Tag Archives: Language

Commencement

commencement

 

 

This graduation season, you’ve almost certainly sat through one of the worst literary genres, the commencement speech.[i]  Yes, David Foster Wallace achieved greatness with his:

And there is always Kurt Vonnegut’s Wear Sunscreen speech.  But most speakers are shackled by the speech’s conventions.

They begin with a list of thank-you’s:

I want to thank all of the students, the parents, the professors, the college president, the board of trustees…

With a little self-deprecation…

…for letting me have this opportunity to speak with your class.  You’re a great audience, especially since you can’t go anywhere!

Followed by the story: narrating a personal obstacle that the speaker overcame…

…I may be the CEO of Ceo Industries now, but it wasn’t always that way…

…in order to laud the role of education in that success…

…In fact, when I first came to college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I struggled with finding…

…while being optimistic, preferably with some Speech 101 rhetorical flourish:

…But I did know that I wanted to make a change. A change for the better. A change for the future. A change for myself.  A change for the world.[ii]

And, of course, a quotation from someone famous to wrap:

Because after all, as Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Except much longer. You’re welcome.

Once in a while, someone makes news by violating the tacit agreement that speeches need to stay positive, like last year’s “You are not special. You are not exceptional” speech by David McCullough.     But a commencement speech seems to me an inopportune time to lay too much on the caps of the newly minted graduates.

For me, the problem may be, as usual for Hourman, time.  We keep thinking of commencement as  “the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year.”  

But it’s easy to forget that commencement means beginning.  Not end.

Commencement has turned into a phantonym, one of those words like inflammable that means one thing but seems to mean its opposite. Of course, we want to mark the end of college, the completion of the degree, even though many students have expressed some ambivalence about the ceremony when they know that they’re set to start graduate school almost immediately after finishing college.[iii]

So for many students, it’s not an end at all.  But is it a beginning?  What is it the beginning of, exactly?   For cynics who think that school is not real life, ending the year means entering the real world. But that never seemed right to me, given how much real life so many students have already experienced.  It’s not entering adulthood, which in many ways has also already begun for them, even as many people don’t see college graduation as the mark of official adulthood anyway, preferring marriage, or children, or, in my case, the purchase of real estate, which seemed more difficult to get out of than either of the others.

So let’s have two cheers for commencement, even commencement speeches.  We need to impose all sorts of beginning and endings to portion our time: day and night, even though they start at different times for different people in different parts of the world and year; the year itself, although it too is an arbitrary marker; the seasons, although they are cyclical and, this year, totally inconsistent.  We want to imagine that time, like the seasons, is consistent and linear—time flies like an arrow[iv], straight and in a single direction, when the way time and life[v] feel is more amorphous, scarily circular, or even sometimes unchanging, so that once in a while I’m surprised to see my older-than-24-year-old face uncannily staring back at me in the mirror. 

Without the decorative sign posts and pit stops—our commencements to celebrate what we would love to think of as the beginning of post-collegiate life, or the end of pre-collegiate life; the candles taking up more room on the cake each year; a wedding and subsequent anniversaries—life becomes a series of one damned thing after another.  A grim death march.  No wonder we’re implored in commencement speeches to see life as about the journey and not the destination.  We don’t want to go there.

Because in the beginning, and in the end, there is only one real beginning, and one ending, and we can’t remember either one of them.  Let’s celebrate the rituals we have, not in spite of the clichés, but because of them.  The speeches are trite, but maybe they’re the right ones for the occasion. And maybe, ideally, they even contain some truths.  Unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s sunscreen speech, which he didn’t write and wasn’t ever a real speech.   Unlike Gandhi’s famous quotation, which he never said.

graduation-caps

 

Time: 65 minutes. Wasted too much looking for links.


[i] Being that I have attended thirteen graduation ceremonies that I can remember, I believe I’m in some position to evaluate them.

[ii] This one is anaphora, about the most basic.

[iii] I didn’t attend my MA ceremony for that reason. Then I didn’t attend my PhD ceremony for a different reason.

[iv] But fruit flies like a banana.

[v] Not the magazines.

