This is one of the more fascinating books I’ve read in a long time. Note that I’m saying fascinating, not that I’m saying unimpeachable or categorically defensible, just fascinating. The author, Clotaire Rapaille, seems to have something of an interesting Wiki profile and his past clients include Bush the Second. His powers, such as they are, don’t seem to be exclusively used for good.
His premise is that culture functions as a kind of unconscious impulse and that, if you understand the gut-level associations behind cultural notions like home, sex, or food, then you are better positioned to market to that culture in a way that is aligned with those gut-level associations.
Let’s note some flaws with his reasoning and/or methodology. First, he talks about the three layers of the brain extensively (wiki talks about the triune brain here), but in a way that is potentially problematic. He talks about the reptilian brain, the basal ganglia, being the unseen driver behind decision-making behavior, with the other layers of the brain only kicking in to rationalize decisions that have already been made. In truth, at least as far as I understand it, this part of the brain doesn’t really think. At least not according to the standards a normal person would use to define thinking. It’s the part of the brain that controls breathing and the startle reflex and is widely understood to be the first part of the brain stem that evolved. The three-layered brain is a simplified model and easy to understand and talk about for those of us who aren’t neuroscientists, but to suggest that there is hard science behind Rapaille’s theory here is a bit of a stretch.
Having knocked the notion that this is in any way scientific out of consideration, I could then appreciate the book as an extended meditation and metaphor on American culture written by a creative outsider. (Rapaille is French.) Perhaps the most illuminating notion I found is the direct link between the realities of survival for those who first arrived in the New World and our current culture. First, America is built on a self-selecting group of people. The only Americans who are Americans by accident of birth are Indigenous, and even the first people walked over here from Asia. If you are born in America, it is most likely because someone from somewhere else decided they didn’t like it where they were and they would rather risk the devil they didn’t know than carry on with the devil they did. The perpetual exception being those brought over here against their will.
But dominant culture in America is driven by pilgrims, adventurers, and profiteers. When a settler arrived on the shores of North America, he couldn’t sit down for an enjoyable cup of tea. Every second counted and every second had to be devoted to survival, or else survival wasn’t probable. Smell the roses? Screw that, plant some damn potatoes. Our culture evolved to support our survival: individualism, a certain rebellious attitude (also, perhaps, driven by self-selecting genetics), toughness, a reliance on practical knowledge over intellectualism, work ethic… And the philosophical underpinnings of our Puritan forbearers.
It is a fascinating, infuriating read. You might not agree with everything (or even anything) he says, but the book is eminently readable and if you disagree, at least Rapaille will have made you think along the way.