“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?


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.


REVIEW Roth’s American Pastoral – “an astonishing farce of misperception”

A Classically-minded friend of mine said that ancient Greek and Roman writers gave “instructions” on how to read their works.

I’m not entirely sure what texts she was thinking of, but the other day I noticed a passage in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral which fits the bill. Read it below . . . It is a standout paragraph on page 35. I mean standout because:

  1. it is a damn insightful bit of writing;
  2. and it sits so incongruously (having no mention of character, setting, or plot) that it begs to be used as an “instruction” or guide to the rest of the text.

It seems to me that the rest of the novel is impossible to comprehend without this paragraph. This is a 400-page novel about two people who will never “get each other right”: the all-American, football-playing, glove-factory-owning Swede Levov and his fanatical anti-Vietnam, let’s-put-a-bomb-in-the-local-post-office daughter Merry.

The incessant misunderstandings between these and other characters would be unbearable if it weren’t for this passage. It allows us to use these repeated misunderstandings as part of a narrative ideology, providing a sort of a philosophy on life which holds up against every piece of scrutiny that the characters, their actions, and their perceptions can give it.

This is the key to the novel. Roth explicitly states that the whole business of knowing people is “an astonishing farce of misperception”. What greater clue is there that the following novel should be read as a failed piece of perception!

It is misperception piled on top of misperception: you have a reader trying to comprehend Roth, who is writing as his alter-ego Zuckermann, who is trying to write the life of the “legendary” Swede Levov, who is trying to understand why his daughter Merry detests America, who is trying to understand why her parents don’t understand their complicity in the damage that America has inflicted on Vietnam.

No wonder Roth shows such a resigned attitude to “this terribly significant business of other people”. There is no hope in avoiding being wrong about them.

And, I think, as most readers will skim past this page without thinking about its significance, Roth is likely making a point about his novel being misread. This is the key to the novel, but it is a key which reveals only the inability of its contents to do anything adequately, most of all perceive and explain.


Consider “omnishambles”, OUP’s word of the year

This year the Oxford University Press has named “omnishambles” as the “word that best reflects the mood of the year”. The OUP’s lexicographer Susie Dent said the word was chosen for its popularity as well as its “linguistic productivity”.

Like The Guardian‘s Alison Flood, I rather like the idea of a word of the year.

I like it because people too often forget the key lesson they learnt in English at school, that words are not only conduits of information, but also objects in their own right. This forgetfulness is the reason that we tend to read blog posts not poetry, news articles not essays.

We have become habituated to words as clear vessels for our inner thoughts, imagining that we can use a word effectively without considering its definitions, etymology, and various functions.

Already one can see people relishing attention on our means of communication. Don’t the phrases “linguistic productivity” and “aesthetic enthusiasm” have a pleasure of their own? And perhaps the more we nurture imaginative new forms of expression, the greater their relative growth will be.

This is lazy. And it’s also unenjoyable. It means we don’t attend in our daily life to what George Orwell calls “aesthetic enthusiasm”, or “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”.

So while everyone has a little giggle at the crowning of a word of the year, and others join in with linguistic abnormalities (a comment on The Guardian’s article reads “As for omnishambles, it rolls off the tongue nicely but we already have a wonderful word that covers it: clusterfuck”) I think something more serious is happening: people are talking about words again.


Consider “the real truth”

The Frustrated Grammar Pedant award was granted to my office neighbour this week. There was fire in his eyes and blood in his cheeks when a client emailed him the phrase:

“I think this reveals a real truth . . .”

Pursing his lips as if to restrain an outpouring of spiteful bile, he said to me:

“Jonny, does the phrase “a real truth” make sense, or is a truth by its very nature real?”

“A truth is by its very nature real, Paul,” I said. “A truth is by its very nature real.”

We encounter tautology too frequently, I thought at the time, allowing Paul’s generous resentment to infect me. I also thought that it is so much worse when the words in question are pieces of guff in the first place. The phrase “I think this reveals a truth” is just utter word-rot anyway.

Then, in the various rifling through of online news articles which I get paid to do, I noticed that a grocer from the USA has released a healthy own-brand range. It is called “Simple Truth”.

I nearly vomited.

Why do people feel the need to stick an adjective before vast philosophical concepts such as “truth”? And who is Kroger the Grocer to say whether “truth” is simple or complicated? Personally I think that truth must be pretty fucking difficult or I would have worked it out by now. Lies and deceit, on the other hand, now they come to me like breathing and drinking. Should I not shop at Kroger due to philosophical differences?

But, then, as our tempers simmered, I thought:

What the hell, the  concepts of “truth” and “reality” and “simplicity” are fallacies! That being the case, why not use a whole adjectival string to emphasise one’s point?

I still think that this idea reveals a real, profound, genuine, authentic, actual, simple truth.

*

Incidentally, Collins English Dictionary defines a “pedant” as “a person who relies too much on academic learning or who is concerned chiefly with insignificant detail”.

I find that insulting. One can never be too right when it comes to using language precisely. And now I have to deal with the thought that the dictionary itself is a subjective entity, itself open to accusations of untruth and unreality. Shite.


CONSIDER the role of perspective in the debate on vegetarianism

The debate on vegetarianism is often truncated by the irreconcilable nature of two stalwart perspectives: the meat-eater and the vegetarian.