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We Have Entered the Era of Un-

In culture, literature, and theory, the 1960s marked the beginning of postmodernism.  And quickly the prefix post- became the operative way of understanding the world: post-war, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, post-industrialism; then, post-human, post-Boomer, and post-punk; more recently, post-millennial and post-apocalyptic; and for a least a little while in 2008, post-partisan and post-racial.   (Many a postdoc has been devoted to developing post-anything.)  Post- became more than a prefix—it became a worldview, an epistemological category.

But what, students in my class on postmodern literature reasonably asked, can possibly come after postmodernism, or post- anything? More post. Post-postmodernism. [Shudder]. Post- is the prefix that devours itself, since it is always after, belated, still waiting, and deferred. Nothing can come after post-.

Nothing except, with apologies to Existentialism, a new kind of nothing.

Enter: Un-.

Un-, like post-, is not a word. Unlike other prefixes, however, like pre- or post-, or re- or un-’s near-relative, under-, un- does not describe, affix in time, suggest repetition, or, like mis- or mal-, even suggest that something is wrong.  Unlike with-, dis-, de-, counter-, anti-, or even the powerful non-, un- does not suggest opposition, working against.  Un- suggests more than reversal or opposite: it is negation, disappearance, taking out of existence.  And if post- described the world after about 1945, Un- describes the world from 2000, or maybe 2001, to the present. We are living in the era of Un-.

Now, I realize that lots of words began with Un- before 2000.  I used “unlike” twice in the last paragraph alone. But I used it as a preposition, “dissimilar from.”  On Facebook, unlike is a verb: if you click Like, and then decide that you don’t like that thing anymore, you can click Unlike and it will erase your Like. Since Facebook does not have a Dislike button, Unlike is as close as people can get.

But Unlike is as different from Dislike as unable to disable, unaffected to disaffected, unarranged to disarrange, unfortunate to disfortunate (which is sort of a word).  Which is to say, very different.  Both suggest opposition, but dis- implies an active opposition, expending energy to reverse.  Un- feels passive, a kind of vanishing—or worse, the suggestion that the thing never was in the first place.  When we Unfriend on Facebook, we do something we cannot do in real life or face to face, which is presumably why the word had to be recently invented. We don’t Unfriend corporeal people.  We just—what, exactly?  Stop being friends? Spend less time together? Drift apart? Or something stronger—not a drift but a rift.  A fight, a falling out.  We’re not on speaking terms anymore.  But not Unfriend.  We can only Unfollow online, on Facebook or Twitter.  We can’t Unfollow in person.  Unfriend and Unfollow seem etymologically and epistemologically close to Untouchable, with the implications of prohibition, exclusion, disappearance. Unclean.

Like many people who spend time at their keyboard, I have become reliant on Delete, on Backspace, on Undo.  When I knock down a glass and wish it would float back in a startling cinematic backwind, or misplace my book and want it to reappear, or say something that I want to take back, I can picture Ctrl Z clearly in my mind’s eye.  But it does not Undo.   Glasses do not unbreak; books are not unlost but rather must actively be found (without Ctrl F, either). Words that are unspoken were never spoken, not spoken and stricken.  We say, I take it back.  But the words cannot be unsaid.  Judges instruct juries to ignore testimony, but lawyers know that jurors cannot unhear. Judges cannot unstruct.  Traumatized viewers cannot unsee.

Do not try this in real life

And so Un- fails at complete erasure.  Like a palimpsest, Un- can’t help but leave traces of its former self behind.  The close reader can see what used to be there, the residue of virtual Friendship, the electronically unsettled path left behind after one has Followed, or been Followed.  And perhaps this failure is for the best.  The only thing more powerful than Un-’s fever dream of retroactive disappearance is that the wish cannot come true.  If anything, the electronic world that birthed the fantasy of Undo is the same one that never lets us scrub our online prints away.

Time: 55 minutes

P.S. Please Like and Follow this blog.

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No Fun

“Anhedonia”: the original title of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a motif in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, a word I felt immediately. Literally, it means “without pleasure” (an + hēdon), and it expresses something like the inability to enjoy things.  According to experts, it’s associated with clinical depression, depressive disorder, endogenous depression, and major depressive episodes.   I don’t feel depressed, or in denial about depression. I would even say that I am a happy person, give or take some seasonal affective disorder and how well I avoid cable news. But I frequently question why so many people find certain things pleasurable when I can’t. Pleasure, joy, amusement: these terms are obvious in the abstract—by definition, everyone likes “fun”—but they’re problematic in the particulars. Especially for me. 

