I’m sure you’ve noticed this before as you’ve scrolled through your social media feeds. Sentiments strangely similar to one another trickle through different and unrelated accounts. This kind of thing bleeds into flesh-and-blood life, but its home key is more often virtual.
I don’t mean bots or copypasta; I mean thoughts that have the appearance of individuality, but proliferate as though they’ve been inserted in place of an individual’s offhand comment. One example is the complaint about recipe blogs burying the actual recipe beneath a cascade of text nobody wants to read, often concerning the author’s boyfriend. (It’s a valid complaint.) Or perhaps you’ve seen the numerous tweets about how scholars always write “the ways in which” when “how” would suffice.
People typically present these as their own shower thoughts, when they aren’t particularly idiosyncratic. Still, the thing I’m describing isn’t plagiarism. Just like I’m not talking about bots or copypasta, I’m also not talking about the phenomenon of people deceptively trying to pass off stolen content as their own. No, this is more like a common idiomatic pool—a pool that seems to be drying up. You can talk to people and the same personal observations and convictions show up, expressed in the same phrasings and emphases, over and over. (“The struggle is real, y’all,” you might even say.) Sometimes it’s an ironic reference to a meme. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. There’s a gray zone between the use of idiomatic expressions and references, on the one hand, and the automation of thought and speech, on the other. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that the language we use shapes our very picture of the world, our very thinking. There are criticisms of this hypothesis, but, it does seem easy to automate our thoughts and emotions through common words and phrases that populate our everyday environment. Doesn’t it?
In her book Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz suggests a name for some of this kind of canned thinking: “opinionization.” I like this. In the algorithmic age, ethics are binary: things always reduce to that which is either “OK” or “not OK.” So “opinionization” is a good word to evoke the laundering of personal experience and perspective into a purity-grid where one always either approves or condemns, endorses or rejects, buys or boycotts. Thinking boils down to the data point. Which box is checked off? An opinion is conceived of as a “take,” which I suppose originally referred to the idiomatic expression for something’s impact upon us—i.e., what’s your take-away, what did you take away from that experience? Instead, I think more and more about what continues to be taken from us in this context.
You must understand that I’m not talking about people’s failure to produce correct language. Slang, dialect, idiolect: these enliven language and enrich our experience. I’m actually targeting what I see as the sad standardization and homogenization of language, its diminution, because our idiomatic commons (and audiovisual analogues) seem to be shrinking down to a small number of terms given or sanctioned by corporate technology. I’m not saying this an an Olympian casting judgment; I, too, am a prisoner and a victim of it.
People have always had scripts, and we’ll continue to have them. Good manners are a kind of script. I recall the narrator’s reflection in Barth’s The Floating Opera after his first, awkward sexual experience that when he and his partner didn’t know what to say, they could rely on pleasantries. This clued him in as to why courtesy had immediate practical value. Being polite and following a script when one is otherwise very upset or very wronged can still be helpful; and it’s good also because we can comprehend that someone might be angry and yet still say “please” and “thank you.” How big is the person who’s furious about a grievance and yet still controls their temper, does not seek vengeance, and instead acts graciously!
I am concerned that certain scripts, especially those inspired or circulated through media technologies, might potentially be making us, as people, smaller than we would otherwise be, and that some of this diminution comes advertised in the form of greater freedom and affordance. We become ruled by our appetites only, as if condemned to endless childhood, when a requisite of the concept of childhood is that there must be adults there to bring children up and be responsible. Who, then, are our adults?
Does it all make you want to assume control of the room like Garbo in Queen Christina, asking what the hell is wrong with everyone around you?
George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” (Note to self: I should finally read Viktor Klemperer’s LTI.)
Which Balzac was it—I think Père Goriot, but possibly it was Lost Illusions—that gently mocked the way everyone appended “-orama” to words as a sign of being on-trend with language? There are people for whom this is all that language is or can be.
I aspire to the idea that one should think individually and act in solidarity, but I think that our world guides and rewards us to do the inverse. People lean in to the orthodoxy of their in-group, and more or less “act” by consuming goods and services in ways that make sense atomistically.
Another way of phrasing all this, arriving at the same feeling but from a totally different path, would be to say that I like and frankly I miss personalities, characters, individuality which all have very little to do with the social media bio line, the brand, the hashtag-aesthetic, etc. What if we’ve been robbed of more interesting expressions of ourselves and our neighbors? How can we move it back in that direction?
I’ll likely touch on more of this in future letters: the problem of brands and intellectual property and “worldbuilding,” which attempted to provide new horizons but instead made prisons ...
Before I get there, however, I think the next letter I write will probably—probably—involve some closer textual analysis of a movie. If you’re into that.