Take a look around. Chances are that you espied a lamppost, a bulletin board or a kiosk. Since we are in Cambridge, they were probably papered over with posters. Those posters, no doubt, were covered with mind-numbingly stupid slogans. Harvard is supposed to be full of intelligent, discerning human beings; people who delight in scorning the low-brow indulgences of consumer culture. How has it come, then, that we are daily bombarded with home-grown jingles that make meaningless TV ejaculations like "Coke Is It," seem thankfully creative by comparison?
The item which piqued my interest and initiated my observations was actually a T-shirt. Produced by one of the campus Christian groups, the backside defiantly proclaimed "Nietzsche is dead"--obviously an attempt at a witty counterclaim to Nietzsche's "God is Dead." Now there is something clever about this, if, say, the claim were about something a little less weighty than the existence of God or the afterlife.
I made the mistake of taking it seriously; I thus construed it as a cheap shot against Nietzsche. After all, it's hardly his fault for being dead. In the panorama of intellectual history, there are quite a few dead people, many of whose observations were, and continue to be brilliant. We have come to a rather low form of argument indeed, when one side of this debate tries to discredit its opponent (on a T-shirt, no less) for being mortal. Nietzsche never claimed to be immortal--well, when he did, it was really the spirochetes talking. In any case, smearing someone for having obeyed the most demanding of biological imperatives, is hardly an example of Jesuitical logic.
As I said above, however, I'll admit that I took it too seriously. And if the excesses of campus sloganeering stopped there, I would never have found it worthy of anything more than a snicker in the dining hall. But as anyone who lives among the prodigious effluence of postered proclamations well knows, that is not the case. We are daily confronted with hundreds of insipid verbal schemes to snatch our attention, which, though they are sometimes amusing at first glance, soon become intolerably irritating.
"Cleverness" has become a hackneyed formula, leaving campus publicity a self-defeating game. In order to get to any useful information, one must mine under kiosks full of weak attempts at humor. This problem cuts across the spectrum of extra-curricular activities.
One of the more egregious, and widely committed, offenses of sloganeering has been the overuse of derivatives of Reebok's "Life is Short...Play Hard." I've always thought the slogan a rather curious blend of epicurianism and stoicism. Reebok plays to the American propensity for play, but also to the remnants of our Protestant work ethic, reminding us that Life is Short, and so any playing must be done sedulously. Sweaty joggers and wellmuscled mountain-bikers parrot the line with fitter-than-thou reproachfulness.
The psittaceous repetition of this really rather uninspiring sentiment has gotten altogether out of hand, a testament to the built-in fecundity of the banal. There appeared on posters: "Life is Short: Play Women's Rugby," as well as "Life is Short: Pray Hard." One activity put it on posters without even bothering to make a "clever" adjustment--simply "Life is Short...Play Hard," followed by the organization's name. To the publicity directors of the offending organizations, here is a message in terms you will understand: "My fuse is short, don't try so hard." These posters only convince me that their creators have nothing to offer.
Of course, one of the most familiar ones is the pattern, probably unique to college campuses, which attends the opening of plays. A poster screams out in a bold font, "Random vaguely sexually suggestive quote," followed in small print by the date and time of the play, as if some unintentional Victorian double-entendre is enough to send sex-starved Harvard students running to see whatever amateur production is listed. Please! We might not have cable TV, but if we want to see more-than-vague suggestion we can always just flip on NYPD Blue.
Come Rugby season, we can look forward to a barrage of posters urging students to watch the Harvard teams, "ruck over Columbia," (or whoever the opponent of the week is). The humor, I suppose, derives from the provocative fact that the word "ruck" rhymes with the American colloquialism which connotes copulation. Unfortunately, most people have, since elementary school, exhausted the possibilities that this rhyme pattern offers--with words such as duck, truck, luck, puck, muck, and suck, many of which are even commonly used in America.
This third-grade pre-dilection for cheap sex puns has really gotten out of control. Even Peer Contraceptive Counselors, who spend a great deal of their time trying to get tittering first-years to talk about sex frankly, give us a nudge and a wink as they proclaim, "We're there for you when things get hard." Beavis and Butt-head might laugh at this.
The need for some sort of a marketing class at Harvard becomes achingly clear, when an integrationism initiative goes by the name-cum-slogan of Women Appealing for Change. Is this a support group for female panhandlers? A Free Silver Party? Should I sing their petitions or hand them a quarter?
All these organizations have good intentions. They want to attract interest, snag compers, grow and prosper. I don't credit myself with the ability to come up with better slogans. I do, however, have the good sense not to paper the campus with puerile jingles.
At the Harvard archives, one can see examples of the posters from pre-desktop publishing Harvard: clean, elegant composition, perhaps a simple logo, and all the pertinent information. A far cry from the font-crazy ravings of today that, in their witty enthusiasm, often leave off important pieces of information. There are too many organizations promoting too many things. As students sink in information overload, organization's sink into the muck of cheap puns. Their audience, ever more weary of the insipid posters and T-shirts that have become inescapable, get even harder to reach. And so the cycle continues.
Even the campus publications are guilty--one, whose name readily comes to mind, brags "We put out six times a week, and we'll show you how." A pun based on "put out?" Didn't they use that expression in Grease, or something? There is no excuse for this jejune nonsense. We are serious journalists writing about serious topics. Right?
Yet just the other day, I saw something which reassured me that whatever excesses go on within Harvard's walls are always ten times worse in Harvard square. A man sported a T-shirt which next to a depiction of the crucifixion proclaimed "This Blood's for You." At first I thought this linkage of an old Budweiser slogan ("this Bud's for you") and an old patristic doctrine ("transubstantiation") was a garish parody of an evangelical fervor and the tendency of doctrine to be lost in the effusiveness of missionary spirit. Alas, it was no parody.
There is no doubt that commercialism has reached its high tide, and organized religion its low ebb, when the faithful shill for the Prince of Peace, slogan courtesy of the "King of Beers." Perhaps the clever Budweiser motif can continue. Maybe we'll soon see bumper stickers emblazoned with the logo, "Jesus: Proud to be Your Bud!" It may be crass, but it will sure be an attention-grabber.