Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

It's January 1951 and Alistair Cooke muses on the burgeoning American TV industry.

Broadcast on: BBC Radio 7, 1:45pm, Tuesday, 18th November 2008

Duration: 15 minutes

NB: I made this transcription whilst listening to the programme on BBC iPlayer

Letter from America, January 1951

“Well the winter is really on us and the life of anyone living in the North Eastern States is settling down to a routine very, very different from the life of last summer and autumn. I mean the cyclical life, not just because they’re air raid shelters going up and signs all over town. The Department of Sanitation in New York, for instance, once again has its night staff on call in case of a blizzard. It has, as usual, a whole new set of gadgets, some new style snow ploughs with electronic buzzers out front that thrash through snow drifts and pile everything in neat rows on the side along the gutter. The newspapers are running their perpetual winter series on the common cold, which, for all the wonderful advances in bacteriology of the past thirty years, defies any form of treatment but hacking, and snuffling, and watching and waiting.

"For the third year in succession, New York is full again of sun-tanned young beauties from the West Coast. Girls who have given up struggling up the Hollywood ladder and have come to New York – or have come back to New York – where there are jobs galore for them in television. For the first winter in history, the papers print a daily half-page, in fine print, of television programmes; just as long as the radio list. It used to be a little corner in a single column, with the stations opening for business around five in the afternoon and going off at ten. Now, they start at nine in the morning with a programme called Morning Chapel, and the news, and then end at midnight with the news.

"These new habits sneak up on you so slyly and quickly that it’s rather hard to realise what morons we were a couple of years ago. In those primitive days, a housewife had to make her own mind up after breakfast where to shop and what to buy. But now, after Morning Chapel comes: The Television Shopper. There was a time too when housewives, busy sweeping, and washing dishes, and vacuuming, used to have to amuse the baby on the side. But – presto! – 10:00 a.m. – The Babysitter Show, meant to rivet the baby’s wayward attention while Mother gets on with the chores.

"The conscientious housewife, once she’s through the daily dusting and cleaning, used to look over a couple of mixing bowls, an egg beater, and whatever meat was in the ice box, and think about the old man’s supper. Now, between eleven and noon, she has a choice of advice – new wrinkles [sic?], new recipes, all being demonstrated, mixed and cooked – usually looks like lava – on two programmes: Kitchen Fare, and Kitchen Capers.

"If she should begin to feel lonely any time before lunch, there’s no excuse anymore for calling on Mrs Brown next door. Mrs Brown has come to the television screen; and with other unemployed matrons, can be seen prattling over this and that on a programme called The Coffee Club. From noon on, if the housewife isn’t through her work, she ought to be. The networks give themselves over unashamedly to amusement: The Cathy Norris Show; The Joe Franklin Show; The Johnny Olsen Show; and then a few more half hours of intensive cooking lessons and demonstrations and the news is beginning to rear its ugly head.

"Then music, and comedy shows and music and Homemakers’ Guide and interviews with celebrities and models and dress shows and advice to parents. Evening is coming on, naturally. And then, as the twilight falls, a barrage of news programmes. And then, Hopalong Cassidy, and puppet shows and cowboy films and the Weather Man from Chicago. And a quarter hour at the zoo. At this point, by which time, Mother has either turned the darned thing off and gone back to life, or gone into arthritis and lost her wandering baby through the bedroom window.

"At this point I ought to say that one of the discoveries of American television has been an assortment of odd, anonymous characters, usually middle aged and Middle Western, with a genius for rambling on in a fascinating way about some scientific specialty. There is a man out in Chicago who loves animals like nobody since Noah and comes up with little shows about ___ (?) and pandas and racoons and snakes, with all the easy wonder and the proud knowledge of a father of quadruplets.

"The Weather Man is another who comes over one network every night – he’s also from Chicago. He turns to a great empty map of America, empty that is except for the mountain ranges lightly sketched in. He talks about the weather the way some people talk about football and others about murder trials. Of course, he has a continent to play with. And for anybody interested in weather, America is a rich playground. Cattle may be going down for the third time in oceans of snow in Montana, while blondes are frisking in the warm green waters of Florida.

"The Weather Man always licks his lips and cocks his eyebrows, not in an annoying, actorish way, but because he has a genuine relish for the surprises he has in store. “Well,” he says, and he takes a menacing brush – I mean a paint brush, about five inches wide, in his hand: “Well”, he says, “there’s trouble ahead for you people who live in the, uh, North West there, and, uh, up all the way along the Mid-West to the Great Lakes. A full sized blizzard came roaring in from the Pacific last night.” He takes his brush and he paints, in I’m told red paint, a stream of roaring blizzard across the Pacific Northwest and across the Cascades and the bitter routes [?].

