“Mediated Crowd”: perceptions of youth in modern times

I recently wrote an essay about the situation which young people face in the modern world.

It’s been a year and a half since I left university, firmly shutting the essay genre into the past. But then I saw that Bodley Head/The Financial Times were running an essay prize for “dynamic, authoritative and lively” non-fiction works, so I decided to submit.

You can download the final non-winning essay here: Mediated Crowd; perceptions of youth in modern times – by Jonny Aldridge

My premiss is that young people are a “mediated crowd”: all of our media (TV, radio, newspapers, social networks) are run by adults, and as such we can only receive inaccurately representations of youth. I look at

  • One Direction – and how other young music artists are mouthpieces for adult nostalgia
  • Foyles’ Young Poets of the Year – which is inexplicably judged by adults
  • The 2011 London Riots – which I think was the biggest cultural moment for youth in the past 5 years
  • BBC crime dramas – which since the London Riots have focussed on younger and younger offenders

If you needed more convincing, here’s a little taster!

If there were to be only one attribute to young people—fat or tall, pimpled or pudding-cheeked—it would be how unknowable they are to adults. Adults find it easier to understand the mind of the murderous psychopath, the experience of a dog who twitches while she sleeps, or easier even to empathise with a thirsty plant whose soil is parched for water, than they do to remember the needs and judgements of their own youth.

I’d love to know what you think?

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My seventeenth blog post today

In an article on The Times’ website today, the first paragraph reads:

George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time today as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

Sadly, even if this is grammatically correct, it is wildly misleading. I am not a bad reader, but on reading this sentence I spent a couple of minutes wondering why Mr. Osborne would make five announcements pertaining to the same thing on one day. The problem is that the journalist hasn’t made clear which temporal marker agrees with which subject:

George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time today as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

The two temporal markers of “today” and “for the fifth time” shouldn’t be placed next to each other, if confusion is to be avoided. It makes me feel like George looks (I mean, murderous, not like a mouldy potato).

Osborne+axe

Perhaps it would have been better for this journalist to separate them . . . :

Today George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time  as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

. . . And then to clarify the subject to which “for the fifth time” agrees:

Today George Osborne will announce he is to raise taxes on banks for the fifth time in his chancellorship as he sets out the need for deeper and longer-lasting spending cuts in a bleak mini-budget.

There we go. Now I can read the rest of the article, boring myself slowly to an early grave.


ANALYSE the BBC documentary Walking with Dogs

What was most impressive about Vanessa Engle’s Wonderland: Walking with Dogs (on BBC Two last night, and still available on iplayer) was the way in which it conveyed a message through demonstration as opposed to description.

The documentary about dog-walkers on Hampstead Heath could have easily descended into cutesy stories about puppies and bum-sniffing. Worse, it could have been clumsily steered by the heavy-hand of a producer and director who – through egotism or insecurity – felt compelled to provide voice-over descriptions of “what I realised”, “what dogs mean to us”, or “what I’ve learnt from these people”.

Instead, the show gathered meaning through simple interviews of dog-owners, and the occasional montage-with-music which is obligatory in every TV show. The result was a stark juxtaposition of voices, each with its own preoccupations and situation.

It was, as James Walton says in his review for The Telegraph:

“the TV equivalent of a powerful collection of short stories – most of them melancholy, and all of them linked by firm (and to us canine sceptics, rather shaming) proof of how much emotional support dogs can provide. Like the best short stories, the ones here didn’t divulge all their secrets – but somehow suggested whole worlds lying below their surface. Of course, one reason for this restraint is Wonderland’s commitment to old-school documentary-making.”

This is a clever way of story-telling. It is a sort of collage of subjectivity. En masse, however, these single voices take on a collective wisdom, forming a consensus through no intention of their own. In documentary terms, this also validates the producer; every argument made is made by an outside source, whose opinion is their own.

Most of all, it demonstrates what the best TV producers, novelists, artists and musicians know already: an audience is very capable of analysing events and arguments itself.

The benefits of letting an audience make up its own mind are momentous. This is most obvious when you read other reviews of Walking with Dogs and see quite how convergent they are.

