Half-Baked: A Material Semiotics of Tacticality – Pt. 1

Maybe it has always been the case and I’m like a man waking suddenly from a slumber but in the past year I’ve noticed an uptick in the broad availability of items and accessories described as “tactical”: pens, cutlery, flashlights, apparel, diaper bags (yes), Christmas stockings (really), soap (i seent it). It’s items described thusly I’d like to discuss. 

I am curious what qualities comprise tacticality and in what situations these tactical objects are useful or imagined useful. Who is the target tactical market? (men?) In which communities have ~tactics~ developed cache? (male ones?)

I’m especially interested in what properties make something tactical and how those properties relate to the values and personalities of those who fancy tactical stuff. Which is a way of asking: how is a person made a tactician through their tactical accessories? And how do accessories become tactical, and perhaps more so, when carried by someone who imagines themselves (or is imaged by others as) a tactician? We aim to develop an understanding of what effects–and affects–cohere in these relationships.

A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE

Before discussing “tactics” in general or what being tactical means writ large, let us first determine the base level characteristics shared by objects labeled as such. I would like for you to put aside any pre-existing notions about The Tactical. Unpersuaded by an existing concept of tacticality–what it is, who is interested in it, how it functions as signifier–I hope we can work backwards. Let’s look directly, and only, at the things advertised as tactical to suss what must unite them.

It is not yet from some outside source that we seek answers. The Tactical Market™ is plagued with semantic overload. The purveyors of tactics-goods are eager to hold forth about what features are the most tactically pertinent and why. Many traders of tactical goods make claims as to the values they see communicated through the ownership of, say, tactical socks (no foolin’). I would like to avoid uncritically accepting these claims, though they may not be inaccurate. We may not arrive at an unexpected conclusion in this first portion of our work, but we will arrive at one on our own terms.

Towards this end I present a modest menagerie of Tactical Stuff. I ask that you sit with each image as though appreciating a work of art. Attempt to uncover the meaning intended and not by each specimen’s designer. Attempt to uncover the meaning sought by each product’s potential target market. Take your time; I’ll see you on the other side.

Some similarities you perhaps noticed: a monochromatic palette. Black, and usually matte. Finished surfaces that are brushed or pebbled with little polish or shine. Multifaceted forms with numerous layers and features. Modular components. Multi-use functionality. Pockets, zips, clips, grips and snaps.

What about these things signals tacticality? We could spend an age going point by point on each aspect that contributes to a Tacti-vibe but lest this work overwhelm us we best be strategic. We’ll limit our work to three characteristics and discuss what they signify. We aim to develop a sense of what is “meant” by tactical accessories and how they “work”. We’ll do this by looking at the common occurrence of dark finishes, knurled surfaces and “rugged construction”.

DARK FINISH

A dark, matte finish signifies stealth. Whether this finish will make an object or its user more stealthy… I can’t say. But signify stealth it does, cashing in on the meaningfulness of understated, secretive operation.

A challenge to this point may be: “Oh so all dark colored objects are stealthy? Does the Little Black Dress signify covertness?” or “Will you say, then, that goth fashion is clandestine?” These are useful comparisons. My answer to both challenges is “yes”. The Little Black Dress is elegant and flattering yet allows the wearer to avoid garnering one sort of visual attention. Its simplicity makes it sophisticated. Adding color would counteract its “stealth” as a piece of understated and adaptable fashion.

Modern gothic fashion is similar, though its relationship to visibility differs. Patterning, layering and accessorizing identify gothic fashion beyond its limited palette. The designs and materials of the subculture–lace, fishnet, leather, studs or buckles, spiders, crosses, skull-and-bonery, high collars and hallmarks of Victorian fashion–are liberally permuted within a strict range of hues. 

ASIDE: It is precisely because there is a patterning, layering and accessorizing vernacular that is recognizable as “goth” that more colorful sub-subcultures like “candy goth” 🍭or “cyber goth” ☢️are recognizable as “goth” at all. The addition of color to the vernacular doesn’t break it, but extends it 💀

Goth’s “stealth” is more poetic: a bedecked devotee may be visually striking but there remains some continuity with ephemerality, disappearance, the unseen and shadowy. Like the Little Black Dress, gothic fashion exhibits a tension: that between being withdrawn and notable. Both toe some line of visibility but on axes concerning that besides–or beyond–color.

