Monday, July 13, 2009

Precision of Language

Lois Lowry might not have sparked the idea in my head, might not have begun a lifelong desire for linguistic precision & clarity of intention, but she did give it name. It's just that the quote from The Giver is so much better than "You watch your phraseology".

Perhaps I should clarify. I am not a stickler for grammar per se (just look at how I place punctuation marks). This isn't a rant about how kids these days can't spell for shit even though the computer is meant to do it for them. This is a comment on writing on the web and the sustained difficulty of articulating with clarity. And a question as to how to resolve the issue, how to achieve some manner of easy understanding through our community writing as it is becoming such a large part of our lives.

The Internet, cell phones, &c have spawned several grapholects. The most prevalent and sustained being 1337, lolspeak, and TXT. They are not exclusive, fixed, or, really, even fully defined. They all had their origins and they have all extended beyond the initial conditions that made the meaningful and necessary.

Leet was used to avoid text filters that could not recognize the combination of letters, numbers, and symbols as meaningful text the way that a person could. Hence the need to constantly evolve and adapt. As it entered gaming culture and the mainstream it became even more convoluted as more and more people began to use individualized combinations to articulate words and phrases.

TXT developed out of the pay per character beginnings of SMS messaging and the difficulty of articulating that one is "laughing out loud" via a string of characters (especially when one wasn't physically laughing at all).

LOLspeak developed absurdly from the difficulty in translating the magnificently difficult grammar and syntax of Cat Language into English.

Combining all three with plain, old English written hastily by people who have relied on spell checks their entire lives and not given over to any editing and you have one of the main issues (at least with clarity of thought) of the Internet. Add in the difficulties inherent in a distributed conversation with multiple people via both realtime and various tape delays and the internet can become a quagmire of confusion & misunderstanding.

Now, personally, I have only really taken to the absurdity of lolspeak not joining the texting revolution soon enough to ever have a need to really abbreviate my thoughts and by the time I was writing on the web I had no real desire to be a n00b in any of the l337 forums. But that is precisely the issue, isn't it? The spectrum of grammar and style of writing on the internet runs the gamut from Victorian formalism to infant scribbling. We individually adopt various acronyms, unique spellings, verb conjugations, abbreviations, etc as our own and we infuse them into our writing. But there is no rule. There is no standard. And there really shouldn't be.

The standard should be that a missive is easily understood by all who will read it. This means that one writes differently on a personal Twitter feed than on a corporate blog. That the grammar and syntax are necessarily different for the audience. But that implies that one knows ones audience, or that one should accept and expect their capacity to understand (or fail to understand). Should the uninitiated really be the ones to which everyone else has to pander lest they do not fully grasp the meaning of the cryptic text? Or should there be an open acknowledgement that one must learn and conform to the rules of the digital space?

And then there is the issue of formatting. Even if there was some means of ensuring that everyone wrote in a grammar and style that was clear and precise the format of most forms of internet conversations make clarity, once again, difficult. The Microsyntax community is working on establishing a grammar that will be de rigueur for services like Twitter (and will likely spread out from there if it can really take hold). Hopefully it takes off. It might clear up some of the difficulties like so many failing to understand the meaning of "RT" and other various issues. One of my pet peeves is with comment streams. In a conversation with more than one individual a reply needs to be articulated specifically to the comment that it is replying to lest it lead to unnecessary confusion. Nesting comments is one means of solving the issue (though it often leads to digressions and points being lost in the shuffle). "@" conventions help, but are not universally adopted and not ideal. In a live conversation you usually don't have to name the person you are responding to before responding, it is implicit in tone, body language, &c. Ideally there would be some way to replicate the implicit nature of a response that doesn't involve naming each person before commenting to them. But if not, at least the convention should be universally adopted.

I guess my problem is that I have noticed sustained confusion throughout various platforms and I don't really have a good solution. Restricting the freedom of the internet to a specific dictionary, a newspeak of "one word to mean one thing", is a terrible idea. It is variety that gives digital writing its refreshing (and often infuriating) character. It's just that now that we as a society are writing much more than ever before I had hoped that we would be better at it.

"We will be judged by too many words. Our sin is poor editing and the failure to remain silent in the face of it all. There was laughter once. Now there are only the broken and post-ironic lulz. I would weep but the emoticon eludes me once again."

- Oscar Wilde

Monday, July 6, 2009

like a garden party but boring: The Sun Also Rises is a resounding disappointment

Never has the Lost Generation looked so boring as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Now, to be fair, that is likely because I wouldn't even acknowledge the majority of bumming around the Left Bank stories written by all those wine soaked expats as worth consideration and I haven't read many more notable works recently enough to remember clearly. But it is as if a bunch of ne'erdowell blue bloods, upset that they didnt get invited to Gatsby's, decided it would be a jolly good show to have an extremely well mannered romp about Europe. I say, there will be tennis and perhaps wine? Would you like another absinthe, señor, or are you too "tight"?

