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Retooling the world's cultural clockwork


Our relationship with culture is fluid and dynamic. We create our culture, but at the same time, it creates us.

Two very different approaches to unearthing the current cultural subconscious are evidenced in The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, a cultural anthropologist and marketing consultant to 50 of the Fortune 100 companies, and The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, by journalist and culture critic Greil Marcus.

Their different methods of analysis not only create radically divergent reading experiences, but also point to the changing means of gaining insight and making decisions in the 21st century.

Marcus takes an established approach to cultural understanding: analyzing arts and entertainment, which act out our desires, attitudes, fears and intentions like an ongoing collective dream. Marcus' gift, as demonstrated in his seminal books Mystery Train and LipstickTraces, is finding significance in what others might deem throwaway escapist fodder, connecting the dots among seemingly disparate cultural elements.

He attempts the same in The Shape of Things to Come. With heightened sensibilities, a passion for his subject and eloquent, often fierce prose, Marcus hunts for the national self-concept in post-9/11 America in works as varied as Philip Roth's novels, David Lynch's films and television series, and the music of David Thomas, of the experimental group Pere Ubu.

Marcus does not complete what he set out to accomplish - significantly predicting America's future by analyzing its past. But he points out the changing signposts of who we are and what we expect of being Americans.

The reptile within

Rapaille has traveled the planet, discovering the meanings that people of various countries attach to everything from cars and toilet paper to sex, food, political leaders and the nation itself. Rapaille calls these the "cultural codes that drive the behavior of a nation's members."

Unlike cultural critics who comb the words and images of leaders and artists, Rapaille gathers his information by going directly to everyday people. The twist is that Rapaille does not ask what people think about a subject, a la the focus group. "You can never believe what people say," Rapaille repeats often in The Culture Code.

What people say comes from the cortex, the logical part of the brain. Generally, logic does not govern people's behavior. Rapaille patented a method of questioning that accesses what he considers the real control panel of human behavior: the reptilian part of the brain, where dreams, memories, emotional imprints and instincts reside.

When Rapaille analyzes the responses from his sessions around a specific topic, patterns and common messages emerge. From these, Rapaille derives the culture codes. His results are often fascinating. The book describes two dozen cultural codes and how they differ among the United States and various countries in Europe and Asia.

Many of America's codes spill from the fact that our nation is still an adolescent culture. We are obsessed with sex, fascinated with extremes, open to change, exploration and rebellion. We also firmly believe in reinvention and that mistakes always warrant a second chance.

These codes directly affect whom we elect president. George Bush and Lee Atwater hired Rapaille to discover the code on the American presidency. He found that Americans prefer "rebellious visionaries" and that they do not want a president who thinks too much (a cortex president.) Except under extraordinary circumstances, such as after Watergate, the reptilian candidate always wins in America, says Rapaille, citing the more reptilian George W. Bush's victory over the very cortex-driven John Kerry.

The goal of his work, says Rapaille, is "awareness" of the codes that unconsciously drive their people, so that individuals or countries can consciously break those codes when necessary.

Although drawing their analysis from different sources, Rapaille and Marcus share a goal: The more conscious we are of our shifting cultural milieu, the more we can control and create it.

Divina Infusino is a writer who divides her time between San Diego and San Francisco. She can be reached at


The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

By Greil Marcus, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 366 pages, $25

The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do

By Clotaire Rapaille, Broadway, 224 pages, $24.95