Crit: Visual Cult-Ure has its limitations
In his take on cultural theory, Rian Hughes exhibits an impressive grasp of some fascinating concepts, but the book doesn’t quite work
There was a time in the 1990s when I assumed that we would soon see quite a few books that looked something like Rian Hughes' Cult-Ure. Back then designers eager to be seen as authors regularly advanced the argument that a new form of authorship combining design and writing was possible. As things have turned out, this kind of book remains unusual, though it's not quite as unprecedented as the book's promotional copywriter seems to think.
A message of urgency
The most obvious precursors are The Medium is the Massage (1967) and War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), co-authored by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, which are now seen as cult classics of the re-invented book.
With the typographically frenzied pages of Imagologies (1994), the self-styled media philosophers Mark C Taylor and Esa Saarinen made a joint bid to become the McLuhans of their day. Then there was Symbol Soup (1999), a box set of books from Thames & Hudson, concept-engineered by a couple of Dutch theorists purporting to anatomise what they called the ‘visual generation' - that one sank without trace. Nothing daunted, T&H more recently brought us Gee Thomson's Mesmerization, with an über-design by Why Not Associates, which I reviewed in these pages.
So there are certainly parallels for the kind of fully integrated literary and visual authorship that Hughes attempts in Cult-Ure. He ups the ante by taking total control of writing, illustration and design, and he carries out all of these tasks, and binds the elements together, with energetic conviction. At first sight, though, the book seems bashfully reluctant to reveal what it's about. Remove the bright yellow bellyband and you have a black, textured cover, like an old Bible, sternly impressed with the single word Cult-Ure (why the peculiar break?) and no cover copy. Just inside there are some schoolboyish visual jokes - a library book label with date stamps and a "This book belongs to" plate. Back to the bellyband then, where it says, "Ideas can be dangerous" in letters bigger than the title. On the back cover, we learn that this is an "incisive survival guide for navigating the modern landscape of ideas" and the "21st century answer to ... The Medium is the Massage".
Cult-Ure claims to deliver a message of some urgency and to provide intellectual tools that will equip the reader to deal with the contemporary world. But the book, like its cover, is curiously neglectful of the most basic needs. The contents page is buried on page 160, there is no proper introduction explaining the book's thesis and method, and we don't find out what the hyphenated title is getting at until the end (I wasn't convinced). Hughes has structured Cult-Ure in sections - Ideas, Communications, Media, Representations, Frames and Maps, Objects, Perceptions, Solutions, Arts, Identities, and Prescriptions - each one consisting of a series of discrete double-page units, with a snappily titled page of text on the left (Graphic Esperanto, Conceptual Polyfilla, Label Whores) and an image on the right. It's possible to follow a linear path, or to use the pointers at the foot of each page and skip about.
One meme too late
The implicit claim made by this kind of authorship is that the visual elaboration and interpretation will add extra dimensions to the verbal meaning, or that meaning will emerge from the interpenetration of text and image. I wanted this to work, but I can't say it did. Hughes' highly compressed texts, broken up into very short paragraphs, end up requiring more effort to read than fuller, more flowing pages would, while the overall reading experience is less pleasurable than it could be. The text has a clipped, distancing, A-level textbook tone, and the relentless wash of imagery - photos, lettering, cartoons, diagrams - becomes a distraction from full engagement with ideas that are potentially fascinating.
Hughes covers a great deal of ground, but there are long stretches of Cult-Ure where I wondered why he had included the material, and where any sense of a larger argument goes missing. While his grasp of cultural, artistic, scientific and technological concepts and issues is impressive, he often makes it sound as though these ideas are entirely his own, rather than other people's ideas that he is very ably summarising and explaining. The sense of vagueness about sources is compounded by the book's lack of bibliography. The whole point of these conventional publishing devices is that they help to empower the reader, who is given the opportunity to find out more about the content, as well as to double-check the sources.
Hughes does sprinkle his pages with quotations from authorities such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, physicist Richard Feynman, and evolutionary biologist/professional atheist Richard Dawkins. But he doesn't indicate in most cases where these embellishments have come from, and when he does, as in Kant's What is Enlightenment? (1784), it seems arbitrary. At points like this, the book needed much tighter, more consistent editing. Fiell, which specialises in highly visual titles, is not the obvious home for a text that aspires to be cultural theory.