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian, writes:

“These dogs don’t just run about and fetch sticks for their owners. They are the sticks, the crutches, that these people need to get along. They are also guard dogs; they protect their owners not so much from other people but from themselves; they fend off demons. They are substitutes too – for people who used to exist, or will never exist, or exist in a different way from how they used to exist.”

Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent, writes:

“The theme that slowly emerged was of the dog as unwitting social worker, a four-legged crutch that had helped an extraordinary range of people get through difficult times in their lives.”

Somehow, without telling her readers what to think, Ms Engle has led them to the same conclusions. There is no need for more evidence showing that human cognitions are entirely predictable.


ANALYSE: How a newspaper comment article persuades its reader

INTRODUCTION

John Kay’s article in the Financial Times (“It is time to end the oligopoly in banking”, 9th May 2012) is a masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, read it now. It’s about how the Co-operative shouldn’t be prevented from entering the banking sector just because it doesn’t have the “capital and governance structure” of contemporary banks. It also attempts to naturalise the banking sector into just another type of exchange, like at “grocery checkouts”.

The reason this article is so persuasive is because its politics and its poetics are complementary. We Prac-Critters are used to this  in our literature (e.g. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads has a poetic structure – stanza, rhyme, metre – which complements and is complemented by its political attention to “the real language of men”). But we are not used to it in our newspapers. Justifiably: the poetics of most articles we read are restricted by editorial standards.

But I hope to prove that John Kay’s article persuades the reader of his free-market politics through a deliberate naturalising – that is, demystifying – of the banking sector. I will prove this first through analysing how the narrative structure (poetics) of the article favours a ‘natural’ storytelling style. Then I will look at how the free-market, anti-intervention, anti-regulation politics of the article interact with this poetic structure.*

NATURALISING POETICS

John Kay’s article differs from most newspaper articles you will read because its narrative structure is more akin to traditional storytelling (it is climactic) than journalistic explanation (which decrescendos from its beginning). It has a prologue, a first chapter, a climax at two-thirds/three-quarters through, and an epilogue. Instead, journalism imparts its most important information at the start and, as a generalisation, gets less and less important. This diagram explains.

Now see for yourself. His first column (pictured below) reads like a prologue to a Victorian novel:

The Co-op is a British institution like no other. It originated in the 19th century, its goals political as well as economic. Its members aimed to undermine capitalism, particularly rapacious shopkeepers, by direct collective action. Co-op shares won a significant share of retail trade, especially in food and in the north of England and in Scotland. In the 20th century, however, the stores were often badly run . . .

In providing a short interesting history of his protagonist, the Co-op, Kay is working poetically to enforce his naturalisation of the banking sector. This type of narrative is a ‘natural’ one for the reader to process because it is devoid of jargonistic language and low on explicit argument – like a novel. It contains a protagonist, a plot featuring success and failure, characterisation of “rapacious shopkeepers”.

Simplistically: Kay convinces the reader that banking is a simple process of exchange by describing it so simply. Imagine how dreary a straight essay on the need to evaluate banking oligopoly could have been. Any weaker journalist would have begun:

There is an argument that banking is different to other sectors. This argument won historic acceptance, with the result that banking has become over-regulated.

Do you see the marked difference between those two beginnings? It’s not an issue of differing arguments (in fact, the latter quotation is actually taken from Kay’s article, appearing about three-quarters of the way through). It’s an issue of narrative placement: when the writer chooses to reveal his argument explicitly, if at all.

After the prologue, the second column begins Chapter One: ” The Co-op also found a niche in financial services. Once again, the motives were partly political.” Now the plot is in action. We have a scene, as it were, set deep in financial district. The Co-op has become the star of an ‘underdog narrative’: it is “near the top of surveys of customer satisfaction” but regulators are preventing it from challenging the establishment because it is run by “a group of amateurs”.

Pertinently (see the diagram again) Kay’s narrative only reaches its crux in the fourth column of five, by which point the reader is wholly ready to accept his explicit argument. How much more convincing is this than an all-out baring of his wares, followed by a limp decrescendo! I will come to the epilogue later . . .

