Tag Archives: Like

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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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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