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a vague nostalgia for a benevolent, quasi-modernist English bureaucratic aesthetic
September 16, 2009 8:06 AM   Subscribe

Lash Out and Cover Up: Owen Hatherley in Radical Philosophy on "Keep Calm and Carry On," manufactured nostalgia for austerity, and modernist kitsch, in its authoritarian and ironically adapted forms.

(Previous calm-keeping and on-carrying and Owen Hatherley.)
posted by RogerB (31 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, Flag It and Move On (relevant to this post, but not directed at this post, of course).
posted by idiopath at 8:18 AM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I couldn't agree more with his analysis of the 'Policing Pledge' posters, which are for my money the most cynical, tone-deaf and creepy official appropriation of popular culture (itself based on nostalgia for an official poster, natch):
In April 2009, another series of posters appeared on British streets, this time under the auspices of the police. Based ostentatiously on ‘Keep Calm’, they share the same centred design, the same humanist sans serifs, but replacing the crown with the police badge. The written content consists of three slogans, all based on particular clichés used by the police in the popular imagination, albeit in one case with a decidedly sinister twist: ‘We’d Like to Give You a Good Talking To’, ‘Anything You Say May Be Taken Down and Used as Evidence’, and, remarkably, ‘You Have the Right Not to Remain Silent’. Underneath, in an extremely small, easily missed print, is the ‘official’ message, based on ‘the Policing Pledge’, one of the many managerial initiatives intended to ‘restore confidence’ or ‘enable choice’ in one or another public body. For instance, the ‘talking to’ poster’s pledge is to listen to the consumer of policing, while ‘not to remain silent’ suggests you make complaints against the police should they inconvenience you. In their split between an authoritarian exclamation and a liberal, caring small print which, supposedly, gives an amusing gloss to the large print, these are spectacular examples of disavowal and the use of irony to say appalling things unchallenged. The sleight of hand is thus: the pun, the pay-off, is in small print, reminding us that really the police force are all about helping old ladies across the road, ‘the police now pledge to listen…’, the truth is in large print. Given the recent suspension of habeas corpus, one genuinely does not have the right to remain silent. So while this ‘witty’ gesture claims to play with the brutally state-protecting image of the police, it also says, very loudly, that the rules no longer apply, as would be made obvious at the G20 protests on 1 April.
So, they took a simple, never used poster idea focused on a single clear message and decided to put an 'edgy' double meaning (which probably not accidentally was also vaguely threatening) and crust up the design with a load of logos, tiny text and other bollocks. Whoever the designer and writer team responsible for that was, they ought to be ashamed. I mean, if you're going to try and cash in on a particular visual language, at least try to be consistent.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:32 AM on September 16, 2009


I think he's over egging the respect for authority angle here. The way I saw it, the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' message was a nice antidote to all the wet and winsome reality show stars that felt compelled to wheel out a tragic backstory and burst into tears every five seconds.
posted by Summer at 8:35 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


You would prefer Now Panic and Freak Out?
posted by The Bellman at 8:41 AM on September 16, 2009


I quite like Get Excited and Make Things.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:43 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think he's over egging the respect for authority angle here. The way I saw it, the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' message was a nice antidote to all the wet and winsome reality show stars that felt compelled to wheel out a tragic backstory and burst into tears every five seconds.

This. A bit more calm-keeping and a lot less diana-esque, er, carrying on would be good around here; a lot less Hatherley would be even better.
posted by fightorflight at 8:57 AM on September 16, 2009


Holy hell, the "Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" poster is the creepiest thing I've seen in a long time.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:04 AM on September 16, 2009


Not being British their may be tone or context issues that make me misunderstand it, but I wonder if the "Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" poster was designed by a cheeky subversive who is trying to undermine the propaganda effort and the surveillance policy from within.
posted by idiopath at 9:12 AM on September 16, 2009


Who the fuck would quibble with "keep calm and carry on"? The overexposure of the poster is now tiring, but this is beanplating at its goofiest.

