Wednesday, February 28, 1996


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


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


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 " 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


"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


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.