While typography performs its alchemical operations in broad daylight, the fnord lurks in the shadows. If type is inseparable from visuality, the fnord — a crypto-typographic element rendered invisible through systematic brainwashing — derives its power from non-presence. A non-sign, it performs the function of typography — to shade meaning — while bypassing semiotics. The fnord carries no message. It conveys only uncertainty: a vague feeling impossible to name. It is pure effect. While typography clings to the surface of language, the fnord is a self-contained virus that injects its fragment of paranoiac genetic code past the eye and directly into the brain. The fnord is the marketer’s unobtainable fantasy: pure, crystalline inference.
The fnord is first identified in an obscure tract titled Principia Discordia: or How the West was Lost — originally published in a mimeographed edition of 5, later republished and renamed Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her: The Magnum Opiate Of Malaclypse The Younger, Wherein Is Explained Absolutely Everything Worth Knowing About Absolutely Anything. The obscure pamphlet is written — or discovered, or compiled, or invented — by an Englishman, Malaclypse The Younger (aka Greg Hill), and an American, Lord Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst (Kerry Thornley), around 1965, purportedly in New Orleans, and continues to be republished widely through various publishers and numerous websites. The original bears the anti-copyright: “ All Rites Reversed — reprint what you like,” a methodology the authors seem to practice liberally themselves.
The fnord, however, remains more or less un-theorized for another decade as thePrincipia Discordia never fully articulates its sinister power. Enter Robert Anton Wilson, true prophet of Discordianism, one-time Playboy Forum editor, and conspiracy theorist/author dedicated to the goal of “get[ting] people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.” In 1975 Wilson and co-writer Robert Shea publish “The Eye in the Pyramid,” volume one of The Illuminatus! Trilogy, their so-called fairy tale for paranoids. Wilson theorizes the fnord as a fully typographic element embedded in all mass-media texts by the Illuminati — a super-secret and all-powerful transnational organization — in a worldwide brainwashing campaign code-named Operation Mindfuck.
“Very nice,” I said. “But why did you bring me up here?”
“It’s time for you to see the fnords,” he replied. Then I woke up in bed and it was the next morning. I made breakfast in a pretty nasty mood, wondering if I’d seen the fnords, whatever the hell they were, in the hours he had blacked out, or if I would see them as soon as I went out into the street. I had some pretty gruesome ideas about them, I must admit. Creatures with three eyes and tentacles, survivors from Atlantis, who walked among us, invisible due to some form of mind shield, and did hideous work for the Illuminati. It was unnerving to contemplate, and I finally gave in to my fears and peeked out the window, thinking it might be better to see them from a distance first.
Nothing. Just ordinary sleepy people, heading for their buses and subways.
That calmed me a little, so I set out the toast and coffee and fetched the New York Times from the hallway. I turned the radio to WBAI and caught some good Vivaldi, sat down, grabbed a piece of toast and started skimming the first page.
Then I saw the fnords.
The feature story involved another of the endless squabbles between Russia and the U.S. in the UN General Assembly, and after each direct quote from the Russian delegate I read a quite distinct “Fnord!” The second lead was about a debate in Congress on getting the troops out of Costa Rica; every argument presented by Senator Bacon was followed by another “Fnord!” At the bottom of the page was a Times depth-type study of the growing pollution problem and the increasing use of gas masks among New Yorkers; the most distressing chemical facts were interpolated with more “Fnords.”
Suddenly I saw Hagbard’s eyes burning into me and heard his voice: “Your heart will remain calm. Your adrenalin gland will remain calm. Calm, all-over calm. You will not panic. You will look at the fnord and see it. You will not evade it or black it out. You will stay calm and face it.” And further back, way back: my first-grade teacher writing FNORD on the blackboard, while a wheel with a spiral design turned and turned on his desk, turned and turned, and his voice droned on, IF YOU DON’T SEE THE FNORD IT CAN’T EAT YOU, DON’T SEE THE FNORD, DON’T SEE THE FNORD . . .
