On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) premiered in Paris. The public hissed and laughed, and a riot ensued. Critics called it “the work of a madman.”
Less than one year later, on April 5, 1914, The Rite of Spring was performed again in Paris. It was a rousing success. After the performance the composer was carried in triumph from the hall on the shoulders of his admirers.
Here’s what I think happened. Note for a moment the dual meaning of the word culture: it is both a set of ideas, beliefs, and ways of behaving of a particular society, and a group of bacteria or other cells that have been grown in a scientific experiment. We are, all of us, participants in our culture, part of a vast group experiment in our orbiting petri dish earth. The Rite of Spring, when it was first performed, was a hostile bacteria invading the culture of the day. Parisian society was mentally sickened by the performance the first time around, because it had been so new, so different from anything anyone had ever heard before. It literally drove people crazy. But after hearing a few performances, the audience adapted to this threat by developing cultural antibodies to prevent them from getting sick again. So next time they heard The Rite of Spring, in 1914, they no longer got sick in the head, and could appreciate the music; and by 1940 The Rite of Spring was so safe for consumption that it accompanied a large section of Disney’s animated film Fantasia. The work of a madman had become the work of a genius and then a work of pop culture, same as with Van Gogh and countless other artists.
That, more or less, is the standard telling of the tale. Madison Mainwaring makes the case, in her excellent article about this event, The Riot of Spring, that it was the ballet aspect of the work — choreographed for forty-six dancers by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by the Ballets Russes under impresario Sergei Diaghilev — that is what really drove the audience insane (aided and abetted, of course, by Stravinsky’s radical score):
The riot is often discussed in relation to the ballet’s modernist score by Stravinsky. Its dissident chords went against every precedent of melodic harmony, while a beat captured the inchoate rhythms of the “scratching, gnawing, and wiggling birds and beasts.” Stravinsky upended tradition so completely that The Rite almost exceeded the limits of musical notation— when he first conceived of the sounds for the finale, the “Sacrificial Dance,” he did not know how to write them on paper.
At the time of the ballet’s premiere, critics didn’t pay so much attention to the music, giving it brief treatment (“deformed,” “demented”) before moving on to the first offense of the evening: the dancing. This was likely due to the frenzy of the audience noise, which reached such a pitch that it probably drowned out the ninety-instrument orchestra. The forty-six dancers on stage, deafened by the mass chaos in front of them, had the impossible beats of the score shouted to them from the wings.
In any event, this “a musical-choreographic work,” as Stravinsky described it, had succeeded in exploding the culture one year and beginning its journey into the classical canon only a year later. Mulling this over today, over a hundred years removed, prompts an interesting question: Does this sort of thing still happen in our contemporary world? Does art or literature, music, poetry, or dance still have the power to be new and strange enough to turn our world upside down with confusion and make us sick in the head? I keep an open mind that it’s still possible, but I don’t see many examples of it. No riots at the ballet, or at art galleries, or at poetry readings.
Unlike art, Science and Technology dramatically affect the lives of nearly everyone alive today. The primary result of true disruption is change, for after such an event, you can never go back to how things were before. In today’s culture, then, art is rarely disruptive, because it isn’t a primary driver of change. It can be a disturber, influencer, annoyer, irritant, motivator, gadfly, or provocateur, but rarely does it cause a fundamental shift in the culture.
In this light, the right wing forces of anti-science, seen most flagrantly in the denial of climate change, is manifestly hypocritical. You can’t pick and choose your science, or your preferred disruptor. Computers, the Internet, digital technology, the smartphone, wearable tech, the Internet of Things – you cannot accept these technological marvels – and by extension the science that begat them – and simultaneously deny the science of evolution or climate change or anything that contradicts your personal or religious worldview.
Science and Technology disrupt the culture, causing irreversible change. Art and marketing do not. Can you name a single contemporary artist who has impacted the world as much as the Internet, smartphones, or social media have? So when we hear companies claim to be disruptors, we need to know: are they unleashing the next truly disruptive scientific or technological breakthrough, or are they merely a cultural ripple aided and abetted by PR, marketing, clever branding — even, alas, naming? This makes all the difference where adaptation is concerned. Adaptation to true disruption is necessary for survival, and leads, through evolution, to the advancement and improvement of the organism or culture. False disruption – non-science-based cultural irritation – can be fought off with marketing expenditures, Congressional spending cuts and other counter-distractions. Such tactics will never work against true disruption, and will ultimately fail.
Language to the Rescue
Now that I’ve thoroughly harshed your mellow, let’s see if we can puncture the hot air balloon I just inflated and pull me down off my high horse.
What if art does have the potential to be a true disruptor, only it happens on a time scale beyond our comprehension? In other words, what if art disrupts by being an influencer of social and cultural change, but it operates slowly, over the long-term?
