Wednesday, March 20, 1996

Communication

WHEN cultural studies pioneer, Raymond Williams, dealt with the word "communication in his now standard work, Key words, he did so in a rather cursory manner. True, his comments on the word had to be squeezed in alongside those on others sharing the same Latin root, such as common, commercialism, communism and community. But it is still apparent, however, that Williams had only the mildest intimations of how crucial the word was to become in the late 20th century.

"Communication" once had a far broader range of concerns than it possesses today. In the 18th century, for example, the word saw service in describing sexual intercourse. One of the OED's examples of this usage offers a telling snapshot of the world at that time. Outlining the regulation of troops operating among the colonials, the citation proscribes a "European officer" having "unlawful communication with any woman slave".

This application of the word, like its former use to mean "the observance of Holy Communion", has now fallen into abeyance. Even the more modern sense of "communication" meaning infrastructure, such as roads and railways, is falling from fashion, giving way, like so much else, to the tide of digits washing through the language. Who now would ever think that "good communications" meant big roads rather than fast modems?

But what has been interesting about the private history of the word over the course of this century has been its extension first into mass media, newspapers, radio, television and advertising, then gradually, out into Hollywood, marketing and literary criticism (via distinctions between digital and analogue communication) into fine art.

But once "communication" has come to represent everything from ads for pot noodles to Get Shorty, some fine tuning is obviously required. Marina Galanti, Benneton's Head of International Media Relations (why do those kind of titles always sound like euphemisms?) whose company has recently put up one of the largest sites on the WWW, was careful to make clear that she knew not all communication is born equal.

"We are not trying to communicate to people" she said, somewhat disingenuously, one imagines, "we are trying to communicate with them". Close up, however, any differences between these two notions have dissolved into a haze of equivocation. Does it really matter if you are communicating with or to as long as it results in increased sales of woolly goods?

The most interesting aspect of "communication" as it is now defined is that, as any good Head of International Media Relations could tell you, it often means to transmit as little information as possible. A handbook recently made available to British Rugby League players offers the crucial communications advice "Never ever share your confidences with a journalist."

This can come as no surprise to Professor Jean Aitchison, who delivered this year's Reith Lectures, that traditional series of radio talks which is the legacy of a long gone era, the very title of which has the funereal ring of a deceased theory of communication la her lecture, Professor Aitchison recapped on what she said was the relatively new science of language origins. Recent research has uncovered, according to Aitchison, that "the ultimate goal of learning to speak may be lying...

While this may come as distressing news for some disciples of Noam Chomsky, it can hardly have taken unawares Ms Aitchison, who is, of course, Oxford University's Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication.

Wednesday, March 13, 1996

Blue

IT CAME out of the blue, really. After many years fighting a loosing battle against Coca Cola's red livery, PepsiCo has decided to change the key colour of its soft drink range to blue. The reasons for the switch, it seems, are caught up in a wish to escape conflict with the "positive retro imaging" of Coca Cola's red cans. The company, which has for" several years tried to place its product as the beverage of the future, has decided that the best shorthand for that message is "blue".
Switching to blue, at an estimated cost of Pounds 200 million, (easily shading Aer Lingus's modest Pounds 8.5 million redesign) gives the company "new ammunition to take into the battle with the enemy. It creates the kind of excitement which helps rally the troops," according to a "world expert on brands" quoted in the British press last week.

That Pepsi should choose to fight back by making a blue shift aligns the company with a distinct, ever growing band of communications specialists - black folk musicians, painters, film makers, confectioners - who have at one time or another, put their faith in blue, or as any definition worth its weight in visible rays would say, in the "hue of that portion of the visible spectrum lying between green and indigo, evoked in the human observer by radiant energy with wavelengths of approximately 450 to 490 nanometers".

In communications terms, blue can have several meanings, but among its most common at present is as a shorthand synonym for "deep" in the spiritual and the intellectual senses of the word; something of real, preternatural and eternal value. In the light of which, the name of the supercomputer recently defeated by Gary Kasparov at chess, Deep Blue, seems like a heavy overstatement.

Yves Klein, the painter and conceptualist, made a career out of one particular shade of blue, which he named International Klein Blue. Other painters may have had their blue periods, but Klein is easily the most consistent. He is recorded as having been struck, early in his career, by the intensity of the colour of the sky above Ireland. "The sky is always heavy, even when it is clear, because the blue is a deep blue," Klein wrote during a period spent here in 1950.

But maybe we shouldn't get over excited about that, since a few years later the artist declared "the entire earth is blue" and added that when Yuri Gajgarin returned from the inaugural walk in space and said "the earth has a beautiful blue colour", the cosmonaut had actually attended the vernissage of Klein's latest show in outer space.

When astronomers speak of a celestial body which regular guys might consider blue, they say that it has "a colour index of near zero". But as astro photographer David Malin once remarked, most would still prefer to view their spiral galaxies in photographic form: "Instead of memorising a number, you see the picture and say: 'What a blue galaxy; how interesting.'"

It has long been a tradition to interpose in the word "blue" to the title of a work, in the hope, perhaps, of adding an extra dimension to something that might otherwise seem rather, prosaic. This trends spans at least from Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird (1909), to David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1987), and indeed to the Joni Mitchell album and the Derek Jarman film which share the title, Blue. Not to be outdone by the artistic community, both M&M's and Smarties have attempted to connect with the credibility of the "blue" by introducing blue versions of their pill sized treats.

Before, however, too many others follow the lead offered by the Pepsi respray, it might be worth taking on board the observation of pioneering colourist, Vincent Van Gogh. "There is no blue," the painter said, "without yellow and without orange." Anyone for Fanta?

Thursday, March 07, 1996

Waif

WHEN, in the early summer of 1990, the photographer Corrine Day took a young hopeful from the Storm model agency to the beach for a magazine photo shoot, she could have had no idea about the trouble she was about to cause.

Day's original Kate Moss spread for The Face's July issue of that year showed the model lost among the monochrome dunes, and the looming stacks of visual allusions to the word "waif". The model wears an Indian head dress, its feathers seized a breeze, is in the original Scandinavian "veif", meaning something flapping or waving.

Perhaps when Day chose her location she was unaware of the lines in which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke of "the refluent ocean fled away from the shore, and left the line of the sand beach/ Covered with waifs of the tide, with kelp and the slippery seaweed". Her images of Moss might easily have been a parody of them, however, since Longfellow's use refers not to a number of semi transparent models despatched from London agencies, but to lost property cast up on the shore, "waifs" being the legal term, for such stuff.

Strangely, although the model and others like her were soon widely (and fairly unthinkingly) known as waifs, the word does not appear in that month's issue of the magazine. Waif, it might seem, had been reintroduced into public consciousness simply through the subliminal and perhaps unconscious references in the photographs. If, by any chance, Day was up to speed on her etymology, the roots of the word have since grown more obscure.

From as early as the 18th century "waif" was beginning to be applied to poor and homeless people. By 1847, waifs were a common enough feature of everyday life for Emily Bronte to make a kind of hero of one such creature, the gypsy waif, Heathcliff. This association of poverty with waifs, in its turn, led to an association with starvation, and consequently with fashionable skinniness. At this time, however, the word, was still used to describe members of either sex.

