During my undergraduate days, I learned from one of my communication professors that the Coca-Cola company ran into an unexpected complication during their initial incursions into Chinese markets when the very name of the product caused mass confusion. Apparently, the syllables “ko-ka-ko-la” are nonsensical in Mandarin, where they can be taken to mean, roughly, “bite the wax tadpole.” (It was just a few years P.I. — Pre-Internet — when I first learned this factoid. Today, there’s a well-sourced Snopes article about it.) In the same vein, this professor passed along the info, which I’ve since seen verified elsewhere, that the Jolly Green Giant brand had trouble in Saudi Arabia because its name lost all of that endearing jolliness when translated into Arabic, and came out meaning something closer to “Intimidating Green Ogre.”
This was all brought to mind yesterday by a passage in an article at Pacific Standard that had me literally laughing out loud even as it I was relishing the delicious irony that’s evident in the fact that the world of corporate marketing and advertising, which long ago sold its soul to the demons of emotional propaganda, has found itself repeatedly stymied by the inherently idiomatic and connotative nature of the very language it seeks to exploit and manipulate for emotional-economic ends.
There’s also something intrinsically diverting about the news that the Pepsi company inadvertently aligned itself with Taiwanese shamanism:
For all of the research they put into expansion abroad, even with concessions to the local markets, not all American exports are guaranteed hits. Wendy’s closed all of its Japanese outposts in 2009, but returned two years later with a new local partner and a wasabi avocado burger. In 2011, Panda Express announced, all jokes aside, that it was expanding into China, but hasn’t said much about it since then. In his book Brand Failures, Matthew Haig gathered examples of bad luck ruining a corporation’s best-laid plans for global domination: how Vicks’ expansion was stymied because its name sounds like “fuck” in German; how Coors’ old slogan “turn it loose” fell flat in Spain because it translated as “you will suffer from diarrhea”; and how Pepsi promised more than its elixir could deliver when it burst into Taiwan with the slogan, “Come alive with the Pepsi generation,” which translated locally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”
Image by greefus groinks (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, edited for use here
At the conclusion of Technopoly, Neil Postman lays out his concept of the “loving resistance fighter,” someone who keeps an open heart and a strong hold on the symbols and narratives of liberty, honor, intelligence, etc., that made America (and, by extension, other modern democracies) great, while deliberately resisting the coarsening, dumbing, soul-killing influence of the modern-day totalitarian technocracy.
This essay by Joseph Smigelski, community college English instructor in Northern California, strikes me as falling right in line with Postman’s vision. It also resonates with Ray Bradbury and Morris Berman: it’s a clear, doable, and direct way of enacting the monastic option amid our Fahrenheit 451-like circumstance.
The other day, I received a letter from a friend who wrote, “Unfortunately, I find him almost impossible to understand…. Is there a secret to comprehending Shakespeare? I’d really like to read him, and any hints would be appreciated.” My friend is not a philistine but a well-read woman who struggled through the major plays in school and has seen various theatrical productions and film versions of them. She obviously respects and values the immortal words of William Shakespeare and would like to join ranks with the many who enjoy reading him. So I was distressed by her candid admission of having such difficulty with his language. I am sure that many of you will sympathize with her and agree in a knee-jerk fashion that, yes, Shakespeare is indeed impossible to understand. But I think the problem is not with William Shakespeare but with you. Before you take offense, let me explain.
The first thing you have to do when confronting Shakespeare is break down the wall of resistance that has been constructed between you and him by a cultural atmosphere fraught with willful misunderstanding. For instance, how many times have you heard someone say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English or Middle English? That right there might be enough to put you off. But both of those claims are patently false … Shakespeare wrote in Modern English, the same language that we speak today … Your problem with understanding Shakespeare is due to his language being poetic. Most of your everyday discourse has become so pedestrian that your ears have become unable to tune in to language that aspires to greater heights. This may or may not be your fault. We all are aware that the state of education in this country is woefully bleak. But why submit to the prevailing philistine attitude without a fight?
… Whatever else you do, be sure to avoid such abominations as the “No Fear Shakespeare” and the “Shakespeare Made Easy” series, both of which should be more aptly titled “The Reader Made Stupid” series.
