Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Angel Words & Demon Words & Those that Make Us Smart

As a long-time poet, I am a firm believer in the “angelology” of words and that poems originate in the psyche and my conscious self does little more than provide a final shape.  This is a Romantic notion, of course, harking back to the Italian Renaissance, and in our current world of SEO and rich metadata, this idea seems decidedly quaint.

When I was a graduate student. a professor suggested I read Hemingway night and day, both for style and content.  Since he was a Hemingway scholar, I knew this recommendation was in part rhetorical and even theatrical.  After all, hadn’t he occasionally come to class dressed as his favorite author, one time rifle in hand?  Neither was loaded.  But I took his advice and read Hemingway.  When all the chest-thumping about his unadorned prose is done, Hemingway has much to teach us about the language of abstraction. He couldn’t stand words like honor, glory, courage and heroism, preferring the concrete names of northern Italian towns and villages.  He stood with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who, in a conversation of Prince Hal, the budding Puer about honor, replied, “Honor is he who died on Wednesday.”  Perhaps even more damning in Shakespeare’s grim wit, honor had no skill in surgery and couldn’t take away the grief of a wound.

It will take more than a university professor, even with rifle in hand, to preside over any orthodoxy in word choice and language style.  The cat is indeed out of the bag and trending on YouTube.  Still, words matter and can kill or least annoy, as every recipient of wayward smartphone conversations will attest. One doesn’t have to spend much time on the Web looking at some version of worst word sites to realize that there is still much language out there that still can’t take away the grief of a wound but that can provide a form of water torture, with an affected Valley Girl Lilt, as nagging as splinters under a nail.

I’m not talking about George Carlin’s seven dirty words or sites like Cracked.com, that explores the relationship between language, emotion, meaning, sound and feeling in the mouth as criteria to measure against the comfort level of the Decider.  Here, moist, slurp, bulbous and yolk are not likely to make the cut.  But these words are unlikely to interrupt my reverie to the degree the more innocuous do:  whatever, absolutely, awesome, basically, anyways, amazing, bling and dude et al, delivered at volume on speaker with bi-coastal sincerity and theatrical hand-wringing.  After all and after a certain age, we all want to become grammarians, a guardian of syntax, residing in that Senex consciousness where rules are made and enforced.

I’ve been working with nextPub, the publishing industry’s tech incubator, as it prepares to launch and market in June, 2012, the PRISM Source Vocabulary (PSV) Specification, which defines robust metadata taxonomies and controlled vocabularies that can be used to configure federated source content/rich media repositories. In this spirit, I’ve been trying to learn more about how content can be defined and structured so that it can be most useful across various channels and platforms.  This is poetry of another kind, hard-edged and smelling of nouns, more like the Imagists than the Romantics.
I read an article by a group at Trinity College, Dublin, that addresses the importance of targeted content “slices” for changing consumer demands and needs.  One obstacle to this is a reliance “upon bespoke, proprietary content” that lacks description and metadata.  I finished the article but all I could think about was the use of “bespoke” in this context.  Call me old fashioned, but I immediately thought of Shakespeare and Coleridge and the archaic use of “bespeak,” meaning to speak about, to complain, to order, to foretell and the like.  Just how did one of my favorite words or a version end up in an Irish Content Management System?

Putting on my grammarian’s hat, I acknowledge that “bespoke” is a version of “bespeak” and means custom-made, usually in reference to apparel.  For centuries, it has been very British and very upper crust. You ordered a suit or pair of shoes ahead of time and they were spoken or bespoken for, like a hand in marriage.

My thanks to the WSJ for recently publishing a front page article on why “bespoke,” that once had a narrow, somewhat snooty definition, has entered the vernacular and is as likely as not to show up on the next SAT.   The Journal notes that there are two dozen “bespoke” businesses in New York City alone, from bookstores to barber shops.  In the mergers and acquisition world there are “bespoke deals.” Hungry?  Look for Bespoke Crackers.  Live in San Francisco and want a custom bike? Go to Bespoke Cycles.