"He says, “It’s across the Great Plains today, and it’ll be here in Iowa, and Illinois and Wisconsin tomorrow. But here’s good news for you people on the Lake Shore,” he sweeps his brush right across the western half of the nation and lets it stop short of Lake Michigan. “Seems,” he says with a foxy smile, “there’s a high pressure belt, just an itsy bitsy high pressure belt stuck somewhere north of Milwaukee down through Indiana; it’s gonna hold off that blizzard, it may even divert it north, but for a day or two. So you folks here in town or up in Wisconsin, you don’t have to worry about a thing till I see you again. You oughta be right snug inside that high pressure belt.”

"Isotherms and equinoxes are just a couple of baby bears to this man. And I swear that he teaches more people – adults as well as children – more about how weather is made than all the text books they never looked at. He saves the mean punch-line. Jus before he goes off he remembers something, “Oh, yes,” he says, “the temperatures. Well, let’s see now, through the Midwest it’ll be around twenty degrees tonight, that’s twelve degrees with frost,” a form of expression never used, by the way, in the United States. A number means above zero, thus thirty or twelve; ten below means below zero. Then he rattles off a few significant figures: “Chicago, twelve tonight, up around thirty in the day tomorrow; little higher away across New England. In the Northern Great Plains, it’ll be between twenty and twenty-five below zero. Great Falls, Montana, somewhere down around forty-five below. Miami,” he says, “eighty-five by day, around seventy at night. Goodnight.”

"Television, as you may have noticed, is a great thing to kick around and have fun with. But I think I’d better tell you that, although for hours, it is possible to drown in mediocrity. There are by now quite a lot of first rate programmes, not so much plays and ballets, which are obvious stuff, but nonetheless fascinating, if done thoroughly with lots of rehearsal, something that American television doesn’t go in for so far. The really outstanding things in American television are group discussions of all sorts, big and small; news programmes; and comedy shows. The best comedy shows are not necessarily the ones done by comedians who were famous in radio, or on the stage, though two or three of those big evening shows are incomparable.

"For another animal the television has thrown up is the young man, usually in his early thirties, who is glib, inconsequential in a Groucho Marx sort of way, and very much at home with a microphone wandering around a big studio audience, interviewing people and sometimes the crew, the television crew, talking back at them, insulting them. Now, there’s no point in my mentioning any names, because they would mean nothing to you; they meant nothing to us six months ago. There are about a half dozen of them: spry, easy going, irreverent, who just have a natural sense of irony and rely on it to fill a nightly hour or half hour with a studio audience. Nightly.

"One of them the other night had no set routine, couldn’t think what to do with his audience and just ordered his dinner up. It came in with real, non-actor, waiters and he sat and ate it for half an hour and thought aloud and kidded the waiters in one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

"Now, it’s obvious by this time that television is murder on anybody who must rely on a writer, on a script. And just as the talking picture doomed to sudden death the beautiful profiles with rasping voices, so television has already registered a high mortality among actors and actresses and comedians who must learn lines; the race is to the quick witted, and there’s already a fine crop of such.

"The news programmes, I think, are just about the best achievement of television so far. The news commentators are beginning to throw away their news tape and talking about the news, some of them, swiftly, easily, and accurately without script. In fifteen minutes, one network opens with its news announcer, he gives you the main headlines, then they switch to Washington for a movie of Congress that morning, and then to a studio in Washington for a couple of minutes with a couple of Senators thrashing over the topic of the day. Then back to New York for spoken news, read against still pictures, maps and diagrams of Korea. Then a three minute shot of Korean news reels flown in that day. And then out to Chicago for movies taken last night of a blizzard, a mine disaster, the British Ambassador making a speech, or whatever. And then back to New York for the late flashes, and so an end.

"There has been quite a bit of comment here in the last week or two on Mr T. S. Eliot’s comment that Britain should beware of television as a grave threat to – these were not his words, but I think his sense – as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence, and culture in general. The great question: “What will it do to our children?” rocked around the nation last year. A lot of us sympathise with Mr Eliot, but honestly see the facts going against us. For instance, mediocrity practically doesn’t exist to a child. Mediocrity is in the eye and the judgement of the beholder, and I would hesitate to say what is good or bad for a ten year old. I know what’s educational, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing as what is good or bad.

"However, to the dismay of us conscientious, culture-conscious, and perhaps slightly hypochondriacal parents, Northwestern University has just published the results of its survey on what television does to the child. And its answer is: nothing. Nothing that hadn’t already been there or been done before. Television it seems is a reflector of what’s in the child, not a poisonous snake infecting him from outside. They found for instance that the amount of time spent on television by anyone or any hundred of children has no sort of correlation with their marks in school. Perhaps it does, after all, go in through one eye and out through the other, causing no pain, and, I must confess, a lot of pleasure.

