How a piece of old propaganda might persist and comfort.

It seems like we have so many seasons in our world now. And in this- our newly christened plague season- we are reminded of how fragile we are as a group. In the pre-modern world (and for thousands of years before that) strength was derived chiefly from numbers. The more people you had, the more you could survive and protect yourself. The equation was simple- More people meant more security.

But maybe we’ve sailed around the horn in our postmodern world, and the high numbers have actually become a weakness. When you view us as a virus might, it sure seems like the advantage is more theirs than ours nowadays.

And maybe after this pandemic, if we retain our population size, we’ll come out the other side looking more like ants or termites; as singular parts of a whole, following the paths of Emergence.

Emergence is the observable phenomenon that a group of simple organisms are capable of accomplishing things that no single part has the capacity to do. Think of ants- Take a single ant from the colony and there is nothing magical about it. They don’t have a thinking brain, they have a group of simple brains called a Ganglia. It is a receptive and reactive brain that takes in info from the world and communicates with some smaller brains that control movement. To our understanding, a single ant is merely a machine inspired by its code to sense the world and react according to it’s programming.
But put them together and step back a bit, and they react to the world as we do. They make homes, take on jobs, they make bridges, and survive floods by joining together to float. They ball up to roll away from danger. They cut down leaves to make a roof. They protect their babies, they move the earth, they disassemble life to consume it, and they thrive. There are 1.5 million ants for every one of us. All of the ants on earth have roughly the same mass as all of the humans on earth. They are, quite literally, our size when together, and are inspired with the will to survive.

There are two types of Emergence; strong and weak. A weak emergence phenomenon can be seen all over in our world: termites building towers of mud, the close and inspired flights of starlings, schools of fish, and in traffic jams. The defining characteristic of weak emergence is that the individual retains its autonomy. In the case of a traffic jam, you are in control of your car and yet you are a component of the jam, powerless to control it from the outside. A strong emergence is where the singular is not autonomous and might be changed (sometimes even chemically) according to the whim of the multitude. Which symbiotically, seems to take its cue solely from the blank hunger and forward motion of the individual.

In this way you could make the case that we are actually already in weak emergence, and what we’re feeling right now is the rush of acceleration as we head towards a strong one. At least that's what the last week has felt like. As if I'm a passenger in a speeding car, and I can see the traffic jam ahead, but whoever is in charge isn’t letting off the gas. And I don’t even know where to find the pedal.

My school closed last week, so I’m coming up with lesson plans for kids that are used to building things in community. Strong emergence might be having its effect, because I feel my programming is shifting slightly. As a teacher usually in a room filled with students, I knew what my programming was. Have supplies, tools, and wide clean tables. And with those things in place, my role is to talk to each student and provide the added resources needed to reach their potential.

I believe what they need to be successful is for me to get my own ego out of the way and serve them as individuals learning how to express themselves. And to do that, one student might need to learn a specific technique, another might need a whole new idea, or just the right wrench to take apart an old one. One might need to hear about an artist that is unfamiliar to them. And one might need to just talk about anything else for a while. Or be told that what we are going through is not the new normal.

So in thinking about ways in which to keep continuity with my students at a time when we’ve all been plucked from the familiar, and quarantined inside a gotomeeting window on our laptop miles away from our classroom- cautious about the future and doing our best to keep the thread- I thought of the ways that art and design have saved us from both real, and existential peril. And of course I thought of the now-famous English propaganda poster of World War II.
Officially, the Ministry of information was created the day after England declared war in 1939. But according to records, the government had already been planning this new information branch as early as 1935. Seeing tensions rising again after World War I, officials believed that another long and costly war could wreak havoc on civilian morale, and home-front propaganda might be a way to alleviate that.

What would become the Ministry was already working on poster ideas in the months before war was declared. They had a set of three slogans by April of 1939, created by a collective of civil servants, public-relations men and industry magnates. To create the posters they commissioned Ernest Wallcousins, an illustrator of royal occasions and fantasy fiction titles.

