Where Did That Proverbial "Envelope" Go Anyway? And What Was its Ultimate Purpose?
by James Albert Barr
"The world is a business, Mr. Beale!" - Network (1976)
Where did the phrase, "pushing the envelope" originate? Apparently, it was in 1944 during the late stages of World War II, and was associated with the American Air Force pertaining to aircraft, particularly test-flights, where a plane's designated altitude and speed limits are potentially pushed to the max where it becomes dangerous and possibly fatal for the pilot. The term "envelope" was actually first used in mathematics in a technical and engineering context, before being applied to aeronautics directly.
It wasn't until famed author, Tom Wolfe, incorporated "pushing the envelope" in his 1979 novel, The Right Stuff, that the phrase started to gain traction in popular culture. One film, featuring the air-force and fighter planes as its main setting, the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, which literally launched Tom Cruise's career as a bona fide movie star into the proverbial stratosphere, references "the envelope" in an early scene where Tom Skerritt's character, flight instructor, Mike "Viper" Metcalf, addresses "the top 1% of naval aviators - the elite", and says: "We're gonna teach you to fly the F-14 right to the edge of the envelope - faster than you've ever flown before,...but more dangerous." - "Highway toooo the danger zone!/ I'll take you riiiight intooo the danger zone!"
I find it very interesting that during this scene from Top Gun, when "Viper" Metcalf is talking about "the envelope" and the danger involved in riding its edge or beyond, the camera is off of Tom Skerritt and is instead focused on Tom "Maverick" Cruise, who is distracted by Val "Iceman" Kilmer - whom himself is not paying attention to his instructor - attempting to psych Maverick out by clumsily flipping a pen between his fingers. We, as the audience, are too having our attention directed towards Maverick and Iceman, thus likely not hearing what Viper is saying about "the envelope". It was clearly a deliberate editing choice to distract the audience from the dialogue being spoken and instead direct our collective attention onto Maverick and Iceman goofing off. Why was that?
It's no secret that Top Gun was essentially a glorified, nearly two-hour ad for air-force recruitment, and was likely funded, at least partially, by the American military-industrial complex. Well, the blockbuster "commercial" worked perfectly, because air-force recruitment "skyrocketed" by some 400% or so, shortly after the film's screen-run. This could very well be a text-book example of "predictive programming" onto the unsuspecting, and relatively "predictable" masses/sheep/specific demographic. It'll be very interesting to read the new semiotics and subtext infused into the upcoming Top Gun sequel, the post-9/11, Trump-era Top Gun: Maverick (or at least filmed during the Trump-era), which is supposedly getting released in July.
I remember, while living through the 1990s, and much of the 2000s, an often asserted phrase was uttered regarding what was generally opined as "risque and provocative pop culture". Of course that phrase was this: "It's pushing the envelope" or "They're pushing the envelope". The phrase had transcended its original definition. It wasn't yet as bandied about in 1980s popular vernacular as it would the following decade, if memory serves, being a teenager myself in the 80s. A certain movie (The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, Se7en, etc) or TV show (Seinfeld, Twin Peaks, The Larry Sanders Show, etc) or song ("Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Cop Killer", "Smack My Bitch Up", etc) or album (Ritual de lo habitual, Ready to Die, Mechanical Animals, etc) or book (American Psycho, Daddy's Roommate, Infinite Jest, etc) or piece of art, what-have-you, predominantly aimed at the 18-35 demographic, would sometimes court enough controversy and negative reaction that it would enter the public discourse and even get national exposure in newspaper columns, editorials and mainstream news programs, as well as sensationalist, afternoon talk shows (Ricky Lake, Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, etc), which, by the 90s, were all the rage.
In fact, the notion of "pushing the envelope" got so pervasive by the mid-2000s, as entertainment got more and more boundary-pushing risque, edgy and controversial, I was actually compelled to write down these three questions in one of my several miscellaneous notebooks, where I collected quotes, citations, lyrics, poems and general thoughts and ideas that suddenly came to me, and jotted them down:
1. What does it really mean to push the figurative "envelope"?
2. Is it not the case that, right now, a permissive, illusory pushing of "the envelope" is actually in effect?
3. Can "the envelope", conversely, be pushed too far unto irreparable excess and damage?
What did I mean exactly by "a permissive, illusory pushing of 'the envelope'"? I really wasn't quite sure when I originally wrote down that question over a dozen years ago. And what was I driving at asking if the so-called "envelope" can be pushed too far, potentially creating "excess" and causing subsequent "damage". Well, given what has transpired over the last decade, in particular, in our culture, our society, our very world, I'm now left with another loaded question:
Could it possibly be the case that the act(s) of "pushing the envelope" helped, if not unwittingly (or maybe even wittingly? - from an outside/inside source engineering it, surreptitiously, that is) provoked and gave rise to what we now know as Woke and Cancel Culture? Not necessarily as a singular agent that gradually engendered (or rather ungendered, to be punnily more precise) political division among the masses, particularly emanating from coming-of-age millennials (especially those with wide-spreading gender dysphoria and hyper-sensitve dispositions/social anxiety issues, "conveniently enough") and aging, leftist Gen-Xers with a longstanding "axe to grind", but as a no-less significant symptom/aspect of the over-arching "slow march through the institutions" to ultimately gain cultural power, political power, state power, municipal power, technological power, economic power, familial power, ethical power and philosophical power, ultimately for its own sake, and not for the reasons that most SJWs and identity intersectionalists are being led to believe.
Of course, one of, if not the X-factor behind the utterly implacable, easily "triggered" and rigid self-righteousness of the "cult of woke" clique, who are mostly wielding their collective power in the "digital world" on-line on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, is none other than civilization's age-old nemesis of cultural and systemic dysfunction: narcissism!
We've seen article after article, book after book, TV segment after TV segment, YouTube video after YouTube video lamenting on the astronomical rise of narcissism in contemporary culture. This is not exactly a societal secret. Whatever side of the cultural, political, philosophical, racial or spiritual divide one falls into, you can rest assured that that societal faction has to deal with narcissism, be they extroverted or even introverted (I personally know of several introverts that can tenably be diagnosed as full-blown narcissists). It's a universal constant, spanning centuries of human history, especially in situations that involved a "power dynamic", either publically or not. Although the "public examples" of narcissistic power-mongering can be far more damaging for everyone within its megalomaniacal vicinity, physically or technologically, or, dare I say, even "magically", if from what I've been gathering, relatively of late, from certain "peripheral sources" harbors any merit at all, that is. Who knows for sure, right? Has Jean Gebser's notion of the magical consciousness structure somehow resurfaced in the cultural (un)consciousness of the early 21st century human psyche? Perhaps it's no coincidence that magic, sorcery and spell-casting has become all the rage (casually or seriously via fandoms and/or proliferating (oc)cult activity) in pop culture since shortly after the millennium a la post-Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings phenomenon. It gives the discerning (and open-minded) pause, does it not?
This all sounds crazy and tin-foil-y doesn't it? Of course it does. And there-in lies its ironic, counter-tactic power. Just remember, the touchy nomenclature, "conspiracy theory" was purportedly manufactured and disseminated by the C.I.A., initially in the 60s - shortly after Jim Garrison's JFK assassination investigation - for the very purpose of pre-emptively grooming conspiracy theories in the collective conscious/imagination via entertainment and the culture industry a la the 70s fascination with them in film, for instance (All the President's Men, The Conversation, The Parallax View, The Odessa File, Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, etc.).
Propaganda, and predictive programming (individually and on a mass scale), despite popular opinion, is not just the so-called diabolical game of the typical enemies of North America and its allies, particularly over the course of the past hundred years or so. In actual fact (and I know "facts" are remarkably unpopular for a certain cross-section of the population nowadays, insanely enough), the concept, and utilization, of propaganda was greatly improved upon by an allied European named Edward Bernays in the 1920s. He actually wrote a book pointedly titled, Propaganda, that was published in 1928! The word and very concept, funnily enough, given its, um, tarnished reputation since the Second World War, did not have a negative connotation associated with it when Bernays wrote his book.
However, after World War II, and thanks predominantly to the Nazis and Josef Stalin's propaganda machine in his Soviet Union dictatorship, the word and concept from that point on took on a very negative connotation. So, Bernays had to come up with another word to describe his means of business, which would go on to ever greater heights of success and effectiveness: "Public Relations". That's right, he was "the father of public relations", and its practice would be disseminated all through North American and European culture to the point that it is now the very air we all breathe - like fish in water, unconscious - within the all-pervasive ether that is, what the late Mark Fisher referred to as, Capitalist Realism.
I'll leave you to mentally and emotionally digest the opening two paragraphs of Edward Bernays' monumentally influential 1928 book, Propaganda, which has literally been an instruction manual for the globalists, the corporatists, the market handlers, the tech moguls, the real slave-drivers that own and run Earth Incorporated:
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
How's that for "pushing the envelope", huh?