NATURALISING POLITICS

The banking sector is not a mysterious financial land where money-deals are executed by well-paid genii. That is the lay-version of Kay’s article. In the Prac-Critter’s terms, he is attempting to naturalise banks to argue that they shouldn’t be exempt from the free-market model (i.e. unregulated). You can see where he makes this point explicitly in my notations below (starred zealously). He says:

There is an argument that banking is different. It won historic acceptance [and] perhaps that was a good bargain, but it is a bargain that is no longer available.
 
This is good-point-well-made territory, and I won’t tread further. Crucially, Kay builds up to this argument at a micro level throughout his article via a subtle advocacy of anti-intervention, anti-regulation, and anti-technocracy. Here is the best example:
The central issue seems to be that if the Co-op wants to be a bank, it must become a bank. It needs to put in place a capital structure and governance structure, impose a clear separation between the banking tills and the grocery checkouts, and recruit board members and staff with extensive banking experience.

Here Kay’s politics and poetics interact beautifully. His politics implies that because the Co-op is functioning well in its current state, it would be detrimental to artificially “put in place” or “impose” a “structure” onto it. His poetics agree: this is the first time in the article that he has used tricolon (or rule-of-three), a technique inseparable from persuasive rhetoric and fairly distant from narrative storytelling. This may strike a discord with the reader who has so far been treated to Kay’s Co-op story; all of a sudden we are in an essay. Banking regulations have disrupted the story, suspended the plot, and this discredits them via our aesthetic sensibilities. That the tricolon is punctuated by those three business-like verbs “put in place”, “impose”, and “recruit” serves to heighten its artificiality.

There isn’t a sentence in this short article which doesn’t flout this tension between natural and artificial, between politics and poetics.

CONCLUSION

We should conclude with the final sentence of Kay’s article. His epilogue is the keystone of the text, and I am very glad that he took the brave decision to place it as the end, not the beginning (for reasons depicted in the above diagram). It reads:

Plurality and diversity are generally sources of stability – in banking as in nature.

The Prac-Critter should notice immediately the lilting cadence of the three rhyming words (“-ity”). The vastly different concepts of plurality, diversity, and stability are bound together through their poetic resemblance. Similarly the repeated construction “in ____” links the nouns “banking” and “nature” better than a more verbose explanation could.

This sentence may remind us of Andrew Marvell’s line “Things greater are in less contain’d”, which demonstrates its point simultaneous to describing it.

Kay’s sign-off finally reveals his article for what it has been all along: a bold call for the re-evaluation of banking as a natural and free-market point of exchange. In fact, do you remember, this is exactly what his title said from outset? Ah but it is only the Prac-Critter who will read the article to the end and, in doing so, become privy to the powerful and subtle techniques employed throughout.

Bravo, John.

*I have a wider ambition: to explain that we Prac-Critters should view every situation that man has touched with rigorous attention to how and why it achieves what it achieves.


ANALYSE: The dialect found in the Corporate Village

THE PREMISS

As Laura Hale Brockway so neatly notes in her article about 20 phrases you can replace with one word, the Corporate Village has a dialect unlike any other.

The Prac-Critter’s unrelenting curiosity for jargon will bring us to relish studying such “circumlocutory writing” as the substitution of “no later than” for “by” or “at this point in time” for “now”. I have a bank of anecdotal evidence for this from the communications agency I work at, through such phrases as “experiential online architecture” to mean “website” and “consumer-driven content” to mean “home-videos”. I’m sure such examples exist across every office in London and beyond.

These oratory techniques employed in the Corporate Village are now so hackneyed that they have been codified in public distrust and dislike of the faux-happiness corporations exude. But what is the mentality behind the dialect that Laura’s article and John Atkinson’s picture (right) poke fun at?

The mentality arises because the Corporate Village is a young place by the standards of its civilisation. It is younger than the Legal Towns, the Mining Towns, the Financial Cities. And as such the Corporate Villagers are all the more eager to earn the respect of their countrymen.

LEGALESE

Would you agree that phrases like “no later than” (“by”) and “provides guidance for” (“guides”) have the ring of poorly-executed legalese about them? Yet the Corporate Villager would much rather use them because he requires allegiance to an established institution for respect. It is, so the thinking goes, through turning an email to the client into a semi-legal contract which commands attention.