… [R]emember the old saying: Nothing worth having comes easily. The enjoyment kicks in when you really start to get it, when you finally meet William Shakespeare on his own turf and his language begins to open new doors in your consciousness.
— Joseph Smigelski, “How to Enjoy Reading Shakespeare,” The Huffington Post, April 7, 2010
Two days ago, the August 31 edition of the PBS program Need to Know concluded with a brief video retrospective of American political convention speeches from the last century:
From William Jennings Bryan to FDR to Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama, anchor Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the convention speeches that propelled some politicians into the limelight, and some even to their party’s nomination.
At the end of the segment, host Greenfield offers a sobering observation about a striking change in the intellectual level of these speeches over the past several decades, as illustrated by something President Kennedy — then candidate Kennedy — said in his nomination acceptance address at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:
There’s one more fascinating note about such speeches that’s not exactly encouraging about how politicians once regarded their audiences — that is, us — and how they might regard us now. Listen to this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 speech where he’s tweaking Richard Nixon by comparing him to other Richards as an unworthy successor:
For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second, and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Now, can you imagine a Presidential nominee today trusting in his audience to understand these references to British history from the 12th and 17th centuries? I can almost hear his media advisers saying, “If you want to mention a Richard, try Little Richard.”
From Greenfield’s tone and wording, it’s unclear whether he’s laying the responsibility for this rhetorical dumbing down on America’s politicians, for failing to trust their audience’s intellect, education, and historical awareness, or on the audience themselves for being increasingly and authentically untrustworthy in these matters. What’s clear, though, is that something has indeed changed, and changed drastically, in the intellectual level of American political speech and general public discourse in the last 50 years, and that this has been accompanied, caused, produced, and/or exemplified by a generalized intellectual, social, economic, and cultural shift of seismic magnitude. This period of enormous advances in (to name just two areas) civil rights legislation and technological expertise has also seen a kind of cratering of the intellectual center and a society-wide stratification into two classes consisting of an increasingly isolated and rarefied educated elite on top and a burgeoning “great unwashed” underclass on the bottom.
What’s also clear is that the current season of political speechifying on the road to the November presidential election is taking place within this context, and that we should make a habit of paying attention to the rhetoric being used and the audience being targeted whenever candidates and their supporters speak, because they’re all aware of this ominous late-imperial evolutionary shift in the American polis, even as they themselves are caught in its grip, and are being used as mouthpieces for its furtherance.
Have you ever listened to the public words of a government official and wondered just what the hell it is that he or she is trying to say? Or rather, not to say? Have you ever suspected that government figures deliberately speak in opaque and confusing terms, the better to “say something” without really saying anything, so that they can give the appearance of communicating to the public while actually withholding and concealing anything of real substance?
Now you need wonder and suspect no more, because Alan Greenspan has laid it all on the line. In a recent interview with Businessweek, Greenspan explains the origin of “Fed-speak,” his famous (notorious) method of speaking like an ersatz Zen master issuing impenetrable but profound-sounding riddles. It’s not that he hasn’t talked about such things before, but that he explains it here, so baldly and concisely, in one of America’s most popular business publications, that makes the whole thing a needle-scratching “Say what?” of a moment.
Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.
That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.
When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.
Here’s a nicely nuanced and truly elegant little meditation on the meanings (note the plural) of Twitter in an age of universally blogified (in the bad sense) writing — with equal attention given to the latter phenomenon.
Few things could appear much worse, to the lurker, glimpser, or guesser, than this scrolling suicide note of Western civilization. Never more than 140 characters at a time? Looks like the human attention span crumbling like a Roman aqueduct. The endless favoriting and retweeting of other people’s tweets? Sounds like a digital circle jerk. Birds were born to make the repetitive, pleasant, meaningless sounds called twittering. Wasn’t the whole thing about us featherless bipeds that we could give connected intelligible sounds a cumulative sense?
…The Rise of the Tweet takes place amid an internet-induced cheapening of language, in both good and bad senses. The economic cheapness of digital publication democratizes expression and gives a necessary public to writers, and types of writing, that otherwise would be confined to the hard drive or the desk drawer. And yet the supreme ease of putting words online has opened up vast new space for carelessness, confusion, whateverism…[A]ll contemporary publications tend toward the condition of blogs, and soon, if not yet already, it will seem pretentious, elitist, and old-fashioned to write anything, anywhere, with patience and care.