The brilliance of the fnord is its very invisibility. Children are taught from birth by their Illuminati overlords to not-see them. (In fact, fnord itself is a stand-in as no one is able to recognize the actual name.) The non-element, even while rendered invisible by the reader’s own mind, is still read. Erasing its visibility sublimates the function of the typography. Through powerful associations embedded in the subconscious mind of the reader, the fnord triggers a vague but visceral feeling of dread and confusion that shades the rational consideration of the text. Fnords purportedly riddle the texts of every book, newpaper and magazine, thereby linking all information with sensations of fear and uncertainty:
This was one step beyond Pavlov, I realized. The first conditioned reflex was to experience the panic reaction (the activation syndrome, it’s technically called) whenever encountering the word “fnord.” The second conditioned reflex was to black out what happened, including the word itself, and just to feel a general low-grade emergency without knowing why. And the third step, of course, was to attribute this anxiety to the news stories, which were bad enough in themselves anyway. Of course, the essence of control is fear. The fnords produced a whole population walking around in chronic low-grade emergency, tormented.
The one place fnords do not appear is in advertisements. “That was part of the gimmick, too: only in consumption, endless consumption, could they escape the amorphous threat of the invisible fnords.” Thus by the simple presence or absence of fnords, all humans are unsettled by actual content while being drawn to and soothed by the vapidity of advertising. Since the reading of the fnord bypasses language, it is perhaps the most direct of all typographic characters. Without the filter of decoding, the figure itself is linked directly to sensation. The brain is rendered defenseless.
This fantasy of the subliminal graphic gesture that eludes the filter of the conscious mind is one of the most enduring design tropes of our time. The fnord shares a bond with George Orwell’s Newspeak — reprogrammed language hammered into the brains of the proles until the resistant mind finally submits (2+2=5) — or with the murderous instructions embedded in Richard Condon’s “Manchurian Candidate.” But while Wilson’s vision predicts a fnordic infestation of editorial content, the “real” epidemic emerges from the one place Discordian theory assumes is safe: Advertising.
In 1957 James Vicary, a Madison Avenue market researcher, announces a new form of advertising: subliminal projection. Vicary has repurposed a device that can flash images at a speed unrecognizable by the conscious human brain — as fast as 1/3000th of a second — to project messages onto a movie screen. This tachistoscope allows Vicary to strobe suggestive advertising suggestions between the frames of feature films. He proclaims he has tested the device on unsuspecting teenagers in a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, with a resulting 18% increase in Coca Cola sales and a whopping 58% increase in popcorn transactions at the concession counter. “This innocent little technique,” he preens, “is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.”
When Vicary’s claims are made the public uproar is immediate: suddenly the shadowy tools associated with totalitarian mind-control — a real-life Operation MindFuck — are being deployed in America, not by subversives but by American marketers, reprogramming American children into cola-guzzling, popcorn-gorging robots. The CIA swoops in and conducts a super-secret investigation into Vicary’s ominous new technology to determine if they have been pre-empted in the mind-control racket. Perhaps the Spooks fear the 42–year-old Madman is encroaching on their territory.
Almost immediately a counter-attack is launched. The leader is magazine writer and sometime social critic Vance Packard, author of a wide range of popular journalism with titles such as “How to Pick a Mate” and “Animal IQ.” After losing his day job when Collier’s Magazine folds in 1956, Packard devotes himself full time to an exposé of the secret techniques of the advertising and consumer motivational research industry. “The Hidden Persuaders” is a bombshell. Packard proclaims, “We are being monitored, managed and manipulated outside our conscious awareness by advertisers and marketers.” Packard claims admen exploit a cluster of eight compelling human needs so basic to our very being that the desire for their satisfaction is an overwhelming force. The combination of Packard’s articulation of modern advertising’s hidden technology and the urban lore surrounding Vicary’s tachistoscope firmly establishes the concept of subliminal advertising in the minds of a fearful public.
Outside our conscious awareness is the operative concept, the eerie notion of some grey-flannelled cabal tapping directly into the brain of unwitting Americans as they flip through fashion magazines and browse the aisles of their local supermarkets. Packard and Vicary suggest that perception without awareness is actually more efficacious, and more subversive, than normal perception. The very idea of such subconscious appeals seems to be an assault on Liberty, simply un-American in its usurpation of the basic rights of free citizens to make decisions for themselves. Can we have a democracy if we are not truly free thinkers? The technology carries enough of the ominous overtone of totalitarian suppression to fit neatly into the feverish anti-Communist rhetoric of the time and enough potential to inspire an emerging generation of young political operatives to wonder: How can we use these techniques to win elections?
