Two years ago, a short post on the Johnson blog, called “What is the Chinese language?”, became one of the most commented pieces in the history of Economist.com. Classifying languages is a hot topic, because linguistic and social facts can be hard to disentangle. Last week, we returned to the topic with a piece called “How a dialect differs from a language”, explaining that mutual intelligibility is the most important criterion for language experts. On these grounds, for example, Cantonese and Mandarin are two languages, not two dialects of a single language called Chinese. Once again, many passionate objections appeared in the comments.
One is that speakers of different dialects of English can struggle to understand each other too. Does that make an Irish brogue and an Appalachian twang “languages”? No. But why not? The best answer is that they are very obviously modifications on a standard framework. Through education, most people learn to avoid dialect features and move along a continuum towards a well-known standard. The national standards (General American, RP in Britain and so on) are nearly 100% mutually intelligible. And even a conscious attempt to avoid dialect features is not usually necessary. Johnson’s father came from Macon, Georgia, and spoke a heavily southern American English. He was not an experienced international traveller, but when we visited rural western Ireland, any head-scratching was brief: he was understood by, and understood, everyone.
Simply put, it would be a struggle to find any two “English” speakers around the world who truly cannot converse. Scenes like the famous subtitled “jive” from Airplane! are funny precisely because they don’t happen in real life. Now some varieties of “English” are so opaque to most English-speakers that they are considered languages: New Guinea’s Tok Pisin, Jamaica’s Creole and America’s Gullah are just a few. Some, like Jamaican Creole (“Patois”), run on a continuum, from a mere accent to fully unintelligible to outsiders. But accent, a few local words and a tiny few grammar differences (like you/y’all/youse), do not hinder comprehension enough to make Kentuckyan or Brooklynese “languages”.
What about the Chinese case? A Cantonese-speaker cannot simply minimise a few Cantonese features of his speech, moving smoothly towards a standard, to be understood by someone from Beijing. A list of ordinary Cantonese words shows stark differences from standard Mandarin, not just tomayto, tomahto stuff. They include “this” (Cantonese ni, Mandrin zhe), “that” (go/na), “here” (nidouh/zher), “is” (haih/shi), “no/not” (mh/bu), “now” (yihga/xianzai) and “home” (ukkei/jia), and many more. Nor are these occasional words likelift v elevator. “This”, “that”, “here”, “no” and “now” are the very guts of a language. So unlike “jive” into English, Cantonese movies really are subtitled for a wider Chinese audience.
But none of this discussion should ignore the fact that Han Chinese do often consider themselves to be speaking the same language with local variety, not dozens of languages. To say they are simply wrong is not helpful. A language is also a social construct, an “imagined community”. These constructs or communities should not be dismissed as fantasy. And so some linguists, especially sociolinguists, take into account what people call their language, how they talk about it, and whether they share a literature.
To illustrate, one commenter on our “Explains” article recommended the Wikipedia article which lays out the concept of an Ausbausprache, roughly a “constructed” or “built-out” language. This is usually a vehicle for national identity, even if it has mutually intelligible neighbours. “Bokmål” Norwegian is considered a traditional example. At a recent Copenhagen press conference hosted by Danske Bank, the Norwegian chief executive joked “I hope you understand my dialect of Danish” before addressing the reporters in Norwegian. They asked their questions in Danish and he replied in Norwegian again. In the jargon, his Norwegian might not be an Abstandsprache—a language by virtue of its distance (Abstand) from Danish. But it is an Ausbausprache, an official standard and a sociolinguistic reality that Norwegians take seriously as a language. It would be blinkered, not to mention rude, to say that they are simply deluding themselves.
Marginal cases abound. Local versions of Italian and German are called everything from “accent” to “dialect” to “language”, and some are mutually unintelligible. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins are busily creating Ausbausprachen out of what was once a single Serbo-Croatian. Some commenters sarcastically wondered aloud whether Spanish and Portuguese should be considered a single language. We might well add: what about Portuguese and Galician? Dutch and Afrikaans? Farsi and Dari? Hindi and Urdu? Mutual intelligibility may be the go-to standard, but where that isn’t decisive, even linguists, while they care mostly about pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, consider non-linguistic factors like self-perception.
The fact is that most people aren’t linguists, and social reality is important. My favourite comment on the whole debate was this one, in relation to the question of whether Chinese is one language with dialects or a family made up of languages:
Both answers are correct. They’re coming from two different perspectives that use different criteria as to what qualifies as being a language. It’s like when you get biologists arguing with chefs about what the difference between a fruit and a vegetable REALLY is.
