly-disappearing connections with nature, we need to drop this ‘just’. And drop the whole idea of metaphor, narrative and dream as being implicitly subordinate to the measurable and empirically accessible world (however much marketing and academia pedestalise ‘storytelling’, it’s still not seen as life-or-death, it’s not existential – it’s still ‘recreational’.

Donna Haraway sees the colonial move at work in the idea of ‘metaphor’- the implicit neutralisation and dismissal that takes place when we say ‘[just] a metaphor’, from the vantage point of secular assumptions.

Her response is a radically materialist literalism: the monarca butterflies are the ancestors because their physical existence depends ultimately on the decomposition of human and other bodies.

But doesn’t this radical materialism still belong to a European legacy? Is it fully decolonised?

Donna Haraway’s radical materialism makes her very suspicious of anything that is ‘other’ to the earth. Astral or non-physical realms are deeply suspect. They are the domain of the ‘sky gods’ that she associates with patriarchy, hierarchy, and ultimately with an arid, abstract monotheism (even lesser sky gods are only minions of the One).

But there is another suppression at work here – that of ontological diversity, metaphysical multiplicity and the existence of plural realms, dimensions and connections.

It seems popular culture is doing a better job of driving this ontological expansion – this opening-up of reality into multiple connected fields and expressions. The unicorns and mermaids of Instagram culture aren’t going away – they represent the overlapping and interweaving of different dimensions that’s another way European secularism is being challenged.  And the emerging re-legitimation of psychedelics in healthcare and beyond may well take further this process of expansion.

But what’s the connection between ontological diversity and bio-diversity – between metaphysical multiplicity and the flourishing of worms and beetles? Many argue that unicorns and mermaids are no more than mythological bypassing – feel-good entertainment to distract us from the world’s real challenges.

There’s definitely truth in that. But I’d also like to suggest that onto-diversity and bio-diversity are entwined. That we need diverse expression, flourishing and expansion on every level – from the earthworm to the angel. Maybe this can be boiled down to two reasons for now:

  1. Diversity isn’t a liberal fantasy that gets foisted onto reality – it is the driving force of creativity itself in all its forms. Generativity is diversity – it is expansion into multiple forms, whether they be unicorns or cockroaches. So unleashing, cultivating and fertilising this generative diversity is to promote life in the most fundamental sense.
  2. The hyper-connectedness and semiotic complexity that connects all realms means that the more expressions, beings and forms that surround us, the more information, knowledge and insight we have.
  3. Onto-diversity and bio-diversity are ways to undo the mechanisms of power and control that have subdued the majority of the world’s voices and expressions – aligning them to singular narratives of rationality and use-value.

 

To de-colonise European thinking, a vital first step is to ask who owns definitions of what’s real and what’s [just] a story?  And why is this a good theme for a Christmas post? Elves, angels, donkeys, sheep, stars, deities – the multiplicity of realms, beings, and forms couldn’t be more prolific. Happy Christmas – I hope you get inspiration from all of it.

 

 

 

 

 

plant-based eating

The Politicisation of Everything: Food

‘The Politicisation of Everything’ is a phrase that has come to me over the past couple of years in light of the culture wars. It’s a benign way of saying ‘the weaponisation of everything’ – but it often amounts to the same thing. The heat is being dialled up around the most seemingly trivial everyday choices, behaviours and practices. Now everything is politics; sometimes, war.

In this post I’ll look at food. Two huge trends – zero-carb carnivory and plant-based eating – are circling each other like hungry beasts or facing each other down like monster plants (to keep the metaphors equitable).

This is how they polarise. If you’re on the carnivorist side (a form of extreme paleo in which intake consists of 100% meat and water), you’re on the libertarian Right. A suite of correlative preferences will line up behind. Hyper-neo-masculinisation, tick. Suspicion of experts and authorities, tick. Bitcoin entrepreneurship, tick.

If you have plant-based predilections, you’re on the liberal Left, likely to be a feminist granola-muncher and sentimental champion of the downtrodden.

My purpose here is to take a deeper dive into the mechanics of this polarisation. What symbolically connects the Right and meat; what symbolically connects the Left and plants?

One thread that is worth picking out concerns aesthetics. The Right likes to claim connections with the Real – the raw struggle that can’t be aestheticised (Hobbes; ‘nature red in tooth and claw’).

And a key component of contemporary and alt-right thinking is a refusal to make things pretty where they are not. Here, liberal beliefs in equality and justice are framed as aesthetic – they are an attempt to prettify the more uncomfortable natural order, premised on fight, hierarchy, earned power.

Now liberal plant-eating performs its own part in this on-going political drama perfectly. Plant-eating is represented as aesthetic – search Instagram for plant-based eating and you’ll find food represented in the form of dazzling rainbow mandalas – hyperbolically aestheticised and fantastical. In the same way, liberals are seen to want to construct and engineer social reality too, creating pretty fictions of equality and kindness.