"The rising generation then is going to the dogs just as fast, or as slow, as you and I did, remember? It’s a hard world for us moralists, isn’t it?”


NB: It seems that the zoo show was called Zoo Parade with a Mr Perkins who was director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the programme aired on NBC. Additionally, I would like to note that it would be interesting to compare these statements on television to those aired by Edward R. Murrow (as dramatised in the film Goodnight, and Good Luck), those written by Raymond Williams in 1974 in his book Television and by Pierre Bourdieu on French television and transcribed in his book On Television.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Obey Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am elated that Barack Obama is our new President (well, currently, President Elect). Let me also state emphatically: the man is neither the Second Coming NOR the Anti-Christ. Should it not be obvious, I'm originally from Texas - I suspect a fair few there harbour secret fear that our 44th President is in fact the harbinger of end times (and in such a scenario, does this cast Oprah as the whore of Babylon?). As I said on Wednesday to John, 'Ah, look, Texas didn't go for Obama.' John's reply: 'August, if Texas had gone for Obama, that would have been the headline.'

And he's right - Texas remains one of the most conservative states in the Union. There are many people in that state of many affliations and attitudes and I am not tarring 22 million people with the same brush. But even all the cool folk of Austin can't outweigh the predominance of Bible bashers (I should know - some of my nearest and dearest are; even if, as my friend Marc assures me, they are of the 'liberal' end of Evangelicals. And I suppose, as with my mother, it is rare to find Dorothy Parker fans who also believe in the literalism of the good book...).

So to the emotional histrionics: the Obama victory was so desired by so many of us. People who wanted to expunge the eight years under George Walker Bush. People who wished the illegal war in Iraq had not been waged as we had demonstrated in our millions on 15 February 2003. People who, post-9/11, had wanted justice not vengance. We see in Obama the potential for a President who has lived outside of the USA and grew up out of the contiguous 48 states (it was as if McCain felt - okay the PUMAs want a woman at all costs, hmmmm, and Obama grew up in Hawaii - aha! Palin - female and Alaska - that'll do!). Someone whose life experiences have shown him more than the internal myth-making machines any American child grows up shaped by: someone who sees America in relation to the rest of the world - not someone who sees America as the world.

We see in Obama, the potential for an intelligent, diplomatic engager who voted against attacking Iraq. We understand that he was running to be leader of a still highly conservative country and that concessionary postures would be forthcoming once the nomination was secured. But even for someone looking for a real Left to revitalise in the US, Obama promised a chance for a radical departure from the fascistic policies we'd faced under Bush (even if some of this radicalism was restricted to the level of identity politics; nonetheless, the thought that, after the poaching of the 2000 election by the Bush family, a non-dynastic mixed race new politician with roots as a lawyer who opted to work as a community organiser in the city of (the now late) Studs Terkel could be the head of our state was thrilling).

And yet. The hysterical response to Obama's victory has smacked of the verso to the Death of Diana as experienced in the UK. Or a positive verso to the recto of the witch-hunting over BBC presenters Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and their upset to Andrew Sachs (who, as John said, is not a 'national treasure' as some have said, but an actor reknowed for playing a racist stereotype on 13 episodes of a 1970s sitcom!) over his 'Satanic slut' granddaughter. It's band-wagon emotionalism. Can't there be jubulation, relief, pleasure and rational thought all at once? Can't we be a nation that eschews the hooting and shouting of the football field or wrestling match when in the arena of politics?

I know emotions are manipulated and pursued throughout campaigns and have been for dozens of decades. But shouldn't we want to rise above the level of infantile attachments and remain at the level of considered thought? Must everything remain childish like never ending high school pep rallies? Does everyone want the tyranny of the Ballmer world of 'developers, developers, developers'? Where everyone's a cheerleader or vocally opposed to the baddies of the piece, as if the real world were one real pantomime? Why must everything become a performance? A comedy in which we are all the live studio audience?

Why must melodrama be our bathetic genre of choice when the going gets tough? Why do we need to amuse ourselves to death and reduce real issues to punchlines? Why must we engage with a politician's views - whether we identify with them or find them abhorrent - on the level of sexist or racist abuse couched as jokes and jibes and love nothing more than someone who can laugh at themselves? Why are we thrilled when politicians take a night off the stump and engage in a formal white tie and tails event where they mock themselves and each other? Is light relief that important? Must we tamp down our terror in the face of wars and economic collapse and global instability through limp satire and raucous laughter as we push further and further towards trivialising the world's most pressing concerns into a daily show of idiocracy?

Why do we find inspiration in Fairey's Hope Obama and Progress Obama posters? These are developed out of his Obey Giant programme. One developed from a 'They Live' John Carpenter film inspiration about manipulation and selling - combined with a wrestler's visage of Big Brother styled staring eyes - to create a purposefully enigmatic and compelling image. It is a provocation - and yet the Obama work is meant to be straight-forward, uncomplicated advocacy? How does that work within visual communication / cultural terms? Does no one find this troubling or worth discussion?