Lets consider for a moment quantum physics vs. cosmology: each has its own physical laws and governing theories that are incompatible with the other. Ever since Einstein, physicists have searched in vain for a Grand Unified Theory to unite the micro realm of quantum physics with the macro realm of gravity and the universe. Perhaps disruption in culture is polarized in a similar way. In this analogy, the art world is like the quantum realm, with its own laws, causes and effects, actions and reactions, and bizarre, inexplicable happenings that are hugely important within that world, but completely invisible to the macro culture of everyday life. Science and politics operate in the macro world, and have a great observable effect on our daily lives, through technology and laws (policy, politics).
The question, for our analogous world, is this: is there an equivalent Grand Unified Theory of Culture that can bridge the gap between the micro, invisible world of art and the macro world of science and politics? Something that isn’t art or science or politics, but has the potential to infiltrate, disrupt, influence and cross-pollinate among all those realms?
I believe there is such a thing. And that thing is…Language.
Language is the most fundamental element of culture and society, and it has a unique characteristic: it can mutate, change and evolve both suddenly, like technology, and also slowly over time, like art. Language is the symbolic carrier of big ideas and a representation of things that do strongly affect the culture in both the short and long term. William S. Burroughs famously wrote that “Language is a virus from outer space,” and while I’m not so sure about the space part, I completely agree with the rest. After all, we speak of words and phrases and memes that gain mass popularity as going viral.
Consider the word “Ebola” for instance. A couple years ago this word spread rapidly around the world, infiltrating our lives and minds much faster than the Ebola virus itself. And this cultural transmission has been facilitated by both the transformational technologies of communication and social media, but also by the slow-moving, paving-the-way forces of art, from films like The Andromeda Strain in 1971 to Children of Men in 2006, Contagion in 2011, and 2013’s World War Z, among many others.
Language evolves over time, through a never-ending dance of mutation and adaptation: words change meaning or gain new meanings; people and brands are signified by words and express themselves in words; and brands have become part of the avant garde in the cultural metamorphosis of language. Many people may have a hard time understanding the language of a Shakespeare play, but imagine an Elizabethan audience watching an MTV show? The phrase, “I literally can’t even,” in and of itself, would probably blow their minds. That actually sounds like a line from a Beckett play, as does a lot of contemporary speech, another example of art anticipating and infiltrating the future.
Like a subatomic particle traveling back and forth in time, we can play this game with language, so let’s consider some examples of both slow language evolution and sudden mutation leading to rapid change.
ISIS — The Brandkiller
For thousands of years, Isis has been famous as the Egyptian goddess of fertility. So powerful was this goddess’s name, that it has been used many times over the centuries to name people, places and even the things invented by technology, including the Isis Mobile Wallet, a $100 million joint venture between AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. This new Isis was poised for success, until suddenly in early 2014 along came the ascendance of the barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”), known by the acronym ISIS. And even though this ISIS now calls itself just the Islamic State, and the US government and others refer to it as ISIL, or in the Middle East, Daesh, the name ISIS has stuck. Why? Because it’s a much more powerful name, with thousands of years of history and story behind it, so it’s already lodged in everyone’s mind. But a great brand for a terrorist organization is bad news if you are a hundred million dollar smart wallet with the same name. So on September 3, 2014, Isis Mobile Wallet became Softcard. Whew! Crisis averted, right? Uh, sure, but for only 6 days, when Apple announced the release of its new Apple Pay mobile payment service. Indeed, by February, 2015 Softcard had been acquired by Google, and a month later, its technology having been rolled into Android Pay, the former Isis Mobile Wallet was officially no more.
Softcard, in all likelihood, would probably have been acquired and killed off as a brand whatever its name. But by trading away a powerful name with lots of depth for a weak, boring, shallow, generic name, a name that also makes the mistake of referencing “card” and thus remained stuck in the credit card past that Apple and Google’s technology propels us away from, its demise was inevitable. A huge double disruption had taken place in the course of a few months, the offspring of War and Technology, midwifed into the culture by language.
Deep Into the Amazon
Up until 1995, if anybody mentioned the word “Amazon” in speech or print, you knew they were talking about a river or jungle region of South America, or an ancient race of legendary warrior women. But soon after Amazon.com launched, the word Amazon became hijacked by this extremely disruptive ecommerce company. Now if you hear the word Amazon, you will probably think first of Amazon.com. A major piece of cultural messaging with thousands of years of history has been quickly swept aside — Amazon replaced by Amazon.com; Isis, the legendary goddess of fertility, defeated by the Islamic State.
