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.