By IAN BOGOST, contributing editor at The Atlantic, February 23, 2017

“Precarity” has become a popular way to refer to economic and labor conditions that force people—and particularly low-income service workers—into uncertainty. Temporary labor and flexwork offer examples. That includes hourly service work in which schedules are adjusted ad-hoc and just-in-time, so that workers don’t know when or how often they might be working. For low-wage food service and retail workers, for instance, that uncertainty makes budgeting and time-management difficult. Arranging for transit and childcare is difficult, and even more costly, for people who don’t know when—or if—they’ll be working.

“Such conditions are not new. As union-supported blue-collar labor declined in the 20th century, the service economy took over its mantle absent its benefits. But the information economy further accelerated precarity. For one part, it consolidated existing businesses and made efficiency its primary concern. For another, economic downturns like the 2008 global recession facilitated austerity measures both deliberate and accidental. Immaterial labor also rose—everything from the unpaid, unseen work of women in and out of the workplace, to creative work done on-spec or for exposure, to the invisible work everyone does to construct the data infrastructure that technology companies like Google and Facebook sell to advertisers.

“But as it has expanded, economic precarity has birthed other forms of instability and unpredictability—among them the dubious utility of ordinary objects and equipment.

“The more technology multiplies, the more it amplifies instability. 

“Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way.

“Facebook and Google, so the saying goes, make their users into their products—the real customer is the advertiser or data speculator preying on the information generated by the companies’ free services. But things are bound to get even weirder than that. When automobiles drive themselves, for example, their human passengers will not become masters of a new form of urban freedom, but rather a fuel to drive the expansion of connected cities, in order to spread further the gospel of computerized automation. If artificial intelligence ends up running the news, it will not do so in order to improve citizen’s access to information necessary to make choices in a democracy, but to further cement the supremacy of machine automation over human editorial in establishing what is relevant.

There is a dream of computer technology’s end, in which machines become powerful enough that human consciousness can be uploaded into them, facilitating immortality. And there is a corresponding nightmare in which the evil robot of a forthcoming, computerized mesh overpowers and destroys human civilization. But there is also a weirder, more ordinary, and more likely future—and it is the one most similar to the present. In that future, technology’s and humanity’s goals split from one another, even as the latter seems ever more yoked to the former. Like people ignorant of the plight of ants, and like ants incapable of understanding the goals of the humans who loom over them, so technology is becoming a force that surrounds humans, that intersects with humans, that makes use of humans—but not necessarily in the service of human ends. It won’t take a computational singularity for humans to cede their lives to the world of machines. They’ve already been doing so, for years, without even noticing.”

IAN BOGOST is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology

Obsolete words

Obsolete words

Jargogle (verb) “To confuse, jumble” – First of all this word is just fun to say in its various forms. John Locke used the word in a 1692 publication, writing “I fear, that the jumbling of those good and plausible Words in your Head..might a little jargogle your Thoughts…” I’m planning to use it next time my husband attempts to explain complicated Physics concepts to me for fun: “Seriously, I don’t need you to further jargogle my brain.”

Widdendream (noun) “A state of mental disturbance or confusion” – I can start using this obsolete Scottish word right away: “While working on writing my thesis, I find I am constantly in widdendream.”

Malagrugrous (adj.) “Dismal” – This adjective is from Scots and may be derived from an old Irish word that refers to the wrinkling of one’s brow. An 1826 example of its use is “He looketh malagrugorous and world-wearied.” I’m tempted to also make the word into a noun: “Stop being such a malagrug!”


Untranslatable words

Toska (Russian) – Vladmir Nabokov describes it best: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Litost (Czech) – Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, remarked that, “As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it.” The closest definition is a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Cafuné (Brazilian Portuguese) “The act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.”

Torschlusspanik (German) – Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to “the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.”

Wabi-Sabi (Japanese) – Much has been written on this Japanese concept, but in a sentence, one might be able to understand it as “a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.”

Dépaysement (French) – The feeling that comes from not being in one’s home country.

Hyggelig (Danish) – Its “literal” translation into English gives connotations of a warm, friendly, cozy demeanor, but it’s unlikely that these words truly capture the essence of a hyggelig; it’s something that must be experienced to be known. I think of good friends, cold beer, and a warm fire.

Duende (Spanish) – While originally used to describe a mythical, spritelike entity that possesses humans and creates the feeling of awe of one’s surroundings in nature, its meaning has transitioned into referring to “the mysterious power that a work of art has to deeply move a person.” There’s actually a nightclub in the town of La Linea de la Concepcion, where I teach, named after this word.