By the end of the century "waifs" (or "street Arabs" as they were dodgily also known) were getting organised. In 1899, the Dublin born Thomas Bernardo chartered his string of homes for children as the National Incorporated Association for the Reclamation of Destitute Waif Children. Among those to benefit from a similar organisation across the Atlantic was a young trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, who in 1913 got his first break performing in the band of the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.

By the early 1980s an adverbial form of the word had come to be increasingly used of fey women, rather than gravel voiced jazz men. The OED honours Mia Farrow with a quotation from a review from the 1980 movie Hurricane, in which the actress is said to play her part "waifishly". But while performers like Farrow and earlier stars, such as Giuliette Masina were said to have been "performing" in the style of the waif, the band of models who appeared at the beginning of the 1990s were said to be waifs.

More recently, some efforts have been made to return the term to its original, non sex specific status. Although Pulp songwriter Jarvis Cocker has been lost and slender for several years now, it is once more The Face that bears responsibility for awakening the mass media to "male waifs", with a photos hoot of a nice lad called Benjamin in the magazine's February issue.

The magazine's persistent interest in emaciation seems particularly strange when one notices that the only other fascination which The Face seems to have sustained from July 1990 to the current issue is a creeping obsession with the children's television show, The Banana Splits.

Wednesday, February 28, 1996

Ribbon

Last Friday, when the Daily Telegraph took to crying out against the wearing of white peace ribbons by Westminster MPs, even those who disagreed that the historical origins off "ribbonism" made the gesture hostile to unionists, might have to concede that the word "ribbon" had appeared in print and on the lips of the concerned public just once too often in 1990s.

In all the current fuss, if would indeed be a shame to forget those fashion setting early adopters of the word, the Dublin artisan members of the Ribbon Society, a 19th century Catholic organisation, which offered a kind of counterpart to the Orange order, providing its members with all the social benefits of lodge life as well as opportunities for "symbolic transvestitism"

Ribbon, it has to be admitted, a good word for all such attempts at making visible dispersed communities, for a ribbon is always a fragment of some whole, a cutting from a continuum, one are snatched from a long, long loop.

What the Telegraph forgot to mention was that the English word "ribbon" is rooted in the Irish, ribbon, itself derived from the word for a flake, or a hair. At least that is, according to the pioneering etymologist, Walter W. Skeat. By the time the word reached the latest edition of the OED, in contrast, the word's Gaelic roots had apparently been lost.

Although the adjective currently most associated with the word "ribbon" is red, for a long time blue was easily the most popular colour. This trend swept over everything from luxury ocean liners, to a series of "Blue Ribbon" paintings from Soho graffiti artist, Jean Michel Basquiat.

By coincidence, it was the milieu in which Basquiat once moved, the New York art world, that inspired the re popularisation of the word "ribbon". The red ribbons of Visual AIDS, a group of American activist artists, first showed up in public at the 1991 Tony Awards in New York.

But while this trend has been spreading around the world ever since, it is in the United States that the word "ribbon" still maintains its greatest potency. No event, it seems, is permitted to pass without the unfurling of a ribbon.

After the Oklahoma bombing, ribbon donors rushed to the site of the devastation. Luckily, a reporter for Reuters was on a hand to decode the scene. "Blue ribbons represent all the victims the colour was taken from the Oklahoma state flag. Yellow ribbons represent the missing in the building's wreckage. Purple ribbons represent the children killed and injured, and white ribbons the innocence lost in the blast."

Some possible solutions to the prevalence of "ribbonism" were recently proposed by an altruistic World Wide Web site called Fez, Here the central problem with "all this ribbon stuff" is identified as the frequent overlapping significance of certain ribbon colours.

Anyone across the Atlantic wearing the white ribbon that so disturbed the Telegraph's leader writer, the so called "peace ribbon", for example, could safely be assumed to be a supporter of an organisation called Men Working to End Men's Violence Against Women.

The answer, the site goes on to suggest, is either to found a state or private body to oversee the assignment of colours, or to adopt "an RGB scale," which should, as anybody who has spent any time fooling with the monitor of their computer knows, provide "millions of colours" thus avoiding potentially embarrassing confusion. Another solution, and perhaps the best, is for everyone to wear "a rainbow ribbon a universal support ribbon, a sort of all occasion thing".

Wednesday, February 21, 1996

Attitude

YOU could be forgiven for thinking that "attitude," like Ben Elton, Janet Street Porter and Network 7, glugged down the big plug hole of the 1980s so long ago that there is little point getting all upset about it now. You could be forgiven, but you would still be wrong.

The word "attitude", which travel led from Latin, to Italian, and on into French and English originally suggested some special skill or aptitude, or a certain grace in the execution of a figure in a painting. To strike an affected pose was consequently "to attitudinise". In ballet, the word is still used for two of the possible variations on a pirouette.

This definition of the word, suggesting communicating through posture, would appear to persist in African American English. According to Geneva Smitherman's black lexicon, Black Talk, "attitude", or "tude" is either Ban aggressive, arrogant, I know I'm bad pose or air about oneself, or "an oppositional, negative outlook or disposition". Prof Smitherman goes on to suggest that white mainstream culture's use of the word "attitude" has been adopted she calls it a crossover" from the black community.

In any case, all these definitions tend to miss out on the positive aspects of the word, for, at its best, "attitude" represents a furious challenging of assumed values and all those who espouse them. This great tradition of "attitude" so beloved of Art forum rock critic, Greil Marcus would run from Baudelaire, to the Situationists, to Johnny Rotten, but would noticeably lack any representative from the 1990s.

With the rise of personality testing and market research, the detection of "attitude" became a professional activity. There remained, nevertheless, plenty of room for the enthusiastic amateur. Schoolteachers in particular always seemed prepared to join in the glorious hunt at a moment's notice. When hard pushed to discover any reprehensible activity to underscore his or her prejudices against a child, the troubled teacher could always remark the presence of "the wrong attitude".

Perhaps it is this schoolroom use of the word that has, paradoxically, influenced copywriters to posit attitude" as a suitably containable aspiration for the young. Iarnrod Eireann, for example, has recently used the word as the bait to hook the youthful consumer of transportation services.

Its campaign, "Travel with Attitude", suggests that to enjoy travelling by trains because they're green" shows a great deal of "attitude". This is "attitude" in the current sense, that is, pointless, sterile, politically inert and wilfully dumb. Old fashioned travelling with attitude that is to say aggressive criticism, putting feet on seats, talking back to the conductor is not, of course, encouraged by the campaign.

Attitude's most surprising comeback of nil has been in ITV's new strand of late night television, which goes, apparently unironically, under the banner "Television with Attitude". This strand of programming includes shows from copper with attitude, John Stalker, TV critic with attitude, Gary Bushell, agony aunt with attitude, Toyah Wilcox, and attitude with attitude, Katie Puckrik. (On one recent show, Puckrik displayed what was presumably performing" with attitude when she drank a green cocktail from the chilly penis of an immense nude male sculpted in ice.)