The most interesting aspect of Cult-Ure, for me, is its focus on memetics, which Hughes first introduces in his Media section. A meme - defined by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as a "unit of cultural transmission" - is any catchy idea or trend that passes, with the ease and swiftness of a virus, from person to person. The memetics meme started to take hold in marketing and advertising more than a decade ago - I wrote about it myself in an essay titled Preparing for the Meme Wars. Hughes sees the viral power of the meme in similarly stark terms. The internet is spreading "toxic ideas" (Dennett's image) faster than ever, often with catastrophic effects on cultures powerless to resist them. The only defence, Hughes suggests, a little late in the book, is to develop a capacity for independent analysis. "Wisdom," he writes, "is the facility to sensibly handle memes." That observation is one meme well worth giving a little corner of space in your head.
Cult-Ure by Rian Hughes is published by Fiell; £24.95. A special edition version of the book contains a set of stickers and a limited edition print. fiellpublishing.com
What an incredibly odd review for such an outstanding and adventurous book. The reviewer seems to completely miss the point that the book is a deliberately playful and snappy info-byte read aimed at the visually stimulated, rather than some boring academic yawn-fest.
As for the assumption that Hughes is not able to write a book of his own ideas, well that’s just plain wrong. As a long term collaborator, I have seen the notebooks that Rian Hughes has been carrying around, scribbling in and amassing for the past ten years with this very book in mind.
For those who are contemplating owning this book, go to the bookshop, pick it up and take a look for yourself. You will discover a plethora of ideas and concepts that this review doesn’t seem to acknowledge.
It’s a thing of beauty and there is nothing else like it.
As for it looking like a Bible... I think that might be deliberate.
Hmm. here's a review which actually tells you what the book's about:
I've not seen a physical copy of the book (frequently sold out when I go looking for one) but have previewed some of it online (http://www.cult-ure.net/ and above). Surely things like the contents page being on p.160 are [art and parcel of what a book like this is supposed to be about?
I don't think Hughes has ever tried to hide the fact that 'The Medium Is The Massage' is an inspiration for this kind of work and it's high time that something came along that attempts to shake up the way designers today think and work in the same way McLuhan and Fiore did way back. Top marks to him for not going the easy route and creating just another pretty picture book of past works to join the many that are out there by others.
Poynor's comment that "Fiell... is not the obvious home for a text that aspires to be cultural theory" - ...and? Am I reading too much into this or would the book be better if it were published by someone else? It's also interesting to note that the only bit Poynor is interested in is something he's already written about.
Hughes has never enjoyed the coverage in design magazines he deserves, despite having created over 500 fonts during his career, perhaps because of his work in comics. I can't help but wonder if this review would have been a little more positive had the author been someone else from 'the establishment'.
I think the reviewer ignored the playfulness of the approach. Indeed, sometimes ideas can be dangerous.
Its a disgrace that such negative reviews like this appear in CR. The editor evidently lack good judgement. The reviewer has also gone to considerable length to ruin a reputation and, I for one think considerably less of him and his opinions for that. Petty and clearly self-interested.
The index is called "this is the map of the book", and is in the "maps" section.
I don't think this is any kind of attempt at character assassination. The main thread of the review seems to be 'this is an ambitious book which, in the opinion of this reviewer, just falls short.' A long way from going '..to considerable length to ruin a reputation..'
I'm a big fan of Rian Hughes' Device and copy from it whenever possible, and sometimes when it's not.
I'm rather startled by some of the responses to the review. I haven’t read the book yet, but I will. It sounds thoughtful and inventive, and Rick Poynor’s response is considered and balanced. He has treated the book seriously, thinking hard about its content and design, and offering an honest appraisal with clear points and examples.
Why, then, is this a 'disgrace'? Do you only want to read reviews that reflect your views? Isn't an assessment that challenges aspects of a book useful in helping us to develop our own response, even if we disagree?
