The first in a series of short essays in which a word, concept, subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
Type in the word ‘writer’ into an online jobs portal and most results will have ‘content’ in the title. Content Editor. Content Manager. Content Developer. Digital content is everywhere in the Age of the Internet, where blogs, micro-blogs, social media, and websites proliferate and hypertrophy like irradiated giant squid in Japanese B-Movies, seeking to attract, entrance and cling on to the end user in the 24/7 digital content cycle.
Content needs to be managed, its performance measured and optimised, as it moves through its various distributionstreams and channels. Fluvial euphemisms pile up like terminal moraines of gibberish. A knowledge of Content Management Systems, Search Engine Optimisation and Information Architecture is generally essential. And, of course, you’ll be happy communicating with internal and external stakeholders. The latter always makes me think of butchers.
Notice how the job advert addresses you directly – you’ll be happy. Oh, I will, will I? Naturally, all this content will be part of a 360 contentstrategy. 360 what? Degrees? Do they require circumferentially-correct content? Could it be days? If so, the maths is a little off. I suppose they assume that, if you have to ask, then you – you who were so happy to communicate with internal and external stakeholders – are not really right for the job.
In all these adverts, in which the above italicised metaphors appear with a consistency that suggests the writers have all either attended the same Optimal Content Management course, or use the same advert template, one thing remains consistently elusive: no one seems to want to say what all this optimised, managed, edited, manicured and pedicured content consists of. This content has no content. Very occasionally a reference is made to blog posts, social media feeds (content-enriched, no doubt, to strain the metaphor yet further), sometimes articles or newsletters are listed. But the subject and topics of these content formats remain absent.
Content, then, is an empty sign, a signifier which has no referent, and is the perfect metaphor for an age of proliferating text in which the thing being piped from screen to tablet to smartphone, flushed down a digital sewage system of streams and outlet channels, to an ‘end user’, not a reader, is ultimately of no consequence. The content of this content is of such little importance that it does not merit a mention in the adverts seeking someone to create it. What matters is the ‘end user’, the things they click on the page, and the amount of time they spend there. This data is usable, it has value, for advertisers and justifying marketing budgets, for creating content about the effectiveness of the contentless content that lured in the ‘end user’ in the first place. The secondary content not only has more substance than the original content, it both defines it and usurps it. Content finds its substance ex post facto: it only comes to have content in its second order of being. Some feat.
Content is king, the mantra goes. All, any. Those text boxes have to get filled somehow. The invisible reader, a statistical figure who costs so much time and effort to find the ideal content writer to create the contentless content, in order to provide the secondary data-driven content to define and supplant the empty first lot, is the grail at the end of every streamed channel. In its turn, the secondary content will become defined and supplanted through third-order manipulations, and so on in an infinite regress, as contentless content generates ever more content-filled content, until one day a PhD student will sit down to pen her thesis, Content and its Discontents.
The Latte Art Catastrophe is a dark comedy for decadent times.
Episode 1 – New Nature Writers Wit’ Attitude concerns a failed attempt to ride the New Nature Writing gravy train with A Year In A Puddle.
TRIGGER WARNING: mention is made of ‘Driver Tizer’, ‘hedge-porn’ and tree fetishism.
The following sound FX are used under a Creative Commons Attribution license. All sound FX sourced on freesound.org. For links to individual files, see link below.
DJ Griffin – Dubsteppa
InspectorJ – Small Waterfall
Corsica_S – Tinkle
the-yura – Thunderclap
dethrok – Cicadas
Luffy – record scratch
Crosbychris – steam locomotive arrives at Tan-Y-Bwlch station.wav
Keith Selmes – Steam Train Whistle
et_graham – Dropping pile of books.wav
Other samples used under Fair Usage rights include:
Arnold Schoenberg – Verklarte Nacht (Boulez/Ensemble InterContemporain)
Thee Midniters – Chicano Power
Charley Patton – High Water Everywhere Pt. 1
Real Estate – Pool Swimmers
Das Rheingold – Prelude – Solti/VPO
2016 scythed through song-writers with scant regard for the listening public. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. A grim litany indeed. But 2016 was an astonishingly creative year on the indie scene. In John Peel’s absence, I get my music from The Hype Machine which collates the recommendations of hundreds of music blogs around the world. Here are a few of my favourites from the year which deserve a wider public.
Forth Wanderers – Know Better: A Schoenberg cabaret song that updates grunge for 2016.