I served as editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine for a decade and never found the phrase “custom bike” wanting.  The phrase immediately conjures up scenes of northern Italy, from Milano to Venice, populated by Colnago, Columbus, Cinelli, Campagnola and others who know something about hand-made bicycle frames and parts.  Bespoke bicycles sounds just too English and pedestrian and seems much closer to “bangers and mash” than a Mediterranean dish.  And, yes, this too is part of my Italian fantasy made necessary and inevitable by my British birth.

The Journal concludes with the observation that “bespoke” is becoming downright ordinary. A word that for centuries has been the province and differentiator for generations of Saville Row tailors has become the leading adjective to describe literally hundreds of business categories, feeding the insatiable hunger for key word dominance, market edge and business advantage.

As my British friends would say, before the word made the sorry list: Brilliant!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sigmund Dream App, the Ego Trip and the Elusive Soul

The phrase “There’s an app for that” might be seen as a cultural assertion that everything can be measured, rendered and expressed in code.  This is a little more muscular and perhaps insidious than my mother saying there is nothing new under the sun.  Today, the tech sun shines deep inside our souls.

The application, keeping with its binary root, seems best suited to delivering information or providing step-by-step instructions with a big dose of social.  It was only a matter of time before this business would push its way into our interior lives.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the 99-cent Sigmund dream app is available to help people program their dreams, using a list of 1,000 pre-selected key words.  A female voice reads the word or words, up to five, while you are in REM sleep.

John D. Sutter, writing at CNN.com, states that “if you take a look at the list of words offered by the Sigmund app, it’s pretty easy to imagine some dreams that would be totally creepy, if not downright terrifying.  A dream, for example, that includes ‘mountain,’ ‘meadow,’ and ‘rain’ might be soothing, but throw in ‘tiger’ and ‘anaconda’ and, depending on your sub-psyche, things could turn south.  I tried the app last night and didn’t sleep well at all because I was so worried that the ‘panda’ I selected would attack me instead of being cute.”

The sound you are hearing is Sigmund Freud turning over in his grave—again.  This movement is no cause for alarm.  Every time he hears someone say a snake is a penis and a cave represents a vagina, he takes another turn for the worst.  This has been going on for fifty years, about the time it has taken the practitioners of depth psychology to codify dream imagery into a neat book of symbols handed out like candy by a therapist to a willing patient who is somehow assured that the narrative of her inner life has already been written by wiser souls. And now there is an app for that. 

The CNN quote seems quite representative and is consistent with our belief in cultural nominalism: we want to name our poisons.  With an able assist from technology, we expect to be authors of our fictions and writers of our dreams. The interest in becoming masters of our fate and captains of our soul did not begin with nineteen century American Exceptionalism.  The ego has a long and glorious past.  So have dreams, held by our distant ancestors to represent messages from the gods and by some present-day neurologists to represent neural dumping.

Long before SEO and our key word consciousness, we have been naming and classifying things, including psychic complaints.  In Revisioning Psychology, James Hillman writes that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was high psychiatric vogue to isolate specific disorders by inventing new names. The list is familiar:  alcoholism, autism, catatonia, claustrophobia, exhibitionism, homosexuality, masochism, schizophrenia, and psychopathology.  A famous dispute between French and German doctors regarding hysteria lasted into the 20th century.  Germans insisted that hysteria could only apply to women because the word meant uterus and if French psychiatrists found hysteria in men, this told us more about Frenchmen than about hysteria.

I’m not certain what Hillman would say about the Sigmund app.  He would say that the psyche or soul is not under our control.  It is “autonomous.”  He is emphatic that we should not take our dream images literally. In the earlier quote, John Sutter is concerned about the panda turning ugly and perhaps tearing off his face.  This is understandable, but nonetheless reductionism.  If we find our dreams populated with weird mythological figures, better we accept them as fictions and perspectives.  It is no more surprising that mythological figures would invade our dreams than they do the big screen and popular culture.  After all, this is our cultural and psychic history, however much repressed.  Why do Thor, Hercules, Eros, Venus and the rest of the zodiac still resonate with us in the 21st century, if only as cinematic parodies of themselves or throwaway additions to a Happy Meal?

That the panda might go postal in my dream is of course a concern.  We all want to be rocked to sleep with the sound of a babbling brook.  But depth psychology reminds us that dreams are also about pathology, what we hide and what we fear.  Among those things we fear, as individuals and as a nation, is death.

And, if there’s an app for that, I haven’t seen it.