Toby Young makes similar insinuations in an article in The Spectator about “school-specific jargon” which makes it “virtually taboo for teachers to make any attempt to transmit their values to the children in their care”. As hinted at above, Corporate Dialect seems to be that which denaturalises our instinctual understanding of situations, so that naughty children have to be “challenging” rather than “bad”, and their behaviour “contained”. Euphemisms pervade the offices of London similarly.

MANUAL LABOUR

It is not only the legal sector to which the Corporate Village aspires: there is the work of the miner, miller, and factory-worker too. In this village passing visitors are often greeting by such phrases as:

“Are you able to pick this up?” which is translated as “Can you do this?”

“Can you craft this?” meaning “Can you do this?” 

“Are you confident we can carry this the whole way?” which means “Can we do this for a long time?”

As the italicised words here show, the Corporate Village has not forgotten its pre-industrialised ancestry in the mines, the warehouses, and the factories of Britain. But why would a knowledge-based economy which trades through emails, digital documents, and telephone calls want to ally itself with the hard physical graft of manual labour? There aren’t building-site workers appropriating “email me that hard-hat” into their idiom.

Any embarrassment that the outsider to the young Corporate Village feels comes from its desperation for validity in a world of larger, more established towns. Put simply (as is the online reader’s wont) our commuter-town-filling, consumer-savvy, digitally-engaged, marketing and communications offices are young pretenders against the command of Canary Wharf, the legal district, and the factory towns around the UK.

CONCLUSION

The appropriation of legalese and manual labour dialect shown above in fact only serves to emphasise the middling vacuity of the Corporate Villagers’ self-perception: that is, of their work as neither rigorously cerebral nor physically menial. This is not to say that the work done by the Corporate Villager is useless; it is the greatest asset to the UK economy that we can make billions of pounds on administrative work. But as the Corporate Villagers go about their documents, spreadsheets, and conference calls, it is clear that they have not yet found their true voice.


POSTSCRIPT – THE PRAC CRIT

Why is “circumlocutory writing”, as Ms Hale Brockway calls it, used at all? I hope to prove that it is used in order to flatter the listener, speaker, and subject simultaneously. This is its appeal to the Corporate Village, whose inhabitants can soothe the ego of themselves, their client, and their target audience all at once.

Take John Atkinson’s suggestion in the picture above of “horizontal tranquillity terminal” to mean “bed”. On interrogation, the Prac-Critter will see that this is not a straight swap. He or she is painfully aware that form is content and content is form: that is, the rephrasing of the word “bed” as “horizontal tranquillity terminal” grants the object entirely different connotations.

These differences are what separates Corporate Dialect from normal speech. They are three-fold:

1/ The relocation of the subject,

2/ The investment in and inspiring of emotion, and

3/ The use of future-gazing terminology.

Or more succinctly, we can say that Corporate Villagers particularly will talk to you, about something meaningful, and utopian.

For example, in our chosen phrase:

The use of the word “horizontal” relocates the subject of the word “bed” from the object-slept-upon to the sleeper. It is the person who grants the bed its horizontal status, whereas the object itself is variously dimensioned.

“Tranquillity” introduces an emotional and spiritual status to the phrase, explicitly referencing the type of sleep conducted in the bed. That is, restful not fitful.

Finally the noun “terminal” which here occupies the same semantic position as the word “bed”. This might suggest to the reader that the bed is the “terminal” point between busy days at work. It certainly appeals most to a well-scheduled audience whose perception of “bedtime” is determined by the clock and not their bodily demands. It might also remind one of the “terminals” found in airports. With these vast, minimalist spaces, characterised by smooth metallic and glass surfaces, one cannot help but remember the sheen of the Corporate Village.

These are the mechanisms by which the Corporate Village goes about its day-to-day life.

To finish with an example. These techniques were brought to public consciousness most through David Cameron’s campaign for the “Big Society” during the 2010 general election. The phrase “Big Society” functioned through using exactly the three techniques outlined above. 

1/ It relocated the subject of politics from parliament to public, intending to engage every single person of voting age or otherwise. Compare this to other campaign slogans such as “For a Better Future”.

2/ It encouraged emotional investment from the recipient in the loaded notion of “society” at a time when confidence in local communities was at an all-time low.

3/ It looked to a utopian future of a “Big Society”, perhaps owing its allegiance to the likes of George Orwell’s “Big Brother”.


