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.