Sunday, October 16, 2011

Make the madness stop

We have informal discussions among the faculty at VMI every Friday at lunchtime, and last week we talked about student writing (among other things). I was asked what I look for in student writing and, without having really thought about it much, I mentioned a list of things, including accuracy in spelling and grammar, and an absence of bull. This article puts verbiage and cliché in the same category (although surely the only thing to do with cliché is to mock it, since complaining about it is itself unoriginal and overdone). Avoiding verbiage should lead one to ordinary language, but then that is likely to be populated by clichés. It can also be hard to understand, as we see in the discussions at New APPS of the sign "Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit." 

For what it's worth, my reading of the sign is much the same as Mark Lance's (see below). To my mind, this is the language of The Wire, and it translates as The situation [or: system] is a dysfunctional sham, "shit" meaning this, "fucked up" meaning broken, and "bullshit" meaning fraudulent. This is a pretty accurate expression of what the protesters believe, but it isn't really effective communication if others struggle to make sense of it. 

Here's what Lance writes about it in response to John Protevi's implication that the sign's syntax is mangled:

I've been trying to decide for a while, and I guess I don't think the syntax is mangled. The subject 'shit' is colloquial for 'stuff' - implied salient and important stuff. And he is saying both that it is fucked up and that it is bullshit. If we take the relevant stuff to be policies of wall street, can't those policies be both fucked up and bullshit?
Clearly I'm avoiding reading grad student papers here, but the other interesting thing is how essential it is to the message - the content, not just the affect of the message - that it employ obscenities. One just can't say that without those sorts of words.
Also really funny.   
He doesn't say why it's funny. I think it's funny because most of the characters in The Wire, the only people I know of who talk this way, are both African-American (the sign-holder is not) and unlikely to be politically engaged enough to join in this kind of protest. It is not the language of political signs or banners, in other words. But it is the language of very direct speech, with no verbiage or bullshit about it. Part of the comedy value comes from the contrast between the language used and the occasion of its use. Part of it comes from its truth, openly acknowledging something that generally goes unsaid. And the something in question is not that the system is in need of reform (although I think it is), or that the theory that wealth at the top of society will trickle down to everyone else is open to question. The something in question is that that 'theory' is a lie and that the system is obscene. Part of the obscenity has to do with the world that The Wire shows, or the contrast between this world and the world of Wall Street. The wealth of the top 1% is supposed to be justified by their superior hard work and intelligence, and by its inevitably trickling down to everyone else. A realistic look at the world shows this to be a myth. We don't all have the same opportunities and we don't live in a meritocracy. What to do about this is a tricky question, of course. (Although see here for some ideas.) The least we can do, though, is to notice myth and fantasy, and see them for what they are. We need, as they say, to call bullshit.


  1. Yes, "Shit is fucked up and bullshit" could well be The Wire-speak, but I think it could just as well be chanspeak (the argot used on imageboard websites such as 4chan) or lolspeak (the language of lolcats), where both semantic redundancy and bent syntax are regularly used to comic effect and ingenious ways of using them carry a peculiar kind of social capital. For instance, this could almost be a variant on the well-known chanspeak meme X Y is X, which originated in The Simpsons. The social world I live in overlaps with these phenomena to such an extent that this was in fact my own initial association in my mind.

    What is interesting is that if the statement is The Wire-speak in the way you suggest, then it is indeed down to earth, direct, African-American-influenced and so on. But if it is (say) chanspeak, in that case it belongs on the contrary to a register of language that is quite conceited and self-aware and has a very tight set of what we might call genre rules - just like a limerick, a haiku, or whatnot. It can sometimes take a quite tightly circumscribed set of rules to produce what seems at first glance to be exhilarating looseness and unaffectedness.

    Whereas your translation would be The situation [or: system] is a dysfunctional sham, mine would be more like What a dysfunctional, sham-infested system. Although the surface grammar is that of a declarative sentence, I think it is perhaps clearer to view it as a kind of exclamation. It is surely an Austinian speech act - a "behabitive" one (expressing a social attitude) in Austin's own typology in How to Do Things with Words.

  2. Thanks, Tommi. Chanspeak seems like a definite possibility, although (while admitting massive ignorance about such things) my guess would be that anyone who talks like this is either trying to sound like the kind of people featured on The Wire, i.e. streetwise people from tough neighborhoods, or else has been influenced by such people. The desire to talk (and dress, etc.) like urban African-Americans, especially the toughest of them, is widespread. It's all over England, and I've witnessed it in Finland. The person holding the sign, though, was quite self-aware, I'm sure.

    You are certainly right about the sentence being more like an exclamation that a declarative sentence though.

  3. The desire to talk (and dress, etc.) like urban African-Americans, especially the toughest of them, is widespread. It's all over England, and I've witnessed it in Finland. The person holding the sign, though, was quite self-aware, I'm sure.

    Oh yes. The thing here is that there exists the possibility of a further ironical meta level: pretending that one wants to pretend to be a streetwise person from a tough neighbourhood while not actually wanting to do so, and finding it ludicrous that anyone actually could want to pretend to be one - and indeed expecting the ludicrousness to go without saying to such an extent as to make it unnecessary to take precautions to prevent misunderstandings by outsiders.

    For instance, I personally know young college students whose politics and political awareness are such that they would be sure to be found at a Wall Street demo if they were American, and whose cultural background is simultaneously such that I could effortlessly imagine their carrying syntactically incorrect signs there. (It's through them that I manage to keep up with this stuff although middle age approaches.) And all of them are these kinds of meta-pretenders. It is hard to estimate the ratio of earnest pretenders to meta-pretenders, but the latter are certainly numerous enough to constitute a cultural force all their own.

    That is one consideration. Another is that if the chanspeak "explanation" (or anything resembling it) is true, then the broken English does not necessarily have to have anything to do with African-American culture in the United States - although it can have something to do with it as well. For instance, many of the imageboards involve or have developed out of a shared interest in Japanese popular culture (the "chan" in their names comes from the Japanese honorific suffix -chan). Urban American street culture is extremely popular worldwide, as you point out, but so is Japanese culture. (Even here in Finland, a country of five million people, there is a glossy bimonthly magazine devoted entirely to it that you can get at any supermarket.) The broken English used in chanspeak is in many cases a reference not to English as spoken by ethnic minorities in any English-speaking countries, but an ironic reference to English as spoken by near-monolingual natives of Japan (or to any of a number of other things unrelated to the United States - in the case of lolcats, for instance, a whimsical hypothetical English which cats would supposedly speak if they spoke).

    There may not be any reference at all to differences in socioeconomic status levels, just a simple bipartite division into the familiar and the exotic or bizarre. Which may be stereotyping, infantile, in bad taste, and so on, but then again the whole chan phenomenon is for people whose idea of fun is to show bad taste.

  4. aside from the rhetorical figure (like the commenter scaliger noted at new apps) which makes it striking / witty, i don't think there's much mysterious about that sign. it doesn't need a reading, it's not hard to understand.

    if made to give one, though, i would start with choosing, as the most likely referent of the sign, 'the situation'.

    i think the slogan is exactly on a par with the ways everyone talks about how situations are.

  5. Tommi: yes, the possible levels of irony are numerous. I started trying to say something about this and decided it was more likely to confuse than elucidate.

    j.: I would agree, except that the people at New APPS seemed to be struggling with it. At least a little.

  6. i put that down to entirely exogenous factors inhibiting their natural ability to speak the language of everyman.