Obama's campaign made an emotionally manipulative / affecting music video which is on YouTube. It is called signs of hope and change. It is a montage of 'ordinary Americans' holding - a la Bob Dylan or Gillian Wearing - signs which simply say either Hope or Change. And it is set to a loop of the rousing instrumental opening to the song 'Fake Empire' by the band The National. Even the names of the band and the song seem pointed; yet not too didactic or polemical. It's a frustrating video because it sucker punches you on the level of the emotions.

After eight years of intensified imperialistic militarism and rampaging global greed for resources and power - Americans were desparate for precisely such signs of change and hope. Yet it feels so vapid - Change; Hope; Progress. Change we need. Yes we can. Can what? What change? Are we talking about African Americans finally reaching beyond the years of segregation and racist denial of their right to exist freely in their own country?

Are we talking about change from the fascism of surveillance and dirty wars and torture and extraordinary rendition and blacksites and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Kissinger leading the inquiry into 9-11 and Colin Powell (rewarded for helping to initially keep quiet My Lai by Nixon appointing him to a White House role and thereby launching his career via this nasty backhander) with his slideshow to the UN to push for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Change what - hope for what - progress from what and towards what?

And then one day it struck me. I was reminded of a piece Fred Orton wrote on Jasper Johns (sic: actually, it seems it was Jonathan Katz on Johns and Rauschenberg; he's written several pieces on this). He said that Johns had to develop a kind of visual code within his work of the 1950s - that it was an encryption of real intentions and real meanings, tied up with his situation as a gay man in a world where such identities had to stay on the level of the hidden and merely hinted at; where overt expressions were physically and legally dangerous. And this is when all the euphemistic discourse came into focus.

It was not the vacuous talk of ad-speak - where new and exciting and improved are bandied about without concrete specifications so that we are bedazzled into opting for unnecessary purchases. It was the password at the door - it was the underground railroad in the world where Big Brother is watching and listening and the Patriots Act as though they'll round you up at any minute. Where everyone is insecure about what they can and can't say or do. Where overt expressions feel physically and legally dangerous. Where short story writers get detained at airports and Cat Stevens packed back onto a plane and disallowed entry to talk to Dolly Parton. Where people are deported and disappeared and no one talks about it: they just carry on shopping.

That's when I understood the need for signs of hope and change. Let's just hope that the change we need is what he delivers.


PS - this is quite funny: Palin & Bush

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Hither and thither

Stephen Fry currently has a series on BBC Radio 4 entitled, 'Fry's English Delight',

which is a delightful look at changes to the English language!  Yesterday's episode

was a fascinating exploration of Cliché.  So good in fact, that I went to all the bother of

transcribing the majority of the episode.  Now this actually does serve a purpose as at least one

little bit of it will surely appear in at least a footnote in my doctorate - so, time well spent, I'm

sure! :-)

Since I did go to all this fiendishly nerdy trouble for myself, I decided to share.  So here (with a

few added hyperlinks to make it good and properly bloggy (is that an adjective?  It is now!), for

your delectation, I bring you the abridged:

“Fry’s English Delight: Cliché



Hosted by Stephen Fry



Monday, 8 September 2008, 9.00 a.m., BBC Radio 4 (30 minutes’ duration)


NB: The BBC website renders cliché as cliche (whereas I keep the accent ague [the acute accent] mark but don’t italicise it as a foreign word – a half-way house which probably satisfies only me).  PS: the webpage for Fry’s English Delight on the BBC website, does, however – as do I , provide cliché with the acute accent but no italics.  Hurrah! J



SF: Now, of course, you wouldn’t catch me dead using a cliché, except of course for knowing, ironic purposes.  But let me get straight to the point as Shirley Bassey so memorably sang.  Cliché is part of language; regrettably unforgettable, and often unforgettably regrettable.  It grows like topsy, ineradicable, and probably indefinable.  Writer and language expert, Julia Cresswell:


(JC) Cliché is, effectively, whatever anybody says is a cliché; it’s almost impossible to define clichés.  That itself is a cliché of writing on clichés.


SF: Julia is author of The Penguin Dictionary of Clichés, although the book has been given a brand spanking new makeover as we’ll hear in a minute.  But it is true to say, she is a cliché collector.  Tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.