Besides, I’m sure Ryan Hughes is robust enough to write a response – here or elsewhere – if he feels the need.
A balanced, honest review adds richness to any book. This is exactly the sort of review CR should run.
Drat. I was so busy making sure I’d put the second 'o' in Poynor (and not an 'e') that I put a 'y' instead of an 'i' in Rian. Sigh. I'm sure Rian is robust enough about this too.
I haven't seen or read Cult-Ure yet so will hold off commenting on the review, but if like Rick Poynor you are the author of one the best collection of essays on Contemporary Visual Culture (Obey the Giant, 2001) then I think you are qualified on commenting on a book covering the same topic.
@ Michael Lemmetti : Good point, but I thought that the fact Rick Poynor has written on a similar subject that CULT-URE covers, this might have actually got in the way of a fair review rather than qualifying him to give a balanced review. Seemed to me he was a bit peeved that Hughes is stepping on his professional toes...
Hughes is a comic book artist, designer, illustrator, and typographer. Maybe Poynor felt like Hughes should stick to what he knows. I've actually read the book, and as a designer myself it was refreshing to read a critical book from the viewpoint of another designer. It is eminently readable, which makes a nice change from a lot of semiotics tomes (I loved 'Visible Signs' by David Crow, but come on, give me a break! It make my head ache hard.) The visuals explain the points, which were nice and snappy, making it easy to dip in and out of, or if you wanted to it wouldn't be a trial to read in one sitting as the bitesize chunks of text are digestible. Hughes is obviously an extremely intelligent guy, and here he shares his own experiences of the danger of ideas, while drawing from his vast knowledge of the study of signs, language, and the phenomenon of the internet.
This is a book that you probably need to read from cover to cover to get all the witty inferences (i.e. the contents being in the middle of the book - it's a map, so it's in the map section - duh), and the 'schoolboyish visual joke' as Poynor refers to it, of the 'this book belongs to' front plate is actually referred to later in the book - the way that we write our name on something to claim ownership. The whole look of the book which Poynor seems to think is accidental or not thought through, the fact that it looks like a bible, was, I thought, a nice and playful example of the 'bookness of the book' which Hughes talks about. We associate the Bible with its production values, and we know what the black leather embossed binding, gilt edged pages, and rounded corners symbolise. Not everyone may know what is in the Bible but we all sure as hell know what it looks like - therefore, a sign for something else (in this case, religious text) and a cultural reference that we have all learned - I think this is a pretty good example of what Hughes is trying to do here.
Obviously CR should run reviews regardless of whether they are positive or negative, but I was a bit disappointed at how far this book seems to have gone over Rick Poynor's head. It may not be a meticulously referenced academic essay with reams and reams of dry text, and for that, I am grateful. There are plenty of those around, but there are not many like this; a book that is both a beautiful object, and full of thought-provoking ideas too. I'd recommend reading it yourself!
Well I'm still looking forward to giving it a read! Listen to the man in action:
"The formal nature of something is not a given, quite often it is just a cultural assumption"
Right, Rian himself here (with an "i"... and don't worry, I'm pretty robust - I won't sulk if it's spelled with a y, I'm used to it. Though I may have to have a wee sit down and a cup of tea.) I'm well aware that responding to reviews can get an author into trouble, but (as I mention in the book!) now that technology turns any article into a conversation it does seem somehow appropriate in a meta kind of way.
Firstly, thanks to Patrick Burgoyne for allocating three pages of the magazine to CULT-URE, and for lining up such a respected design heavyweight as Rick Poynor to review it, someone who has discussed and promoted "authorial" design before and written some inspirational and seminal texts on the subject.
But I have to agree that it is a somewhat... bizarre review.
It's not a difficult book, I promise. I was at pains to make it as comprehensible, fun, entertaining and thought-provoking as possible. As I say, "the opposite of popular culture is unpopular culture".
My main disappointment with the review is that there is no meaningful engagement with many of the ideas in the book. Three pages would have been a great opportunity to present some of these to exactly the right kind of audience, people involved in the creation and communication of ideas - which these days is pretty much all of us, not just those in the design industry. In defence of the editor, every reviewer of course is at liberty to freely express their own opinion - that's the whole point of a review. But to miss the point of the book and not meaningfully discuss the arguments in it is disappointing.