An Observer fashion spread of just this week informs readers that various items of clothing are worn with attitude... by 18 year old actress Charlotte Clements. A glance here reveals, finally, the nuts and bolts of "attitude". Ms Clements is apparently experiencing tremendous difficulty maintaining her head in an upright position, an inability to bring the upper and lower jaw together and seems to be engaging in a struggle even to keep her eyes from falling shut. In short, this proponent of "attitude" exhibits all the outward indications of a being on the verge of deep sleep.

Wednesday, February 14, 1996

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."

Wednesday, February 07, 1996

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.

Thursday, February 01, 1996

Generation

IN 1987, when the producers of Star Trek felt that the time had arrived to offer a new, improved product, they knew that there was only one phrase that would accurately reflect this latest shift to warp speed. Not only did the title of Star Trek The Next Generation alert the unwary to the present absence of Captain Kirk, it also tipped off viewers that R & D had come up with significant product enhancements.

In all this, Gene Roddenberry and his colleagues were simply adopting the perbolic argot of the hi tech industry. The principle here is to ally Mendelian genetics with splash of technological determinism. Hence, whatever have just developed irrespective of its degree of innovation, or indeed the usefulness of its actual innovations hits the shelves smelling as sweet, natural and positive as the flowers of the fields.
The Spanish were quick off the mark in naming their generations, but forfeited their position as world leaders in the field when they followed up the unflashy but evocative "Generation of '98" with the frankly derivative "Generation of 27", the latter term being used to denote contemporaries of Garcia Lorca.

Soon, the Americans had taken control over the generation manufacturing business. Their terms tended to possess an unexpected stateliness and monumentality. Gertrude Stein reportedly offered the world The Lost Generation. Jack Kerouac apparently had to make up his own moniker, The Beat Generation. By the time Generations Woodstock and Me were up and running, the business had expanded into a global concern and it became the moral duty of critics and commentators to conjure up such terms.

Manufacturing your generation for pets or food is as simple as using the remote control. Simply flick through the various viewing options until your eye settles on something you don't recognise. Take the name of whatever it is that you are a little hazy about the show's title, the channel the product advertised and add the word "generation".

Forget Generations E, X for unless, of course, you are looking for a little retro cachet. So how about "Generation Friends","Generation True Lines", "Generation Tarantino", "Generation Babylon Zoo", "Generation Brad Pitt", "Generation Limited Edition Orange Flavoured Toffee Crisp"?

Now that you have created your generational tag, you are, of course, free to configure it in whatever way most fits your user profile. Served up hot in a pop culture magazine, cook chilled in the daily papers, refried on 12-1, or served with a sesame seed bun for that big client pitch.

Traders in "generation" monikers have had some difficulty realising that the value of the term has collapsed. The velocity of contemporary communication has not simply meant that the shelf life of a "generation" has been seriously curtailed. There has been another perhaps far more important change in the use of the term.

The tight focus of the media on just one minuscule imagined community, one tiny illusive "generation", means that the word has lost all its functionality. So that for every "generation" caught momentarily in the headlights of the communications industry's juggernauts, there is an almost infinite number of others, which have scampered off to enjoy glorious anonymity beyond the ring road.

Wednesday, January 24, 1996

Browsing

IF You were approached by somebody who solicitously inquired, "Do you need any help at all? We do have that in the cerise as well. Would you like to see it in the cerise?" You might, in the distant past, have been tempted to reply to the interloper with a firm "No thanks, I'm only browsing". These days, to apply the word "only" to the activity would be to make a large and embarrassing error, since browsing has become one of the defining activities of the 1990s.

For many years, the word "browse" seemed to be moving away from its original meaning, which older dictionaries define as "to eat and nibble of small twigs and leaves". Often they accommodatingly add that the word is derived from the obsolete French word broust, meaning a young shoot, in turn giving brouster, to feed on these tasty morsels. The immediate image is of squat, hen like creatures with big eyes, far too timid, or ill equipped to fight for food, picking only those pieces that require no heavy chewing and are easily digestible in their minute stomachs the sort of folks, in fact, that you might expect to find jammed in front of computer terminals.

More recent definitions tend to switch the emphasis to the figurative meaning, so that "browse" comes to qualify the standard of attention given to a text. The word came to be applied to a certain, very relaxed form of reading. This probably had much to do with the random way in which factoids and phrases were picked up, but also with the fact that to do so it was necessary to finger your way through the leaves of the book.

With the invention of hypertext, the character of browsing was transformed. The word may previously have suggested reading without due care, but with the arrival of multi layered, non linear text, browsing became the only plausible approach. (In this context, surf the internet verb much favoured by aul' fellas frying to sell canned drinks to teenagers, opens up a far less fruitful set of metaphors.)

Hence people using the World Wide Web (WWW) the world's largest hypertext no matter how serious their intent, remain browsers. Unlike the feeding of the devilish trains that proto green novelist, Henry David Thoreau noticed had "browsed off all the woods on Walden shore," WWW browsing is an extremely ecologically sustainable activity, since you can browse and browse and browse, but there will still be plenty left for everyone.

There is, of course, money in browsing, as the owners of Netscape, the brand name most associated with the word, discovered in 1995. Marc Andreesen and his colleagues at the company developed a programme for reading the Web, referred to, naturally enough, as a browser. Though many other companies also developed "browsers" such as Mosaic, Ariadna and PowerBrowser, none has yet matched the success of Netscape. When the company went on the US stock market last year, Andreesen is reported to have made $ 50 million overnight. Hardly chicken feed.

LOAD-DATE: January 24, 1996

Wednesday, January 17, 1996

Stalk

STICKS and stones may break my bones, but only word, "stalker" seems guaranteed to have an equally forceful effect. There was always something odd and unnatural about "stalking" even when the word meant to walk warily, on the tips of the toes, as though the legs themselves had been lengthened into stalk like structures. Initially this type of walking was associated as much with hauteur as with hunting, but lately things have changed, and the word has come to represent a peculiarly nasty brand of fin-de-siecle self abasement.

The sinister qualities of the word were greatly enhanced by both the John Stalker affair, and by Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker. It was, however, in December 1980, when stalker superstar Mark Chapman shot his idol John Lennon, that the term first became defined in the public imagination in its modern sense, as one closely associated with violence and social alienation. When the word again featured in coverage a few months later, of the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan, "stalker" had finally stepped out of the shadows.

Reagan's stalker, John Hinckley, also helped highlight a crucial audio visual document for all prospective stalkers Martin Scorsese's 1976, Taxi Driver. When Hinckley shot at the President he did 50, he has suggested, in emulation of the film's hero, citing a desire to communicate with Jodie Foster, who played a young prostitute in the film. Ever since, the Paul Schrader scripted film has been a touchstone for screen wackos right up to Kassovitz's Vinz in La Haine.

At times it seems that the real popularity of the word is related to the type of images it helps create in films. Night in the trailer park. The police close in on their target, force a flimsy door and roll into the dingy Formica hutch that somebody calls home. A torch passes over a wall, straying across a movie star pin up and an empty Big Mac carton. Someone throws the light switch and a million taped up images of one face and one body fill the screen. If the police are having a good day, some of the photos will be scrawled over with quotations from the Kabbala in candy pink lipstick.

While garish lipstick may be a form of communication much favoured by movie stalkers, their real life counterparts have, predictably, adopted more modern methods. It is now possible to stalk by telephone, removing any necessity to move on tiptoes, and even through the Internet, removing any obligation to contact the "victim".

