We name our epochs or ages like we name our pets – to give them a handle. Spot may have spots, and the industrial revolution might, in some places, have indicated an enormous increase in manufacturing. But when we fall to quarreling over the name, we are, perhaps, succumbing to magical thinking. Spot may also rove, like Rover, but she still has spots. She thinks of herself in entirely doglike terms, so it is impossible to say that she gives herself something like a name at all.
There is something, well, vocational about a name – a name is also a calling. Mysteriously, an age seems to conjure into being its symbols, which coalesce around what we call it. This happens even on a trivial level. Thus, the post-war era, in which transistors and computer languages figure so largely that it has been called the information age, gave birth, on the level of children’s toys, to the decoder ring.
The decoder ring evolved in the twentieth century about the same time structuralism as a recognizable school of thought emerged in academia and the popular press. Levi-Strauss’s Les structures elementaires de la parenté appeared in 1949, the heydey of the radio show, Jack Armstrong, which promoted a whistling ring and a decoder pin. In the popular memory, which operates much as Freud theorized that dreams function, these things have coalesced into the “secret decoder ring”. As far as I can tell, the fabulous object itself did not yet exist, as such.
In fact, what we discover at the origin of the decoder ring is a shift in the binary distributing properties to the boys and the girls. A pin, of course, is coded female. A badge is coded male. But in the thirties, when Shirley Temple and Captain Midnight offered decoder toys, the toddler male was often an in-between thing. I remember pictures of my own father when he was around five, in the thirties. His hair rolls down in a luxurious blonde wave, to his shoulders. He wears – or am I wrong about this? – a rather effeminate Buster Brown outfit. This was not due to some aberration of my grandmother, but rather, expressed an entire conformity with cuteness as defined by the upper middle class of that time. In stories from that era, the boy wearing such things was often the target of the street kid – the son of a worker, the kid signalled by his ain’ts and his dirty knuckles and face.
In the post-war era, the fashion for long haired male toddlers dressed in girl-like clothes waned. Pins became badges. And the badges were often surmounted by violent male emblems, like guns, or atom bombs.
Yet the ring remained. This is of interest. The standard WASP prohibition of most male jewelry did not extent to the ring. True, single men did not often, under this standard, wear rings – that was confined to ethnics, with their pinky rings. But the military established a certain acceptance of rings as the kind of insignia that a man could wear without embarrassment.
I could compare, at some length, this prehistory of the decoder ring with the pre-history of structuralism, which also begins in the era of movies and radio shows – the twenties and thirties, when phenomenology, formalist literary theory, and Sausserian linguistics came together in places like Prague or Moscow (where the people who met to hash these things out, like Jan Mukarovsky or Roman Jacobson, were part of circles).
The secret decoder ring came together in a supreme act of bricolage at some point in the late fifties. It was if not the golden era, at least the silver era of prizes in boxes of foodstuffs (of no nutritional value) for kids. Breakfast cereals used these “premiums” to sell their stuff, and in so doing they sold the cartoon that the ring was usually associated with. Sometimes, though, it was other products that promoted themselves through rings. Thus, the cartoon Jonny Quest, which accurately reflected a racist, imperialist mindset that ran through this stage of the American empire, was associated with a magic ring, which seemed predicated on the old idea, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – the ring had forur distinct components (a magnifying glass, a dial a code a signal flasher and a secret message compartment) that were all distinct components of earlier rings.
The classic decoder ring was, indeed, the ur structuralist text. The ring contains two bands. The inner band has inscribed on it the alphabet and numbers 1 through 9.The outer band has a corresponding sequence of letters and numbes. One has merely to establish a turn for the inner ring: say, one notch, to change the a to a correspondence to a to b. Voila, the code! Elemental structures of kinship, indeed – here was all the exogamy and secret names you could want.
Perhaps the Jonny Quest ring, with its baroque structure, signaled the coming decline of structuralism. It came out in 1965. A year late, in October, 1966, Johns Hopkins sponsored a conference on the latest wave of European thinking entitle, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structural Controversy" at which, for the first time on these shores, Jacques Derrida presented a paper commonly thought to foreshadow the coming destruction of structuralist hegemony: "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences."
The decoder ring, as it were, was broken.
Which is another story.