Wallcousins usually worked in a painterly and lush style, inspired by early 20th century popular magazine illustration. But for these pieces he went with a stark and bold approach, using single color. He had rough sketches ready in July and finished all three posters in August. He painted each one- including the text- by hand and you can see the technical precision that he was capable of when stripped of his usual full rendering and subtle color use. The only suggestion of his illustration skills is the iconified royal crown.
By August of 1939, they had over two million copies of each poster printed, in red and blue. The “FREEDOM IS IN PERIL” and “YOUR COURAGE..” posters were put into the public quickly, but the last one was considered too powerful to be put out immediately. Heavy bombing raids- what would be called “The Blitz”- had been threatened but wouldn’t start for another year. And, sensing the coming doom, the Ministry decided to wait on using the last poster until things got worse.

Things indeed got worse, but the fate of the final poster couldn’t have been predicted. The public reaction to the first two campaigns wasn’t stellar, and the ministry was criticized for seeming condescending and out of touch. Their first home-front propaganda campaign was expensive, and seemed to be ineffective. By the end of 1939, paper was also at a premium and a country-wide paper drive was gaining steam. Two million questionable posters is a lot to contend with, so instead of letting them see the light of day, the ministry took all of the copies out of storage and recycled them- never putting one on the streets. The entire campaign was cancelled by November.

So how did the most iconic piece of graphic design from the World War II era end up seeing the light of day? With two million copies, it’s hard to believe that they could have destroyed every one, and in the wake of war that followed the entire campaign was forgotten. A copy of the third poster wouldn’t emerge for sixty years.
Stuart and Mary Manley started one of the largest second-hand book stores in England in 1991. Barter Books Ltd. is located in an old railway station. They put the shelves where the train rails used to be and converted the waiting rooms to reading rooms. A miniature train runs across the shelf tops. Barter Books is a tourist attraction now, and known for what their title implies- a barter system where you can trade in books to get credit for future purchases.

In 2000, Stuart Manley was picking through a box of books that he had bought at auction, when he came across it. A folded copy of the third destroyed poster. The now iconic phrase below an iconified depiction of the royal crown. With no context whatsoever, he showed it to his wife who loved it and had it framed. She hung it at the front desk, and customers found themselves fascinated by its boldness and beauty.

The Manleys contacted the government, traced the poster’s history and ultimately asked the Ministry of Information if it was in the public domain, and if they could make copies. The ministry confirmed that it was indeed in the public domain and the rest is pretty well known.

It has been copied, imitated, appropriated, parodied, remixed, memed and honored in the years since. It’s been used to express national pride, it transports us to another time, and to many people around the world it is timeless.

It represents stoicism, rational thought, and impeccably good visual taste.

And these days, that message might be priceless. To think that it might never have seen the light of day again, had it not been found by someone who had made a life out of valuing old things. Or to think that an artist in today’s world- faced with our modern fragility and the dread of what lies in wait in the coming weeks- would have to make again what had already been perfectly done, instead of building on this triumph. Not to be pulled up into the wash of this emerging panic as terrifyingly new and dangerous, but instead to see that we're built on the foundation of history. This path that we are on has been walked before. Just-
Thank you for reading. It has been 15 months since I've sent one of these out. If you've forgotten why you've subscribed, or if you're one of the new people on this list and don't want to be, please hit unsubscribe below and accept my sincerest apologies.

This doesn't necessarily herald a return to this endeavor- In looking up new lesson ideas for my students, I did some research on this poster and thought I'd send it out. Perhaps you find the story as interesting and inspiring as I do. Feel free to share it, let me know what you think, or just check in from wherever you are. Maybe in our miniature exiles, the internet can be free and wild again.

And finally a little housekeeping, I have lots of new work on my newly redesigned website. Soon I'll showcase some of it here. But for now, feel free to visit to see what the last year has brought.
There is an archive for this newsletter on my site, which you can get to by clicking this fancy button:
This Sorry Spacesuit was started (and rolls away the stone, maybe) as a place to support conversations that don't fit into algorithms or truncated tweets, I don't care about your data or your browsing habits, but I’m always interested in hearing your perspective. Feel free to reply.
facebook instagram