(JC) I wanted to write a book about the history of the weird and wonderful expressions we use.  A cliché is something automatic, like something that’s printed out in mass form, over and over again.  But one person’s cliché is another person’s everyday turn of phrase or colloquialism, or idiom or quotation.  One of the things I think that makes an expression a cliché is if it effectively does your thinking for you.  And this, of course, is what politicians exploit, it’s what advertisers exploit, and it’s what bores drive you mad with.  And one of the reasons, I think, why we use clichés is actually they’re very efficient.  This is particularly obvious if you look at the sort of clichés that are used by journalists or politicians.  So they say a lot more because of their social associations and people’s experience of how they’ve been used in the past.  They build up to very effective ways of getting at your emotions or channelling your thoughts in certain directions.  People get so worked up about clichés and think that they’re bad when perhaps they’re not necessarily all bad?  And, certainly, they do give us a history of our culture.  Some of them are extraordinarily old, some of them very new.


SF: And almost all of them are borrowed and some of them, to continue in Julia’s poetic vein, are blue.  Goodie!  First though a definition:  from Dr David Penfold of The School of Printing and Publishing at The London College of Communication.


[Printing press sound effects in background] (DP) Cliché is a term that describes the manufacture by printers probably starting in the Eighteenth Century of a version of type which allows them to use this cliché over and over again to keep printing.  It’s a version of clicher, so it means ‘to click’.  I’m not quite sure whether it was clicking into place or the sound of it, but it came from the idea of when the – French presumably – used to papier-mâché over the type, which had been set, and then they formed a mould and then into the mould they created a metal reproduction of the type so it was no longer moveable, it was, it was fixed then.  So like, like this one here, this is a curved one, but you can see the same principle: the type’s been set and so you then have something which is no longer moveable type but it’s it’s something you can keep reproducing, hence the cliché.


(JC) It actually comes from a French verb meaning ‘to click’ and the correct English translation of this is stereotype.


(DP) And you can see why stereo because the type actually stands out, coz it’s three dimensional. 


SF: Now, often, derivations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on; but in this case, the fact that cliché starts life as a printers’ term – a forerunner of ‘cut and paste’, a way of preserving and regurgitating freeze-dried phrases – is worthy of note.  So a stereotypical phrase, infinitely reproducible at the click of a printing plate – and later, the click of a mouse.  In the days of moveable type, individual letters made of metal – the very physical ingredients of bespoke words – had to be treated as a finite resource: treasured.  So, a cliché was a handy ‘cut-out and keep’ one-click-affair; no compositing, no thought, no tying up of language into anything original – the very definition of cliché is coined by people for whom words are a stock in trade.  So, I blame the media.


Cliché dates back to Eighteenth Century printing, but the oldest cliché in the book is older even than that.


(JC) The oldest cliché in the book is ‘hither and thither’, which, perhaps, is a bit dated now.  But it has reason to be since the earliest example I found goes back to 725 in Old English; which is not the only Old English cliché actually.


SF:  But is ‘hither and thither’ a cliché?  Does not its great age and old-fashioned vocabulary exempt it from the lingo-bin?  I mean, if you are going to turn round and say clichés are in the eye of the beholder, then we’re going to be all over the shop.


(JC) ‘All over the shop’?  No, I would call that slang, perhaps, rather than a cliché.


SF:  Alright – one man’s cliché is another man’s – no, no that’s no good….





Now it goes into the segment about football-derived clichés


1908 and Tottenham Hotspurs journey at sea and the parrot and then in 1919 the arrival of Arsenal from Woolwich, ‘stealing Hotspurs place’ and ‘sick as a parrot’.


Football journalist Amy Lawrence talks about Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea playing the same game week in and week out and the lack of inspiration such invokes – couldn’t we just wire in the same story as last week.  Additionally, the Internet’s demand for instant copy also works against the time for original inspiration…


Julia Cresswell talks about how the Internet changed her dictionary – from a reference dictionary, changed to a thematic collection of clichés.  Reference books need to be narrative now within the publishing industry JC reveals.  What to call it and initially going with ‘The Best Thing since Sliced Bread’ but it would be very difficult to produce an attractive eye-catching cover for.  The designer came up with a great illustration of ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas’ and they went with this instead.


Goes into expressions coined to mean ‘excellent’: The Cat’s Pyjamas; The Bee’s Knees; The Dog’s Bollocks:- trends and derivations explored.





SF: This turns out to be a rare example of a vulgarity and a piece of jargon and a slang term and a cliché and a pictogram!  David Penfold of The London School of Printing:


[Printing press sound effects in background] (DC) ‘The dog’s bollocks’, which is a colon followed by a hyphen, is interesting because it was very popular at one time, but nowadays I don’t think you’d find a publisher’s style that would include that:- it just wouldn’t be acceptable.  It’s used in some languages, I mean the French use it a lot, but in English you won’t find that colon followed by a dash that printers used to call ‘the dog’s bollocks’ used any longer.


SF:  Not only did this, or rather these, fall into disuse in the closed world of printing, it didn’t work very well in everyday speech.