Saudade (Portuguese) – One of the most beautiful of all words, translatable or not, this word “refers to the feeling of longing for something or someone that you love and which/who is lost.” Fado music, a type of mournful singing, relates to saudade.

With thanks to JASON WIRE at

Some more untranslatable words

Struisvogelpolitiek (Dutch) Literally, “ostrich politics.” It’s for those times when you act like you didn’t notice when something bad happened and you decide to carry on like normal.

Jugaad (Hindi) Ensuring that things happen, even when there’s minimal resources.

Poronkusema (Finnish) The distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a rest.

Drachenfutter (German) The present a husband gives his wife when he’s attempting to make up for bad behavior.

With thanks to CATHY BROWN at

Additional strange words

With thanks to

Bloviate – To speak in a pompous or overbearing way.

Boeotian – Dull (as in personality)

Bogglish – To be uncertain, doubtful or a wee bit skittish about something.

Bouquinist – A person who deals in second-hand books.  Today, we’d call him a Used Book Salesman.

Bumbledom – Behavior such as pettiness, fussiness, pomposity, arrogance and inefficiency by minor officials.

Curwhibble –  A thing-a-ma-jig or a what-ya-ma-callit?

Flambuginous – A sham, deception, ficticious.

Kakistocracy – A government that’s run by its worst citizens

Laetificant – An adjective that means something is an anti-depressant.

Lethean  – A state of oblivion or forgetfulness.

Malist – Someone who feels that this world is just bad, not the worst or terrible place, but, nevertheless, still pretty bad.

Nihilarian – A person who deals with things of no importance.

Nithing – A contemptible or despicable  person.

Oggannition – Snarling or growling.

Ombrifuge – A shelter from rain.

Ostrobogulous – Bizarre, unusual or interesting.

Petrichor  –  After a dry spell, this is the nice smell that comes after it rains finally.

Retardataire – Behind the times (used mainly about artistic styles).

Rhyparographer – An artist whose subject matter  is sorrowful or unpleasant topics.

Snollygoster – A dishonest politician, especially shrewd or calculating

Thwarterous – Adjective meaning twisted or gnarled.

cockalorum: A little man with a high opinion of himself. Origin: 1710s As in: He’s a boastful shortarse. Total cockalorum.



Oh that irrepressibly heretical Bishop John Shelby Spong! I’m not a big Spong fan myself, I hardly knew of him until recently, but I do prefer him to the rabid and unpleasant Christians that happily roast their choice heretic over the fires of fundamentalist smugness and bigotry. The consternation which afflicts the opponents of this controversial Episcopalian bishop is interesting, if only for it’s exposure of the rifts and intolerance within Christianity.

The former Christian turned agnostic and author Bart Ehrman(1) points out that Christian theologians themselves have dug around and exposed the very fault lines that conservative christians attempt to cover up, paper over and downright deny. In my view Christian teachers need to admit this state of affairs both to themselves and to their congregations – acknowledge the gap between what is taught in the seminary to initiates and what is preached from the pulpit to the flock. There is very little in Spong that doesn’t find – even if only in a shared discomfort with traditional narratives – some precedent in Bultmann, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Käsemann, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Isak du Plesis, Karl Rahner, Ferdinand Deist, Dominic Crossan, Anthony Thiselton and others, none of whom may fairly be described as promoting a “flaccid pluralism” or a “cancerous religiosity”. Christians need to know about “The First, Second and Third Quests” (how many Christians can even tell you what “the Quest” is?), Biblical criticism, non-propositional hermeneutics, redaction criticism, demythologization, the very real challenges to biblical inerrancy, the presence of theolougemena in the sacred texts. All good and well to dismiss liberal or “modernist” christians as hell-bound heretics, but the most intelligent critique of the Christian faith has come not from without but from within (or is intelligent critique also to be labelled a cancer, a flaccid pluralism? How often the detractors have proved to be the most Christian of people and the dogmatic defenders or conservative views the least so (read The Oath against modernism”(2)). Instead of honestly confronting, for instance, the textual challenges of the doctrine of the virgin birth or the accretions of high Christology which lead to mythologization through new testament theolougemena (the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child is an example that comes immediately to mind), the debate is narrowed if not closed down, and dissenters silenced or demonized. “Shut up and believe, question at your peril” seems to be the mantra of conservative Christianity; at very least an attitude of “we will tell you not only what you will believe, but what you are permitted to ask”. When, many years ago, I first read the South African theologian Isak Du Plessis’s book, “Nazareth or Egypt” it was an awakening from a narrow, dogmatic and conservative Christianity which seemed hell bent on defending a fearful literalism which the Bible itself neither supports nor demands. Are inerrancy and literalism not a form of bibliolatry, a fetishism of the written text?

