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.


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