(JC) The problem with this was because it got shortened to ‘the bollocks’.  But the problem is if you’re saying, ‘That’s the bollocks’ – meaning ‘That’s really good’ – it’s very easily confused with, ‘That’s bollocks!’ meaning it’s rubbish.  And I think that’s probably what led to it dying out.


SF:  The world’s first self-cancelling cliché.  But, ‘Dear Feedback, Why is that nice Mr Fry stooping to such low allusions?’  Point taken.  Let’s go upmarket.  Sportswriter Amy Lawrence says, tellingly, about the repetitiousness of putting into print accounts of even the best football.


(AL) It’s like going to see ‘Hamlet’ every week, twice a week.  Okay, there might be a different actor playing Hamlet, obviously there’s a slight difference in that the result might be slightly different from one Hamlet to another, but essentially you are seeing a similar script time after time after time.  So, therefore, there are only so many ways you can describe the ball hitting the back of the net.  There are only so many ways you can describe a fantastic right-footed cross.


SF:  And there’s only so many ways of saying ‘To be or not to be’; Catch-22 really.  That, by the way, is a reference to the paradoxically existential dilemmas of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Heller’s Yossarian.  And a reference to the fact that a brilliant, life-changing line of poetry or novel, can, by dent of association football style repetition, have a simultaneous life as a clunking great cliché.  And it’s enough to make you want to draw a little moustache on the Mona Lisa, it really is.  Cliché collections in one form or another have been amassed to serious effect by the great lexicographer Eric Partridge, the Eighteenth Century satirist Jonathan Swift, and the novelist Gustav Flaubert.  Dr Liz Barry is Senior Lecturer at the University of Warwick.


(LB) The critic Hugh Kenner writes about Flaubert, as he writes about later writers like Joyce and Beckett, and calls them Stoic comedians.  They’re commentators who are looking at society and thinking about the dilemma of writing in an age of a print culture, where everything that one says has been written somewhere before, where literature is distributed immediately to the masses.  The problem that Roland Barthes, the critic, calls déjà lu – um, not déjà vu anymore – but déjà lu, already read; everything that one says has been already read somewhere.  And how does the writer respond to this situation? And one thing that these writers are exploring is the way in which their characters are trying to live their life [sic] by the clichés that they read in books.  They are trying to apply these received ideas to the world and there’s always a gap they never quite fit – their experiences never quite fit to the experiences that literature tells them about.  So Madame Bovary is destroyed – you know, psychologically and literally – in the end by the fact that her love affairs don’t match up with the romantic clichés that she reads about, that she can’t reproduce those experiences in her own life.  Flaubert’s very aware that the writer isn’t immune to cliché, so he writes about the way in which writers are afraid to open his [sic] dictionary in case they find their own words – or what they thought were their own words – there.  Or he comments on the way in which the, the banalities that he collects amusedly in his books he actually also finds in his own love letters to Louise Colet.  So he is very, very aware that that the writer in some sense is in crisis in not ever being able to produce the perfect new idea.  I think that we hear the dead hand of the printing press in language.  As we know, the etymology of cliché is connected to the sounds that the printing press makes, the click that the printing press makes.


SF:  Like I say, I blame the media.  All clichés, poetic and otherwise, start life as metaphors.  And, according to linguist Dr Guy Deutscher of Leiden University, metaphors either get ground into common or garden anonymity by repeated use, or repetition popularises them and turns them into long-lasting clichés.


(GD) So the reason why clichés remain clichés and grate rather than just being ground down like most common metaphors, is that they were so powerful probably to start with that they refuse to bio-degrade and they just pollute the landscape; like the big lumps of plastic that pollute the beach.


SF:  But if these nasty looking lumps of plastic can be recycled in a really clever way, if they have a second life as art – how do we rate them?  ‘Tell me, where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?’  Famous, magical lines from the casket opening scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.  Too famous perhaps for James Joyce’s Bloom, the advertising man in Ulysses, whose head is teeming with this kind of stuff.  He can’t resist a recycling opportunity and he already has ‘fancy’ and ‘bread’ at the back of his overdriven mind because of the enchanting smell from a local bakery.  This is his instinctive pun about his own fancy and where it is bred:


(?) ‘Tell me where is fancy bread? At Rourke’s the baker’s it is said.’