Try offering your child “a piece of fruit”, and then when he accepts, handing him a chili pepper. The specialists’ definition is not the only one that matters, as any good specialist knows.
Debating on whether or not I should dedicate 4+ hours today to watch Nymp()maniac.
"I thought the flesh and the bones of my body were mine." -Philip Beesley
It’s not so strange to compare avant-garde artists to social media users. They both produce a lot of content that few people bother to look at. And some commentators might be inclined to regard early adopters of social-media apps as avant-garde consumers, seizing on new possibilities for gratification, evasion, and status distinction. (Be like André Breton and install Secret on your iPhone 5S!)
In The Weak Universalism Boris Groys offers a somewhat counterintuitive definition of “avant garde” — one that is the opposite of “making it new.” Since novelty is the status quo of consumer culture, the avant-garde seeks to advance from that, Groys claims; they must challenge and change the disposition of perpetual change.
This is a bit self-defeating. Groys argues that avant-garde artists, to evade this, aspire to make work that is “weak,” in the sense of not being contingent, timely. Instead avant-garde artists try to reduce art to its transcendent, essential core. Because avant-garde work, in Groys’s view, is committed to timeless purity, it can garner none of the popularity of mass art, which is rooted in the novel. And it is seen as undemocratic, even though it tries to bring art back to first principles. Shouldn’t art that can be dismissed as something a child could make be regarded as ultra-democratic? Groys writes:
Avant-garde art today remains unpopular by default, even when exhibited in major museums … the avant-garde is rejected—or, rather, overlooked—by wider, democratic audiences precisely for being a democratic art; the avant-garde is not popular because it is democratic. And if the avant-garde were popular, it would be non-democratic.
Groys wants to argue that what is popular is actually in fact elitist, since not all things achieve the same degree of fame. And since avant-garde art is unpopular, it allows ordinary people to see themselves as artists as well, making their own basic, unpopular work.
Indeed, the avant-garde opens a way for an average person to understand himself or herself as an artist—to enter the field of art as a producer of weak, poor, only partially visible images. But an average person is by definition not popular—only stars, celebrities, and exceptional and famous personalities can be popular. Popular art is made for a population consisting of spectators. Avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists.
Mass taste is then secretly elitist taste, because you are rooting against the underdogs by liking it. And there is nothing democratic, either, in broadly shared taste for something that is popular. Fascist leaders are popular too.
I am interested in this as it relates to vicarious participation (as opposed to “genuine” participatory art) and the current vogue for virality. It may be that we ordinary “nonartists” are not envious of the avant-garde but trapped within it, and we look to vicarious participation in popular art and virality to escape this curse.
If Groys is right, avant-garde art is at once universal (reduced to its elemental gestures) and only relevant to small local communities; if it were popular, it would become part of a historical zeitgeist and become doomed to be dated. This seems to me analogous to a certain fantasy about the purity of local music scenes and making DIY bedroom/garage music as opposed to the supposed fleeting insubstantiality of enjoying hyped superstars and corporate pop. Think of a million amateur bands playing the same elemental garage music in a million basements, and that is Groys’s avant-garde. Such music not in any way original and doesn’t aspire to be; it instead reiterates the timeless gesture of wanting to make music.
Insular collectives of artists or writers or even just friends on social media provide another analogue. They all consume each other’s work as peers and have narrow enough horizons to ignore the ways in which what they are all doing might be considered derivative. Artists and audiences are one and the same in such circles; making and consuming are simultaneous, and hierarchies among participants are suppressed.
But at the same time, those fabled anonymous garage bands are inspired not merely by the impulse to make music but by the vicarious desire to become like the popular musicians they admire. Amateur garage bands wanted to be like the Beatles or, later, like the Ramones. They wanted vicarious participation in the notoriety of their idols. In their emulation of “popular art” they remain spectators, despite the way in which they contribute to, in Groys’s sense, rendering that art “avant-garde” — they clumsily make it simple, generic, crudely timeless through inept imitation.
So it may be that popular, zeitgeisty mass art is necessary as a sort of timeless inspiration for the trickled-down creative impulse that yields basic, transcendent gestures of art making. If it didn’t exist, we would have to collectively create it through a spontaneous coordination of attention to make what someone is doing appear to be the model for garnering social recognition, to make emulating it worth attempting. The spectator may need an impetus to become an artist capable of consuming/creating avant-garde art as Groys defines it. Groys suggests that “participatory practice” — starting your own garage band, or your own mosh pit, at least — “means that one can become a spectator only when one has already become an artist.”