PS: Secure Beneath The Watchful Eyes WTF BRITAIN
posted by everichon at 9:17 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah. Thanks, idiopath.
posted by everichon at 9:17 AM on September 16, 2009


all based on particular clichés used by the police in the popular imagination

Waiting for the "What's all this, then?" poster.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:19 AM on September 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Subversively ironic (ironically subversive?) or not, idiopath, the cameras are watchful regardless.

The irony makes it doubly sinister. "We know that you know we're big brothering. We both know you won't do anything about it."
posted by notyou at 9:30 AM on September 16, 2009


all based on particular clichés used by the police in the popular imagination

Get you're trousers on, you're nicked!
We're the sweeny son, and we haven't had our dinner yet.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:31 AM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


We have that poster hanging in our bedroom.

For me it has no connotations of nostalgia (I was born well after WWII and am not really into war history or Blitz-era London)

Instead, what appeals to me is

1. The simple, clean two-color design - nice font, endearingly larger on some words than others - this poster *looks good* in some basic sense

2. The straightforward & agreeable message

If any political connotation, I think of how we collectively shit our pants after 9/11. The manipulation of terror alerts by Bush's administration & the willingness of the populace to believe it. The idea of the Brits bravely going about their day & day in the face of Germany attacks stands in sharp contrast.

Hmm, so maybe this is manufactured nostalgia. But I'd still say #1 and #2 are the dominant factors.
posted by jcruelty at 9:51 AM on September 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


fearfulsymmetry: Get you're trousers on, you're nicked!
We're the sweeny son, and we haven't had our dinner yet.

posted by koeselitz at 9:52 AM on September 16, 2009


The vogue for 'Keep Calm and Carry On' exemplifies the curious love/hate relationship that the British have with bureaucracy -- looking to the state to fix everything, and grumbling when it doesn't, while at the same time resenting its interference in their lives. It's about nostalgia for the Welfare State, nostalgia for the postwar consensus that got swept away by Thatcherism, plus a vaguely guilty feeling that we've had it too good for too long and aren't properly equipped to meet a crisis. Hatherley describes it as 'a sort of austerity nostalgia', but there's something unreal about it, it's a pretend austerity, entirely suited to the current situation where the full effects of the recession haven't yet been felt. When the economic crisis really starts to bite, when the cutbacks start and all of us (at least all of us in the public sector) have to pay the price for bailing out the banks, then 'Keep Calm and Carry On' won't seem so funny any more.
posted by verstegan at 9:56 AM on September 16, 2009


The poster is saying 'stiff upper lip' basically, but in a nice way. It was WWII and this helped people get through the horror and confusion of being bombed by the Luftwaffe. Nowadays, I think it serves as a reminder of what others have gone through and helps keep things in perspective. That's what I get from it, anyways.

That also represents a government that was helping people and which people trusted, that seems to be the author's main irk with it really. People yearning for the good old days, just shut up and keep and keep reporting to your job - one possible reading, but I think it's just ignoring the context of the poster's creation. It's projection of one's own time and place.

The poster's also very striking visually, quite well designed in its simplicity.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:57 AM on September 16, 2009


If any political connotation, I think of how we collectively shit our pants after 9/11. The manipulation of terror alerts by Bush's administration & the willingness of the populace to believe it. The idea of the Brits bravely going about their day & day in the face of Germany attacks stands in sharp contrast.

I think this helps explain what gets people's backs up about it in the States. They're projecting all their anxiety about "socialism" and government onto a popular government poster from another society, which handles crisis very differently than their own.

In one sense, it can be read as the difference between the US and the UK, distilled to a phrase.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:00 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


fightorflight: A bit more calm-keeping and a lot less diana-esque, er, carrying on would be good around here; a lot less Hatherley would be even better.

As Hatherley says in the article:
Essentially, the power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stoicism and muddling through, something which survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, and given to sudden outpourings of sentiment and grief, as over the deaths of celebrities like Diana Spencer or Jade Goody. The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years. At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of this idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) stoicism in the displayer of the poster or wearer of the T-shirt.
I like Owen Hatherley's writing (I posted one of the previouslies) and think he's an especially lucid voice on design, architecture and the social effects and implications thereof. As prodigious as his output is I think we could do with an Owen Hatherley clone or two.
posted by Kattullus at 10:33 AM on September 16, 2009


The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
posted by stinkycheese at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2009


Thought-provoking article. I agree that it's irritating the way this iconography is used as genuine propaganda, but I disagree with some of it.