…Enter — ambiguously — Twitter [which has fostered] the very last thing to have been expected from the internet: a renovation of the epigram or aphorism, a revaluation of the literary virtues of terseness and impersonality…So Twitter doesn’t only have the widely recognized usefulness of providing updates on news and revolution, and illuminating links, and many laughs and smirks. It has also brought about a surprising revival of the epigrammatic impulse in a literary culture that otherwise values the merely personal and the super-colloquial as badges of authenticity.
FULL STORY: “Please RT,“ n+1, June 14, 2012 (from Issue #14)
NPR reported it this morning, and I listened with rapt attention during my commute to work:
It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade…The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse. “We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years,” he says. In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it’s 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores. Flesch-Kinkaid equates higher grade levels with longer sentences and words with more syllables.
— Tamara Keith, “Sophomoric? Members of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows,” NPR, May 21, 2012
This is of course right in line with the general trend of America’s linguistic devolution and infantilization that has been underway for several decades now. A few years ago I published a post here about its specifically literary manifestation. If you’ll pardon me the indulgence of quoting myself (since there’s crossover interest with today’s NPR story):
Last night my wife and I watched the new National Geographic documentary “Quest for the Lost Maya” on PBS. At one point the narrator uttered this sentence:
Though badly decomposed from the acidic soil, Stephanie can still make out the remains of a human skull, and arm and leg bones.
The Maya created a great civilization that eventually crumbled. With badly decomposed archaeologists now examining their remains, I can’t help but wonder about our own fate.
(Note that the documentary is available for online viewing at “Quest for the Lost Maya.” Skip ahead to 27:40 if you want to hear the fateful sentence uttered aloud for yourself. Or watch the film in its entirety, which is well worth doing.)
Recently, I quoted a jewel of sardonic wisdom from Joseph Epstein on what it takes to become a writer. His words were from seven years ago.
In a review essay published just this month, he ups the ante for quotability:
After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned — and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”
— Joseph Epstein, “Heavy Sentences,” The New Criterion, June 2011
As they say: I needed that. I’m somebody who has also taught writing for a long time — although my tenure is only a single decade, as contrasted with Epstein’s three — and who was in fact obliged to devote a large portion of this very day to observing, addressing, and attempting to remedy various stylistic “issues” (an exceptionally kind euphemism) in student writing. And I was tempted several times, when called upon to give aid, to respond by asserting that whatever the problem was, it was the student’s own damn business. I know that’s not exactly in the spirit of what Epstein’s getting at, but there it is anyway.
I think what leads to the type of teacherly churlishness I just demonstrated — and I only demonstrated it here, I assure you, and not to my students, whom I have successfully conned into thinking that I greet them from an infinite reservoir of patience and good-will — is a reigning cultural assumption here in America that originally began at the high school level and has now metastasized to the realm of higher education, and that runs diametrically counter to the cosmically sound common sense expressed by Epstein in another portion of his essay:
Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. . . . First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned.
Ah, I certainly needed that, too. Thank you, Mr. Epstein, and all the gods and bodhisattvas as well, for this elegant and necessary amplication of the “you can lead a horse to water” principle. If I’m never forced to endure another professional development training seminar about student motivation, it will be too soon. For all of the things that really matter not only in the learning of writing, but in the learning of anything really important, there’s no such thing as motivating someone. There’s merely the fortuitous accident that occurs when you encounter the seed of a preexisting sensitivity, love, or passion, and find that it responds to the nourishment and cultivation you can offer.
But Americans on the whole seem to have forgotten this. We seem to think that anybody can be taught to write (or whatever), and that the failure or success of any such endeavor is entirely the responsibility of the teacher, or more broadly, “the system.”
Tomorrow I may demonstrate to my students the sound of one hand clapping.*
* It occurs to me that I might need to stress that this is not intended as a metaphor for slapping people, but as a zen thing.
Photo credit: Day 31 – One Hand Clapping by Menage a Moi used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)