As to what its All About - it's there on the cover: Ideas Can Be Dangerous.
As I say on the back cover:
"Culture is your local consensus reality - your clothing cuisine and hairstyle, the music you listen to, the films you see; your values, ideas beliefs and prejudices. Today culture has a powerful new vector: the internet. Ideas - whether a YouTube video, a viral marketing phenomenon or a fundamentalist religion - are travelling further and faster than ever before.
In the new electronic democracy of ideas, cultural power is devolving to the creative individual.
Soon we will all have the means to create.
We just have to decide whether it be art or bombs."
Now, in a Web 2.0 world where ideas that are freely exchanged over the Internet can radicalise someone to the extent that they stab their MP, or alternatively spread the 'Arab Spring' from country to country, there is an urgent (there's the "urgent" bit) need for a bit of memetic sophistication, to be able to distinguish the good ideas from the bad - to "get streetwise in the global village". This is what I set out to do - to discuss what ideas are, how we might rationally distinguish the meaningful ones from the meaningless, how to avoid being seduced by religions, cults (there's the CULT-URE bit) and other virulent ideologies, and even how to kill an idea. Ultimately, how in a "democracy of ideas", we all have to take responsibility for our own "memetic footprint".
It's not a dry academic tome - it's not intended to be. Along the way are asides, visual jokes, quotes from Wilde, Morrissey, Plato and Mussolini, pictures of toilet doors, Stalin's record collection, join the dots puzzles, and my ticket from the observation deck at the top of the World Trade Centre. It's intended to be part explanation of how ideas propagate, part call-to-arms, and part playful messing about with the given structure of a thing (a book!) to make a point. A pop-culture artefact. As pointed out by one of the posters above, the style of the binding is an (I thought) painfully obvious reference to books that assume an authority and weightiness, this being both a comment on the delivery system of (mainly religious) memes and a subversive and cheeky package for a book that is itself talking about questioning authority while positioning itself as an authority on the subject. Ah, frames within frames (there's a page on that, too.) As spotted by another poster above, the 'schoolboy' visual puns are intended to support and extend the points I'm making. The free sticker set, for example, instructs you to use them to "clearly label all dangerous ideas in your vicinity". (The best way to kill a joke, of course, is to explain it.)
Far from being just a summary of other sources, whom I quote directly where I can, for better or worse much of it is actually built from my own very personal theories and concepts - from the different 'types of facts', or the 'externalising of an idea' as it moves from mind into reality, or the 'seat of the "I"' - which is basically me attempting to explain consciousness. I have a crack at defining art too. Again, I'd have loved to have the article open up some of these ideas to a wider audience, even if just to get shot down for my presumption.
As regards the 'The Medium is the Massage' comparison, I'm fully aware that here any author is being set up for a potential fall. It's a banana skin (there's one of those in the book too). However, for a publisher it IS a handy comparison to make, and publishers need pegs to hang books on. (Interestingly, Mcluhan didn't reference the sources of his quotes, and this was well before Google tagged everything for the curious). What I would say is that unlike the other precursors Rick mentions, which were generally written first and designed later, by someone else, for what it's worth CULT-URE is designed and written by one person. This, at least, hopefully makes it something different.
I'm aware that I've probably just gone and reviewed my own book, so please forgive me. If it gets reprinted, I promise I won't quote myself on the back, even to make some tortuous point about quotes and back covers. Honest.
For those who are interested, on the publisher's site I talk in further detail about how the book came about and the process of writing and designing it:
There are some photos my original notebooks - some pages of which also include sketches for comic logos I was working on at the same time, comic fans! - where early versions of some of the ideas in a less refined form can be seen.
Robert Blinn in his short but pithy review at Core 77 sums up what the book's about very well, and in case you skipped all of the above, I'll quote him here. This is the bullet-pointed take-home summary:
"Positioning the [cover] strip one way presents the reader with a fragment of the title "CULT," followed by the phrase "IDEAS CAN BE DANGEROUS." While he spends very little of the book addressing the Bible itself, the rational free-wheeling fount of ideas spilling from this book could easily be taken as an affront by people with religious memes. Indeed, even the word meme (which Hughes uses a lot) was coined by atheist commentator Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, and refers to the survival of the fittest of ideas in the forest of the human mind.