The vegetarian sats to the meat-eater: “I’m not going to eat meat because there is no reason to, and you shouldn’t eat it either.”

The meat-eater says to the vegetarian: “I’m going to eat meat because there’s no reason not to, and you should eat it too.”

As you can infer from these two images, the only way to progress from this stalemate is to introduce a third perspective, like a third player introduced during an impossible chess endgame would reinvigorate play. This is the key player in the battle between meat-eater and vegetarian: animal.

Slavov Žižek can provide our means to this third perspective. In his exegesis of Hegelian philosophy and the modern West, at this talk, he makes a salient point about how considering the object’s perspective invariably informs the subject’s ideology:

The question to be raised is not what this philosopher can tell us, but the opposite one: what are we and our contemporary situation in his eyes?

Although Žižek is making a particular point about historiography,  I think that the same kind of exercise in empathy – that is, the imagining of another perspective to inform one’s own ideology – can be used for our vegetarianism debate. Although instead of emancipating dead philosophers from objects to subjects, we are doing so with necessarily silent animals.

Here’s the fun bit.

Imagine dining out at a steakhouse with a three guests: a meat-eater, a vegetarian, and a cow. While the carnivore would salivate, and the vegetarian would remonstrate, what would the cow do and think?

It would surely be a existential challenge for the cow to read a menu of its species’ organs and appendages. And then to have the desired parts delivered on a platter to the communal table as the main actor in a culinary theatre. It would be a moment of uncanny self-awareness which no human has ever felt, to consider one’s body functioning as something other than a vessel for its own promotion, as a means to another’s pleasure.

It would seem sinister that the world has created a vast infrastructure with which to feed its people on your body, delivering you from field through plant to plate. It would seem macabre to the cow that there are tens of other restaurants on this street, hundreds in this town, and millions on this planet all delivering your kind to others, better off dead than alive.

It is my suspicion that most vegetarians perpetuate their ideology through the reinforcement of this feeling of the uncanny or bizarre. It acts as an unconscious kind of empathy. Your anecdotal proof is this: a vegetarian friend of mine says sometimes that when she looks up and sees flocks of pigeons or crows flying from building to building, she realises how weird it is that we share a world with them. We have the streets; they have the rooftops.

This third perspective doesn’t answer the debate, nor freshen up the stalemate. But perhaps through giving a voice to a silent object, it can complicate what is essentially a simple difference of opinion.


COMPARE & CONTRAST Bob Dylan and the scientist

In How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer strives to articulate how creative decisions are taken: how does a scientist alight upon an innovative solution, and how does Bob Dylan conceive, gestate, and birth a song? Lehrer says:

“This is the clichéd moment of insight that people know so well from stories of Archimedes in the bathtub and Isaac Newton under the apple tree. The moment of insight can seem like an impenetrable enigma. The question, of course, is how these insights happen.”

This question of creation badgers artists in the same way that a baby does its parent. “How did you get here?” is a question leading inside the artist (back to before they consciously conceived a project) as well as outside (to the stimuli which triggered the cognitions leading to the novel, painting or poem produced.)

Martin Amis is eloquent about it, in an interview with The Spectator:

“At which point do you realise that you have a novel springing to life? It’s a fascinating question. It’s all decided in a moment, I think. You get a funny feeling, you see something or read something and almost at once you get a kind of throb, which goes through you — a shiver. And you think: this is a novel I can write. You don’t know much about it, but you know how you’re going to begin, perhaps. It’s a situation, it’s a setting, but it’s deeply mysterious. The whole process is deeply mysterious.”

Amis’ description of the moment of creation captures neatly its physiological (“throb”, “shiver”), triggered (“see or read something”), and enigmatic (“perhaps”, “mysterious”) conditions.

It brings me back to the first comparison: between Bob Dylan and the scientist. There is a problem here, and it lies in the differences between a creative solution to a problem, and creativity.

Whereas Lehrer rightly uses the scientist to show how creative innovation can solve a problem beyond the scope of logic and algorithms, I don’t think the same can be said for Bob Dylan. The key difference is that the scientist works towards an end (answering part of an unfinished theory, finding the right chemical formula to perform a task), whereas the artist does not.

Take Lehrer’s example of Archimedes who leapt out of the bathtub when he had discovered the displacement of water. That Lehrer recounts this clichéd tale in a clichéd fashion suggests he has thought little about the real connection between this moment of inspiration and one that a musician like Dylan would have. He says:

“Hopelessness eventually gives way to a revelation. This is another essential feature of moments of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea.”

This is true for a scientist, who can ratify his hypothesis through testing and the testimony of his peers. But it would be inadvisable for Bob Dylan to claim that his latest song is “right”.

Why? Because art strives towards subjective perception; science, objective measurement. Hence my issue of definitions earlier: art has creativity as an end in itself, and science has creative solutions to extant problems.

This is the fundamental difference between two universal fields of human activity, but Lehrer has failed to understand it. It is only through Practical Criticism (which encourages us to interrogate the premise of everything we are told) that this shortcoming can be revealed.

Indeed, in performing this analysis we have created shortcomings of our own — words like “art” and “science” can’t be flung upon us so flippantly — but this is only a blog, after all.