July 13: Oliver Cromwell gets his fifteen minutes of fame or the impenetrability of the modern sign

I was walking in Kennington Park the other day and I saw a young man with a tee-shirt that sported an image of Oliver Cromwell with the text beneath it that read Down with Cromwell. I was bemused and, as so often nowadays, unable to read whatever signs were being put out. I went through a few options in my own mind. Cromwell was a Puritan. Maybe the young man is a great advocat of the Cavaliers. He did not seem to be such an extravagant dresser (jeans and tee-shirt). Maybe Cromwell represents government austerity, although if this was a political slogan I would have thought that Cromwell’s advocacy of the people against the aristocratic cavaliers would align him more with Corbyn than with May. I could very well be missing a reference to some DJ or hip-hop band. I recounted the incident to a younger friend more au fait with younger generation trends but got no joy from him either. The sign that is being put out is impenetrable to me and, I would imagine, to many others too. We live in an era of sign overload. Our skies are sign-spangled. Tatoos, tee-shirts, logos; signalling has exploded, and, because we no longer live in a monoculture, not everyone (hardly anyone) can interpret the signs that are being emitted. Or maybe there is another explanation. You have to emit a sign. granted. But you don’t have to know or be particularly connected to the sign that you are emitting. What is important is that you are signalling your signalling. You are participating but you are not quite sure in what. It’s just fun to be a part of a conversation. That could be a young generation issue. You see this in small children and toddlers who are learning the ways of the world. They will ape something a grown-up has done without knowing what it means. It is the performance that interests them. And, after all, nobody can catch all the meanings of an act. That’s why we have semiologists and cultural critics. Whatever, it was nice to see Oliver Cromwell getting his fifteen minutes of fame for once, even though, like some bewildered contestant on Big Brother, he wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to be saying.


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