Hughes references Tim Hewell's comment that, "the battle for ideas is far more complex than the battle for territory -- and likely to last even longer." Culture is where it will take place [...] Especially in the wake of recent events in Egypt, new media resources allow for the spread of ideas faster than ever before. To Hughes, anyone who tries to suppress rational inquiry and free speech, whether a religion or an autocrat, deserves to be mistrusted. We happen to agree."
Style over substance, Hughes is a mediocre intellect and he's trying too hard with his book. The man can't even spell his own name properly ffs Stick to comics.
I have followed Rian’s work from the outset and like Poynor, wanted to like the book but found myself equally as confused as him.
However, I would recognise that neither of us are likely to be the intended readers. I suspect that like David Crow’s Visible Signs, this is an introductory text for students and young designers unfamiliar with theory, reading outside of design (possibly even reading in and of itself). I would therefore suspect that Cult—ure uses design (layout, fonts, materials etc.) as a bridging device to connect the familiar with the unfamiliar. Just look at fasterdrawing’s (2011-06-08 13:43:25) statement above: “I loved 'Visible Signs' by David Crow, but come on, give me a break! It make my head ache hard”.
It is easy to forget that graphic design education has engaged little with theory and that it is possible to gain a degree without knowing the name of a canonical graphic designer/studio/ism let alone a media theorist like McLuhan. With this in mind I think it is a real shame that the source material and bibliography are so lacking or missing for the reasons Rick discusses above.
I would like to point readers daunted by dense theoretical texts towards The Philosophy Book. “With the use of powerful and easy-to-follow images, succinct quotations, and explanations that are easily understandable, this book cuts through any misunderstandings to demystify the subject.” It’s well put together a gives a real sense the complex geo-political histories of ideas.
It is however worth remembering that while such texts can be useful there are no short-cuts to difficult tasks—and learning to learn is one of the most difficult.
My link seems to have unlinked. Here it is again:
@ Marcus Leis Allion, well said about graphic design degrees completely sidestepping theory and the historical context of graphic design and the business of creativity. This was my own experience. The Philosophy Book has similar preoccupations to Cult-ure, but again, it is very very text heavy. The beauty of this book is that Hughes is an image-maker, and so it's a lot easier to relate to than something like The Philosophy Book . The fact that it's authored by the designer means it speaks directly to people working or interested in creative fields.
I enjoyed this book for what it is - endless comparisons to McLuhan etc seem a bit silly... It is an obvious comparison, made by the author and the publisher themselves, but this book is a different creature, despite having similar themes. It's supposed to be FUN!
P.s. How come Poynor hasn't mentioned 'I Wonder' by Marian Bantjes? It's a similar enterprise, and has been wildly successful and critically acclaimed. Might've been nice to mention this as well as ones that have bombed, such as 'Symbol Soup'.
@Tom Will, indeed, well pointed out - I myself just picked up Marian's book. This, I think, is a more relevant comparison to CULT-URE. Marian has designed and written a very personal book where she presents her own view of the visual world - sometimes light-hearted, sometimes more serious. It's beautiful.
I'd like more designers/illustrators to create books in much the same manner as bands create albums. To have outlets which are more authorial, and not simply in the service of promoting a client's services.
I absolutely loved this book. I think the point is that Cult-ure isn't aimed at a specialist audience. I'm fascinated by the way design impacts on our culture, but I don't want to read dry, academic books. Rian is a designer who instinctively combines words and images and this book really is a case of 'The medium is the message'.
I enjoyed the structure of the book. It's created for the 'surfer' mentality of a generation that is used to absorbing information in a non-linear way. My son is 15 and currently taking his GCSE art exam. He had a number of choices for his major project and initially he found 'Signs and Symbols' the least appealing. Reading Cult-ure was a revelation for him. It triggered an explosion of ideas and connections that stimulated him to produce a quite brilliant piece for his exam.
