Wednesday, February 14, 1996

DREADWORDS: Stuff

To promote its latest cross media synergetic megahype (that is to say rock and roll tour) MTV has created a short ad featuring rock singer Lenny Kravitz as some cosmic music maker in the sky. Not the sort of thing to spark much interest in general, but there is something different about Lenny this time. He wants something indeed, he wants a great number of things.

"Gimme 20 sets of .011's, two full stacks, one envelope filter lemme get an Octavier, two Cry Babies, a Fuzz Face, two Stratocasters and a Flying "V"," he says to the irrefutably white guy behind the counter. This white guy looks dumb, but he has all the smarts required for the job. He looks like he might be a ex semi pro surfer, reduced to working in a convenience store by a serious groin strain. He tosses Lenny a conspiratorial glance, before offering his obviously admiring assessment of the shopping list "That's a lot of stuff"

As Lenny's commercial suggests, "stuff is of paramount importance in psychedelic rock and roll. But the word also sees daily service in many other language zones, from cognitive therapy's "you've just got to let go a that stuff" or the global trance scene's "They really have got some great stuff in" or the surly slacker's Don't mess with my stuff, man."

The Greek stupho, meaning to pull together, suggested a compression which was subsequently used to denote scrunched up flax. More recently the word was used to refer to material, substance or things of uncertain kind". Increasingly, however, "stuff" has come to mean things of a very certain kind: high tech consumables.

This tread perhaps started with Apple Computers who popularised a soft spoken, self deprecating way of talking about technology in general, and computers in particular. Early sets of Mac set up disks, for example, included one called "tidbits", which roughly translated into loose little pieces of small, non essential but complex software.

Consumers wised up to this tidbits ruse, this blatant bit of pseudo folksiness, with unexpected speed. The response from funky computer firms was to adopt the word "stuff. The Zip Drive, a paradigm shifting data storage product released last year, for example, bore the brassy slogan "Organise, move backup your stuff" to represent multimedia compression and archiving.

The more we use the word to represent what we consume in terms of electronics, the more it recalls another, earlier use of the word. Who could watch blonde dread locked virtual reality rent a quote Jason Larnier slip on his VR headset and explain that "this stuff is going to help bridge the interpersonal gap..." so that "we can have a sort dream" without thinking that these machines might resolve one celebrated piece of archaic grammar, and indeed be "such stuff as dreams are made on".

Sniffing this trend in 1971, J.G. Ballard was certain that any such digital opting out was going to be a very bad thing. "Reality is no longer going to be the stuff inside your head," he cried in the wilderness of the printed page. "It's going to be commercial and nasty at the same time."
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    Wednesday, February 07, 1996

    DREADWORDS: Victim

    "Don't be such a bloody victim," she bellowed. She had a point though: the carpet was quite destroyed. Hard by the headless cadaver the Axminster pattern had sunk beneath a blackish marsh, while further out, the ooze had lengthened into spindly fingers of crimson. Some more droplets had been spurted over the edge of the carpet altogether, and sat glistening on the exposed floorboards like a scattering of old cherries.
    He had indeed been a very bloody victim, but he couldn't help that. Could he?

    "Once victim, always victim - that's the law!" Thomas Hardy had his literary victim Tess proclaim in 1891, and it is surprising how little society's attitude has changed, even if the role of "victim" has substantially evolved. In the old days, as a result of forceful peer pressure, victims often found themselves participating at events from which they might ordinarily have taken a rain check. Getting burned alive or garrotted were not the nicest ways to go, but these early victims were seen as somehow sanctified, implicated in the cosmic order in a meaningful way.

    In the post Christian period, however, the fringe benefits and social status of victims have declined substantially. These days, victims are more likely to be sprawled unconscious on farmhouse kitchen floors than communing in eternal splendour with the goddess Kali.

    Victimhood has, however, begun to regain some of its lost prestige, as "victims" became, for example, players on the international art scene. By early in 1995, the word had found a nice walk up in Manhattan, and when the New Yorker critic Arlene Croce took exception to a dance piece about terminal disease by Bill T. Jones, a long lease was signed.

    Unfortunately, it turned out that Croce too was a victim, this time of terminological inexactitude, since, as the playwright Tony Kushner pointed out, she used "victim" to mean "politically engaged progressive people".

    The real contemporary allure of the word is that it is so closely tied up with the dynamic duo of "passivisation" and objectification. For the word "victim" now forms the background of a crucial, if often unspoken question in everything from criminal injuries cases to gender studies seminars: "Whose fault is this?"

    The answer is never more elusive than in cases of what is referred to as "non victim" crimes, those that do not damage another's person or property. It is estimated that in America every year, four million people are arrested for crimes such as vagrancy, sodomy and gambling. The catch is that if you actually lose your liberty for any of these activities, people perceive that you, like Nick Leeson, must have had the word "victim" written across your forehead in bold block capitals: a "victim," as everybody knows, is first cousin to a "loser".

    Nevertheless, there is still a gap between being perceived as a victim, and perceiving oneself as a victim, an approach which, paradoxically, can involve making a stand and seizing the power to define oneself. In the end, although nobody wants to be a victim, it is only a word. So long as it is your word, you are back in charge.
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