Meat, on the other hand, can’t be prettified (at least the real meat beloved of Bitcoin carnivorists). It’s torn, ragged and irregular. Hence its symbolic power within right-wing thinking. It’s where nature refuses to be pretty; refuses fantasy and fiction; and reveals itself as hierarchical and intrinsically asymmetrical (unaesthetic).

 

 

 

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It’s got to be gardening

 

I’ve often wondered what the next big hipster fascination will be after artisan food, coffee and cycling.

Sitting in a hipster coffee shop in Brixton, enjoying two of the above, I realised the next is highly likely to be gardening.

We already see many of these cafes turning into semblances of Victorian conservatories bedecked with ferns, palms, cactis, terrariums and so on.

This particular hipster haunt also had gardening tools on display while books on botanicals were available for customers to dip into.

Meanwhile pop-up market, Brixton Botanicals, sells pot plants to people interested in creating ‘home jungles’ – extreme house-plant cultivation which will see your furniture buried in webs of deep green like some ancient, forgotten civilisation.

According to Guardian journalist Simon Osborne, the house jungle is currently a major trend amongst Millennials right now.

One of his interviewees, Annie Dornan-Smith, speculates that her generation need something to nurture as other life options, especially home-buying and having children, seem increasingly out of reach.

Other cultural forces may also be afoot here.

  • Demographics are breaking down. People are experiencing a new freedom to engage in pursuits previously culturally taboo for age-related reasons. Gardening, like knitting before it, is no longer an ‘older person’s thing’. These demarcations are weakening.
  • Beards and cycling tap into a retro Victoriana that finds a natural continuity in the house jungle. The connection between beards and house plants is particularly strong – it’s about organic growth.
  • Gardening requires kit – and hipster trends thrive on kit. Getting the right tools will be a major precoccupation once this passion becomes fully embedded.
  • City dwellers yearn to breathe. Green plants signify a breathable world.

These factors seem to point to one thing: the triumph of the extreme house plant is just around the corner. 

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The Smurfette’s Guide to Post-Patriarchy

I went to the latest Smurfs film The Lost Village primarily for the entertainment for my three-year-old daughter. But came out feeling as though I’d seen the world changing before my very eyes.

Some big questions are addressed in the film. What happens as patriarchy gives way to something new? And as our definition of ‘being’ expands to include hybrid and artificial entities? As gender codes fragment before us and as our understanding of nature and consciousness evolves? I was amazed at how far the smurfs take us into these issues in The Lost Village.

The film revolves around the Smurfette, who represents a storyline recycled from the late 19th century misogyny of thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietsche.

She is a golem or cyborg, depending on which century you wish to borrow your language from – an  artificial creation of evil wizard Gargamel. Her purpose is to lure the Smurfs away from the path of ‘bros not hos’ and throw them into disarray.

Schopenhauer and the Smurfette

Schopenhauer could have thought up the Smurfette. He considered women to be tricks of Nature, attractive simulacra designed to lure men away from higher pursuits. They are creatures of artifice and dissimulation, not of truth.

The Smurfette is just such a lie. She’s a fake smurf, puppet of an alien agenda. It’s a tough problem for the Smurfs narratively and commercially. What do they do with this storyline in a social context rapidly moving into a new post-patriarchal configuration?

A radical response [spoiler alert]

The Lost Village tackles the issue in a brave and radical way. It doesn’t shy away from the miserable sexism surrounding the creation of the Smurfette. It doesn’t just give her some sassy lines and martial-arts moves, or  a liberal-feminist storyline in which she finds herself and rewrites the script, contemporary Disney-style.

Instead it goes right to the heart of the matter. At her lowest point in the film, the Smurfette is confronted with her fakeness – with the fact that the she’ll never be a real Smurf and will always be excluded, suspect and problematic.  She decides to embrace her fakeness and to journey right into the heart of the misery associated with it.

Her choice is to sacrifice herself to save the Smurfs – to absorb Gargamel’s evil into her body to drain his power. The outcome for her is that she regresses back into her own abject origins. She goes back to being a lumpen piece of clay, inert and gross.

The gift of being

The power of her sacrifice generates such a tidal wave of love amongst the Smurfs (whose community has now widened to include a whole village of female Smurfs) that she is physically resurrected and given the gift of full being.

Her new being is not just a full passport to Smurfdom and ‘equal rights’. It’s expressed as a boundless freedom and potential. She can be whatever she likes – she can evolve. She leaps from suspect ontological hybridity (a weird mix of legitimate Smurfiness and suspect fakeness) to the fullest expression of being the Smurfs can imagine and give.

Three take-outs

 

I’d like to end by summing up what makes this story such a leap forward in the narration of social change – and why cultural expressions of every kind should take note of what is going on here.

First, this is a feminist story – but it’s not a liberal-feminist story. In other words, it’s not about an individual finding empowerment and making her own way. Instead, it’s about the community giving the gift of full being and full freedom to be, as a sacred act of love in response to a sacred act of sacrifice.

