Memes, Millennials, and Meaning (and Anaphora)

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Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.

Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:

Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.

I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.

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Three Strands of Nationalism in Ireland: Preliminary Observations

Modern Irish nationalism, which we might place in the time after Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic emancipation movement and before the establishment of the Free State in 1922, was a weaving together of three, sometimes conflicting ideological strands: socialist politics, Gaelic linguistic revival, and Catholic identity. These three strands were exemplified by the passions of three of the most important figures in modern Irish nationalism, each of whom had strong personal connections to nations beyond Ireland and who, therefore, helped to imagine an Irish nation (as was often the case among postcolonial nationalisms). There was James Connolly, a Scotsman by birth, who injected continental socialism into Irish nationalism; Patrick Pearse, both the son of an English father and an Irish language teacher who endeavored to take the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) into the vanguard of militant, revolutionary politics; and Eamon de Valera–American born and of Spanish-Irish descent–who, as both Taoiseach and President of the Republic, ensured that Ireland’s political and educational infrastructure would be unwaveringly Catholic for generations to come. Both Connolly and Pearse were executed by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. De Valera was a dominant presence in Irish government until his death in 1975. The socialist strand was effectively crushed in the civil war between pro- and anti-treaty forces, though republican militants in the North would remain nominally faithful to it through the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement era.  And there are signs that the other two strands of nationalism in Ireland are weakening in contemporary Ireland. A 2016 census, for instance, showed that the numbers of people who identify as religious and who speak Irish and a daily basis have dropped since the 2006 census. An old fashioned nationalist might say that Ireland is once again becoming West Britain, and that most people in the Republic wouldn’t feel the difference if they were being governed from London instead of Dublin. And indeed, despite their Gaelic names, the two dominant political parties in the Republic–Fine Fail and (especially) Fine Gael–have melded into two species of Tory. It would, however, be more difficult to make that case since the Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, and the beginning of the end of the Anglo-American order. Despite what sometimes feels like the suffocating influence of British and American media culture, Ireland is clearly hitching its political wagon to Europe, which is what a figure such as Connolly would have envisioned all along (minus, of course, the neoliberal economic agenda of Fine Gael). So, assuming that we are not hurling rapidly into a post-nationalist era (and it sure doesn’t look that way at the moment), what will nationalism in Ireland look like in coming decades? What might that tell us about the future of other nationalisms in the wake of the Anglo-American order’s decline?

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Is there a political version of Sapir-Whorf?

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It’s the fourth month of my pseudo-retirement from scholarly pursuits.  It’s been a sort of reverse-sabbatical, I suppose.  Not that I’ve been idle.  Besides the increasing demands of a job at an institution whose future is uncertain, I have been trying to make up in four months what students in Ireland have fourteen years to do.  I doubt very seriously that I could pass the Certs at this point, but that’s a goal for the not-too-distant future.

Part of the joy of learning a new language is that you get an insight into a culture that would otherwise be unavailable to you.  Saying that you get an insight into a culture by learning its language is, of course, as meaningless as it is true.  But I would say that in the case of Irish, it is more meaningful than true.  It must be said that here in the 21st century, Gaelic is much more a part of Ireland’s politics than its culture.  I’m not sure I’d have any better handle on Irish customs and traditions if I spent a year there trí Ghaeilge (if such a thing were even possible) than I’d have through English.  Even the weakest version of Sapir-Whorf won’t hold up in Ireland.

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Go leor galore: Language and Personality

I’m finally going after my lifelong dream of learning Irish. I had several chances in the past to do this, but I always put it off. It might have been the “Never meet your heroes” principle. I’m very much in the honeymoon phase right now, so we’ll have to see in a few months how I feel. But for the moment, it’s like a warm, loving blanket, albeit with a lot of velar fricatives.

It’s true that languages have individual personalities. Some of those personality traits must be more or less common to all learners of a language, but most, I’m sure, depend upon the learner’s own encounter with the language. English and Romani are, at this point, water for fish. I feel different from one to the other, but I can’t easily see outside myself from within them (if that makes sense). Languages I’ve studied in a sustained way are French, Thai, and Russian, and my relationships with each of them couldn’t be more different.

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It always seemed to me like French sits at the cool kids’ table. Being able to speak and read it opens up a lot of doors, but it’s hard to bootstrap your way into it. Unlike English, it reads a whole lot easier than it speaks. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a particularly difficult language to pick up if, like many learners, you associate individual words with textual units. The boundaries between spoken words are of course blurry in any language for the learner, but I’ve never been able to completely shake that problem in French. Plus, French is deeply idiomatic, which, again, is a problem for anyone trying to begin from the ground up. Mind you, all natural languages are idiomatic (every language is an eccentric poet), but, man, you really feel it in French. I’ve gotten better, then worse, then better, and then worse at it over the years. But from those few glimpses inside, I can say that it’s considerably warmer and more vulnerable than its cool, cerebral exterior would suggest.

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List Journalism and Literacy

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Parody of Buzzfeed from FunnyorDie

There are two myths about literacy which refuse to die. The first is that writing is simply recorded speech, and the second is that since the emergence of so-called “Internet 2.0,” we are moving back to an oral culture.

I’m sorry to say that linguists are among the main propagators of that first myth. Linguists are always quick to point out that writing came along at the eleventh hour in the overall story of human language, and that any impact writing has on speech is minimal. Both of those things are true, but neither of them warrant the further assumption that writing is just a derivative of speech. If that were true, writing—particularly alphabetical writing—would be much easier to do than it is. (As I always tell my students, writing never gets easier but you do get better at it.) More to the point, as David Olson argued, writing is a model of speech which therefore involves interpretation rather than coding and decoding.

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Feckin’ Parentheses (A Note on Irish Rhetoric)

 

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I just got into my mom’s place a couple of days ago.  We stayed up until two in the morning last night, talking, sipping on Jameson’s, and talking.  Mom has always had the gift of gab, but since Dad passed away two years ago, she’s got more to say than ever.  This is probably because my father was usefully employed as a ‘round the clock sounding board for forty years.  Mom has since had to find new places to put her words.  As Dad got older, he said less and less.  He could speak and speak well when he needed to, but he was far more comfortable as a listener.  That’s the way Dad’s people are.  The older you are, the less verbal flexing you need to do.

But Mom is Irish.  They’re drunk on words and there’s no sobering up with age.

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