SF: A pun, a slogan, a satire on slogans, a satire on Twentieth Century culture, an image from inside a man’s head, a nifty bit of Shakespeare recycling.  Dr Liz Barry:


(LB) Joyce is playing there with a Shakespearean allusion, but also showing us how Bloom makes his own meanings.  For Joyce as well, these very constrained and very debased kinds of language are brought to life again and, and given all sorts of significance in his writings.  In one sense he’s not frightened of the circulation of these meanings, because in the rich and rather crazy world of Bloom’s head, the associations that they will have will be completely unexpected and completely individual and personal to Bloom. Um, so there is a way in which the, the individual citizen can resist the kind of homogenising influence of advertising – you know, wanting to make us all the same, wanting to make us buy the same product at the same time everyday or same time every week.  The big question about cliché perhaps is that it questions the distinction between the highbrow and the lowbrow.  For Joyce’s Bloom, the allusions to Shakespeare and the advertising jingles are on a par in his mind, they’ve become detached from their context – they are circulating in his mind; they’re chiming off all sorts of things that he’s encountering in everyday life.  So there’s a question about how one preserves the idea of high culture – and this is a question that is exercising the critics of postmodernity – how does one preserve a distinction between high and low culture if the idea of originality is no longer as powerful as it once was.  If there is this anxiety about everything already – the already read – um, everything always having been read before – how does one create that or preserve that distinction between the high and the low?  And does it matter?


SF:  Does it?  Search me.  They always say, though this is a bit of a cliché, radio has the best pictures.  So think Andy Warhol’s self-conscious cliché, the repeated silk-screen print of Marilyn Monroe: click, click, click.


[Opening chords of The Kinks’ ‘Till the end of the day’ resound]

SF:  Makes you think, eh?  Or not.  Did any of this matter or was it just excuse for me to say ‘bollocks’ a lot, at the end of the day?  There, I’ve said it.


[Kinks: ‘Baby, I feel good / from the moment I rise / feel good from morning…till the end of the day / till the end of the day]


SF:  I’ve left it till the end of the programme, if not the day, Britain’s favourite or least favourite cliché.


[Kinks: ‘From when we get up till we go to sleep at night / You and me we’re free / We do as we please, yeah / from the morning…till the end of the day / till the end of the day /yeah]



Fry’s English Delight was:


Presented by Stephen Fry


Produced by Nick Baker


And at the end of the day it was A test bed production for Radio 4 © 2008


Transcribed by August Jordan Davis, 9 September 2008!





The Devil's BJ

Be under no illusion regarding the nature of our universe - it is disinterested; unjust.

Otherwise, explain to me how 14 years after the sad demise of Bill Hicks we have to suffer the ignominy of a reformed New Kids on the Block - botoxed and face lifted into some simalcrum of youth.

These soul-sucking voidoids of Satan (as per Monsieur Hicks) are surely a harbinger of true deja vu: late '80s / early '90s financial and musical crisis.

Sarah Palin hasn't returned us to the Culture Wars, folks - that's the job of five 'boys' from Southie...

Shudder to think: Bill Hicks, RIP.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Go Chrome!

Just a quick post to say - Google's new browser 'Chrome' is now available to download in its beta release.

I've got it up with six tabs open: my twitter page; my Facebook page; this blogger page; my AOL email page; my webmail Outlook page; and the Guardian all open.  This is the fastest browser I have EVER used.  Yes I'm gushing, but it's valid: this is sleek, stylish, FAST, easy and makes for non-stop browsing and surfing like it ought to be.

This is the net we've always been promised: the future is finally starting to turn up on time.

Don't worry about the hype, the viral 'leak' cheerleading which is, frankly, yes, most likely to have been purposefully orchestrated - but it's all worth it.  Google Chrome is far more elegant than my previous sentence AND it delivers the goods.


Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Tech-savvy allure

It's so easy to fall for it. The idea that you too could indulge in some of the glamour of Fusion Man if only one were to buy, say, a 3G 16GB iPhone. Last Friday at the London Liverpool Street Station Carphone Warehouse (about 6pm) a slightly inebriated city-type was in asking for just such a phone - in white. He assured the staff that their website vouchsafed that such an instrument was presently on-sale at their shop. The staff assured him that the website lied: an unusual case of 'the computer says "yes"'.

I, myself, had seen this same in-stock assurance earlier that day. But unlike the happy hour imbiber, I was not lurking in the small kiosk-sized shop for an actual purchase, just a torment visit (where I go to wallow in my desire for the purchase knowing full well that I won't make it for a variety of reasons). The man again averred that the website had said such an item was available only to be reassured that it was not and that the website was 'lying'. Such a sweet idea, that the staff had been shortchanged by some kind of overly enthusiastic war-games styled computer (maybe like the anthropomorphised one in Electric Dreams - remember that silly little film?), rather than left short by a fault in the supply chain - i.e., human error.

And such is the chink in the dream of the glossy 'future': we may be able to invent the tools and put them to use, but it's still we - human beings - who are using them. The future is only as slick as the fallible homo sapiens. The allure of going tech-savvy: striving to be a hub, an alpha user; to get abreast and keep abreast of developments is all well and good but to what effect? Unless one is prepared to adjust, fundamentally, one's habits and routines at a 'deep' level, it is unlikely that a new gadget will utterly transforms one's life (i.e., a schlub is not going to be magically streamlined with the addition of just a bit of kit; the iPhone is not the philosopher's stone).