Second, the film addresses the theme of the cyborg through the Smurfette who is herself an artificial entity. The storyline gives full being to cyborgs, opening the portals of what we define as ‘being’ to include unlimited capacity to evolve. No one group – whether it’s humans, men, white people or any other – can claim fuller ownership of being and consciousness over any other.

Third, the film reveals that social change on this deepest of levels releases a tremendous amount of creative energy. Feminism, or diversity in general, is breaking out of the idea of ‘representation’. It’s no longer about how things look – for example, having an extra black person or woman on the cast. Instead, It’s about freeing the creative energy that’s been suppressed through injustice and power monopolies.

This is an exhilarating ride – travelling with the Smurfs for some of it is a pleasure and an awakening.

 smurfs evolution

 

 

 

 

 

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A middle-class Christmas

Two festive ads show us some of the twists and turns at the heart of a British middle-class Christmas.

Waitrose: thinking and imagining, not consuming and communing

As it does every year, Waitrose tackles the complicated relationship the British middle class has to the festive season.

The brand has become known for an off-centre approach to Christmas. It’s not about what’s happening around the table – groaning with turkey and mince pies – as we see in typical Tesco and Iceland ads.

While the table is the symbolic centre of Christmas, Waitrose prefers to look at what’s going on outside the home. The characters in its festive ads are often looking out of windows – cuing a state of mind that is flying outwards (solitary, separate, transcendent) rather than content with hearth and home.

This year, Waitrose shows us a girl waiting for a robin.  Her experience is internal and private. In middle-class culture, the sanctity of one’s inner world prevails even at the most communal and shared of times.

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The characters in thess brands’ ads are also not consuming. They’re observing. That positions them as a little bit superior – we don’t see hands constantly reaching out and grabbing mince pies as we do in a typical Iceland ad.

British middle-class culture wants to be different, to set itself apart. It also wants to be superior – to show itself as thinking, observing, imagining, private and reflective, not just consuming and communing. Christmas ads offer a neat crystallisation of these aspirations.

 

M&S: Commander-in-Chief

In the M&S ad, Mrs Claus takes charge of Christmas. While pretending to stay home – hubby is off doing the traditional thing in his sleigh – she zooms off in a helicopter to fulfil a particularly tough present mission.

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The ad plays on a gender dynamic familiar to British middle-class families. At Christmas, it’s the woman of the home who is Commander-in-Chief – and she runs Christmas like a military operation. He has the sleigh – but she has the helicopter. She is the technology, the rationality and the organisation that serve the season’s higher emotional purpose.

It’s also a hidden rationality. Her mission is covert, while his is the visible one. The role of reason and organisation at Christmas-time have to be hidden, as we don’t want to destroy the myth of love and magic.

It’s interesting to see how technology and rationality combine with femininity in this ad. Aren’t these attributes mostly associated with masculinity? Yes, until they become covert or back-up. Then they become feminine qualities, as they are at Christmas when they need to underpin the emotion and magic that we see ‘front of house’.

 

 

 

 

The Library of Fragrance (1)

A visit to the Library of Fragrance

The Library of Fragrance is a US brand which does a great job of capturing today’s emerging culture of sensory experience.

It offers around 150 different fragrances – single-note scents reflecting an incredible range of experiences.  These include tomato, grass, chocolate, coconut, birthday cake, almond, apple tree and amber amongst many many more.

So what is this brand getting right? We can take from it three insights highly relevant to personal care today.

Goodbye ‘nice’

The brand does away with traditional distinctions between scents – ‘earthworm’ sits alongside ‘earl grey’; dregs’ alongside ‘daisy’. There is no separation between pretty and ugly or between categories of experience: food, fantasy, flowers and chemicals all furnish inspiration.

This is important as in sensory experience we are moving beyond what is ‘pretty’, ‘appealing’ or ‘sexy’ in the traditional sense. The idea of exploration and discovery is becoming more important than self-adornment or aesthetic enhancement in the world of the senses.

Reading the book of the senses

The brand name itself is spot on with regard to emerging sensory culture. Culture now puts a higher value on sensory experience than before. All our senses matter now – with a culture of education, learning, exploration springing up around them.

Think about artisan coffee and the precision of the discourse surrounding that – tasting notes and endless subtleties. The Library of Fragrance suggests something similar for fragrance: that it can lead us on a journey in which we can cultivate our sense of smell, refine it, expand it and educate it.

Follow the trail into other worlds

There’s also something magical about the idea of the Library of Fragrance. Not only is it a place of education – it is a place of wonder, a portal to other worlds, like a Borges-style library in which each book opens onto a universe.

magical library

This idea reinforces the new prestige accorded to sensory experience – it’s not just nice, pleasurable or indulgent. It’s a way to travel in time and space, and to expand experience beyond previous parameters. So fantasy references are key to the brand. We don’t know what Moonbeam, Angel Food or Russian leather smell like, but we can imagine.

The Library of Fragrance hits exactly the right note when it comes to new and emerging perspectives on the sensory. We learn and imagine through our senses – just like in a library. And, just like in a library, there are no limits to the travels and dreams waiting for us.