The outrage and unsavory interest generated by these emerging techniques compels the U.S. Senate to launch an official investigation: our children are at risk, after all. Cornered, Vicary is pressed to reveal his secrets. He is unable to reproduce his purported findings and later confesses, if somewhat ambiguously, that he has never actually performed his movie-theater experiment: it was, in fact, all a publicity stunt to launch a new market-research company. The government inquiry fails to turn up any evidence to suggest advertisers were really experimenting with mind-control techniques. But while the initial furor dies down, the basic concept — that we are under constant assault by the invisible — is firmly embedded.
The essence of the invisibility thesis is that some mechanized process is methodically manipulating the actions, habits and thoughts of a vast, unsuspecting public. Such a conspiracy is extremely useful to describe the inexplicable events of the modern consumerism. In the early ’60s Columbia professor Richard Hofstadter applies the theory to the political movement surrounding the campaign of Barry Goldwater in what he calls “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “The central image [of the paranoid style] is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.” Rampant consumerism and the seeming dissolution of traditional values have to have a reason — other than avarice — and subversive advertising is cast as the dark force at work.
In 1973 the issue comes bursting back, with a new twist, when a young Canadian psychologist, Wilson Bryan Key, unleashes a blockbuster trade paperback titled “Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of Not So Innocent America.” The title encapsulates the whole paranoid fantasy with an innovation: Seduction. Apparently America is not so innocent after all. The clearly libidinal overtone suggests the affair between advertiser and citizen might be more complicit than previously understood. The cover features a benign-looking photograph of a cocktail overprinted with the question: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by This Picture? Apparently we are: the book causes an immediate sensation and sells over a million copies in the first year. The author emerges as a cross between media sensation and me-generation guru. He has unlocked the secret world of advertising and the black arts of selling, and the key to everything is: sex.
Key’s revelation is that advertisers are secretly slipping sexual imagery into the shadows of advertising photographs, thereby warping the collective subconscious of American consumers. Wherever he looks, he finds sex — breasts, phalluses, orgies, obscenities. He sends millions of pubescent kids on a frenzied search for hidden erotica in the matted fur of the cigarette-pack dromedary. In subsequent books Key identifies increasingly explicit images in the most unlikely places from the word SEX embossed into the surface of Ritz crackers to an elaborate, tangled orgy woven into in a photograph of a plate of fried clams. Nabisco and Howard Johnson’s will, apparently, stop at nothing to make us consume.
Key contributes an important new dimension to the conspiracy discourse. The weak point in the human firewall is sexual insecurity. Apparently the sexual revolution failed and post-Summer-of-Love Americans are as repressed as ever. Key’s fnord is the phallus, and Packard’s eight compelling needs can be boiled down to the big one. If Americans can’t understand their own manic consumerist tendencies, Key gives them an easy out. It’s not their fault; they have secretly been seduced. Belief in the efficacy of the sexually charged image proves to be another wrinkle in an indelible urban myth.
A decade later John Carpenter revives the fantasy in his B-movie classic, “They Live,” wherein an unsuspecting citizen — played by professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper — stumbles on a mysterious pair of sunglasses that reveal the conspiracy lurking in ad media. As with Wilson’s fnords and Key’s ice cubes, Carpenter’s sublimated messages are typographic and occupy a layer just behind the glossy surfaces of the advertising world. The totalitarian infiltration is replaced by a new menace — space aliens — but the technique is the same: surreptitious mind control. The message is present yet invisible. The world is not as it seems. Our brains are unequal to the challenges of the manipulators. That Carpenter can deploy the subliminal advertising message so effortlessly reveals how widely the basic principle has penetrated the mind of the public. Our consciousness-raising is complete. This hermeneutic image of the world, this sense that a real message is obscured or latent, hidden by a false façade designed to obscure rather than reveal, has a long and storied history — Hofstader starts his investigation in the 17th century and Dan Brown starts somewhat earlier — but the advertising twist is a thoroughly modern incarnation. One might be compelled to see the image-world as a kind of dream state, a psycho-analytic condition where visual images are obscure symbols of something always just out of our perceptual field. It follows then that a careful analysis of the visual image could decode the hidden message and unlock real meaning. The properly trained analyst could make sense of the latent world through a careful study of the surface.