But to give the bigots their due, here is an interesting website which callously attacks Spong and defends the Christian faith from the perspective of conservative theology. Article by Dave Moore:

Touchstone describes itself as

“… a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom —Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox” –

– which is itself intriguing, with reference to those divisions, because the doctrinal intolerance and all-out war between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox is the stuff of legend.

For a critical but less rabid view of Spong, see an article by Richard W. Kropf at

For a blistering attack on Spong, do read

I quote Scott Stephens (“a Brisbane author and theologian… co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of the two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real and The Universal Exception. His current project, entitled The Criticism of Heaven: Essays on Materialist Theology, explores the relationship between theology, politics and economics”. –

“Scott Stephens dismisses Spong’s writings as “… the shadows of pseudo-theological, liturgical or ethical obscurantism.” He uses Spong of serving up a “mishmash of pop-existentialism and flaccid pluralism” and a “cancerous religiosity”.

My how I love it when christians fight dirty.



(1) “Bart Ehrman has written widely on issues of New Testament and early Christianity at both an academic and popular level, with 30 books including three college textbooks and five New York Times bestsellers: Misquoting Jesus, Jesus, Interrupted, God’s Problem, Forged, and How Jesus Became God. Much of his work is on textual criticism and the New Testament. His books have been translated into 27 languages…In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Ehrman argues that there was a close relationship between the social history of early Christianity and the textual tradition of the emerging New Testament. He examines how early struggles between Christian “heresy” and “orthodoxy” affected the transmission of the documents. Ehrman is often considered a pioneer in connecting the history of the early church to textual variants within biblical manuscripts and in coining such terms as “proto-orthodox Christianity”. -(Wikipedia)

(2) The Oath against Modernism: motu proprio Sacrorum Antistitum, 1 September 1910 – Pius X. 1910 St. Pius X September 1, 1910.

An additional article worth reading is Kerygma and Myth by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics (

A Lesser Evil

Voting for a Lesser Evil

by R W Kropf, 10/1/16

“as pure as angels but as proud as devils”

“in 17th century Europe, and especially in France, there arose a very conservative religious reform movement known as “Jansenism” – which might be described as a kind of Catholic puritanism. In the face of the destabilizing intellectual “Enlightenment” of that period, the Jansenists frowned on free thought of any sort and demanded a very strict adherence to traditional Christian morality, so much so that even the Archbishop of Paris criticized the nuns of Port Royal, a famous center of Jansenist movement, as being “as pure as angels but as proud as devils.”  It was a kind of right-wing conservatism gone rigidly religious. But then, a century and a half later, came the liberal left-wing, French revolution, trumpeting a creed of “liberty, equality, and fraternity”. But then the supposedly “liberal” revolutionaries almost immediately started to behead both the high-living nobility and the clergy, as well turning the suppressed (by Pope Clement XI in 1709) and abandoned Port Royal convent into a prison.  In other words that even liberals, in their self-righteousness, can become just as fanatical as conservatives.

The lesson in all this?  It seems to me it is that as unequal and perhaps as unjust as American society is, and as imperfect we humans are, that to stand aside and refuse to tolerate a lesser evil in the face of an even larger threat is a sure way to bring about an even greater disaster.”

You don’t believe in God do you?

I do not describe myself as a man of faith. I am a man of doubt: perhaps doubting even my doubts. When I wander blithely – as we all assuredly do – into the suspect terrain of certitude, hubris and the defense of cherished beliefs – I immediately suspect my intentions and motives. Likewise, I doubt the certitude of others whether they are men of faith or atheists (and are the latter not also men of faith, for whence comes their dogmatic disavowal of the Divine?). It is for this reason I place fundamentalist christians and atheists like Richard Dawkins on the same bottom rung of the ladder: evangels of tawdry dogmatism. It would shock many, I think, who might make too-hasty assumptions about my own beliefs, to learn of the intensity of my own (agonistic) misotheist meditations¹. Whatever I reject or have discovered, belief remains an area of tension. To  question meaningfully is to question ourselves.

“Certainty is so often overrated … If we don’t accept both the commonality and importance of doubt, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. While certainty frequently calcifies into rigidity, intolerance and self-righteousness, doubt can deepen, clarify and explain. This is, of course, a subject far broader than belief in God.The philosopher Bertrand Russell put it best. The whole problem with the world, he wrote, is that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

– Julia Baird, The New York Times

“Don’t tell me you believe in God,” says a work colleague in the advertising agency where I am freelancing as a graphic designer. “Not all that baby Jesus crap!”, he says incredulously. He’s ragging me of course, as if he would abandon all hope and respect for me if I answered in the affirmative. The words of bishop John Shelby Spong suddenly come to mind: “God (is) the source of life and the source of love and the ground of being.”