In 1990, California passed the United States' first law making stalking a felony all other states have since followed suit. On this side of the Atlantic, the word remains the property of the media. But even without the sanction of law, it is enjoying a full and active life. Neither the man who followed Princess Anne, nor the one who waited for Princess Diana with out a camera, was charged with stalking, but nobody writing about either event was in any doubt these men were stalkers.

British men's magazine Loaded, cautious as ever when it comes to the sensitive stuff, features a rubric in which readers are encouraged to get their arms around a star while a friend takes a picture. The resulting photos of bodybuilders, porn stars and chat show hosts are printed under the title "Now You're Stalking" tactlessly converting the most solitary of contemporary pastimes into a team sport.

LOAD-DATE: January 17, 1996

Wednesday, January 10, 1996

Sorted

THERE is a strong temptation to see the popularity of the word "sorted" as related to the rise of what was has been called Estuary English. This popular southern English dialect, a kind of slurred, neo cockney hailstorm of glottal stops, was popularised nationally in the early 1990s by such media intellectuals as Danny Baker, endorsed southern based footballers, and later spoken by the cast of Hollyoaks.

In particular, players from London based football clubs have done much to help "sorted" on its journey from local vocal tick, to national crie de guerre in 1989, Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt defended his then team mate, Paul Gascoigne, against charges of immaturity and irresponsibility. "To his credit he has done brilliantly," Mabbutt told a London Times sports writer, "even though he is always being sorted out by opponents because he is a quality player. Even given Gazza's hell raising reputation, it seems likely that his fellow footballers were on these occasions offering the star knees to the groin rather than tributes of illicit narcotics.

Until Pulp lead singer and TOTP star Jarvis Cocker jammed a crowbar between "sorted" and "out", however, the word's associations with drug culture remained a secrets shared by about three million people. Cocker has suggested that when he co opted the word into the title of his 1995 hit, Sorted for E's and Win, he was using a phrase suggested by a woman encountered in a Sheffield nightclub.

Cocker's correspondent, in her turn, claimed to have carried the runes from an even more powerful site of authenticity than Sheffield. At Spike island, Manchester, in May 1991 the time and place of an epoch making Stone Roses gig barkers were reported to have wandered through the crowd, solicitously inquiring whether people were amply equipped in terms of amphetamine derivatives.

Somewhere between Spike Island and Jarvis Cocker, several other people caught on to the word. One appropriation suggests that advertising runs a little ahead of popular culture. In its series of commercials for Audi, London firm Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty climaxed a VO monologue on the beauties of Vienna with a simple tag line that did far more for the product's credibility than an hour of Freudian photography "Sorted," decides the thoroughly decent but fund a mentally funky oink at the wheel.

Once "sorted" had taken the term to the upper reaches of the Gallup charts, it would be easy to imagine that the word would soon lose its popularity. In fact, quite the opposite happened propriety over the word merely changed hands. After the death of Leah Betts, ad agency Knight Leach Delaney and "youth marketing specialists" FFI came together to create an anti Ecstasy poster for use across Britain. The image featured a Sun style image of Betts in extremis with one word overprinted in roaring type, turning sorted into the revolting, gleeful "gotcha" of the 1990s.

Wednesday, January 03, 1996

Content

At this very moment there is a search under way, a mad, desperate search, a search every bit as crazed, driven and misguided as the one instigated against Dr. Richard Kimble. Out there in the darkness, maybe down a manhole, or up a tree, "content" is hiding. He may lurk breathlessly in a vault in Abbey Road, like The Beatles Anthology, or in the dankest corners of Shepherd's Bush, like the programming of UK Gold, but wherever he is, the US Marshal will not sleep until this fugitive has been run to earth.

It is all very well, it seems, to have palm sized silver disks that can carry 600 megabytes of information. It may be worthy of note that European publishing giants are sprouting electronic wings, or that even RTE Radio I now has 24 hours of medium every day. But we now need something that can be converted into zeroes and ones and siphoned into all these new media something that can be sent ad astra and bounced back to a deep dish near you, something anything that can be called "content".

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a global entertainment conglomerate with multimedia ambitions must be in search of "software content". Now that legislation which once enforced a legal separation between "content" and "carriage" is either being struck off or placed under attack Marshal McLuhans much misunderstood aphorism "the medium is the message" has a new and depressing significance.

Take the typical television advertisement for a multimedia information product. A young child and an elder snivel over a snapping and popping CDROM about all the animals in the sea, or all the animals which might tear off your small limbs if you ever left your bedroom. The ad is not, of course, in the end about the animals, or about the educational possibilities of digital technology, it is about buying in to the future, it is about gulping down the elixir of eternal youth to a soundtrack of dolphin quacks.

Look closely The copywriter may sheepishly assert that owning this machine will bring the sights and sounds of lions, tigers and dissected human bodies into the home, but what the blipvert actually says, it's latent content if you like, is that "content" has no importance. What you need to share life everlasting is this delivery system, this container, this medium.

Obviously, it is necessary to disguise this reality. "Content", after all, continues to exert an atavistic fascination that is extremely effective when it comes to selling hardware. "Content" is the perfect lie, the one that will let us believe that somewhere, buried deep in the heart of the machine code, there is a reason why. Give it up.

Wednesday, December 13, 1995

Trust

WHEN the Sex Pistols, with Malcolm McLaren's help, fold their followers "Never trust a hippy" the snotty motto had a double impact. It spotlighted the punks' darkest foe, while at same time pointing out that those who had screeched "Never trust anyone over 30" from the barricades were now, by their own definition, untrustworthy. What is interesting is that these two radical youth movements, the hippies and the punks, although apparently poles apart, both defined themselves by what they did not trust.

The middle English "trust" originated in the old Norse for strong or firm. These qualities are, of course, easier to assess in a sword than in a person's degree of resolve. In the late Sixties, however, psychologists became interested in the possibility of creating and calibrating trust through "trust games", instituting what has become a tug of war between trust as a naive ideal and as a potent method of crowd control.

By the time punk had collapsed into new wave, and new wave sunk to The Knack the territory of "trust" was all but left to Elvis Costello. The narrator of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, suffered badly from a disease prevalent in American at this time an incurable belief that Elvis Costello was deep. This conviction led him to read the decline of the West into a poster of the singer's 1981 album on which could be seen "The word 'Trust' hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes. . . The eyes don't look at me, though." Wooh! Scary!

As "trust" slid out of popular culture, through psychology and into industrial relations, the word was converted into a tool for the pursuit of competitiveness. "Any shortcoming in trust can trigger uncertainty and fear, blocking the flexibility, needed for keeping up with changes in technology and markets," the US magazine, Industry. Week told its readers in an article entitled "15 Ways To Win People's Trust" way back in 1993. Those who still think trust must be earned have lost their purchase on reality trust can now be manufactured in industrial quantities, although regional distribution can still be a problem.

By 1995, trust had become a science. Perhaps think tank kingpin Francis Fukuyama is simply being realistic when, in his Trust The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, he describes trust in economic terms. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine that the author of The End of History and The Last Man, was not aware of the depressing quality of his assertion that trust has "a large and measurable economic value".