The endurance of such myths constitute an ad hoc conspiracy theory of design — we are unconscious victims of some hidden force put into action by an invisible source — and suggests a public fearful about the way commercial forces exert power. Fredric Jameson defines conspiracy theory as a “degraded attempt to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.” If the world feels fractured and illogical, if we don’t even understand our own desires and compunctions, a conspiracy theory gets all the pieces to fall neatly into place. Advertising is about efficacy and the transmission of message, applying communicative force to achieve some measurable end: higher sales, more votes, more fans. Conspiracy theory explains its sinister success. It suggests a communication so pure and surgical it bypasses interpretation. As visual communicators, our only argument against conspiracy theory is to announce with all sincerity our own haplessness: Don’t worry, we’re not really that powerful. And of course nothing confirms the truth of a conspiracy more effectively than its passionate denial.
But if you look at the half-century between Vicary and today, conspiracy theory may be the most prevalent theory of design. Consider official Soviet Politburo photographs wherein figures mysteriously appear and disappear, depending on political standing, a condition exacerbated by the ease with which the emergence of Photoshop® has rendered such photographic manipulations possible. Or the subversive effect the retouched bodies of fashion models is understood to have on the psyches of adolescent women. Or the “reading” of architecture as literal messages encoded in buildings. Or product placement in popular movies and television shows, wherein advertising is naturalized in the narrative. Or the analysis of language itself to find inherent biases embedded therein: the emergence of the title Ms. in the seventies was, after all, an attempt to unravel the patriarchal conspiracy of language. Or the railing of the right against the coercive operations of everything from “feminazis” and “ecofascists” to a perceived “radical homosexual agenda.” Or the now commonly accepted practice of allowing vast software networks to sift silently through personal computer databases and emails and surreptitiously modify the on-line environment to more efficiently separate us from our cash. All of these have at their core the assumption that there is a sub rosa process at work to skew perception and bend the will of the reader by way of some hidden strategy enacted by some absent power.
“All political behavior requires strategy,” Hofstader tells us, “many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret can be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial. The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies and plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.” And in that it involves the manipulation of content for effect, what is design if not political or strategic?
Which brings us back to typography. Writing for a New York Times blog, photography theorist and filmmaker Errol Morris enacts a simple experiment. He asks readers to read a short text, then respond about the perceived veracity of the passage. Unbeknownst to the subject, the texts are presented in six different typefaces. Analyzing the results, Morris finds a clear correlation between typography and the perception of truth of the texts. Apparently we have been involved in a five-hundred-year-old typographic conspiracy without ever realizing it.
Conspiracy suggests there is, somewhere, an adequate rationale for the sensation of dislocation and suppression of contemporary life on one hand, and the elusive meaning of modernist abstraction on the other, a power that can be felt but not framed. To this day you can find “Fnord” or “I can see the Fnords” tagged on walls, bridges and road signs. Luckily a group called Software Solutions For The Betterment Of Mankind, Ltd. now offers a “Fnord Finder” that promises to “reverse decades of Illuminati mind control [and] to expose the fnords buried in New York Times articles.” This handy tool is built into the Google Chrome browser — one of the most pernicious information-gathering tools ever devised — and is simple to operate: “When reading a story on nytimes.com, just click the ‘F’ icon in the upper right of your address bar to find and expose the fnords.” In case you were worried, SSFTBOM is “Not affiliated with the New York Times or the Illuminated Seers of Bavaria.”
If the fnord is the typography of that hidden power, to see the fnords is to fight back. Vision is an act of resistance. The ability to re-visualize the invisible character is to break outside the network of control that links us all. To claim sight is to be inured to the power of suggestion. To be free we must learn to see again.
© Michael Rock