I try to explain that the word God is the problem, with it’s innumerable connotations. To one person, “God” is an intolerant cosmic bully. To another: a benign – if remote – vaguely fatherly figure. Yet another will find the word “God” an offense, at best a sinister fiction, about as believable as santa claus. So how is it that God could also represent “the source of life, the ground of being”? This multivalence of the word is no doubt why in an ancient world with many gods, the Jews pledged allegiance to the very specific YHWH rather than to some generic “god”.

I went on to share an insight with my colleague, about how words are signifiers, symbols, that they are not the thing in itself, but an attempt to label the signified. An example: a young man who was cruelly beaten and abused by his father, may experience the word father as an intolerable and offensive term. He might have come to hate the very word (the signifier) father and even have a distorted and distressing view of what fatherhood (the signified) means. On the other hand, a young woman who thrived under her father’s kindness and nurturing love, would probably have a very different response to the word father. The word might evoke feelings of affection, and a response of trust and respect, and she would likely have a positive view of fatherhood. For both the young man and the young woman the word, the signifier, “father”, is identical, but the signified couldn’t be more different. Of course this is semantic theory at it’s most basic; arguably the word stone or tree would be less likely to have multiple referents. Where an abstract signifier is in play the signified will be multiple, nuanced and complex. Another example: take the expression “I love you”. How do we explain the unseen signified implied in this question? In the case of the word “love”, the signifier requires some sort of context, for one may love ice cream and love one’s lover, so we need clarification about the word “love”. Likewise, a woman who has been wounded in love may scorn the very word love. The word God is also a signifier requiring context and further explanation. But what is so fascinating about all this is that the exploration of this signifier – which to one person may represent a petty tyrant and to another the source of life – is the beginning of a journey of discovery if one can just move beyond the limitations of the signifier and our own presuppositions about what is signified. It is exciting, like beginning to see for the first time, or emerging from a dimly lit cave full of shadows into the daylight.

I need to make an important note here, by way of a quote:

Heidegger asserts that a phenomena can be grasped in and for themselves in immediate perception. The function of language (logos) is to reveal what phenomena show. However language has a different Being from the phenomena it describes, so the danger is that language will only a ‘appear’ to tell us what the phenomena is. In other words, the inherent danger of describing phenomena in language is that the Being of language (because it is different from the Being of phenomena) can effectively cover up the being of phenomena. Therefore, in order to sort out the covering up of language from the truth of language, we need a method of interrogating language which is both systematic and reflexive enough to hopefully alert us to any potential covering ups. This method is what Heidegger calls, “hermeneutics,” or the business of interpretation. As Heidegger asserts – our investigation will show that the meaning of phenomenological description, as a method, lies in interpretation. It is therefore through hermeneutics, as a systematising approach to interpreting, that the authentic meaning of Being can be articulated.”(3)

Hermeneutics enables us to strip away our presuppositions, but we need to be willing to interrogate our own presuppositions.

I didn’t go into quite so much detail with my colleague, advertising deadlines being what they are – and more accurately – I have no answers. I have as many questions about my own beliefs as he has, for I do not regard faith as a sort of defined, isolated point of reference but as a continuum of enquiry between faith and doubt. It is as often about not knowing as about knowing; about openness and receptiveness, for both the believer and the unbeliever can settle into an ossified bigotry which limits discovery and flux. I don’t know that I even understand my art director colleague’s question. What does it even mean to “believe”? We are lost together, struggling to find our way.

All the books written by the respected ex-evangelical Bart Ehrman with his attack on everything christians hold sacred fails to answer such a question, just as ardent dogmas and creeds create for me layer upon layer of difficulty.  All I can hope to do is to remain open instead of narrowing down the space of potential discovery. And at day’s end, are we not all fellow travellers, camped for a brief while beside a mountain pass under the stars, sharing our stories, doubts and hopes about what lies beyond some distant mountain range, or tales about things we have discovered or rejected on our journeys to this place of encounter? Soon enough we pull up our tents and move on.

In my friend’s question there was, albeit latent, the potential for discord. If my “signified” differed from his, could we still hope to travel together? Yet I really wanted to join him, the two of us like cosmic explorers, moving beyond the confines of the arcane “God-word”, to step as it were through a doorway – or, to use a 21st century analogy, to step through a sci-fi stargate -into the uncharted unknown. What an adventure, what possibilities! A new and creative ad campaign is a mere trinket compared to the jewels we intuit beyond words, beyond the limits of our thoughts and dreams, beyond what we can even imagine.