Fukuyama's cry may be heard in the high temple of the Pounds 25 management hardback, but it is still spoken in the language of the covered wagon the miracle cure medicine man still waves a magic potion in the air You can trust me, the pitch goes, "I'm an analyst with the RAND corporation.

Sunday, December 10, 1995

Club

THE word "club" shares a common root with clump and lump, as all three come from Northern European terms describing something that has been pressed tightly together, something that is dense a mass, a block, though not necessarily a worse than senseless thing. By extension, the word comes to represent a heavy stick, and humankind being what they are this heavy stick is soon looked upon as a weapon. Meanwhile, back with the peacemakers, (the Scandinavians) the same root comes to suggest a clump of people

Quick off off the blocks, William Thackery was alert in using up all the available tolerance for humour based on the two senses of the word "club". In his novel, George de Barnwell, he suggested that in Pall Mall there existed dismal and enormous Mansions of Silence" referred to as "clubs" because "they knock you down with their dullness.

The airline industry's use of the word crops up in the mid 1970s. With a surge in the number of people flying for business purposes it became expedient to offer special facilities to make people feel part of a comforting, manly club, even when views of Mayfair were obscured by clouds. In the event of a mishap, members of these exclusive clubs would bravely become a clump of people significant seconds before those in economy.

Despite the best efforts of airlines everywhere, for many people the word "club" less frequently conjures a vision of champagne inspired airborne conviviality, than a very different sense of bonhomie apparently fuelled entirely by non sparkling mineral water. But as "dance" took over from "gentleman" as the adjective most often seen in the company of "club", the idea that "clubbers" are by definition those who frequent clubs became increasingly anachronistic.

Alongside the creation of a number of British "super clubs", such as Liverpool's Cream, Manchester's The Hacienda and London's Ministry of Sound, the 1990s have seen the switch of "clubs" from the service to the manufacturing sector. Recently "clubs" have begun producing their own product ranges, running from items of branded clothing to dj sequenced compilation CDs of popular "club" music.

It all, of course, makes good financial sense. By releasing, for example, a CD of dance tunes dandily arrayed in the club's signature graphic style, the management can capitalise on a good brand name in very much the way that Mars did when they introduced the ice cream version of their products.

The discordant note is that the market for these records is hardly centred on those who have visited the venue. This is just as well, since such a restriction would apparently confine sales to footballers and younger cast members of Brookside and Coronation Street.

All the others who want to take part in these clubs must satisfy themselves with reading about them, normally in that other burgeoning arena of virtual clubbing, club magazines.

So finally equipped with a copy of the Mixmag or Musik in your hand, and a Dave Morales mixed Cream CD in your Disc man, you can at last join the club, while remaining at home, alone.

Friday, November 24, 1995

Agenda

WHY are you telling me this? What do you want me to do about it? Are you voting "yes" or "no"? Will you be staying long? What do you want from me? They may seem like many different questions, but they all emerge from the same shadowy corner. Somebody wants to know: "What is your agenda?"

For a time, an agenda was something fairly straightforward. It had its roots in the Latin agere, "to do", the gerundive of which, agendum, was a thing to be done, an item of business. The singular has since been ditched, squashed lifeless in a manoeuvre that gives the first hint of an inching towards the contemporary clan destine sense of the word.

In one little side step, the word moved from talking about the thing to talking about the list on which things might appear. From here it is only a quick hop to the point when the word has become a sort of substitute for the lexically flighty word "ideology". This latter word clearly had too much Marxist savour by the time "hidden agenda" began to turn up in the discourses of management.

The concept of a "hidden agenda appears in management speak by the mid 1970s when it suggested a set of sub merged motivations nestling behind the official list of business at a meeting. This term had itself been adapted from curriculum" an educationalists way of describing the surreptitious imparting to children of a set of values.

A 1989 a US company, Springboard Software, released an interactive geopolitical simulation" i.e. a computer game, called Hidden Agenda, in which amusement was derived from running a digital Central American republic. By the time Ken Loach made Hidden Agenda, his 1990 attempt to see who was playing a similar game in Northern Ireland, the phrase had become a journalistic cliche. The first part of the phrase is no longer spoken, since hidden agenda" is now a tautology.

You must, therefore, distrust anybody who says "My agenda is... The contemporary sense of agenda denies the possibility that you will ever be explicit about what you want. Your agenda is the other part of your psychic iceberg, always there, always below the surface. It is that bit of your being you hold most dear, that little corner you will reveal not to lovers, nor constituents, nor parishioners. Which is why agenda has come to occupy a certain position of almost religious importance, your agenda, after all, fills the vacant space left behind when you lost your soul.

Wednesday, November 15, 1995

Camp

IT OUGHT to be no surprise that as a term concerned with various types of overabundance and extravagance, there are a healthy number of possible derivations and definitions for the word "camp". Some authorities believe the word is related to the French secamper, with its association with the large, billowy tents in which Louis XIV's army travelled.

Other feasible sounding options include KAMP, an American police acronym standing for "known as male prostitute", se campeggiare, the Italian for "to stand out", and "camping" a term referring to the Elizabethan theatrical habit of casting boys in women's roles. No reliable source has yet been able to establish any role for the Kerry town of Camp in the evolution of the term.

If the origins of "camp" remain uncertain, there is also substantial debate as to what the term describes. When presented with the superfluity of possible definitions, one lexicographer decided to pursue an unorthodox though nevertheless highly logical approach. On the set of the 1968 classic Carry On Camping, he approached Kenneth Williams and asked the master of double entendre to give him one.

The suggestion Williams offered, that the word meant that which is fundamentally frivolous" seemed to ignore Susan Sontag's fascinating if dated 1963 Partisan Review essay, Notes on Camp, in which the term is seen as representing a work of art, or performance, which is ambitious and unsuccessful with almost the same degree of innocence in both cases.

The title of Philip Core's encyclopaedia of camp, Camp, The Lie That Tells The Truth, takes its title from an aphorism of Jean Cocteau's published in Vanity Fair in 1922. This seems to give the lie to the common suggestion that the word appeared in its current use after the second World War, while at the same time hinting that a French origin for "the word is likely.

Core's use of the word is significant in that he suggests that "camp" can be offered as a moral value as much as an aesthetic one (albeit only through offering a suspicious set of opposites). He says that: "Throughout history there has always been a significant minority whose unacceptable characteristics - talent, poverty, physical unconventionality, sexual anomaly - render them vulnerable to the world's brutal laughter. Hiding their mortification behind behaviour which is often as deviant as that which is concealed is the mainspring of camp."

This definition allows his dictionary to carry entries on many surprising figures, not least of whom is Cardinal Newman. The prelate is dubbed camp for hiding his true nature, as an aesthete, beneath his incense and cassocks. But while the cardinal may have made an interesting stab at being camp, he can hardly have laid claim to doing so in any contemporary sense.

For although camp may have begun as something of an esoteric pursuit, it has now become the dominant style of mass communication. As commercial concerns have tended to homogenise all mass art - Hollyoaks Home and Away, EastEnders, Brookside, you make your own list - camp is now put to service to cloak not strangeness, but familiarity. Camp must conceal that there is, sadly, nothing to hide.

