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.