Where words fail, music remains a welcome, intuitive form of signification. In an article about the music/ soundscapes of South African jazz musician Carlo Mombelli, “Journeying into strangeness with Mombelli”, Kimon de Greef – writing for Cue – says “Mombelli makes mad, magical music; his storytellers are like nothing you’ve heard before. Find them, even if it requires journeying to strange places, and listen.”

It is not so much Carlo’s lyrics in the piece “So many names” (“Jesus Jehovah Krishna Mohammed Buddha…”) that take us on a journey beyond the signifier than it is the mysterious music itself. I don’t think he’s attempting some amalgam of deities, some sort of divine equivalence. The refrain, So many names, takes us beyond names, beyond the need of names and words, a perspective that liberal Christians might embrace and conservative Christians consider blasphemy. This brings me back to the beginning of this post: names (which are of course words) are signifiers, and there are many signifiers of the ineffable. The Jews will not speak the Divine tetragrammaton, YHWH. The San Bushmen of Southern Africa will not speak the holy name “n|om”.

In “The Bushman Way of Tracking God: The Original Spirituality of the Bushman People” by B. Keeney, PhD, the writer tells of the remarkable “texture” of San spirituality. He writes about how the Bushmen elders – which are often women – speak: “There is a river, and it is everywhere. There is a wind, and it is everywhere. They are the same except when they are different. There is a god in the sky and a god on the earth that keeps changing. They are the same except when they are different… there is a spiritual river, and we don’t have to walk anywhere to find it. We step into it by allowing our hearts and souls to be in charge rather than our minds. We allow our feelings to be stirred and awakened. When this happens, we are in the river, in the wind, in the n|om.

“you never can say what n|om is. No definition can capture it. You can’t even say the word “n|om” when it is moving within you … “n|om” might get too strong.”

Is the Bushman respect for the sacred, this ineffable something, not strikingly similar to the Jews’ approach to the Hebrew theonym יהוה‎, the “YHWH” in the Tanakh?

“N|om is a ‘respect name’… When you feel a holy presence nearby, you respect its power and do not allow a word to set up an illusory (and potentially arrogant) knowing of something that goes past the limit of our mind’s ability to understand. You use another word to distance yourself from the mirage of knowing…”²

What uncanny parallels between the spirituality of this 60 000 year old African people and the spirituality of the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart of Gotha! He thought of God as fecund, an overabundance of love, ebullience; boiling over” of the One that cannot hold back its abundance of Being”. And here again we rely on inadequate words to articulate an intuited reality.

There is a whole branch of theology – apophatic theology – which explores the signified in terms of what it is not. Here we are in the company of Meister Eckhart or the Russian existentialist theologian, Nikolai Berdyaev.

One makes a journey on a ship at night in order to appreciate the stars.

In writing of the inadequacy of the signifier I am not wanting to diminish the need of a signifier. In fact signifier and signified are like two sides of a single sheet of paper. Christian theology talks about Christ as λόγος (Logos), the Word, (understood by the ancient Greeks as “the soul of the universe, and ῥῆμα,(rhema), “utterance”).

If I could make a journey beyond the advertising agency where I will be working for just a little while more, I would leave behind the limited and petty signifiers of our past, of my own inadequate words, and travel with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari or Meister Eckhart, into the Mystery that cannot be named.

I leave off with two quotes, the first by Carlo Ginsberg questions our obsession with certainty:

“Montage corresponds to what I consider to be the constructive element in historical studies: it makes it clear that our knowledge is fragmentary and that it derives from an open process. It has always been my ambition that the uncertainty of the research process should come through in what I write.”

And finally, from the author of The Path:

I weary even of my own words

“I weary even of my own words, which have their own abrasive edge. More and more, I long for silence, most especially my own. I’m tired of my own voice, nattering on. That’s simple, you say – just shut up. Close the laptop and put it away. Easier said than done. Thought and words are inseparable. Thoughts cry out for expression. All the philosophers tell us: Language defines our humanity. Seal your lips and you cease to be human.”

by Chet Raymo, author of The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe.

Notes and further reading:


(2)”The Bushman Way of Tracking God: The Original Spirituality of the Bushman People” BY BRADFORD KEENEY PHD



Truth is the enemy

Keir Giles, an expert on the Russian military at the Chatham House think-tank, has warned that Russian “information warfare” occupies a wider sphere than the current Western focus on “cyber warriors” and hackers… The aim is to control information in whatever form it takes,” he wrote in a Nato report called “The Next Phase of Russian Information Warfare”… “In addition, it is often not even seeking to be believed. Instead, it has as one aim undermining the notion of objective truth and reporting being possible at all,” he wrote. Former Russian commander-in-chief Gen Yuri Baluyevsky said a victory in information warfare”can be much more important than victory in a classical military conflict, because it is bloodless, yet the impact is overwhelming and can paralyse all of the enemy state’s power structures”. The EU has a special team to combat Russian “myths” spread on social media, called the East StratCom Task Force.”



