Sunday 1 August 2010

Vaclav Havel's Poster Test

"The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” 

"Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

"I think I can safely assume that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and the carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. 

"If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

"Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. 

"The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” 

"This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

"Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. 

"The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” 

"Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology."

From Vaclav Havel's essay - The Power of the Powerless, 1978 

Comment: The Poster Test

If you go into an institutional environment - a government office, a school or college, a hospital or doctor's surgery, a museum, public transportation - and you observe posters adorning the walls on politically-correct topics such as diversity, fair trade, global warming, approved victim groups, third world aid - remember Havel's essay, and that the correct translation of such posters is as follows:

"I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient"

Such posters are a coded admission of submission to ideology - except in the rare instance where they advertise genuine corruption by ideology.  

The frequency of such posters nowadays, compared with a generation ago, is a quantitative measure of the progress of totalitarian government.


dearieme said...

A friend of mine used to display an old newspaper advertising poster in his university office. It declaimed "Grand Plan to Cure Chaos". Sardonic, eh?

a Finn said...

"Society is very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and ... it's extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is it's only true face. None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population" - Vaclav Havel -

"The cultural forms may not say what they know, nor know what they say, but they mean what they do - at least in the logic of their praxis." - Paul Willis -

F said...

As someone who has tried to teach in many classrooms in California I was frequently amused and appalled at the signs that filled many classes. Often I saw both these signs in the same classroom which said "Express Yourself" and "This is a safe place. We practice respect for all people." And what happens, I wondered (aloud on a few occasions) when someone had ideas that were NOT respectful to other people or other ideas? In general, the best teachers had the fewest official pre-printed signs on their walls and the most "student-produced" work on their classroom walls.