Reductio ad Absurdum

One could be forgiven for declining to read, or being otherwise indifferent, to my numerous and varied rants against bumper stickers over the past few years. (Or any of my rants, for that matter.)

While my antipathy toward bumper stickers is rationally conceived and basically air-tight, it bears all the markings of an honest to God intellectual tic. It is, admittedly, a pretty frivolous fixation, but I can’t shake it.

Yeah, I have a few on my truck; they make me feel weird, and I think about taking them off all the time. A couple are for local bands I like, and the other is the old pre-merger Louisville crest — I think it’s a handsome design, and I like this city an awful lot.

None of these express what you would call overtly ideological themes, though. In fact, they are patently unimportant and sort of boring. Bumper stickers that attempt to communicate any message that is actually important are doomed. They’re too small to say anything that’s worthy of consideration beyond, “Yeah, Metallica was good once.”

At the root of my bumper-sticker complaint is the certainty that it’s a stupid way to communicate meaningful ideas and that the laziness implied in the attempt indicates a sickness in popular discourse at large. Ideological bumper stickers are the half-wit, bargain-basement, linguistic and cognitive equivalent of tactical guerrilla warfare. Get in, drop the bomb, take off.

All that said, I promise this is the last time I’ll rail against some dumb bumper sticker. I can promise this because the apex of the dilemma has, at long last, been achieved. I’m speaking about the little stick-figure family decals cluttering the back windows of an alarming number of cars on the road these days, not to mention a disproportionate amount of space in my daily thought processes.

Simply put, the stick-figure family decals are small cartoon representations of a vehicle-owner’s loved ones that are appealing, presumably, for the zany expression of “individuality” they provide.

In my stick-figure family, there is a mommy and a daddy and kid who plays lacrosse.” “In my stick-figure family, we have a mommy and a daddy and a baby and a dog and a kitty.” … You get the picture.

What we’re dealing with here is language reduced to the most basic semantic level in which a symbol — a pictograph, really — is intended to have a one-to-one correlation to the thing it represents. This is not necessarily a problem until you consider what’s being represented and how.

It’s not a bumper sticker that says, “I have a family and I love them.” Not even that much communication is present — I’d argue that it’s barely implied, actually. Am I to be convinced of your undying loyalty and immutable love for your kin because you shelled out $2.99 to buy latex stickers for each person in your family including the cat? No. That’s obviously not something you can express with a sticker.

So what are you trying to tell me, Chevy Tahoe owner? Whatever message you intended to convey to me — a complete stranger stuck behind you in traffic — is totally obscured by the absurd reduction of complex familial relationships into stick figures. Inversely, what it does succeed in communicating is a pretty severe level of abstracted alienation reaching into the most important places in our lives.

The thing that set me off is so rough that I can scarcely wrap my head around it all. I recently saw a decal family that included in its ranks a little baby stick figure with wings and a halo floating above the rest. Devastating and humane grief at the loss of a sibling or child were nowhere registered in the balloon-head smiley faces of Dad, Sister, Mom and Dog. The cartoons, indistinguishable from all the others on the road that day, were totally incapable of expressing the intensity of human emotion that their real human counterparts must have felt, because they’re cartoons placed in precarious context with a little stick-figure baby angel; the rest of the motoring public was asked to bear the interpretive load.

Losing a child is on the short list of the most insane and crippling events humans can endure and actually live through. Our language is struck dumb in an attempt to describe it, and mostly the words that come out are, “I can’t imagine.”

Saying anything that’s important can take a minute, and some things just can’t be described at all.