At this stage of human history we have collected a lot of junk. Some is accidental, a bit like opening an old drawer and finding a bookmark you were given with that thriller you can’t read any longer. The other kind of junk is the result of bad habits and shows that people ought to clean things up more frequently.
Still typing at a QWERTY keyboard is a bit demodé but most people still do it. At The Times (London) clinging to old ways has found new life. To increase productivity management introduced typewriter sounds over loudspeakers. Either Times’ journalists are Pavlovian animals or they are so old that the sound of a typewriter actually means something in order for them to react. Imagine the productivity boost if they piped in the sounds of a pub to a newsroom.
It’s all in the past anyway. Most of that won’t mean much as quite soon most of won’t even have to type we’ll just talk to it; a bit like we talk to customer service and search engines. This situation will be ideal as it means machines will do everything for us and that leaves all that time, futurologists promised us fifty years ago to do creative things, such as read Paradise Lost or the Mahābhārat in Sanskrit.
That promise may be just too optimistic. Recent behavioral data suggests we’re more likely to slouch on the couch and do a marathon box set and streaming TV event.
This curious ramble of connections began with a book on the history of collective nouns. Collective nouns are mysterious and fun. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back to the fifteenth century. Collective nouns are typically associated with groups of animals and birds. The reason for this lies in The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It’s the combination of unusual usage from an ancient past that gives collective nouns their allure. With the spread of supermarkets and chains stores hawking and hunting have tended to dwindle as common experience in everyday contemporary life. They have in my case and local government can be really petty about medieval hunting practices.
Language requires use to stay current. In the sixteenth century, The Book of St Albans was apparently reprinted many times, which kept the lists of various fauna in the public’s mind – the elite’s mind that is. A few hundred years later and many of the nouns are still in circulation today but let’s be honest, some of them are archaic; it’s been some time since I heard one used on a conference call.
The collective noun is therefore, in desperate need of modernizing. But if you search for updated collective nouns they all tend to the snide, smart and rude as if created by knowing, but not very alert, college students who use them as a way to accuse the world of all types of corruption.
I decided to work out some collective nouns that would be useful today.
•Microbes of software developers: not intended to be critical but to assign the biological affiliations that software plays in running everything.
•Rictus of real estate agents: just too many options with this group, but their smile is the perfect visual synecdoche.
•Gloat of hedge fund managers: they don’t as well as the index but that doesn’t stop them attracting the serious money.
•Capsule of domestic robots: every home will have their own wired angels dusting and polishing.
•Intrigue of hackers: this ought to be broken down into black and white hackers, and all the others in between, but this a top level domain use.
•Deficiency of species: because it’s getting to hard to count all the expired creatures.
The one collective I left untouched is for writers. Perhaps there ought to be an updated collective noun, though as people they tend to roam alone, but it hardly needs changing and it’s not as if writers get too much of it.
21st September 2014
Since the Renaissance, and more so after the Enlightenment, the west has been proud of its ability to innovate, to break free of the shackles of the past. The capacity to break with tradition implied a strong cultural impetus to innovate, and to experiment.
Since questioning and experiment, and consequently technical development, appeared to go together it looked like a virtuous circle and for over two hundred years we’ve exalted innovation and experiment above tradition – not all tradition, just the ones that seem stuffy and unnecessary.
As with all glib reasoning this is almost plausible. But then it was Louis C.K who got me thinking otherwise. Anyone familiar with the comedian’s work knows he has a particular style but the idea of experiment surfaced in his Louie TV shows. The shows have no formal narrative structure; there were no jokes, nor do sequences build into punchlines. Some of the shows ended abruptly, rather badly you might say, as if underwritten, but the stories overlapped, came and went, the characters’ individual stories made sense in fragments, not as sections, and over the course of a series it gelled.
The cross-cutting form is by today’s standards very experimental; it demands attention. Sometimes it’s not satisfying. The curious thing is that this style and format is unusual in prose, and it would be damned as experimental, but on TV, it has an audience. It may be that Louis C.K.’s viewers are all literary critics and post- structuralists, but I doubt that, as there can’t be enough of them to support the show.
The show succeeds because TV is easy to absorb and there are enough gags, even indirect ones, or through character, to make it work. The notion that it’s experimental is acceptable in a restricted set of possibilities, for instance, in a genre. And it doesn’t mean the audience of Louie have clear views on the nature of narrative comedy and story design. What it indicates is that some place for the experimental and the avant-garde is a relic. If those terms have any meaning it probably reflects on the user, their experience, and their understanding.
Look at ratings and book sales figures and it’s true that there are more viewers than readers. All that viewing experience – it’s about four hours per day per capita – so that’s several years’ worth of expertise gained has made us sophisticated at interpreting pictures. That is not to say that mainstream TV and film is experimental, it mostly isn’t at all, but every day we see more stories through edited pictures than through books and that could mean we have a wider tolerance for narratives in pictures.
At the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring, the one that descended into a riot, a spectator called out, Call a dentist! (In French, obviously). It raised a laugh and someone else in the restive theater called out, Call two dentists! Why dentists and why then? It was during the segment Cercles Mysterieux des Adolescents.
Not being a choreographer I can’t use the right terms, but during this part of the ballet there were a group of young girls, painted like dolls, moving in and out of an implied circle and making sudden movements and turning their heads up in acute angles. This distracted, almost distressed, behavior may have been a sign in Paris at the time of dental pain, hence the reason for the heckling.
Ridiculing something is the facile way to denigrate it. Cries of bizarre usually serve as that all purpose reprimand against impudence to the speaker’s sense of a torn social fabric. The audience for that premiere were rich but that does not bestow sophistication. Up to that point of the ballet they had been subjected to some savage rhythms – this at a time when the epithet ‘fauvist’ was an insult.
In a society of strict conventions the dancers’ action were probably considered lewd. Europeans have been able to perceive sex lurking in many things, even tomatoes once. The experimental part of the ballet turned their sense of social protocol upside down. The movements were not new, just proscribed in that society; but once the waltz was considered below what any moral woman would do. As for music, it has disturbing rhythms, and again, Europeans have always worried about the power of distinctive rhythms. For similar reasons Elvis Presley perturbed a wider public for his rhythmic moves, but Stravinsky was the original hound dog.
In retrospect the premiere is considered one of the great events in western culture because of the innovation. Yes but, we say now, because the experimental exists within a highly conventional set of rules. The dancing and the music were experimental to that audience due to the way they lived and their social mores.
Imagine someone whose diet consists of peanut butter sandwiches. One night they go out for a pizza and the remove all the topping and only eat the crust and sauce. The experimental element (to them) were the black olives and the basil leaves and the artichoke hearts on the pizza top.
In fiction what is now called experimental is very narrow and historically misses the antecedents. So-called experimental fiction may change perspective; it might emphasize one thing over another; it may have more piquancy than a peanut butter sandwich. It may not be successful in the sense of fulfilling conventional experience. It won’t be new, not really new.
When the modernists evolved their works they did so reacting against a body of work they found stultifying. Often they went back several hundred years to use some idea or a technique which they reintroduced. Within the times these innovations looked experimental. They weren’t, not really; it has been done before, or there is a parent for some style. More experience will remove the urge to call something experimental. But if a book seems too experimental, it’s probably time to see the dentist.
1st September 2014