Swimming Tapes – Tides: Perfect summer pop. In Real Estate’s absence, this will do.
Japanese Breakfast – In Heaven: Love the slightly flat nasally singing on this. Their ‘Everybody Wants To Love You‘ is like Cyndi Lauper in a hurricane.
Big Thief – Paul: ‘So I swallowed all of it / As I realised there was no one who could kiss away my shit.’ Heartbreaking, in manifold ways.
They – Say When: Expect more of this darkly raging US hip-hop in 2017.
Slow Hollows – Softer: The dead-pan delivery reminds me of Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen – win-win.
Lord Huron – Hurricane: Alt-country before ‘alt’ became something sinister.
Preoccupations – Memory: If Joy Division were around today, they might sound like this.
Hazel English – Never Going Home:Artist of the Year 2016Indie Pop that sounds like ‘an old and familiar friend’ (Salinger) after the first play.
Molly Burch – Downhearted: Patsy-Cline inflected vocals and a song destined to become a modern classic.
Frank Ocean – NightsSong of the Year 2016 Its many quirks, circumlocutions, and sidesteps should grate but they never do. Constantly surprising and engaging, Gregg Wallace would say R’n’B doesn’t get any better than this in 2016. He’d be right, too. (You’ll have to click on the name to hear this one.)
Late entry for old friend @thetearooms, Young Scum – If You Say That: jangle pop dreamers.
Perhaps you, like me, have fallen back on the name of a cosmic abomination as an off-the-peg metaphor for something sprawlingly vast in time and space, monstrously abhorrent to behold, and existing outside of all human notions of morality. No, not Donald Trump but HP Lovecraft’s Great Old One, a horror supposedly even more disturbing than the thought of a Trump presidency: mighty Cthulhu.
Scan the index of a modern text by someone working in a university Humanities faculty and you will most likely encounter this name. Cthulhu has become a metaphor for something wholly other – sprawling, tentacular, supermassive, transcendent of Kantian ideas about time and space as a priori intuitions, the mental framework necessary to apprehend things-in-themselves. When academics reach for Cthulhu, these inhuman qualities are what they hope to transmit.
How did this fictional entity become a lazy metaphor for Humanities and Cultural Studies students and academics to fall back on (myself included)? Just what are they implying when they evoke HP Lovecraft’s creation? And how could such a non-existent object become so entangled in the logic of capitalism that is now available as a wool-knit toy, crocheted balaclava and as a variant of the Che Guevara T-shirt? These are some of the occult mysteries which this short essay will examine.
A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!
The death of death has long been foretold. In John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (1609), the metaphysical poet chides Death for being proud and concludes that Death will be as good as dead once human souls are resurrected in paradise. Donne was merely drawing on a biblical reckoning for the Grim Reaper, 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” One is tempted to interject: how can Death die if he never lived?
Today, such prognostications about death’s demise are likely to take a more technological tone. The death of death means life, forever. Mortality is an irksome biological fact that will eventually be overcome by science. Technology will find the way; it always does. So go the certainties of the entrepreneurially-minded, usually billionaires in Silicon Valley who have the ego and money for such a Grail quest, and a vested interest in prolonging their sybaritic lives.
When did the language of job adverts become so arcane? It is a language unto itself – a meta-language that seems to lack referents in what passes for the concrete fabric of reality today. Who can actually point at a stakeholder and say, as Wittgestein once did of a tree, ‘I know that that’s a stakeholder’? But it is a word that persists in its internal and external form. A stakeholder can mean everything from a customer to the CEO, or a school pupil (internal) and their parent (external). These terms have a nasty habit of leaving their parochial domain (the corporate world) and infiltrating all institutions – schools, universities, hospitals, libraries – at least in their job ads.
Workflow is another advertisement leitmotif, its concise vagueness perhaps meant to suggest fluid working methods, a liquid labouring that is as ceaseless as the 19th Century Thames in its outpouring of productivity. Such opaque rhetoric is the language of neo-liberalism – the language of the free market that ‘corporatises’ vocations to better engineer a return on investment. Here is Corporate Realism, Capitalist Realism’s PR firm: a future-oriented, growth-minded, ‘strivers-not-skivers’ tone and lexicon. At work is a brutal anti-poetry, where words become connotation engines, suggesting economic import at every linguistic turn. It is both exhausting and perplexing, since this job-specific language only seems to exist within this strange realm of job applications.
