The Culture Code is American to its core. In an era punctuated by Idiot’s Guides, do-it-yourself schemes, American Idol, fad diets, People magazine, and Sparknotes, cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille makes a perfect shelf-fellow alongside Steven Covey, Oprah, pore minimizers, and hoodia. His Code knows how and why Americans assume certain things about their lives, what external symbols represent and motivate their inner selves, what drives them to eat, drink, buy, work and play, and how simple insights can challenge their limiting worldviews. It is hard to put down. It is easy to believe. At face value, it is a revolutionary new guide to modern life. Deep down, it is a caricature of American consumer culture, a pop spectacle, and a sublime example of reductionism. It is so wrong, but feels so right. It exemplifies the genius of the American market and what prowess the warlords of commerce possess. Rapaille’s work is shrouded by the very code it tries to illuminate and, for that, either is utterly ingenious or supremely foolish.
What is code? Codes are laws, rule systems, or a means of classification. Codes are symbolic messages that contain hidden or alternate meanings. There is codifying, encoding, decoding. There are dress codes, genetic codes, and area codes. Codes are everywhere, imbuing everything with meaning. All of culture is coded. Code dictates how people dress, how they speak, how they act, think, and behave. In linguistics and communication fields, code-switching enables people to adjust their behaviors to suit varying social settings. Code tells people who to accept, outcast or idolize. Codes mediate our stories, movies, and our news. Codes differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, state to state, and nation to nation. Codes exist in every sector and field, dictating how to succeed and fail. People are defined by code and also help to generate and uphold code. Social coding is a dynamic and complex process.
In recent history, cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean Baudrillard, and Roland Barthes laid the epistemological groundwork for Rapaille’s work by developing research fields—in areas such as linguistics and semiotics—to consider the complex world of code. Some believe individuals have agency in choosing codes in which to participate, others believe code is inexorably partnered with and managed by systems of power. In sociology, theorists developed paradigms like symbolic interactionism and collective memory to help situate the individual’s relationship with social codes in everyday setting. Of all the significant works dedicated to the nature of social code, why would the reader choose Rapaille’s?
Code is direct. It is easy to read and understand. It plants heady cultural theories in practical settings, and uses examples from daily life to illustrate its point. It is simple and engaging. Most importantly, it is relatable.
Americans are bombarded with media information and daily cultural messages that oftentimes are contradictory, complex, and confusing. In a world dominated by instant messaging, podcasts, cable television, and cellphones, time is an endangered resource. Thirty-second sound- and video-bytes comprise American newscasts, neatly summarizing for viewers and listeners how they should perceive the world, what information is most important, and which sources they should believe. Different information sources cater to different populations. Conservative talking heads cater to conservative listeners. Public radio caters to a socially minded crowd. MTV caters to, well, its own “MTV” generation. Various opinion makers—trained communication experts—govern American thought, freeing plenty of valuable time for Americans to focus on more important decisions. Should I root for the Colts or the Bears? Is Bud light better than Miller Light? Will Atkins allow me to eat foods I love and achieve a slimmer waistline? Does crimson red a Cover Girl make? Will I feel stealthy in my PT Cruiser? Will this gated community make me appear wealthy? What brand of ready-made lasagna tastes the most authentic?
Is something wrong with this picture?
Rapaille would say “not really.” America is a consumer culture. America buys for fulfillment and gleans much of its individual and collective identities from marketing and entertainment codes. American socialization is tied to consumer culture and therefore perpetuates certain buying practices. Code highlights the mastery of the American market in identifying, capturing, and sustaining brand converts and material followers. Rapaille does not lambaste the market, he uses it to teach American consumers why they purchase the way they do. In essence, he validates American behavior. In 200 pages, he even goes so far as to praise the market’s democratic potential—its ability to uphold American freedom of choice and expression. A French native, he admits to having felt like a misfit in his own country before connecting with the more “adolescent” American culture. In the end, Rapaille connects with his reader in the same way he connected with thousands of research subjects over 30 years as a corporate marketing consultant—through acceptance.
The highlight of Rapaille’s work, however, is not the codes he illuminates, rather the underlying message about American consumption and the embodied “American-ness” of his delivery. Code is itself a quick-fix, a band-aid, a 30-second sound-byte. That the reader finds his or herself nodding along to and believing Rapaille’s conclusions about American culture is troublesome because it upholds the book’s hidden theme—American life is governed by material culture, short-cut solutions, and corporate rulers who expertly read and manipulate individual identity. Code is meant to empower readers, but instead it paints a grim portrait of the individual. It reduces American individuality to robotics. Even beyond American borders, Rapaille hints at identity as something that is constructed, upgraded, and re-programmed until the individual no longer operates outside the system. In a sense, humans are sophisticated machines; social codes, their programming language.
Rapaille is not wrong, but his approach is too simple. He introduces a complex subject with an ease and simplicity more characteristic of marketing than of research. His work is persuasive and his writing style engaging. The reader wants to say “yes, I believe” without the muddy complication of trying to truly understand culture. Code is easy to idolize because it provides an answer to the question “Who am I?” In a way, it is a new mythology for modern times. But life is never really that simple and, though we desperately wish for it, never will be. Though perhaps not intentionally, Code is a masterful reminder that a meaningful life is an ongoing process—and the ability to question one’s own motivations, assumptions, thoughts and behaviors, is a rich and powerful freedom.