Some reflections on the most evil industry in the world

“Are we a nation of citizens or a nation of consumers? Are we a democracy run by citizens, or are we a corporatocracy that holds consumers locked in dependency by virtue of their consumption?”  Thom Hartmann

“Advertising is inherently neither good or bad. It’s messily both… Advertising exists because the process of persuading others to do, buy, eat, change something exists. Sometimes it’s for evil (like promoting tobacco), other times it’s for good (like subverting tobacco). It’s simultaneously a necessary evil and a necessary good. Like government. Or flag burning. Or canned food. It is an ambivalent reflection of its time.” – Ed Tsue


My father, who is now retired, was an advertising Marketing Director in England and South Africa. In spite of – or perhaps because of – his experiences in advertising in Johannesburg from the mid 1970,’s to the mid 1980’s, he would often declare in his categorical, Thus spake Zarathustra manner, “Advertising is evil. It’s full of perverts”. Of course, he never elaborated on the pronouncement, and no comment was invited. Was it drugs, sex, or rock ‘n roll that had provoked such vitriol? Or a philosophic renunciation of his own career? I will never know.

His father, a Welsh socialist and an engineer, was equally scathing of “the service industry”. My father, and his father before him, were certainly not alone in denouncing the “industry” from which, by and large, I have earned a reasonable and honest living since I was in my twenties. There are a fair number of jokes about disreputable admen, and at times I confess I have emphasised that I am a graphic designer and illustrator rather than an art director, perhaps subconsciously to distance myself from the picture of slick-haired, smooth-talking reprobates.  I have been told – seriously –  that what I do is right down there with prostitution and drug trafficking. Interestingly enough I worked with a much-awarded creative director who named his company after a particular room of a house of ill repute in French literature where the, er, “service” the girls provided for the, um, “customers”, was second to none. The creative director in question (who went on to become a millionaire and one of the industry’s hall-of-fame greats) told me that one day he’d tell his grandson that he’d always known he was prostituting his talents. I think he was being a little ironic, but there we have it: my dad wasn’t far off.

Or was he? I tend to think that in all spheres of human activity you get the good, the bad and the ugly, and advertising is no more or less evil than, say, politics, the priesthood, the legal profession or accountancy, and that once you start pontificating about which profession is more virtuous than another you are on shaky ground. There are those who would disagree of course.

The monk and the Art Director: The Evil profession

A few months back I put on my Art Director’s hat (with it’s red devil-horns) and engaged in an on-line tête-à-tête with a Franciscan monk who had written a post deriding advertising as “the most evil of all professions”.

I will share an abridged version of the conversation here (with names changed):

“Dear Brother William. I came upon your article “THE GREATEST EVIL?” and I was surprised to arrive at such a grim meditation, especially in light of your apparent commitment to spreading “the spirit of love and harmony, breaking down barriers between people and fighting against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice or partiality of any kind”. I find it difficult to reconcile your essay with such aims. I am a graphic designer who has been, on and off, connected with advertising for many years, and I have mixed reactions to your essay, reactions I felt I needed to share with you. May I suggest the greatest evil – if we are permitted to engage in the dubious task of comparisons of degrees of evil – is intolerance: not to love, not to be able to see light in the dark, not to be able to find Christ even where there may be shadows. I may be wrong, but nowhere in Scripture do I find Jesus singling out a particular trade, industry, country or person and naming it “The Greatest Evil” (including prostitution, being a pagan Roman centurion, collaborator tax-collector or even a demoniac). Interestingly, Jesus seems to have reserved his harshest criticisms not for sinners such as these, but for the religious authorities of his day who consistently condemned those they regarded as unclean in their eyes and God’s. Maybe even as unclean as advertising and all the associated industries- film, tv production, motion graphics, illustration and commercial photography… this little rant of yours against the “the greatest evil” intrigues me both for its failure to understand the complexities and intentions of advertising in the global economy (I discovered your site online, by the way, precisely because it WAS advertised) – and for its judgemental tone. To suggest that the many people I am acquainted with and have been through my life, and the many, many throughout the world who do excellent, honest work to feed themselves and their families, are participants in an evil worse than “Terrorism”,  “Drug abuse” “Genocide”  “Pornography” and “War” [the priest’s contention] is an insult – not to me, because I frankly disavow the stupidity of that statement – but an insult to victims of the human tragedies you casually lists in your essay. It is also an insult to every person with a pc, a mobile phone, a TV, a magazine or a newspaper, for it assumes they are all either innocents to be corrupted or imbeciles who cannot decide for themselves if they need a new pair of shoes or not – whatever the admen say.