The “tactical flashlight”, e.g., speaks to a related fundamental tension: a chromatic claim to imperceptibility is complicated by other facets of the object (not the least of which in this case being: it casts light). The finish of many tactical things implies, perhaps cynically, a reduced visibility while their flanges, clips, and other design details demand attention. Paradoxically, it may be attempts at reduced visibility which make some tactical objects more notable. The black diaper carrier or Tactical Mug for instance…

…are standout specimens of their respective object types thanks solely to their fit and finish, and as such are among the clearest signs of tacticality’s current acclaim.

KNURLING

Knurling is found mostly on metal and plastic surfaces. It’s accomplished by cutting ridges into that surface to produce a tight pattern of raised and depressed material. There are several types of knurl, the most common being a “diamond knurl” which gives the appearance of tightly packed diamond-pyramids. Diamond knurls come in “male” and “female” varieties. Female diamonds are recessed; male diamonds are raised and are the most common form of knurling, especially on hand tools. They increase the friction of what may otherwise be a slick surface, increasing its graspability. Diamond knurling is often a visual signifier of “usefulness” or “usability”.

Cutting twine in the rain? Lighting a wooded path in the frigid pitch of night? Tightening bolts in a dust storm? Signing checks somewhere… bad? Paying for your grande red eye in the Starbucks? A knurled implement will guarantee a steadfast grip in all conditions. 

Knurling is cut into an item. It is not a wrap; the knurl can’t be easily removed. It won’t rub off and in cases where the knurl contacts mostly human skin it won’t meaningfully fade with repeated use. Knurling isn’t a material addition but a part of the object itself. And neither is knurling particularly comfortable; it’s not uncomfortable but knurling is not a cushy rubber, fuzzy felt, nor supple leather. Beyond usefulness, a knurled surface evokes durability. 

The particular grippability of a tactical object makes it suitable not just for your run of the mill grip-needing sitch. Knurling means your object’s tack is steadfast in all situations, most meaningfully: demanding ones. This places knurling in a close relationship with our final tacti-characteristic. (“tactiteristic” felt like a stretch)

RUGGED CONSTRUCTION

As a facet of tacticality, Rugged construction exhibits a familiar difficulty: what is meant by “rugged construction” here must include the possibility of “the mere appearance of rugged construction” (as “stealthiness” must include “the appearance of potential disappearance”). 

Tactical objects often are, or appear, “field ready” or “impact resistant”. Tactical gear is meant to be used, not merely admired or collected. The make of much Tactical This’n’that–aluminum, steel, kevlar, canvas, ripstop, waterproof, reinforced, double sewn, waxed or “hardened”–suggests any given article could withstand the trials of a battered landscape. Whatever your usage happens to be: fear not! This flashlight, this pen, these gunderwear (u read rite)… were developed for cases far more stressful and tiresome and dire than your own.

And so then but this leads us to ask: what are the dire situations The Stuff of Tactics are meant to weather? Ah! We have been working towards this very moment! To understand where a tactical good is thought useful, is to understand a major facet of tacticality itself.

THE HOME OF TACTICALITY

The tacticality of tactical goods is not an essential quality. It emerges from an assemblage of accidental qualities more atomic than itself. We’ve discussed three of those qualities. Alone, no one of them will make something “tactical”. Together (and in concert with other qualities we’ve not discussed) a tacticalness can be conjured, though. The qualities act as a kind of tunnel, through which meaning passes. On one side of the tunnel, the object. And on the other… a reference which gives the assemblage of qualities, and therefore the object, its tacticality. This reference is the true home of tacticality.

