Alan Kirker


December 23rd, 2021 by

Philosopher of art Helen Huss Parkhurst observes our aspirational ideals are mirrored back in the sounds, symbols, and artifacts of popular culture which “we experience as a miraculous counterpart, visible or audible, of our very selves” (1930, p. 69). Carl Jung contemporary in the realm of art and symbol, psychologist Aniela Jaffé, suggests “that everything can assume symbolic significance… In fact, the whole cosmos is a potential symbol” (1964, p. 257).

In an essay titled “Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology” (1987), author and professor Jane Caputi takes a critical view of the images and symbols presented in popular culture, suggesting that in addition to what is delivered as product, entertainment, or idea, is often also accompanied by additional messages, both supraliminal and surreptitious, with the express intention of manipulating thought or behaviour.

Caputi sees one of the most mythic movies made, Star Wars, whose “patriarchal” tropes including lone female actress Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of Leia, the quintessential princess in distress, to be nothing less than a “gang-rape” in the cinematic sense, and whose intent is to reinforce such values (1987, p. 361). On a different level, she draws our attention to the film’s fortuitous, coincident and corresponding co-opting of its title by the United States Strategic Defence Initiative via popular culture. Now the U.S. can deliver a holy war from space to rival the narrative on the big screen:

“the movie Star Wars is fundamentally about nuclear war, its counterpart, “Star Wars” is fundamentally a fantasy, a political symbol produced for the purpose of manipulating emotions, perceptions, and behaviors. As one analyst observed, “The MX missile, whatever its military usefulness may be, is often seen as a weapon whose importance is largely symbolic, more a tool for manipulating perceptions, than for fulfilling a real military need” … and that its “actual meaning is to set new economic, military, and technological priorities” (1987, p. 364).

Author Wilson Bryan Key explores the surreptitious on an even more suggestive level in his book “Subliminal Seduction” (1973), where he sees various body parts “subliminally” implanted in many of the print advertising and editorial images of the time. Many of Key’s analyses of popular culture imagery, including the phalli and screaming skulls he has us see in the 1960’s and 70’s liquor advertisement ice-cubes of “Subliminal Seduction”, have been questioned. In his more recent book chapter essay “Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession” (1999), his flawed analysis of the imagery in a Kanøn men’s cologne ad, perhaps primed by the product name, has a sliver of carved wood mistaken for a thumbnail, and thus its thumb for a phallus of “prodigious proportions” (1999, p. 200). His identifying these images, however apparent, including the “dead beagle with a chisel through its head” in the lower right corner of the same ad (1999, p. 201), suffer from being a posteriori ‘looks like …’ interpretations.

Although popular culture is rife with clever, cheeky, and coy advertising campaigns and images, sometimes bordering near the perceptually or suggestively liminal, as perhaps hinted in these three adverts from the August 1990 issue of British fashion and pop culture monthly “i-D Magazine”, should we approach the images and symbols we encounter nowadays with more skepticism and critical thought as to their intentions, however underlying?

Despite often overt, supraliminal presentation, insofar as the naughty bits are there if we look or have to analyze suggestively enough, Jane Caputi states these images are nonetheless intended to be perceived only subliminally: “Such messages are engineered so that they will be perceptible only to the subconscious mind. Thus, they bypass the critical faculty of the conscious, and the viewer is left unaware of even having received a message or suggestion”. She calls on adman and author Tony Schwartz who suggests such subconscious appeals are not simply subliminally seductive, as Key might want us to believe. Rather, Schwartz coined the concept “the resonance principle” to describe messages and symbols, however concocted by advertisers or perceived by audiences, as resonating in some effort to “evoke stored information out of them in a patterned way” (1987, p. 356).

Shall we agree with Caputi’s thesis and suspect plenty of surreptitious shenanigans, or take a different interpretation of her essay title in that the elephants of phallotechnology are themselves just myths in the non-existent sense of the word? Importantly, given logarithmic advances in technology coupled with knowledge of how our minds perceive and interpret, would it not make sense to consider the plethora of messages and symbols that we are now constantly bombarded with, some of which can be delivered in the truly scientifically subliminal sense, in ways that prime or shape our behaviour more broadly and perhaps even unbeknownst to us?

Caputi, J. (1987), Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 354 – 381). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Jaffé, A. (1964), Symbolism in the Visual Arts, in Jung, C. G. (Ed.), Man and His Symbols (pp. 255 – 322). New York, United States: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (1983 ed.)

Jones, T. & Godfrey, T. (Eds.),(August 1990), i-D Magazine, Issue 83 (pp. 1 – 100). London, United Kingdom: Terry Jones & Tony Elliot.

Key, W. B. (1999), Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America’s Obsession, in Lambiase, J. & Reichert, T. (Eds.), Sex in Advertising, chapter 11, (pp. 195 – 212). London, United Kingdom: Routledge. [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from

Parkhurst, H. H. (1930), Art as Man’s Image, in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 68 – 70). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)


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