Be that as it may, I do believe any area of human activity may be used for good or bad (including the church itself). There are advertising campaigns aimed at stopping wars and child abuse, combatting AIDS, cholera, cancer and TB, for the plight of the poor and needy, for marginalised and persecuted communities. I have created ads for an AIDS orphanage which would not be in existence today had it not been for the selfless contribution of art directors, writers and media buyers. To call these worse than genocidal is frankly wicked.”

“Dear Scott, I’m sorry you felt threatened by my article on advertising.  If you reread it you will see that I do not condemn advertisers. Had I done so, your criticism would have been more valid. As I have no idea what motives and forces have caused anybody to work in advertising, I cannot judge them. Only God can do that. It is a common misconception that Christians should not condemn anything. What Christians should not condemn is people.  Contrarily, we have an obligation to  attack evils. Jesus was very free to condemn things he felt were evil. I singled out modern advertising for criticism because it’s intention is to create discontent, encourage greed, and promote consumerism- all goals which  are strongly anti-gospel, and moreover responsible or partly responsible for a great many of the ills of our modern society, including our environmental destruction.  I call advertising “THE greatest evil” because of the huge volume of its destructive effects; there are other more evil things which affect fewer people. As a Franciscan, I am dedicated to living simply. This was easy when I was in Africa where there was no advertising – no stirring up of unnecessary desires and no suggestions that I’d have better sex (or more success etc.) if I bought things – one  of the constant themes of modern advertising. Consequently I identified advertising as ONE (not the only)  enemy of a holy life and trained myself to ignore it – with some success. Another factor in my condemnation of advertising is the constant falsehoods (despite ineffectual attempts at control) – so pervasive in our society that lying has become totally  acceptable if it is profitable.  (Witness the fact that Trump’s lies have almost no deleterious effect – especially not on his supporters. The “alternative facts” of today are the direct result of manipulative advertising.)  I am old enough to remember when telling the truth was an important virtue. You, I imagine,  are too young to remember a better way. All the best, Brother William”

“Thank you Brother William for your considered reply to my letter, although you avoided several key issues in my response to your article. Perhaps we won’t see eye to eye on this matter, as I see you did not address any of my comments on the positives of the free market economy, the positive use of advertising and so on. Not all advertising is manipulative unlike much which passes for religion. “I am old enough to remember when telling the truth was an important virtue. You, I imagine, are too young to remember a better way.” This is an unfair and untrue assumption which locates the telling of truth in some mythic virtuous past. When was that precisely? In Africa under colonial rule? In the propaganda infested World Wars? In mediaeval Christendom? I am old enough to refute this insinuation of an ignorance of truth, old enough to know that the present generation is profoundly aware of the previous generation’s falsehoods and moral bankruptcy. I believe you conflate political propaganda and falsehood with your bugbear, advertising. If I design, erect and pay for a billboard which tells you the advantages of, say, a low emission vehicle, how is this the greatest of evils that I am perpetrating? How is this more evil than, for instance, US drone attacks in Afghanistan or British made cluster bombs being dropped in Yemen? Buying Royal Dutch Shell petrol for your car when the oil company and evil regimes conspire to murder activists? You merrily demonize advertising and whittle it down to a parody of sex and material lust, as if we were innocent victims of an external agent. Somewhere Christ pointed out that it was not that which goes into a man that contaminates him, but what proceeds out of his mouth, out of his soul. The pharisees got this wrong time and again.You locate the great evil outside, the great evil of temptation, but evil of the very worst sort has and continues to arise in the hearts of men and women even in the seclusion of a religious community. As a priest you are surely aware of this and I need not bore you with examples. If the free market system annoys you and tempts you so, I ask what strength there be in Christ if we must flee into a metaphorical desert to escape temptation! Isn’t this what Thomas Merton understood, that there was something artificial and illusory in such an escape? If you want to raise the subject of sex, then a prostitute in a doorway in Jerusalem could be considered a crass form of advertising, and Jesus didn’t go about lambasting prostitutes or dimly lit doorways. Should you be interested you will find that lying and wilfully misleading the public, while perhaps a forte of men in power (Trump is but one recent example) is prohibited under law in almost every country. I cannot advertise a falsehood without facing criminal liability, and when you see all these lies you refer to I would encourage you to take action, write to your local advertising authority. I am no great lover of commercialism, I have my own issues with advertising, but I question your casting it as “the greatest evil”. The rise of christofascism in the US is surely a good contender for that position? Great Britain’s nuclear arsenal? ISIS? And lets not idealise third world poverty, or the nightmare of socialism in (then) Eastern block Europe and the soviet union, where ads were rare and scarcity common. My argument with you is not about the virtues of advertising which would be a ridiculous argument to make (should the internet be shut down because it carries pornography? Should TV and radio be stopped because they carry images of gratuitous sex and mindless violence? Where will we stop? Will we attack Catholicism because of the vices of some of its clergy? Isn’t this one of the ideas in “The Name of the Rose”, where the fight against vice becomes more evil than the evils it seeks to denounce? Thank you for your reply, Best, Scott”