To put this another way – if tactical products signify stealth, operability and rugged construction, what do stealth, operability and rugged construction signify? What tasks–what dire situations–require covert operations, all conditions grip or usability, and rugged, field ready construction? What professions would value secrecy, preparedness, and/or resilience? The answer, I believe, are those related to policing, security, first response, the armed services, and so on. It is through the tactical objects association with these domains–via stealth, operability, durability, and combinations of other qualities–that they take on their meaning. 

Looking for the first time at the marketing imagery surrounding these products, we can corroborate our conclusion: flashlights, mugs, socks, pants and pens are wreathed with men holding guns and cuffed in various pads (knee, elbow, palm, shin – all tactical, i assume). Promotional material describes items as “military grade” and “battle tested”. Fabrics possess maximum comfort, breathability and range of motion – tested to law enforcement standards.

This is not a shocking conclusion. But by working as we have, I believe we find ourselves on stable theoretical ground. We will base our forthcoming work on our own observations and conclusions, and not those (literally) sold to us by the purveyors of the items in question. 

Working outside the guidance of sales material, we’ve also developed a healthy skepticism: it would seem a good number of these products variously cloak themselves in the visual markers of trying pursuits, though they are not genuine articles of those pursuits. They are references borne of a commercial fever dream–unless I am mistaken regarding Seal Team 6’s needs for tactical bacon (not a joke). A Green Beret likely does not carry a tactical toothbrush, or a tactical all weather clicker pen. Even the less absurd examples are often, if not principally, representations of these lifestyles, or visual metaphors for them. This is not meant as a value judgement, only a description, and one which aligns with our work thus far. 

This is the site of tacticality’s apparent, ongoing tension: a good number of these items claim to _denote_ a lifestyle of service, training and preparedness, but instead they largely _connote_ those things, occasionally inelegantly or inexpertly and in such a way that frustrates their apparent purpose. To employ the verbiage of the mid-2010s, much tactical gear would appear to be the armed services version of “hipster bullshit”. To employ the verbiage of adolescence, much tactical gear would appear to enable “posers”.

Of course – we should be open to the possibility of, say, an Air Force Intelligence Officer finding the tactical diaper bag cute, or hilarious, and acquiring it. The point we do not wish to make is that the procurement of Commercial[ized] Tactical Goods would necessarily make one a Fake Geek Tactician, but rather:

An important facet of capitalism is the ability for one to purchase their identity. It is possible to acquire personality through many means – one of which is the possession and display of objects. One can appear as, and to some degree be considered, a cyclist if their attire is right. One can purchase goods and become, in the eyes of others (and so, in actuality to some degree), a fishing enthusiast, a video game aficionado or … a tactician.

In reversing the expected relationship between objects and self, an additional result becomes possible. Where we may think people buy objects which reflect their politics or outlook… here it becomes possible that one adopts the outlook that aligns with the things they have some (perhaps inexplicable) desire to own. One could literally construct their self via things (“For what you really collect is always yourself”, Baudrillard, The System of Objects) and back into their own values: purchasing compelling objects, and later determining their significance before calibrating the self to excuse, justify or contextualize said purchase after the fact.

The degree to which this proposed and highly theoretical process is “good” or “bad” or neither is beyond our scope at this moment – but it may be that the direction of approach to one’s values vis a vis their things explains one segment of a multifaceted rift between the practitioners idealized by tactical products and the consumers of those products. Those who lack a need for practical tacticality, but nonetheless would like to possess the cultural capital associated with it are derided–maybe unfairly, but this is a topic for later–by those with a genuine background in associated pursuits. The objects they covet, and unnecessary use of those objects, are not “tactical” but “tacticool”. Tacticoolness is lambasted in some corners of the internet, often through the display of over accessorized firearms.

And so we find ourselves with a useful, if fraught, distinction: that between tacticality and tacticoolness. In order to draw a deeper comparison between the two, we must finally discuss what tactics, as such, are. In the second and final part of this half-baked essay we’ll do just that, and ask about the increasingly complex ethics of this particular system of objects. We’ll touch briefly on the EDC community and high fashion “tech wear” , and conclude with an exploration of how the tactical and the tactician become each, through the other.

All this and more in Pt. 2, forthcoming.