LOAD-DATE: November 15, 1995

Thursday, November 09, 1995

Log

THERE was nothing too strange to report when on September 8th, 1966, James T. Kirk first began to, enter reports in that most famous of all logs, the Captain's log of the Starship Enterprise. It had, after all, been quite some time since the English word "log" had represented nothing more than a piece of wood.
Derived from the middle English logge (and unrelated to the Greek logos, which has seen much active service since Jacques Derrida et al became interested in logocentrism) the word first went to sea as an aid to navigation.

The original shipboard log was, almost startlingly, a piece of wood, attached to a rope and unwound behind the boat. As knots had be tied in the rope, it was possible to gauge the speed of the vessel from the number of "knots" that passed overboard in a given time. The results of this blissfully simple and direct calculation were then noted in a book, which logically enough became known as a log book.

Captain Kirk's first Star Trek entry marked, however, the passing into the mass media of the word's association with space age technology. Some years earlier, computers had come into the picture and a link between the word and technoculture had, begun in a manner charted in John A. Barry's Technobabble. The "electronic brains" of the 1940s and 1950s were operated by specialists, hidden away in backrooms. Anyone needing some numbers crunched had to lug great series of punch cards down the corridor to these gate-keepers of digital processing.

Soon, however, minicomputers with multiple terminals and keyboards became common place. Although this development meant that the processors could now be operated by less specialised personnel, access was still limited to prearranged periods of time. The time at which users booked to be on the computer, and the time they were due to be off would, of course, have to be logged centrally.

So, very much as the ancient mariners headed for the New World with the aid of their logs, so later data sailors were obliged to keep a careful eye on the log. The commonplace metaphorical use of the word "surf" is therefore merely an extension of an already existing - albeit submerged in language - link between accessing digital information and moving through a sea. (The Oxford English Dictionary mentions another association between the two words as early as 1967, when a guide to surfing explains that a "log" is a very heavy surfboard.)

As with all sea journeys, plain sailing is never certain. Anyone who has tried to contact their local online service during American Internet primetime will probably perceive the word "loam" very differently from, say, Gerry Adams. For these unhappy people, the word represents an irritating impediment to logging on.
The solution for this contemporary logjam is not, of course, to dynamite but to redial.

LOAD-DATE: November 9, 1995

Wednesday, November 01, 1995

Guy

MOST people, evens Americans, who have very little excuse seem to prefer to believe that the reason they refer to each other as "guys" is related to an incident, the anniversary of which some British people will celebrate this Sunday. When Guy Fawkes led his failed coup d'etat in 1605, he had no way of knowing that he was about to offer up his name as a kind of rallying call for the men's movement.

Fawkes is not, however, the only one under suspicion of furtively aiding the popularity of the word. Also standing accused are the Hebrew goy, meaning gentile, and a number of terms rooted in the Latin for guide. Still, Fawkes and the effigies of him known as guys, which were already well known as such at the beginning of the last century, seem to be holding the smoking gun.

The term had reached the United States by the middle of the last century, and was already popular long before Damon Runyon's 1931 Guys and Dolls outing. But Runyon did a great deal more than give the term publicity. Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah Brown also made sure that the word would forever be implicated in what were not at the time called gender roles.

Runyon also created an unbreakable link between "guy" and crime that was still holding strong when Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy, later filmed by Scorsese under the title, Goodfellas. Pileggi's characters turned out not to be particularly sagacious folk, but simply the sort of people whose wisdom deficit one did not bring up members of the mob.

"Doll" has more recently faded into the shadows, becoming a derogatory term even for toys, but guys, whether wise, regular, normal or nice, are experiencing something of a renaissance. The rainbow nuances of bloke and lad are fast disappearing as the male is increasingly crushed into the ill fitting trousers of guy hood, desperately seeking validation of body odour and bad personal habits through the pages of Loaded.

In Garrison Keillor's 1993 The Book of Guys, one nameless bearded character seems to adopt a Fukuyama like view when he assesses the changes in the status of "guy" as related to the fall of the Iron curtain. "I miss communism When the Soviet Union fell apart I don't know it seemed everything went slack ... Guys lost interest in baseball, guns guys quit messing with cars. I say nuts to sensitivity. Go ahead and fart."

Well, as Fawkes himself was known to remark, a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy, so light the blue touch paper and stand well back.

Thursday, October 26, 1995

Arthouse

A JAR of milk, carelessly left too close to an edge, falls slowly to the floor.
An Asian woman rollerskates across a deserted warehouse while someone takes a bath. A car speeds headlong down a Glasgow street, Anthony Quinn spoons himself some penne rigate. A sad, soutaned priest waves goodbye to a group of impeccable schoolchildren, Charles Aznavour tumbles down a snowy hillside. We are obviously in a land called "arthouse".

Leslie Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion - in an entry not updated since the mid 1970s - suggests rather dustily that "art house " (at that time still two words) was an American phrase meaning a cinema that screened "classic revivals and highbrow or off beat new films of limited commercial appeal".

While the world's first arthouse cinema was probably Jean Tedesco's Cinema D'Avant Garde, opened in Paris in 1924, the term art house does not really flourish until the 1950s in the United States. Initially the word was used to describe cinemas, where "art films" by the likes of Bergman and Kurosawa could be seen. By 1950 there were some 500 art house cinemas in the US, and by 1955 their owners had an international representative body, the International Confederation of Art Houses.

Nowadays, it is when a movie leaves this type of cinema, that the term "arthouse" is most likely to be applied to it. Fredric Jameson, who has suggested that there is no such thing as an identifiable sub genre of "art movie" anymore, has clearly not been down to Laser Videos recently. Here, shelf after shelf of cassettes distributed by companies such as Tartan, Connoisseur or of course, Art House Productions sit primly under the shelf mark arthouse.

We are currently in a transitional phase in which whether you separate, stick together, or even hyphenate the words "art" and "house", gives an indication of your political leanings. If you tend to separate your art from your house, you obviously have a recidivist hankering for the communal joys of sitting in a darkened room watching Salo with a number of like minded, black clad citizens. However, if you glue the two together, you almost certainly understand "arthouse" as defining a potentially lucrative type of audiovisual commodity.

In the latter case, the word "arthouse" has simply been substituted for an older, discredited word: the prospect of a shelf labelled "art" is obviously considered either too elitist, too commercially undesirable or simply too ridiculous. As the space between its two constituent parts closes up, however, "arthouse" begins to present itself as the perfect word to describe tasty take away art. Go to your homes and prepare for pizza.

All of this naturally leaves exposed Ireland's latest cog in "the last machine" - the all singing, all dancing, all realtime 3D rendering audiovisual factory, Arthouse, opening shortly in Dublin's Temple Bar. Initially, the centre's name may have been chosen for the hygienic virtue evoked by its simplicity and eager, teutonic chime. But things change, and as the word begins to darken around the edges, how long before it comes to represent the contemporary equivalent of the dark, satanic mills, now disguised as the bright, saintly art house?

LOAD-DATE: October 26, 1995

Wednesday, October 18, 1995

Like

IT'S like... so weird. It's like... unstoppable. There was a time when two senses of the word "like", suggesting a similarity or an affection, was all English speakers had to tackle. When a rogue "like"- showed up in the everyday speech of suburban Dublin, it was as a substitute for "eh or "urn", a sort patch to cover up a period of like... mental lag. But now things have gotten, like... way out of hand.