In an ideal world we'd have a Gideon society leaving copies of Cult-ure in hotel rooms instead of Bibles.
Reading this book took me back to how I felt when I first read John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’, which was required reading many years ago when I started at art school. It has the same immediacy and sense of fun which draws you in but then engages you with very serious arguments about the currency of ideas. I loved it.
Poyner’s review mystified me – did he have a sense of humour failure that day? He seems irritated with the format and feels that more text and less imagery would be more effective. In my opinion, the reverse is true – it is the visual nature of the presentation that makes it work so well, and this light touch does the ideas a great service by communicating them concisely and beautifully. As for not crediting those who have inspired him, there are many quotes from the key players in the field which Hughes credits in the text as he goes along.
The very thing which makes reading this book such a joy is the thing that Poyner takes issue with – but design is a visual medium, after all. Long academic prose is not what this book is about. Bibliography, schmibliography – Poyner just doesn’t ‘get it’.
Here are some quotes from the book that stuck out for me:
"Culture is not race. Though born into a culture, our cultural identity is not who we are - it is who we are taught to be. it is contingent and ultimately optional. It describes our memes, not our genes."
"Proponents of "ideological phobia" (Islamophobia?), by equating the concept with homophobia or racism, assume that all ideologies, like people, should be judged equal. Humans are, in a secular democracy, equal under the law; ideas are not. Though they may live within and be transmitted by people, ideas are not people and so, unlike their hosts, can derive no special privilege."
"Ideas don’t have rights." (i want that on a t-shirt, XL)
"Where will the next contagious and deadly idea come from? What will be the memetic pandemic of
the 21st century?"
"Ideas, unlike men, are not created equal."
Like this one also, its true! >>
"Radio is just a colour we can’t see."
No style and even less substance ,save your money..
I'd like to comment on the "Ideas don't have rights, people do" distinction, as I think this is a very important point, and what Hughes builds towards at the end of the book. I found the first few sections to be reasonably interesting in that they playfully set out some of the basic ways the communication of ideas happen, but it's the later sections which seem to address the "ideas can be dangerous" theme trumpeted on the cover most directly.
Baroness Warsi's recent comment that Islamophobia has "passed the dinner table test" starkly illustrated for me the general conflation of ideas/people. When her comments were later discussed on a recent Question Time, I found it interesting that David Dimbleby (and for that matter the rest of the panel) made no distinction between Muslims (people) and Islam (an idea), and used the two terms as if they were interchangeable.
This conflation is pernicious because it has the effect of shutting down any meaningful discussion of the ideas underlying a belief system, which must stand or fall on their "truth value" and not be allowed some kind of 'get out of jail free' card under an erroneous extension of the concept that if all people should be considered equal, so should their ideas and beliefs. As Hughes says, "ideas are not people, and so derive no special privilege", and as he discusses in the section where he quotes Richard Feynman and Galileo, whose earth-centred model of the solar system was directly opposed to the Catholic Church's, ideas are certainly not all of equal value.
Ibn Warraq succinctly separates ideas and people in his essay on 9/11: "There are many moderate Muslims; there is no moderate Islam".
Hughes' asks "What will be the memetic pandemic of the 21st century?" By allowing irrational beliefs to flourish by undermining the primacy of scientific fact by being "inclusive", we have only ourselves to blame if we have weakened our "memetic defences" so we are more easily infected by "dangerous ideas" of whatever stripe, be they cults, dubious new-age philosophies or religions.
Get "streetwise in the global village" indeed!
I remember reading somewhere that there are *words* people and *images* people, and that words people found it hard to *read* images unless they were *translated* into words, that is, unless what the images meant were written down and explained.
When I saw the cover of the book, I immediately thought *Bible with police warning tape*, then read the *ideas can be dangerous* tagline after. For me it was pretty clear and powerful.
The reviewer doesn't seem to be very good at *reading* images, and sounds like a *words* person. Maybe it's that the younger generation are so used to *reading* images that it comes as second nature. (I'm 27).
I wonder what sensory processing skills 15 year olds have that I don't??!
"CULTURE IS YOUR OPERATING SYSTEM"