I think there's often a tendency for young people to think their parents' tastes in everything sucked... but some stuff from their grandparents generation was really cool.

Sixties designers revived art deco ideas of the Twenties. Sixties rock musicians often idolized early bluesmen of the Thirties. Teddy boys of the Fifties revived fashions from the Edwardian era (around 1910).

Hatherly says this:
Unlike many forms of nostalgia, the memory invoked by the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is in no way based on lived experience. Most of those who have bought this poster, or worn the various bags, T-shirts and other memorabilia based upon it, were most likely born in the 1970s or 1980s, and have no memory whatsoever of the kind of benevolent statism it purports to exemplify. The poster is an example of the phenomenon given a capsule definition by Douglas Coupland in the early 1990s: ‘Legislated Nostalgia’, that is, ‘to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess.’
But I think a simpler explanation is that it's not nostalgia at all. Instead it's a generation stumbling across something that, to them, is new.

What if posters, instead of being brightly coloured, zig-zag angled, vortices of busy-ness, were plain and simple instead? What if everybody stopped being conspicuously emotional and crying and yelling and screaming, and just kept calm and carried on?

Just because the trend has been latched onto by some designers promoting somewhat evil ideas, doesn't meant the whole well is poisoned.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:51 PM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'll tell you one thing about ironically adapted forms: it can be tricky coming up with variations on the "X X and Y Y" formula. I was only able to get about nine different ones.
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 3:10 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like the poster, because when I'm feeling overworked and overstressed and otherwise wigging out a bit, I can look up see the poster, enjoy it's simplicity, and remind myself that it's not all that bad.

Essentially, the power of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ comes from a yearning for an actual or imaginary English patrician attitude of stoicism and muddling through, something which survives only in the popular imaginary, in a country devoted to services and consumption, and given to sudden outpourings of sentiment and grief, as over the deaths of celebrities like Diana Spencer or Jade Goody. The poster isn’t just a case of the return of the repressed, it is rather the return of repression itself, a nostalgia for the state of being repressed – solid, stoic, public-spirited, as opposed to the depoliticized, hysterical and privatized reality of Britain over the last thirty years. At the same time as it evokes a sense of loss over the decline of this idea of Britain and the British, it is both reassuring and flattering, implying a virtuous (if highly self-aware) stoicism in the displayer of the poster or wearer of the T-shirt.

And he says that like it's a *bad* thing? I'm a vociferous opponent of government surveillance and do my best to educate people about the database state being setup around us in the UK, so it's not some false nostalgia for a time when government knew best and the nanny state would protect us. I do on the other hand think less 'reality' show histrionics and mass outpourings of pseudo grief over dead celebrities would be a good thing; yes, a stoic and calm populace may not be that common any more, but he should try coming down to the countryside some time - we're not all media-obsessed hello-readers in this country, and some of us are still capable of not sharing excessive outbursts of overwrought emotion or going into therapy when things go a teensy bit pearshaped.
posted by ArkhanJG at 6:16 PM on September 16, 2009


fearfulsymmetry: From what I read and saw of London's G20 protests from over here in Australia, I wonder if DCI Hunt's "You are surrounded by armed bastards" might not be more appropriate (than ever) to the modern Met.

(I do confess to owning a KC&CO t-shirt, although mine is in the Lotus racing colours of yellow-on-green for a double shot of fauxstalgia.)
posted by MarchHare at 7:21 PM on September 16, 2009


I've no idea what you mean MarchHare, the SPG TSG are a fine body of men.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:51 AM on September 17, 2009


I don't know - the problem with this article, and with the commentary that follows it, is that it presupposes that "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters were all over Britain during the Blitz. They were not. The poster was never used. It was printed for use in case of a German occupation, which didn't happen.

So, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster is a lot smarter than this commentary about it. Beyond its striking design, it is also evoking nostalgia for a history that never happened - fantastic nostalgia, which is to say not nostalgia at all. However, it is also a comment, frequently, about the state's use of fear to justify its authoritarian streak. "Keep Calm and Carry On" is an antithesis to the British Government's attempts to use the fear of terrorism to extend police powers, extend holding without charge and the right to search, harass journalists, justify obsessive surveillance and encourage a nation of curtain-twitching snitches - evinced by this stunningly awful advert and this curtain-twitchtastic campaign. A good symbol is polyvalent, but the poster's quiet injunction not to let government terrify you for its own purposes is not about nostalgia or austerity - it's about other British values entirely.
posted by DNye at 10:59 AM on September 17, 2009


DNye: I don't know - the problem with this article, and with the commentary that follows it, is that it presupposes that "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters were all over Britain during the Blitz. They were not. The poster was never used. It was printed for use in case of a German occupation, which didn't happen.

So, the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster is a lot smarter than this commentary about it. Beyond its striking design, it is also evoking nostalgia for a history that never happened - fantastic nostalgia, which is to say not nostalgia at all.


The whole point of the article is that the poster was barely seen by anyone until very recently, that it's manufactured nostalgia..
posted by Kattullus at 12:41 PM on September 17, 2009


Another example of nostalgic fetishisation of the iconography of pre-Thatcherite Britain I've noticed a while ago: the British Rail logo. I've seen several CDs in the "indie" sections of record shops adorned with this logo, which seems to be becoming the modern equivalent of the Mods' RAF Roundel, an embodiment of countercultural cool combined with self-consciously high-minded nostalgia for a more public-spirited age.

Which makes me wonder whether, if Rupert Murdoch gets his way, we'll see hipsters walking around wearing BBC logo badges in a few decades.
posted by acb at 2:55 PM on September 17, 2009


an embodiment of countercultural cool combined with self-consciously high-minded nostalgia for a more public-spirited age.

See also: TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) buttons.

But what's wrong with that? The designs are re-appropriated/fetishized/whatever b/c these are good designs. How you feel about the rest of it is basically how you feel about public utilities and/or "socialism".
posted by stinkycheese at 3:14 PM on September 17, 2009


See also: TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) buttons.

In Melbourne, the conservative state government got rid of tram conductors in the 1990s, (replacing them with roving teams of "revenue protection officers", i.e., bouncers, who weren't actually paid to help passengers). This stirred up a lot of opprobrium, and for a while, tram conductors' jackets became a punk/crusty/squatter fashion accessory.
posted by acb at 3:43 PM on September 17, 2009


Katullus: Ah. Knackers. Yes, you're absolutely right. Hatherley does cover that. I don't think that the point is purely that the nostalgia is manufactured, though, and I think the British attitude to

However, I think it is a little perverse of Hatherley not to take on board the implications of that context here - that it was intended not to exemplify a benevolent bureaucracy, but for a people under direct occupation by a hated antagonist. I do think that's pretty important, and also that the fact that Hazel Blears didn't get it is not necessarily exemplary of an absolute meaning - Hazel Blears did not get a number of things.

Lumping together the bus CCTV ads and the Police ads is, I think, I mistake - the bus ads were actively creepy and offputting, and I think were intended to be so. The Police ads were an attempt to be wry and cuddly, but were badly conceived because (and this is probably a bad thing to try to communicate to a client) the Metropolitan Police brand is too badly damaged for that kind of treatment to fly. The Police are d&eacutetourning, themselves, and as Happy Dave points out dong it in an ugly and cack-handed fashion. Hatherley's article does not cover - or is simply not aware of - the many ways the poster has been used and altered, beyond "Lash Out and Cover Up", and the way the particular style has been a toolkit for multiple messages with a common and recognisable presentation.

Adverts by and for promoters of surveillance and control are certainly generally creepy, though, and rarely have good advertising.
posted by DNye at 5:45 PM on September 17, 2009


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