This morning on my way here, I passed a young man who was wearing a shirt that looked just like this:
By the way, it also has a New York Yankees logo on the front:
The description says something about “support your team and country.”
This got me to thinking about the power of words and, more importantly, of that subcategory of words we refer to as invocations. To invoke is to bring something into a place or conversation, often in such a way as to make everything else irrelevant.
Some people invoke saints; some invoke [g]od[s], or legal principles, or money, or the state of the world. This particular shirt manages to invoke not only the Yankees, but the forever- (since 9/11) sainted police and and fire departments of New York City.
I want to be clear that invocation is what this shirt is all about. The young man wearing it could not have been older than 8 or 9 on 9/11, so any connection between him and the departments invoked would be tenuous at best. (It’s possible that he had a close relative involved in 9/11, but unlikely.) That shirt, also, should not exist in the real world. The NYPD and FDNY are entirely separate departments, and not without rivalries. I’ve seen people wearing dark-blue/black NYPD and FDNY shirts, often with a crest in front. I have no more reason to think those people were members of the departments than I do of this young man, but the plausibility level is higher.
So what’s the point? Why do we invoke whatever it is that we invoke?
This is a serious question, and as an old sociologist, I think that it has a great deal to do with how we think about ourselves. I’ll take the step of embarrassing myself here:
As any reader of this blog knows, I like to play guitar.
When I was young (18), I bought a guitar. I didn’t buy just any guitar: it was an Ovation (a Country Artist model). It was a nice guitar, but I wanted more than a guitar—I wanted to identify with the guitar and I wanted people to identify me with the guitar. So I poured over the Ovation catalog (catalogs were paper in those ancient days) and looked to see “who else” played an Ovation. I was thrilled to learn that Cat Stevens was an Ovation Player, even if he didn’t play the same model I did. I learned to recognize Ovations. During a horrible movie my girlfriend wanted to see, “Ode to Billy Joe,” theoretically set in the early 1960s, I noticed that in a particular scene one of the musicians was playing an Ovation, and I mentioned the historical paradox to her. Not surprisingly, she didn’t care.
Of course I did. In many ways, I felt that having that guitar made me special, made me part of a group. Sociologists talk about real and nominal categories; the former are groups that self-identify (“Jewish,” “Charismatic,” “Democrat,” etc.) while the latter are defined in terms of categories (“blue yes,” “tall,” “red-haired,”). For me, the Ovation put me into a real category—I was prepared to embrace all (or most) other Ovation-owning guitarists and, I thought, they would be ready to embrace me.
Now, the Country Artist was a nylon-string instrument, and as I got better on the guitar, I looked for a steel-string model, and soon I acquired what was, at the time, the ne plus ultra of instruments: a C.F. Martin. Again, it wasn’t “top of the line,” but it was membership in the Martin club. Immediately, my loyalties shifted. My interest was now in finding Martin players, poo-pooing the “imitation” Martins that were all the rage at the time, learning Martin history, that sort of thing. I wore with great pride a shirt emblazoned with the C.F. Martin signature logo. I was cool.
In a very real sense, I invoked those guitars (and the associated paraphernalia) to solidify my identity. I wore that shirt (among others) to establish who and what I was. Erving Goffman, the great theorist of the sociological construction and masking of identity, would refer to these shirts as stigma symbols: they announced to others, before I could speak, where I was coming from. They spoke for me.
Now, it’s easy to think that only the young use stigma symbols. That only those whose identities are not well-formed need them. To which I say, along with Col. Potter, “horse hockey.”
We probably see it more in the young, but all of us do it. Indeed, our economy depends on it. Marketing depends on it. Without this kind of loyalty, we lack brand identification. We invoke brands to solve problems. Think I’m being silly?
Almost thirty years ago, I sat in a room with a bunch of people, mostly men, who were anywhere from twenty to sixty years old. We were all excited about a sheet-metal box that each of us owned, with two disk drives and 64K of memory. Computer ownership is nominal, but we made it into a real category. At somewhere north of 50, my heart still quickens to see a Bianchi bicycle in the company’s flagship color, “celeste” (which is actually a pretty damn ugly color on its own):
There are huge clusters of fans not only for Apple, but for Asus, Lenovo, etc. Not to mention Ford, Toyota, Mazda.
We invoke all of these to identify ourselves. It’s possible that in the age before branding, people invoked only [g]od[s] and saints. But that’s no longer possible We live in an age of literalism and legible clothing.
Which leads to a question pointing the other way: is invocation part of the human condition? And if so, could it be that the reason we invoke [g]od[s] is precisely the same reason that we invoke Apple? That is, to make ourselves part of a community? From a sociological perspective, the answer is almost too obvious to require commentary. Of course we do.
But that leads to another, more disturbing question, and one that I’m not going to answer here, not just yet, anyway: If [a] [g]od[s] and/or saint[s] is/are a brand (whew!) is/are it/they more than that?
How scared are we to try to answer that question?