First off, it is the sound of the word that really grates. There is always a short anticipatory pause before it is spoken, then, if at all possible, the following clause climaxes in the slight rise in intonation that might ordinarily indicate like... a question mark? Once this simple formula is mastered, a universe of uncomplicated communication is opened up. Storytelling is hugely simplified as "like" can introduce a quotation ("he was like let go of me") while at the same time deferring any direct assertion of truth by offering a phantom simile.
The use of "like" in these situations abdicates the chore of interpretation as every happenstance becomes a scene from your very own soap opera. Instead of playing the author of a novel, one is simply re-reading a transcript.

This use of the word is hardly brand new. It was already part of a satirisable sub-cultural argot by the time Frank and Moon Unit Zappa had, their hit single, Valley Girl in 1982. Nevertheless, a couple of cassettefuls of 1990s television has helped bring -about the word's current ubiquity. You can look closely at My So- Called Life, The Real World, Friends or indeed the movie Claeless, and guess that they all have in common casts of young, white, middle class Americans. Their strongest similarity, however, is in their tallies of the word "like".

Everywhere, the word provides that 138 beats per minute under the sample of self-justification, riveting together a bout of hardcore storytelling. Whenever eye-witnesses tell the CBS evening news of the, shocking, litigatably traumatising event they were lucky enough to witness, it is the word for which they most often grope. "I was just across the road when there was this, like. ... screaming? and I was like... what's happening?' and my friend was like... get down?' and there was this like. . . really big explosion? Isn't it time you like... stopped saying that.

Wednesday, September 27, 1995

Heritage

IF PATRIOTISM is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then "heritage" is his final breathless scamper to avoid a sound flogging. The word has for a long time maintained a flickering presence. It could as easily represent something as hard and tangible as a plot of land, or something as personal as a partiality for mature, unpasteurised cheese. Increasingly, however, your heritage is less and less likely to mean an inalienable right, and more and more likely to be an "Experience".

The rot had set in long before David Mellor brought the term into disrepute during his time as Secretary of State for National Heritage in the United Kingdom. Even the title of Robert Hevison's 1987 book, The Heritage Industry gives a fair indication of the word's decline. What constitutes heritage, Hewison suggested, is controlled by a number of factors, ranging from nationalistic concerns to the desire to create a site with pulling power. The best way to achieve the latter, of course, is to offer people the heritage they would most like to have: a mirror in which to see themselves reflected as sexy and interesting.

The word "heritage" is now frequently used as a stamp denoting authenticity of a kind almost beyond question. A heritage trail is not an invitation to speculate, it is a demand to acknowledge. A heritage centre, like its close cousin the interpretative centre, is simply a lightning rod for tourist cash. Forte Heritage Hotels may indeed be fine establishments, but the "heritage" of the name whiffs undeniably of positioning rather than pride, of rapidly applied patina rather than seasoning.

Something of the real face of "heritage" emerged last week when the National Trust, once the keepers of Britain's heritage, were revealed to have fired a number of exemplary employees because they were too old.. Old people, of course, are not really part of the desired image for the gleaming machines of the heritage industry. These people were, the trust explained, taking casual jobs, such as giving out car park tickets, and depriving other, younger people of work. One such local "job seeker" interviewed by the BBC was asked if he was interested in "the national heritage". "No," he replied sharply, then added, in a significantly less confident tone, "what is it?" The journalist, of course, provided no answer.

Wednesday, September 20, 1995

Portishead

ENOUGH, already. The word "Portishead" may never complete the journey from the pages of the Portishead and North Weston Town Guide to those of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it still is a signifier that looms over a significant swathe of contemporary culture, and a word as dreaded as it is unavoidable.

There was a time when most of those who regularly used the word "Portishead" lived in or around the estuary town of that name near junction 19 on the M5 in England, and were just as likely to be familiar with the towns of Clevedon and Yatton. While two employees of Robert John, a local chain of hair salons, achieved some notoriety when they represented Great Britain in the hairdressing event at the International Youth Skills Olympics, their success did little to popularise the word.

By the autumn of 1994, however, the number of people using the word in everyday conversation had increased beyond even the most extravagant dreams of the Portishead Urban District Council. A group of local musicians calling themselves "Portishead" had released an album called Dummy, and suddenly the word was dotted through the pages of the broadsheet newspapers and the grown ups' music press like a particularly virulent strain of lexical measles.

Initially, the word stood for rather nice digital torch songs, cooked on sequencers and samplers to a fairly simple recipe. A bass line strolled along as though on a nocturnal wander through the lamplit streets of suburban England, smoking and occasionally fingering the knot on its tie. Then some sparse drumbeats cut in, presently followed by a withered female vocal, seemingly emanating from behind the clenched jaws of a corpse in the advanced stages of rigor mortis. All this would carry on for several minutes before tumbling to a halt in a grid lock of reverberation, and starting all over again.

Pretty soon "Portishead" came to mean the soundtrack heard whenever the makers of a TV programme (particularly of the bitty, magazine variety) wanted to stoke up some generic atmosphere. Pitching such an item, a researcher could forgo any struggling references to film noir, Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, or Funeral in Berlin, by saying simply "the atmosphere is completely Portishead."

But the word also means something much, much more. It is not simply that Dummy won last week's distinctly uncoveted Mercury Music Prize. Long before the award, "Portishead" had assumed a central position in describing the 1990s. How you stand in relation to "Portishead" does much to determine how well you are coping with balding/love handles/the fin de siecle. Well adjusted citizens tended to see "Portishead" as a wonderful new beginning, representing the advent of classicism in turntable culture. Others, however, couldn't help thinking: "Cheer up, luv, it may never 'appen".

Wednesday, September 13, 1995

Power

THE word power has been busy in the later half of the 20th century, popping up in all sorts of discourses from philosophy to cultural studies; from management to computing.

As well as its obvious adaptability, as a noun, adjective and verb, the word also has the potential for an enormous range of moods, from faceless to monolithic, when in the company of its close friend, knowledge, to boyish and ironic when it steps out with consumer durables.

It is the latter of these moods that has seen the most prolific development in the last 20 years. Politicians have grown careful about the use of the word. Henry Kissinger may once have asserted that a low fibre diet of committee meetings and mendacity "is the great aphrodisiac", but that was then, and this is now. Postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard, is closer to the spirit of the times when he suggests contact with men of power is "very like being in close proximity to faecal matter"

In the 1980s, the rise of terms such as power dressing, power lunching and power napping marked a halfway point in the word's slide into the market place. These phrases permitted a modicum of ambiguity, since it was never really clear whether the use of pin-stripe twin-sets and shoulder pads was a forceful way of dressing, or a bid for power in the more traditional sense. This ambiguity was, however, short-lived.

In the 1990s, while automobile companies began to experience difficulty equating their product's real asset - the power of their machines - with environmental awareness, in other sectors, power lust slipped in less obtrusively. It was a typically astute move when Apple decided that its latest generation of computers would bear the prefix "power". In the unleaded world of computing, PowerBooks and PowerPCs were devoid of destructive, pollutant connotations, while still maintaining the allure of the word.

