Monday, October 13, 2008

Nicht Ohne Du Vin

In the new New Yorker, Louis Menand brings his trademark Menandiness to text-messaging.

Look: frankly, it's impossible for anyone to really say who the audience of the New Yorker is. It appears to be mostly insecure middle-aged urban intelligentsia who would make fun of Iron Man if they hadn't once had a great conversation with Robert Downey Jr. Oh, and huge R. Kelly fans.

So, texting, maybe they do it all the time, and maybe this is one of those not-quite-newfangled things that they'd like to know enough about to make fun of with some kind of knowledge, or pretend to make fun of it so they can secretly indulge in their interest in the not-so-secret language of teenagers.

Either way, Menand splits the difference. So he cracks wise:

In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses. Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book. And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not.
(Hey, if semaphore or morse code were live options, I'd give 'em a whirl.)

Then he puts it in his historical context:
Most of the shortcuts used in texting are either self-evident (@ for “at” and “b” for “be”) or new initialisms on the model of the old “A.S.A.P.,” “R.S.V.P.,” and “B.Y.O.B.”: “imho” for “in my humble opinion,” and so on... “People were playing with language in this way long before mobile phones were invented,” [David Crystal] points out. “Texting may be using a new technology, but its linguistic processes are centuries old.” Acronyms, contractions, abbreviations, and shortened words (“phone” for “telephone,” and so forth) are just part of the language. Even back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and men wrote with typewriters, the language of the office memo was studded with abbreviations: “re:,” “cc.,” “F.Y.I.” “Luv” for “love” dates from 1898; “thanx” was first used in 1936. “Wassup,” Crystal notes, originally appeared in a Budweiser commercial. @(------ is something that E. E. Cummings might have come up with.
(In fact, "wassup" was first popularized by the show "Martin," where it was spelled "WZUP," after the titular character's radio call letters.)

God, weren't the twenties awesome? Finally, he adds some titillating foreign ethnography for experts true and vicarious:
A trillion of anything has to make some change in cultural weather patterns. Texting is international. It may have come late to the United States because personal computers became a routine part of life much earlier here than in other countries, and so people could e-mail and Instant Message (which shares a lot of texting lingo)... In the Czech Republic, for example, “hosipa” is used for “Hovno si pamatuju”: “I can’t remember anything.” One can imagine a wide range of contexts in which Czech texters might have recourse to that sentiment. French texters have devised “ght2v1,” which means “J’ai acheté du vin.” In Germany, “nok” is an efficient solution to the problem of how to explain “Nicht ohne Kondom”—“not without condom.” If you receive a text reading “aun” from the fine Finnish lady you met in the airport lounge, she is telling you “Älä unta nää”—in English, “Dream on.”
It's Marcel Duchamp in blue jeans! lhooq! ght2v1! rroseselavy! We should all either give up now or type only in French acro-puns. The French are just better at this than we are.


Rock J. Bottoms said...

I'm not sure I understand the point of your post. Is it just your way of saying that the Louis Menand article in the New Yorker -- a magazine for smart people, by the way -- is some kind of assault on your cherished love for texting? It is, rather, like most of the articles in the New Yorker, merely a commentary on a cultural phenomenon that has a global reach. Which makes it a worthy subject for discussion and publication. And in classic New Yorker style, it is, yes, sophisticated and witty, which gives it an even greater appeal for people who like to read and to learn. Is it that you don't think the magazine should cross borders and reference other languages -- even though that's the very point of the article, that texting is now a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon? Is it that the (English) language of the article is simply too highfalutin for you, offending your Palinesque need for "common speak"? And if the article were a criticism -- it is a "critical" article, but in the way of literary or cultural criticism (i.e. less a critique and more a comment) -- then so what? Is cultural/moral relativism your religion, such to the point that nothing -- even that which might be "stupid" or "harmful" -- is allowed to be exposed under the microscope, even if the most thoughtful, intelligent people are the ones doing the exposing?