Technically, I don’t have anhedonia, since it’s associated with a loss of pleasure in things that one used to take pleasure in, and there’s too much that I never enjoyed in the first place. No Code Red Mountain Dew, KFC Double Down, Cool Ranch anything. No “Two and a Half Men,” “[Anything] with the Stars,” “Bridalplasty.” No “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Tik Tok,” the double down of “Glee”’s cast singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Maybe these are easy targets. Maybe I’m elitist. Maybe my age is showing. But everyone else seems to like them, and I like other popular entertainment, and I would never have liked them, even as a kid. Especially as kid. On the contrary, I like to think I’ve grown remarkably tolerant and mellow.

I can’t listen to a human voice on the radio unless it’s singing. Without Autotune.  Or has a British accent on NPR.  I can’t tolerate movies featuring talking dogs, especially if they depict real dogs in digitized lip synch. I have never watched a game of professional baseball on television except long enough to change the channel.  I have never participated in any competitive sport, spending every high school phys ed class sitting in the bleachers talking to Tommy about Metallica. Mr. Arbuse didn’t care because I was wearing my gym uniform, as I’ve chronicled before. I now exercise only so that I may eat more ice cream. I have never sent a successful text message.  I prefer not to talk on the phone. I don’t really like to drive. When I finally took my kids to Disney World, they—and my wife—loved every second of our eleven-hour days in the park. As I carried the backpack of water, extra clothes, and a camera while occasionally pushing the stroller through the crowds, I endured only by picturing soldiers, waist-deep in the quagmire, rain sheeting down in cacophonous chime on their helmets, under threat of enemy fire, fifty pounds of gear on their backs, arms straining to keep their guns above their heads. Later I felt sheepish, and guilty, about comparing my three days in Disney, the Happiest Place on Earth, with War, which Is, according to trusted sources, Hell. But it got me through the week.   

At the risk of sounding like a personal ad, I like to play with my kids in a green, sunny park that doesn’t charge admission. I like complicated foods with simple, pronounceable ingredients. But I also like every breakfast cereal. I like to watch TV if the shows involve any two or more of the following: conspiracies, plot twists, glorification of dubious ethical behavior, foul language expressed in creative combinations, good-looking supernatural creatures.  I like abrasive music by brutal musicians.  I read as much as I can, preferably great, depressing novels where the main characters die. But I also like every magazine, and science for non-scientists, and superhero comics, where no one who dies ever stays dead. I eat pints and pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream but refuse all lesser brands. I can’t eat breakfast.  I like to play the blues on the guitar.  I love doing anything, or nothing, with my wife. I look forward to going to work. I write, not because I like to, but because I like to read what I wrote. 

Did not stay dead

Not dead.

Dead? No. And no.

I don’t, in the end, have anhedonia, even if there’s much that I can’t—or that I refuse—to take pleasure in. With literature, writing, and the blues, it feels good to feel bad. Or maybe more people should feel bad for feeling good. Or perhaps the measure of life should not be pleasure at all—anhedonia’s lack, or its linguistic opposite, hedonism, where enough is not enough. More than “fun,” yet another thing to have, perhaps we can instead substitute “contented,” something to be.  And I am. 

At least sometimes.  

Time: I wrote this a little over a year ago for my college literary journal and felt like revisiting and revising if for the blog.  I wrote one or two a year for the last eight years, and these short personal essays at the time usually also took a little over an hour.  They were, in retrospect, proto-blog entries.

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Are There Two Kinds of People in the World?

Who are we to call him Monster?

 

It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet.  Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.

I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” 

Lithwick elaborates:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets.  So do I.  And, I’ll add, so does everyone.  Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.

Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet.  Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.

I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie”  in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.”  It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.

As Havrilesky puts it,

Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.

Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.

The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.

“Sexy!”–New York Times

This is all meant to be fun and funny.  But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time.  There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.)  There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker.  There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living.  There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.    