It is a discourse trapped in the symbiotic exchange between advert and applicant. The selection process starts here, with recognition of the rules of the game, the phrases which are to be repeated back at the parental job provider. Only the worthy individual who can pluck these semantic implements from the text and wield them correctly in their application will enter the kingdom of gainful employ. This is your initation into the cult of modern work – the mastery of its esoteric language.
You will be experienced in x.You will implement y. Another noticeable feature is how driven the rhetoric is – as driven as you must be to meet its demands. In keeping with the going-forward-isation of our times, the future is a utopia which you will have helped shaped through continuous improvement. It is a peverse twist on the Heraclitean notion of Panta rhei, where everything flows, nothing stands still: for your new employer, the improving will never be done. At the same time, communication can only ever occur across multiple channels, meaning you must be able to handle audio, video, and written ‘content’. That latter catch-all term is one I have examined already. Elsewhere, the language of business and warfare (‘strategic aims’) permeates even a post for a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant. Austerity, meanwhile, is visible in the sprawling duties and responsibilities whereby two or more positions have clearly been sandwiched into one starring ‘role’.
Yet use these words you must. A university workshop on CVs and cover letters instructed me how employers now perform keyword scans, outsourcing their own Human Resources labour to an algorithm – an irony that is too disheartening to be ever so droll. So I beat on, a solitary boat against the workflow, borne back ceaselessly into the Corporate Realist present.
Featured image by Ed Burtynsky of a Chinese factory.
A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.
When did the current fad for crudely conjoined portmanteaus begin? Was it the ungainly moobs that started it all, taking the m from man and supplanting the b of boobs with it? The media delights in coining compound celebrity couples, making mutant nomenclatures, such as Kimye, Brangelina and Hiddleswift. In ‘yoofspeak’, this is called ‘shipping‘, a verb derived from relationship. And now this modern habit has entered political discourse and, disastrously, we all live in a Brexit-ridden world.
Once (how long ago it seems!) it was simply an unhappy marriage of British and exit, and, despite its inelegant etymology and sonorous infelicity, its meaning was fairly explicit. Brexit was born out of Grexit – the Greek exit from the EU anticipated if that nation were to default on its debt repayments. It didn’t and Grexit slipped from view. With the EU referendum, a simple in/out became overshadowed by the newly-minted Brexit, and its over-exposure by a media incapable of refraining itself from jumping on any passing hashtag fad.
Yet Brexit’s once-simple meaning is fast unravelling, as even those who wielded it with confidence seem unsure as to what its two syllables are supposed to convey. The Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to know such things, has further fogged the semantic sense by giving it a now-infamous self-referential definition: Brexit means Brexit. It’s as though Brexit itself were trying to wriggle out of meaning anything at all, unhappy at having been brought into the world, like Frankenstein’s monster looking for answers from its thoughtless creator. Brexit is exiting itself, self-sabotaging, divesting itself of lexical content and becoming so empty a signifier that it can mean all things to all people, which is to say, nothing at all.
‘Language is the house of being,’ Heidegger proposed, and we might wonder what being resides in words such as Brexit. A post-truth flexibility enabling permanent political evasion? Of course, Brexit is the latest in a long lineage of sophisms. There is the lexical deception of collateral damage, the smoke-and-mirror beguilement of asset for assassin. George Orwell, in his famous polemic against political language, Politics and the English Language (1946), condemned its use of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ to defend the indefensible.
Meaning, though, has always been precarious, as Alice found out when she wondered into Wonderland and met Humpty-Dumpty: ‘When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Naturally, Alice is disconcerted: can words really be made to mean ‘so many differnt things’? Humpty-Dumpty’s retort is that of all tyrants: ‘The question is which is to be master.’ A master-meaning, the one I mean it to mean; I, the one on high with all the power. The Guardian‘s cartoonist Steve Bell makes this point in today’s cartoon on Queen May’s regal raiments:
Nietszche was likewise mistrustful of the disconnect between word and thing: ‘What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.’ In his very accessible albeit nihilistic On Truth & Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873), he looks at these ‘arbitrary assignments’ and draws a rather damning conclusion:
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.
So it will be with Brexit, which is already being ’embellished poetically and rhetorically’, already seeming ‘firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people’. And still the public and politicos plead, What does Brexit mean? And the only answer they hear is: it means what it means. C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s book The Meaning of Meaning should be exiting the shelves (shexiting?) like a Harry Potter off-cut in the coming weeks.
The painting is Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Five Portraits (1901-02).