Give me Henry Miller. In his Paris at least they have the decency to fuck, to be proud of their drunken buffoonery, to get the syph or a dose of the clap, take their injection and keep on trucking. His Paris had spirit, and (dare I say it) some fucking balls. It seems it wasn't just Jake that had an "accident" in the Great War what left him impotent, but Hemingway's whole goddamn plot. (Oh, rot.) Did that intervening decade really matter that much? Did expats grow balls as Germany rattled their spears?

And don't tell me that is just ennui. Oh, they are too bored to fuck, too drunk on wine and those neutered bulls. Oh, the pressures of life after the War have rendered them unable to commit to the debauchery they have been accused of. "Oh me, oh life. Bring another bottle round, garcon. I am so dearly tired."

It's not ennui, its euphamism. Everything happens offstage and through implication. There is sexual tension aplenty (who isn't "falling in love"?) and some talk of death but (aside for couple glorious pages where the prose lights up as Hemingway describes a man being gored to death by an angry bull and the gentle gloss of bullfighting with those fancy swords) its just empty talk and play acting.

Maybe Hemingway felt the need to self-censor, that writing of that European decadence during Prohibition was enough and to write of sex and death uninhibited would be crossing an unspoken line. Given that the work was criticized for (inexplicably) being too explicit, too sexual, too licentious maybe the public wasn't ready for the truth (they weren't even ready for Tropic of Cancer in 1961). Or, maybe Hemingway and his "lost" friends were really that boring, well mannered, weepy, and pathetic. Honestly: crying after winning a fight?

5.5 out of 10

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sex, Death, & Confusion: Finding America in Lot 49

Through prescience on Pynchon’s part and a combination of stagnation and cyclical return on that of culture and society, The Crying of Lot 49 barely registers as a text composed some 33 years ago. Save a couple of dates and a few references to items such as typewriters, the work could be set in our present.

Which I suppose is part of the issue. Reading is always done in the present. The text, no matter how new or old, speculative or historical, is read within the context of the reader's present. I've not gone much into reader-response theory and don't much intend to here. I suppose the issue is, a text is intended, so far as intention matters, to be read both in its own time and outside of it. Writers hope to be read and they hope their works to last. That means that they hope their works stand up, at least in some way, to the ravages of time and social change. Perhaps that is what marks a classic and the criteria that the Canonizers seek when composing their Grand Lists.

But humanity still revolves around sex, death, and confusion. There are still bands with Beatles haircuts and fake British accents (or maybe it's that they have come round again). Shrinks, needing shrinks themselves, still break down trying to help us come to grips with life, the universe, and everything (and the meaning and meaninglessness of it all). Staring out into the vastness of humanity, of the universe, it's hard not to believe in or hope for some kind of conspiracy. Because at least with a conspiracy, there is someone in control. Someone behind the scenes pulling the strings means that the strings can be pulled, that there is meaning to this mad scramble. Plus, maybe some day we could be in on it. That our conspiracies are done with electronic signals and strong encryption instead of winos fishing letters out of WASTE bins doesn't do much to discount the import of the individuals search for meaning, for lasting importance.

I suppose much of that comes down to the myth of America. The Myth of America, unlike Old World myth making enterprises, does not seek to trace lineage, to prove purity, to discover origins. (So much of the conflict in America and throughout our history has been over issues of lineage, purity, and origins because they don't fit easily into our myths). The Myth of America is one of self-creation, of the bootstrapping lad that comes from nothing and makes his way in the world not by dint of blood and breeding but by True Grit. It is a story of escape and renewal. That, of course, has led to considerable backsliding, Nativist movements, racial prejudice, &c. After all, it is just the Myth, the stories we tell ourselves to assure our exceptionalism, to rationalize why our ancestors left wherever they left, to re-enfranchise a population that was always disenfranchised.

Oedipa Maas is heir to Inverarity's America. A sprawling landscape of meaningless pleasantries and identity crisis. All her men leave her, broken and full of false hope. Mucho loses the world as he discovers himself on LSD, Metzger runs off with a teenager to get married, Pierce dies, Driblette commits suicide, Hilarius goes insane. They are men without Origins, searching for meaning in a universe that means for them to create their own, set to the backdrop of a drug-addled pop song and a cookie-cutter landscape complete with real bones for your snorkeling pleasure.

We remain her broken children, hoping for some whispered promise of a blissful green, some new as yet unshattered dream of a pleasant if plastic tomorrow. But the crier never gets to 49. There is no answer, no certainty, no proof. We are left to wander. We are simply left. We Await Silent Tritero's Empire. Though most of us stopped believing long ago.

8 out of 10