Hunting Down the Snark
Now, I hope I’m not coming off here as snarky, a recent slang adjective meaning “sharply critical; cutting; snide; or cranky and irritable;” that’s not my intent, except perhaps in regard to the annoying appropriation and transformation of one of my favorite words, snark, which comes from Lewis Carroll’s epic 1876 poem The Hunting of the Snark. I consider Carroll to be a patron saint for the art of naming things. He invented the “Portmanteau word,” from the English word portmanteau for a suitcase that opened into two equal sections. In Carroll’s 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the coinage of the unusual words in Jabberwocky, where “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable.” Humpty Dumpty explains the practice of combining words in various ways by telling Alice,
“You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
Ok, let’s go back to that snarky word Snark. Carroll invented it for the elusive object of his very Dada poem. From there it took on many new forms that even the inventor of Wonderland and Jabberwocky could not have anticipated. First, Jack London named his prized, custom-built sailing vessel The Snark, and sailed it with his wife Charmian across the Pacific to Hawaii and the Solomon Islands, a voyage he recounted his 1911 chronicle, The Cruise of the Snark. Then came the USS Snark, a US Navy patrol boat from 1917 to 1919. The Sopwith Snark was a British prototype fighter aircraft at the end of the World War I. The Second Snark was a small passenger ferry, built in 1938 in Scotland, that has recently been restored and is still in use for special occasions. Most impressive of all, from 1958-61 the Northrop SM-62 Snark was an early intercontinental cruise missile that carried a thermonuclear warhead. And finally, in the mathematical field of graph theory, as I’m sure you’re well aware, a snark is a “connected, bridgeless cubic graph with chromatic index equal to 4.”
So you see, Snark had a long and proud life until suffering the recent sad fate of being reduced to the sarcastic remarks of snarky Internet trolls and TV pundits. Though, I must reluctantly admit, its new meaning is also perfect. Damn.
Muster Mark’s Quantum Quarking
From Snark, let’s now pivot over to another favorite of mine, with a similar ring to it: quark. If you’ve ever worked as a designer in the last 30 years, you are probably familiar with the page layout software Quark Xpress. You’ve probably also heard of the subatomic particles called quarks, which is where Quark, Inc. got the name. But where did the name quark come from?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word quark first entering the bloodstream of the English language via a recipe in the June 4, 1903 issue of the Fitchburg Massachusetts Sentinel, for a type of soft German cheese.
But the reason I’m paying homage to the word quark is not because it’s a cousin of cottage cheese, curds or queso fresco, but because of its appearance in Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s epic nonlinear dream narrative “book of the night.” Nestled atop page 383 of Finegans Wake is this rousing cry:
Three quarks for Muster Mark!
This line is the first of a 13-line poem within Finnegans Wake sung by squawking seagulls and directed against King Mark, the cuckolded husband in the Tristan legend. The poem and the accompanying prose are packed with names of birds and words suggestive of birds, and the poem is a squawk against the king that suggests the cawing of a crow. Joyce adapted the word quark from the English verb quawk, meaning “to caw, screech like a bird, or croak.”
So how did quark make the leap from the Wake to the name of the fundamental units of matter? Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant Cal Tech physicist who co-discovered the particles and named them quarks, was also a fan of Finnegans Wake, and loved the reference to “three quarks,” as originally there were exactly three of the quantum quarks. There are now six flavors, as they are called, of quarks: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top. Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize for this work, and I like to think that the wonderful name he gave his discovery played no small part in winning the Nobel.
Purposeful Purposelessness or Purposeless Play
So, why does any of this matter? For one reason: it is all about the human mind at play. Play is how we humans fiddle with the pieces of the puzzle, in science, art, politics, or language. And we do it for the sheer joy of it, because its fun. My biggest hero is the composer, artist, and thinker John Cage, who really gets to the essence of what I mean here by play. Asked once, “what is the purpose of writing music?” Cage replied:
One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds… a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life — not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
A purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play, that’s what this is all about, this messing around with language or images or sounds. Not to “bring order out of chaos,” but to simply “wake up to the very life we’re living.”
Choosing the right name for your company, product, military operation, subatomic particle or children is vitally important. Too many companies and brands have too many boring names that all end up sounding alike. Every company likes to think that its brand is unique, that it has that special magic to rock your world, that it is a disruptor. But can you really believe them if they sound just like every other company making that same pitch? How can they be truly radical or revolutionary if they are unable or too afraid or too lacking in imagination to have a name that stands out from the pack?
I’ll conclude here with a poem by the great Dr. Seuss that illustrates the problem perfectly; it is called “Too Many Daves”:
Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave
Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?
Well, she did. And that wasn’t a smart thing to do.
You see, when she wants one and calls out, “Yoo-Hoo!
Come into the house, Dave!” she doesn’t get one.
All twenty-three Daves of hers come on the run!
This makes things quite difficult at the McCaves’
As you can imagine, with so many Daves.
And often she wishes that, when they were born,
She had named one of them Bodkin Van Horn
And one of them Hoos-Foos. And one of them Snimm.
And one of them Hot-Shot. And one Sunny Jim.
And one of them Shamrock. And one of them Blinkey.
And one of them Stuffy. And one of them Stinkey.
Another one Putt-Putt. Another one Moon Face.
Another one Marvin O’Gravel Balloon Face.
And one of them Ziggy. And one Soggy Muff.
One Buffalo Bill. And one Biffalo Buff.
And one of them Sneepy. And one Weepy Weed.
And one Paris Garters. And one Harris Tweed.
And one of them Sir Michael Carmichael Zutt
And one of them Oliver Boliver Butt
And one of them Zanzibar Buck-Buck McFate …
But she didn’t do it. And now it’s too late.