“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.


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 “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.


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.


CONSIDER what defines a cultural icon

Last week it was announced that Jamie Oliver, who is “already a TV star, best-selling author and global nutrition campaigner,” has now “been commissioned by the BBC to make a new drama series starring David Tennant.”

This is only one example of an emerging celebrity trend of multimedia profligacy, and, I hope to prove, an exercise in superhumanism which can be traced back via the 16th-century’s Francis Bacon et al to the professional eclecticism of Classical Greece.

Humour me.

There are some cultural icons from across these eras who accomplish projects and complete roles well beyond their day’s allowance: actor, author, journalist, model, screenwriter, poet, comedian, television presenter.

Take Stephen Fry: actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian and television presenter.

Take Jamie Oliver MBE: TV star, best-selling author (only out-sold by J K Rowling), global nutrition campaigner, restaurant owner, now the “movie mogul” at the head of Fresh One TV Production Company. Oh, and he’s a chef! Jamie+Oliver

Take Francis Bacon (1561-1626): philosopher, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, scientist, jurist and author.

Take Gaius Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC): Dictator of the Roman Republic, soldier, statesman, latin prosodist, inventor of the modern-day calendar.

I have neglected millions of other examples here. What these few demonstrate is that aspirational cultural figures are celebrated for occupying the position of eclectic talents. The point stands that modern Western culture is intrigued with the notion of superhumanism: the all-consuming public wants to hear about personal feats of activity and achievement, and the media wants to portray them.

Take the language of excess, of immense scale, with which Jamie Oliver’s foray into production is reported by the London Evening Standard. Jamie is “already a …” but “now a … too”. Also,

(He is) said to be worth £106m through his empire, which includes 27 branches worldwide, plus branded merchandise and book sales topping £100million.

Indeed it is the command of an “empire” which defines our modern celebrity superhumans: it is their “worldwides”, their “£100 millions”, which cast them in the same mould as Greek Caesars and British Lords before them. These empires are not grown like ivy across a wall, but like a cage netting its breadth over vast expanses all in one: the superhuman has a holistic touch.

You see, in the 16th Century, Francis Bacon’s education was holistic, it embraced and taught intelligence of–, well, of everything. A great philosopher was a great politician was a great scientist because he had one key attribute: he was a great thinker.

He understood that the means by which lines of Chaucer achieved their beauty were the same means by which the statesman magnetised the crowds in his favour. He understood that these were the same means by which ideas of self could be developed, and by which the patterns among the stars would be decoded, the friendships between chemical elements in laboratory tubes logged.

Sadly or happily, the superhuman is no longer educated holistically. His or her finishing school is in the TV green room, the agent’s lounge. Somewhere between Stephen Fry and Jamie Oliver the acceptable means to success went from boarding and Oxbridge to the local comprehensive and 5 GCSEs of C and above. The goal for the superhuman now is bound in realising his or her life holistically against the advice of an education in segregated classes and categorised lessons.

That is the true victory of the modern-day superhuman. It is escape from the plains of mundanity.

The all-consuming public which flicks past such stories in papers don’t have that accolade: its members have one job, one name, one place to be. But, for them, the knowledge that some people do achieve variously, excellently, and superhumanly, may be enough. These are icons who have their superhuman origins set in gold upon podiums millennia ago; through them we can see the vast expanse of human potential.

And so, they may be enough.


COMPARE & CONTRAST: Two academic citations of science fiction

READING:

– Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, a passage printed in The Guardian Review, 30 March 2012

– Tom Margold’s BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Inside the Bermuda Triangle: The Mysteries Solved.’

Practical Criticism #4: Well-employed sources make a text. They are working bibliography which shows not only that the writer has read widely about a subject, but also thought beyond it. Conflating here; diluting there.

In this sense, citations should also come with a health warning: CAN UNRAVEL ARGUMENTS. For example, quote Robert Conquest on 20th-Century Russia or Germany at your peril. Cite Dryden on Shakespeare with many caveats.

Similarly too, the advice for academics: reference pop culture—like the science fiction novels of the 1950s—rarely.

Tom Margold’s dryly cynical documentary into the origins of the Bermuda Triangle myths and mysteries is an exception to this advice. His show is an excursion into the formulation of frustrating pop-culture superstitions themselves; about how tales of the city of Atlantis, of UFOs, and government conspiracy theories, are propped against each other to create universally known—and believed?—tales such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, David Hasslehoff, etc.

Margold takes a good ten minutes to interview the writer of the 1974 text The Devils Triangle. It’s a tug-and-pull moment of broadcasting where the sceptic meets the writer who says straight-faced: “It is an astonishing, baffling, fully documented true life mystery of the hundreds of helpless victims, sucked up by giant water spouts, sea monsters and flying saucers.” It is a dramatisation of what really happened, the writer tells us.

Fine. Margold proves his point. And he is a good model against which to pick at Tom Holland. The issue that is taken with citing science fiction—or ci-sci-fi as we could call it—is when it is used in academic discourse to demonstrate the permeation of a niche idea or text into pop culture. This is rarely convincing.

And here are the problems.

Holland’s chosen topic is already broad enough in scope. He is trying to show not only that the rise of Islam in the West in 800AD is causally related to the fall of the Roman Empire since year 0, but that Rome’s trajectory is the archetype of all ‘fall’ narratives since, influencing the Prophet Mohammad, Camelot, and The Gothic.

On top of all this is 20th-Century sci-fi.

And it is on citing Isaac Asimov’s 1951 sci-fi novel Foundations that Holland stumbles. He states:

“There were nearly twenty-five-million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.” So begins Isaac Asimov’s Foundations, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon’s magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall.

None of this should be disputed in itself. It is what Holland evidences it with that is the problem. He ci-sci-fis to prove both the legacy of “gripping narratives” from Rome’s fall, and the “curious” happening that 1950s novelists had beaten historians to the realisations that Muhammad is key to Rome’s demise by some 20 years.

The predicament Holland is in is that sci-fi is probably the least impressive source of modern literature’s indebtedness to antiquity (think of Joyce’s Ulysses on dead epic, of McCarthey’s The Road on dead civilisation) but is required in his study to bolster the point that the Muhammad legend arose from Rome’s decline.

Holland is reduced to second-rate sources, and it shows. At times he is shifty-eyed and evasive. He admits that

unlike Star Wars and Battlestar Gallactica, Asimov drew direct sustenamce from his historical model

which translates as

most sci-fi hasn’t got anything to do with the fall of Rome.

He says too on this ‘power narrative’ legacy in general: “It can take an effort, though, to recognise this.” This means, ‘My links are tenuous’.

This slight self-doubt from Holland creeps throughout his article. I think he is aware that he is using the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as an analogy for all ‘rise and fall of power’ narratives. Other than Asimov’s Foundations being allied with Gibbon’s text, Holland’s use of sci-fi proves little more than the fact that readers love a good story, and that a good story needs power and antagonism.