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”

Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”  They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.

Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception.   Nietzsche knew better.  He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.  Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie.  But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires.  Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

So now I know better.  

Time: one hour.

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Warning: Contains Spoilers

 Spoiler: When someone reveals a previously unknown aspect of something which you likely would have rather learned on your own.

*discussions of art media such as video games, movies, etc. especially vulnerable.

It turns out that my wife (who blogs about food here) has not been reading Hourman. She is worried that I have given away the end of The Hunger Games, which has been collecting dust on her nightstand for two weeks.

Yet is it really possible to give away the end of The Hunger Games?  Once you read the back cover, or see a commercial for the movie, or have any idea what it’s about (hunger; also, games; possibly vice versa), and once you know that it’s part of a trilogy (see: inside cover) it seems impossible to give too much away, since it’s highly unlikely that Katniss can possibly be killed in the book.  What do you think this is [Spoiler alert!], Game of Thrones?

But thanks to the Internet, we live in a perpetual No Spoiler culture, where the worst thing a website, blog, critic, or writer can do is reveal an important plot detail or, God forbid, the ending.

The issue, for me, is twofold.

First, time does not exist online.  Not in the timesuck sense of murdering an hour on Facebook or, for me, looking longingly at lovely Les Pauls on Ebay, but rather in the contextless void of cyberspace, where all people, living or dead, and all music and video simultaneously coexist. Abba to Zappa, Beatles and Bach and Beck, are all just keywords, timeless—in the not necessarily classic sense. 

Music doesn’t have spoilers, though.  Yet with movies, there is no longer a statute of limitations for how long someone is supposed to wait before you’re Allowed to Talk about Fight Club, since it will always be brand new, eternally, online, to someone, somewhere.  In other words, online writing, in its perpetual present, is expected to maintain the rhetoric of old media newspaper movie reviews, which essentially summarize the premise, or roughly the first act of a movie, with a little subjective commentary about whether the reader should see the movie or not, preferably with 1-5 stars as an EZ guideline.

This is very different from critical writing, college writing, and academic writing, where the presumed audience is someone who has (likely) read the book or seen the film in question and is interested in analysis, not a recommendation—and who already knows the twists and details.  ‘Cause the thing is, I need to be able to discuss the work in its entirety to discuss it at all.  The difference between The Lion King and Hamlet is the difference between the wayward Prince reclaiming his betrothed and kingdom, vs. everybody dying horribly.  Possibly also: singing animals and fart jokes.

But this ethos contradicts the internet rule of No Spoilers, as seen here by one Amazon.com review, about—surprise!—a collection of critical essays on Fight Club:

 This review is from: You Do Not Talk About Fight Club: I Am Jack’s Completely Unauthorized Essay Collection (Smart Pop series) (Paperback)

I love Fight Club in both book and movie form and I love the fact that the story makes you think. So picking this book up seemed like a must for any Fight Club/Chuck Palahniuk fan.

I’m only two essays into it and my interest is already losing traction. The first essay was painfully overwritten considering the context of the book and the audience who will probably be reading it. If you don’t have your dictionary and a good understanding of philosophy both basic and advanced, you’ll probably struggle through it hoping the book gets better as I did (it does). Long, complex sentence structures, insane words and hybrid words I recognized but didn’t know the meaning of and philosophy references that I had never heard before all conspired to ruin this first essay for me rather quickly.

Another major complaint I have–again with the first essay since I’ve only read two so far–is that there is no spoiler alert at the start of the essay. Well let me just warn you now, the first contributing essay will ruin a good majority of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels if you haven’t already read them. The author goes off endlessly and in detail about his theories on Chuck’s other books, describing in detail certain aspects of the story and the book’s overall outcome. So annoying trying to skip over stuff that seemed spoiler in nature. I haven’t read Chuck’s other books yet and now I don’t need to; the surprise is ruined.

The “first essay” in question was written by me.  And I didn’t realize the possibility that what I was writing was “spoiler in nature.” I thought I was writing about books.

Leaving aside that this reviewer thinks it’s a problem to read an essay that uses words and philosophical references that he has “never heard of before” (JFGI, kid), I turn to the second issue: the No Spoiler fetish overemphasizes the importance of plot. 