My friend Jamie - amidst the first wave of my 3G iPhone release mania (earlier this year) - made a sagacious suggestion. Rather than rush to buy an ultraportable laptop and a smartphone, why not just make better use of my current mobile and laptop (buying only a mobile broadband stick at most - a dongle Jamie called it; you can see that I've not bought even one of these yet!). Then if I indeed prove a Charlotte Higgins, Jr, then invest in some new, lovely kit (otherwise, it's just a kind of Glamour-magazine type lust for the new 'it-IT' rather than really needing the new equipment).

Of course, he's absolutely right. As is my husband who kindly pointed out that signing up for any kind of new monthly contract (given that we are planning to move from UK to USA shortly) isn't fiscally responsible. I know, I know - none of it makes much sense, rationally speaking that is. But the sense of desire is irrational, emotional, prone to suggestibility and temptation. It can be preyed upon and whipped up; it can become obsessive and a driving force. I know all of this rationally. I am aware of the consumerist impulse which has been cultivated by my American upbringing and which I have indulged expertly for three decades. And yet I am still eaten up by it when a shiny bit of metal / plastic is flashed before my eyes. There's a potent part of my imagination that turns its back on all dystopic Blade Runner prognostications and still knows I'm only one bit of kit away from that future we were promised (FusionWoman?).

August Jetson Davis

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

2008 sucker punch

So, I thought 2008 would prove an exciting year; it has certainly provided unexpected (and unwanted) twists. Things were off to a good start with a very good Zizek masterclass in February. We joined the ICA in January and were busy with members' previews, private views, concerts, talks and films (Ariel Dorfman and Fuck Buttons being just two of the highlights). The PhD work was ticking over nicely and in April attended Martha Rosler's opening talk for her installation of the Martha Rosler Library in its first UK site at John Moores University, Liverpool. In May, we attended Etienne Balibar's Birkbeck Masterclass, which was also very engaging. It was the same two weeks as his daughter, the actress Jeanne Balibar was on the jury panel of Cannes.

Then came the day we went to see Winter Soldier at the ICA. Saturday 17 May, I believe. The day of the FA Cup Final. First the film and then off to a pub to watch the match; then home. Home, where we found a message from my mom telling me of a family member's serious illness. Five days later I was in Dallas trying to help for a fortnight. When I left 6 June, all seemed much improved with happy prospects all round. Less than two weeks later, my loved one had died and straight back to Dallas we went.

I've been devastated and in shock ever since. It feels like trudging through treacle. Part of my enfeebled attempts to 'deal' with this situation has been to distract myself as much as possible with various displacement activities and inquiries. So I got obsessed with the release of the 3g iPhone (I don't own won, but now know all about its spec nonetheless). I decided that like Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian (with her inspiring laptop on the knee mobility) I would become a diligent blogger. I bought Wired and read up on the coming of the cloud, server farms and the paradigm shift of the petabyte age. I got into Clay Shirky and his web2.0 revolution. I decided to join the Real Food Revolution and bought Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food (along with three new cookbooks: Gordon Ramsay's Healthy Appetite; the Kitchen Revolution; and the new Chinese Food Made Easy by Ching-He Huang from her BBC programme). Did you know Michael Pollan is Tracy Pollan's brother - brother-in-law to Michael J. Fox, therefore? Betcha didn't. Such are the tidbits of grief-distraction.

But last Friday it all just hit me. Came crashing in. I stoically had managed even the unfortunate coincidence of having in February bought tickets for the final night's performance of Vanessa Redgrave at the National Theatre in a one-woman production of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" (the play she wrote to transform her novel of the same name at the urging of David Hare). A performance which we attended three days short of the one month 'anniversary' of my loved one's death. A play which is all about the attendant disbelief and shock and eventual coming to terms with the loss of the two most loved ones in one's life. This I handled beautifully. What finally did for me, I couldn't even tell you. The floodgates didn't open, but the box began to leak. That box I'd stuffed all my disbelief and grief and rage and unhappiness and shear shock into had obviously corroded and toxic seepage had commenced. Maybe it was like the leak from an air mattress, slow and so soft as to go undetected as the bodies lay upon it for the first few hours, but such that by morning there was little support left.

So on I soldier with my to-do lists mockingly nearby, their multitudinous tasks frolicing gaily on the pages, taunting me with their un-done-ness. I'm sure I will again be able to subdue my pain with escape into practical chores (as in the very first days and weeks). But for now, I am suffused in the cotton wool numbness that cossetts me between the rounds of buffetting winds gusting out of that nasty box of pain.