At this point I let go of the proverbial bone: “The [lad] doth protest too much, methinks” said my superego. Why was I sparring with a Franciscan monk anyway? Certainly I was in agreement with him about at least some of his points about advertising, even if his views were a bit rigid and anachronistic. In fact I was trying to discover if it was possible to make a defense of what he regarded as the indefensible. I was also admittedly piqued by his original pronouncement, as well as disappointed to find once again a sort of pontificating, judgemental, perochial narrow-mindedness in one of God’s so-called representatives. Yet why for goodness sake would I expect anything more from a monk? Was I attacking his views in a classic Freudian projection of my own ambivalence? By attacking this unsuspecting Franciscan, was I in symbolic combat with my father with his derisive and prurient comments?
I think I was as unfair to my monk as I am unresolved on the matter.

It is not only Franciscan monks who regard advertising as a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah deserving of God’s unsparing wrath. Ed Gillespie, writing for the Guardian Professional Network, put it this way:

“If anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself.” So said the late, great and long lamented comedy genius Bill Hicks in (his) legendary clip. His scathing and withering dismissal of an entire industry came to mind last week with the launch of Think of me as evil?, a report from the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF, as well as subsequent commentary by the esteemed George Monbiot. Now I have to hold my hands-up here as this “evil, pointless” industry that apparently “demeans even love”, is also my industry – and I love it. And I wonder whether Messrs Alexander, Crompton and Shrubsole, the authors of the above report, might be at risk of hurling this particular baby out with the proverbial bathwater?”(1)

The George Monbiot mentioned above by Gillespie wrote, “Advertising claims to enhance our choice, but it offers us little choice about whether we see and hear it, and ever less choice about whether we respond to it. Since Edward Bernays began to apply the findings of his uncle Sigmund Freud, advertisers have been developing sophisticated means of overcoming our defences. In public they insist that if we become informed consumers and school our children in media literacy we have nothing to fear from their attempts at persuasion. In private they employ neurobiologists to find ingenious methods of bypassing the conscious mind.. Pervasiveness and repetition act like a battering ram against our minds. The first time we see an advertisement, we are likely to be aware of what it’s telling us and what it is encouraging us to buy. From then on, we process it passively, absorbing its imagery and messages without contesting them, as we are no longer fully switched on. Brands and memes then become linked in ways our conscious minds fail to detect.. Advertising encourages us to compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better off. It persuades us to trash our happiness and trash the biosphere to answer a craving it exists to perpetuate… We’re hooked on a drug that is destroying society. As with all addictions, the first step is to admit to it…”(2)

So there you have it – not from a monk mind you, but from the activist/author of “The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain”. We ad-men are devils after all, in cahoots with The Beast. The consumer is an innocent and hapless victim of my wicked industry’s nefarious machinations: I had better keep pushing  the “I am a graphic designer” line after all, unless designers too are listed in the Malleus Maleficarum.

Perhaps graphic design will save the world? (and to the relief of Brother William, my soul long In the service of evil, will find some modest redemption). An article by Nicholas Windsor Howard – Poor Design in the Wild – illustrates what should in fact be obvious: the importance of good design(3). But this will be the subject of another blog post.

Notes and further reading:

Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility by Veronique Vienne (Editor) “What does it mean to be a designer in today’s corporate-driven, overbranded global consumer culture? Citizen Designer attempts to answer this question with more than 70 debate-stirring essays and interviews espousing viewpoints ranging from the cultural and the political to the professional and the social.”

THE WANT MAKERS The World of Advertising: How They Make You Buy by Eric Clark


Is Advertising Inherently Evil? An insider’s perspective on the industry’s perennial debate:

View at

“Is it wrong to erect elaborate fantasies to sell people things they don’t really need? Is it moral to research, identify and leverage deeply primal emotions to sell candy, plastic toys or french fries to kids? Is it kosher to use art to serve commerce?”


Advertising in itself is not evil: it is just communication(1)