What you should have gotten from a reading of the article (did you read all of it, btw?) is the proverbial "question mark" over the head. It should have caused you to think, "hmm, I wonder if texting might in fact be kind of silly, if I look at it closely enough." Or, simply, as the writer suggests, "I wonder if texting might be obsolescent and replaced by something better." In other words, a way for you to look at something you do mindlessly and begin to look at it instead thoughtfully and, dare I say, critically. But if you want nothing in our world to be criticized (again, in not necessarily a negative way), then, yes, the New Yorker is not for you, but instead for those you deem to be the "intelligentsia." Yes, the "elite" are exclusionary, because they base membership in their group on intelligence, creativity, wisdom, wit...all higher, nobler qualities that people with merit possess. But you're obviously intelligent. So what's the problem?

You're better than this, Tim.

p.s. Where did you get the idea that intelligent journalism on a wide-range of cultural, political, and social issues must be the home of "insecure" folk?

Tim said...

Look, first let me clarify: I love The New Yorker, and I rarely, if ever, text. (My cell-phone's battery life just won't support it.)

I'm a doctoral student who works on modernist literature and philosophy with film and new media. So I am all about cultural crossovers. All you've got to do is read through the range of posts on this blog to see that.

But my view of The New Yorker is largely shaped by a talk that, yes, Louis Menand gave years ago about Pauline Kael, where he discussed the cultural insecurity of its readership, who love popular culture but don't know quite how to talk about it -- as guilty pleasure, as social phenomenon, as serious art. Pauline Kael found the language to do that, which was crucial in the late-1960s. Look at her review/defense of "Bonnie and Clyde" if you want to see a good example of this.

However, not all of The New Yorker's writers are as consistently successful in this effort as Pauline Kael was. So sometimes, writers like Menand -- who, I think, probably understands his topic pretty well, has to don the faux-ethnographer hat to explain texting to an audience that really may or may not have firm knowledge about it, and which, even if they don't know about it, doesn't want to be talked to as if they don't.

So he pulls off some pretty transparent rhetorical moves to get the job done. It's not badly done. I think it's just compromised by the thoroughly indeterminate audience he's writing for.

My last bursts of enthusiasm (e.g. "Marcel Duchamp in blue jeans!") are totally sincere. I'm teaching Duchamp to art students this fall in a class on the History and Theory of Writing, where we talk A LOT about digital text, e-books, and the like -- along with cuneiform, Gutenberg, scrolls vs. codices, the movie Memento, usw. For me, the European text-abbreviations were the best part of the essay. But then again, that's why Menand's buckshot approach gets the job done.

Tim said...

By the way, Spooky -- "Palinesque need for common speak?" -- shut your mouth.

Rock J. Bottoms said...

OK, I think I understand your perspective a little better, Tim. Thanks for clarifying.

I think I was simply confused by your critique of the Menand article and could only focus on your comments about the New Yorker, vis-a-vis its supposed readership. Because I'm an avid reader of the New Yorker, I took offense at the suggestion that all of us New Yorker readers are uninformed cultural critics -- faux or "insecure" intellectuals -- who say one thing but act another. True perhaps of some; certainly not of all. But I also read the Menand article from the 1995 NY Times, so now I know where you're coming from.

I might still take issue, however, with your comment about Menand being a "faux-ethnographer" and, by extension, the article he writes being a kind of pandering to the (elitist?) sensibilities of people who "really may or may not have firm knowledge about [texting], and which, even if they don't know about it, don't want to be talked to as if they don't."

I'm not sure "firm knowledge" of texting has to be derived from any long-time association with or intense study of it. What's to know, in a historical, sociological, or deep philosophical sense, about it? It's a ten-year-old phenomenon that doesn't have the complexity to become a subject of deep study. (Or am I wrong on this?) Texting is "media," sure, but there aren't hundreds of books on "texting" nor university departments devoted to a study of the subject (although, knowing the academic world as I do, I won't be surprised if such an academic division suddenly appears, complete with required courses on the subject).

Yes, Menand is not an ethnographer on texting. But who is? (And who would ever want to ADMIT that he was?) My guess is that Crystal's book offers a brief history, but a detailed "academic" study isn't necessary because it's just a trend. Therefore, Menand is qualified -- as a cultural critic and writer -- to add his two cents. He's just reviewing a book, after all, and, as book reviewers are prone to do, simply trying to add to the discussion.

So...that's all.

I enjoy your blogs.

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