ANALYSE: A journalist’s handling of the gay marriage debate

Practical Criticism #2: This irreconcilable debate about the government granting homosexual marriages comes down to definition: what does the word marriage, not the act, mean?

Seeing as policy and practice play such a small part in the discussion, it can only be the job of the Prac-Critter to wade through the shitty swamps of rhetoric and find the golden nugget. The newspapers, MPs, the Church, vie for a voice. So how has Christina Odone, commentator on the issue for The Daily Telegraph, fared in this posturing farce of a word-flinging match?

Depending on how you read it, her article on Wednesday 8th March 2012 (‘Marriage is a blessing, not a fortress that must be stormed’) is full of gusto/guff. Her top-line is unequivocal: “The demand for gay equality threatens to undermine our most valuable institution”. Her two persuasive techniques are rudimentary:

1/ Easy generalisations. Easy to write, easy on the mind, all too easy to skim over and accept in a hurry.

2/ Clerical lexicon. Which shows us just how sacred religion must be, for us to have adopted it into idiom.

First, generalisations. Ms Odone is a bit of a sucker for these, writing in her second paragraph on the fact that “marriage matters”:

“After decades of rejecting the institution as old-fashioned and patriarchal, women and men are both waking up to the fact that it makes overwhelming sense.”

Excuse my ignorance, but which were the decades when all women and men “rejected” marrriage as “old-fashioned and patriarchal”? The ’80s and ’90s? The ’00s? Since 1945 when we all thought: ‘What’s the point in marriage if we’re all going to die at war anyway’? Sorry if I missed it, but I don’t recall the Great Marriage Rejection of 1972. I wonder if that makes chick-flicks the last bastion of religious conservatism? Hold strong, ladies, Patrick Dempsey is waiting down the aisle for you.

Sadly the writer’s flair for flippancy does makes her argument on marriage confused. Remember, this is a debate about the word ‘marriage’, not the act. And Ms Odone has got a little muddled as to what ‘marriage’ actually signifies: It is simultaneously “blessed”, “our most valuable institution” and yet “anything but natural”. It is responsible for “cementing the bonds”, “laying the foundations”, but it also “reins in our instincts”, “institutionalises our love” and inexplicably “thwarts the masculine impulse towards promiscuity and feminine self-interest”.

What a dynamic institution marriage is! If it were a person, it would definitely be a small, fat, tall, short, personable, hermit-like, sharply-dressed tramp of a person.

But her empty rhetorical suggestion that marriage is both “divine and artificial” is very illuminating. Because marriage has become either a religious or a civil act, its definition has been stretched across two essentially very different ceremonies, one “divine”, one “artificial”. Ms Odone’s understandable confusion comes from not noticing that while getting married is one or the other (in a church or a registry office) the word ‘marriage’ means both (putting a ring on your finger, wherever you are).

In this case it’s quite easy to answer one of her more speculative questions. She says rightly that the government’s plans to legalise gay marriage “will not affect religious institutions, only civil ones”, and then goes:

“But given that the gay marriage lobby seeks equality in this area, how long would it accept the ban on gays marrying in church or synagogue? It is bound to argue that exclusion from a religious ceremony amounts to discrimination, and will almost certainly campaign to force priests and vicars to celebrate gay marriages . . .”

Hang on! “Almost certainly”? Why isn’t Ms Odone using her prophetic powers to invest in next Sunday’s winner of the 15:43 at Chepstow?

It is an utterly misguided argument to suggest that gays would want to “celebrate” their love with an institution that thinks they are eternally damned. That would be like black people wanting to play golf, like a woman wanting to present Top Gear.

It all comes down to the writer’s inflated esteem for the church, something made clear by:

Second, her frequent use of clerical lexicon: that freedom of belief will “be sacrificed at the altar”, that marriage is a “blessing”, that the gay marriage lobby is the devil’s “advocate”.

Starting down the lexicon path is not a good one for her; it takes us to the houses of debt we owe the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Norse, but not the Catholics or Anglicans. You don’t see us rhetoricising with them like some selective sneak, do you?

I know James Joyce subtly deployed a military lexicon in ‘The Dead’, but if he jumped in front of a car would you do to too, Ms Odone?