OK, maybe in fairness to my Amazon detractor, with a Chuck Palahniuk or an M. Night Shyamalan or a Quentin Tarantino—people who traffic specifically in the twist ending—you don’t want to know that at the end of Fight Club oirjrnjnriwbecbwqhjbediuwrenrfnewroin. Or at the end of The Sixth Sense it turns out that Bruce Willis’s character wfnwenfrewijgtmhoiweb, or at the end of Unbreakable, Bruce Willis’s character learns that lkjsfrohjdeoifhqwiuewqnbe, or at the chronological end but narrative middle of Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis’s character oiewhfiunewicnbewfndekjwncen. These movies, like Bruce Willis, have been out for decades. 

At what point is it safe to declare a Spoiler moratorium? 

The thing is, there are many, many reasons to read or watch a story aside from the stuff that happens.  If anything, Palahniuk’s, Shymalan’s, and Tarantino’s best work transcend plot entirely and enter into the much more interesting realms of style, voice, and narrative structure, aspects of storytelling that, like sweet, sweet honey, naturally resist spoilage.  If all anyone wants is plot summary, go read Cliff’s Notes.  Or if that’s too long, the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes, Wikipedia.  If someone likes an author, even the most egregious spoilers shouldn’t actually ruin (the word used twice in the review) much of anything.      

I’m a fun guy, so, let’s play mold to film’s gentle bread and spoil some endings, shall we?

Harry Potter series: the good guys win

Lord of the Rings: good guys win

Star Wars: good guys win

Titanic: boat sinks

Now, maybe this is too glib. After all, I suppose it’s the particular details of the plot, not the overall trajectory or ending, that rankles the Spoiler-sports (Alternate names for people who want to stop spoilers: the Refrigerators? The Tupperwares? Or are these just terrible band names?).  For example, in Titanic, it’s not the boat, it’s that [Spoiler alert, despite that it’s the second highest grossing movie of all time] Jack dies; in Harry Potter [Spoiler alert, even though it’s the bestselling book series and third highest grossing movie of all time], the epilogue flashes forward to a future where Harry and Ginny are sending their bully magnet-named son Albus Severus to Hogwarts; in LoTR [Spoiler alert, even though—ah forget it], Frodo destroys the ring but is altered by the experience and can’t go back home; in The Empire Strikes Back [oh no he di’n’t], Luke is revealed to be Darth Vader’s son. 

Once Target shirts have spoilers, the secret's out

I’ll go one further: I don’t like surprises.  Let’s hear two cheers for spoilers.  Once you’re free from the filmic tyranny of What’s Going to Happen?!?, you can actually sit back and enjoy the show. 

As everyone knows, “spoil” can mean ruin.

But it also means “indulge.”

Time: 55 minutes  

 Jesse Kavadlo

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The Meaning of Like

More Buttons

One sure sign of adulthood is the urge to complain that the kids these days overuse the word “like.”  As in, “I was, like, working on my blog? And then I, like, got hungry? So, like, I, like, made, like, a, like, sandwich?”

[Stops clock, makes sandwich, eats, returns to blog]

But that’s not my problem.  The grownups who disrespect Like as an emptyheaded Valley Girl tic at best and the Decline of Western Civilization at worst tend to “Um” a lot themselves.  Same idea, and less endearing.  It helps the brain keep up with the mouth, which is not a generationally-specific problem. 

I even like “like” for “said.” As in:

“So then, she was like, I can’t believe it.  And I was like, Believe it.  And then she was like, No way.  And I was like, Fffyeah.” 

Here, “like” embodies the postmodern intersection where narrative collides with neurology.  Any attempt to recreate dialogue word for word becomes an artifice and fiction, limited by the teller’s cognitive constraints of language and memory.  “Like” provides healthy transparency; not “She said, ‘I can’t believe it,” but rather, “It was like—and I paraphrase, for I am only human and therefore limited by the margins of discourse and recall—she said, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

No.  It’s the Facebookization of Like—here, regarding something as enjoyable or pleasant—as an inadvertent philosophy of life, the way of viewing and assessing the world.  Online, Like turns from tepid tolerability—the way I think of the word—to the highest form of admiration.  In the absence of an actual comment—and many pages seem not to allow or encourage comments—Like is the only permissible form of praise at all.  It is not even a dichotomy—a twofold world of Like and Dislike.  There is no Dislike.  It’s not even Like or Ignore.  It is Like or nothing.   If you don’t have anything Like to say, you can’t say anything at all.  Some enterprising types can Like something and then click Unlike.  But Unlike [grumble not a real verb grumble] is no Dislike, and it reverts the former Like into ether, faint protest indeed. 