But while computer manufacturers are happy to make use of the word "power", they are not alone. When Newt Gingrich was looking for a fitting guest of honour for his swearing in at the 150th Congress earlier this year, he naturally enough selected the stars of one of the US's top-rated TVshows, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, thus co-opting the word's refreshed image for the Republican party.

Wednesday, September 06, 1995

Serotonin

LIKE cholesterol in the Seventies, serotonin has become the essential chemical (word) to drop in the Nineties. The word is key, not just in the live for ever and be happy too publishing industry, via the anti depressant, Prozac, but also in the tabloid rave vicar sex romp market, via Ecstasy. Both drugs, it turns out, work by messing about with the same brain chemical, serotonin.

Interest in the substance hardly seems surprising. Serotonin appears to be involved in the control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature, mood, behaviour, personality (there's a biggy), cardiovascular function, depression, muscle contraction, endocrine regulation, and dancing style. No great shock then that the market for serotoninrelated drugs in the 1990s is expected to top 10 billion dollars - and that is from chemist shops, rather than night club sales.

Serotonin was first isolated in 1948, from blood, which is why its name suggests that it was found in blood serum and affected the tone of blood vessels. At first, when most serotonin was found to be in the digestive tract, it received little media attention. Later, however, when American psychopharmacologists began to investigate the relationship between serotonin and the use of, the hallucinogenic drugs, the word's social standing soared.

It was the arrival on the scene of another chemical fluoxetine, that brought serotonin into its current frantic vogue. Drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, began marketing its brand of the antidepressant chemical, Prozac in 1987, but it was not until several years later that it achieved its image as the mental health cure all. In his 1993 book, Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer, used expressions like "cosmetic psycho pharmacology" and "better than well" to expound a theory about life that suggested, roughly, that you don't have to be broken to get fixed - pretty much the hypothesis behind Ecstasy use.

Those writing about Ecstasy in the media often feel obliged to drop a little science into the mix, and reach for the serotonin to this end. It is, of course, unnecessary to go into the vexed questions of the relationship between serotonin levels and an appreciation of the music of Sven Vath. Merely slipping the word into a report is enough, quickly fulfilling the scientific research requirement, allowing the writer to get back to the juicy bits.

As the vogue takes hold, simple unhappiness has been banished. When Stephen Fry went AWOL last spring, for example, the London Times was quick to brand the culprit, explaining that the comedian's problem was "biochemical and related to serotonin levels". It can only be a short time until the present messy range of expressions meaning unhappy is entirely replaced by a scrupulously accurate and all encompassing term that has appeared in the United States. You're not sad, you see, you're "seriously serotonin deprived". Here, take one of these.

Wednesday, July 12, 1995

Access

EVERYBODY wants some; can there possibly be enough to go around? Or will the earth's reserves be depleted, leaving none for the coming generations? "Access" is now the crucial resource in everything from computing to art galleries and parenting. What you think and what you possess may be of interest, but the smart money knows that you are what you access.

It is some time since an access was an outburst of feeling never mind an ague fit. The loss of these antique definitions of "access" has, however, been more than compensated for by the word's mid-century mutation into a verb. When "access" came to be used in computing from as early as 1950, "access time," the time taken to "withdraw a number from storage," was the main issue. By the beginning of the Sixties, the idea of accessing basically, getting anything you don't have - began to explode into non-computing disciplines.

In the early Seventies, the notion that there should be more general access to the broadcast media gained ground. In theory, media access might enable ignored groups to make programmes which express and explore their own lives and interests. On this side of the Atlantic, where there was no legal obligation to provide space for this type of programming, access broadcasting never became a force.

THAT is until Channel Four's Take-Over TV a unique tranche of programming in which narcissists and weirdoes get to shout at their Hi-8 cameras about whatever interests them. For some reason, access to cheap and easy video equipment and chunks of airtime is seen as altering the intrinsic fascination of dysfunctional types, so that what was yesterday's dodgy personal habit - a penchant, say, for singing hits from Hollywood musicals while lying in a coffin spreading cream over one's naked body is today's access TV star turn.

In the US, access is often used synonymously with influence, so that those peddling influence will also lay out a line of access on their stalls. Access in these cases is not simply instrumental in achieving some aim, such as a lucrative contract, or a convivial sub-clause in legislation, but may also be something of value in itself. The same game is played more transparently in the music business, where a shiny laminate proclaiming "access all areas" is far more important as a mark of social distinction than for the freedom it might offer to climb the lighting rigging.

It is hardly surprising that those who stand to benefit most directly from increased Internet use, the companies operating modem dial-up services, have the powerful-sounding title "access providers". But while some people may suggest that high speed access to the Internet is essential for the survival of freedom, other doubting back-sliders remain more concerned with access to uncontaminated drinking water.

Wednesday, July 05, 1995

Future

WE ARE on the extreme promontory of ages! Why look back since we must break down the mysterious doors of Impossibility? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the Absolute for we have already created the omnipresent, eternal speed," wrote Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Futurist manifesto.

Despite the sound of things, Marinetti had not just spent an eye-hollowing night chasing hot links on the World Wide Web. He had instead been driving his 1908 automobile (without due care) through the streets of the industrial city, when he was struck, rather forcibly, by the notion that the future had apparently arrived at some point during the previous afternoon.

Though the Italian Futurist experiment ended rather tragically, (a celebration of the joys of the first World War led to a significant cull of Futurists, while a later flirtation with Fascism proved equally misguided) the shoots of the movement seem to have broken again, through the concrete of ages. Futurism, with its orgiastic embrace of speed and technology, has come to take up ever increasing amounts of radio, television, books, newspaper and, magazine space.

Leonard Cohen got in early on this current nouvelle vague of futurism. In the typically chirpy title-track to his 1992 album, The Future, (which Oliver Stone uses over the final sequence of Natural Born Killers) he demanded that the we "take the only tree that's left / and stick it up the hole in your culture" before announcing: "I have seen the future, baby; it is murder." Since then, however, scepticism (excluding the odd rant about "cyberporn") has gradually been banished from the future.

Of all contemporary soothsayers, none has received more rapt attention for his visions than Bill Gates. Bill's messages typically involve the kind of rhetoric that would make a medicine show doctor blush: "I think the future is irresistible and doesn't need a salesman" he told GQ readers recently. But despite such disingenuous sleight of hand, Gates wields the future like a weapon. Microsoft's rumoured tactic of announcing imaginary future products -"vapourware" to attack products in development by other companies, is the parry of a consumate future warrior.

Negotiating the gap between "now" and "the future" has always been a staple of advertising for technology. Successful advertising in this area depends on collapsing the distinction between the two, turning every product into a tiny time machine. Phillips epoch-marking slogan, "tomorrow's technology today" perfectly captured what the consumer of electronics demanded - little, glowing, black bricks of future, available at a high-fi shop near you, now.

Taking account of the popularity of the future, the German government has appointed a "Minster for the Future," Dr Jurgen Ruttgers. For our great journey towards the ever receding future, Ruttgers will obviously be awarded a passenger seat alongside Leonard Cohen and Bill Gates while, at the wheel, with a wired sparkle in his dilated pupils, will be Mannetti. Wake me when we get there.