Unlike legions of Facebookers, though, I do prefer the absence of a Dislike button on Facebook.  That Manichean universe of Like and Dislike belongs to YouTube, whose green Likes and red Dislikes on any given clip represent a never-ending battle comparable to that of the Egyptian god Ra—symbolizing order—to prevent the dragon Apep—representing chaos—from devouring the sun every evening.     

Ra vs. Apep, for some reason

YouTube’s introduction of the serpent of Dislike into Facebook’s conflict-free Garden of Like has also had the effect of turning YouTube’s comment section into an Apep-like writhing snakepit of slurs, smears, and disparagement, not to mention aggressively ignorant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and lunatic conspiracies theories, as documented here and on this video, where the poster was pretty much doing the Youtube equivalent of saying Voldemort’s name in his title—invoking the name and thereby  summoning attention and wrath:

It’s not like I want Facebook to go down this road.  But rather, I worry that, imperceptibly, a generation is being trained to think that the highest—and maybe the only—form of acclaim is Like.  Even Dislike—or the New York Times’ new Meh List—is still part of the limited Like spectrum.  But is Like all there is?  Aren’t there many other worthwhile reactions beyond and separate from the question of Like?

  • Should everyone take a trip to the Holocaust Museum?  Yes.  Is it fun?  Do you Like it?  These are simply the wrong questions to ask. 
  • I read—and just taught a class on—novels representing or responding to September 11, 2001. Do I like them?  Um, I guess.  But I’m interested in, and fascinated by, recent fiction’s attempt to create a narrative around fresh trauma, and in doing so, deliberately and dangerously making the day into something literary, even poetic.  It’s not about Like. 
  • I just watched 127 Hours.  Did I Like it?  It depends on what you mean by Like.  Did I enjoy watching James Franco cut off his own arm?  Drink his pee?  Sweat and hallucinate? Not so much.  The early scenes are filled with anticipation, anxiety, and dread, since the viewer experiences the dramatic irony of seeing Aaron (Franco’s character) forget his knife and not answer his mother’s phone call.  And the money shot of losing the arm—plus the post-op ending—are excruciating.  But it was brilliantly done, it made me feel things that a movie has never made me feel, and I’m glad I saw it. Like doesn’t even enter into it.
  • Do I Like Tabasco sauce?  Grilled asparagus?  Like John Zorn’s dissonance? Like William Faulkner’s or Gertrude Stein’s frequent impenetrability?  Like exercise, even though I always feel as though I’d rather be doing anything else?  Like repeating the same riff on the guitar a thousand times until I get it right?  Like writing? Sort of.  I guess.  If that’s my only choice.  But I relish all those experiences.

For that matter, would I click a Like button on Eating or Sleeping, as Facebook has often, to me absurdly, recommended, despite that both have millions of Likes?  As Nietzsche did not write, what lies beyond Good and Evil and Like?  Where is my Ambivalent button, with a thumb simultaneously up and down?  (I would use it on Henry James.)  Is it better to be feared than Liked, or Liked than loved, or Liked than feared? 

I fear that no matter how good it feels to Like, or be Liked, Like as sole criterion makes the world a little smaller and lot safer.   One measure of adulthood, then, is not whether you’re annoyed when kids say “like,” but rather that you can accept, even embrace, those complex, dangerous pleasures outside the very latitude of Like itself. 

P.S. Don’t forget to Like this post.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting the time wasted reading horrible YouTube comments.

And: I lied. I didn’t make the sandwich until after I finished.

And also: My thirteen year-old son Jonah designed the image at the top of this post. I think it took him more than one hour.  Thanks, Jonah.

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