But one might go further and say we are born artists and find making art boring, childish, regressive, pointless, and we long for exposure to the kind of work that will turn us into spectators. This in turn would make it worthwhile to use our inborn art ability. If we’re always already artists, then what vicariousness and virality offer is a chance to transcend that for something bigger — participation not in the banal routines of self-expression but in something genuinely larger than ourselves, historical.
Social media, as Groys suggests, makes users “avant-garde” to the degree that they try to use it to be “creative” in the sense of expressing themselves in the most generic of ways. Groys argues:
This repetitive and at the same time futile gesture [of making reductive avant-garde art] opens a space that seems to me to be one of the most mysterious spaces of our contemporary democracy—social networks like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life, and Twitter, which offer global populations the opportunity to post their photos, videos, and texts in a way that cannot be distinguished from any other conceptualist or post-conceptualist artwork. In a sense, then, this is a space that was initially opened by the radical, neo-avant-garde, conceptual art of the 1960–1970s. Without the artistic reductions effectuated by these artists, the emergence of the aesthetics of these social networks would be impossible, and they could not be opened to a mass democratic public to the same degree.
That seems preposterous. I’ve been willing to argue that self-construction on social media is a kind of democratized performance art, but to claim that Facebook users couldn’t do what they do if it weren’t for actual late 20th century conceptual artists seems absurd. Only some infinitesimal percentage of social-media users would have had any exposure to such work, and even this small group may not have found the encounter particularly emboldening. And Facebook’s engineers weren’t exactly sitting down with Lucy Lippard’s Six Years before coding new features for the site. The aesthetics of Facebook, Instagram, etc., have much more to do with what is built into the interfaces to generate circulation and interaction; these enticements don’t seem to be necessarily influenced by conceptual art. If anything, it’s more that both conceptual art and interface design owe something to cybernetics, network analysis, and postwar computer science.
What I think Groys is talking about is the democratization of the expressive gesture that social media affords in its generic, preformatted fashion. It’s similar to what Julian Stallabrass’slist of the routine subjects of amateur photography, circa 1996: “Landscapes, holiday destinations, loved ones and pets, fragments of the urban scene and natural wonders all come to participate in a continuum in which all objects are known and (when things go well) all respond kindly to the photographer’s subjectivity.” The social media user is like the sun at the center of this universe of benevolent, displayable things. Like an avant-garde reductivist, the social-media sharer breaks down photography to its basic impulse of archiving and possessing. Every instance of social-media sharing is thus a potential repetition of Groys’s avant-garde “weak gesture.” It’s a reiteration of Malevich’s black square — “an even more radical reduction of the image to a pure relationship between image and frame,” Groys explains, “between contemplated object and field of contemplation, between one and zero … We cannot escape the black square—whatever image we see is simultaneously the black square.”
Groys offers the dubious analysis that on social media too many people are sharing too many things and no one could possibly consume it all. (False: That’s what algorithms are for!) This makes it unseen or even unseeable art, akin to Warhol’s Empire. The point isn’t to watch it; the point is simply that it exists as a limit. It is, in a sense, antiviral. It sits there, inert.
But the content of sharing on social media is not always “weak” in Groys’s sense — it is not all timeless mundanity (photos of domesticity, pictures of meals, etc.). Much of it is an attempt to seem timely, to mark one’s participation in successive waves of hype. It’s writing about very specific things, like, say, House of Cards (to the intense irritation of those who aren’t watching). Often social-media sharing is an attempt to belong to one’s time and show how one is willing to change with it, not transcend it/be out of touch with it in a narcissistic bubble. We may know that everything that becomes popular is just a trend — that it is only “ready to disappear,” as Groys says — but that can make it more, not less, urgent and exciting to participate in it.
This is what pursuing virality as a feeling is about. Groys is right that on social media “the facticity of seeing and reading” a particular piece of content “becomes irrelevant,” but that is because its circulation and metastasis is being so carefully tracked. Virality is an aesthetics for ubiquitous surveillance. It takes being seen for granted and moves beyond that to momentum, circulation. In some ways, the concept of “curation” is too static for this era. One wants to put something out there that develops momentum, that has an unpredictable life span, that offers a vicarious gateway to the unbounded vitality of collective culture, which our solitary interfaces and devices tend to curtail phenomenologically. We try to get stuff (whatever stuff, it doesn’t matter) to go viral to participate in that shared social enthusiasm that surges and dissipates.
The popular, then, is akin to the pre-individual, in Simondon’s sense — a cultural matrix out of which our individuality emerges, its precondition. The avant-garde is the denial of that origin, embracing the mundane inevitability of individuation as some unique personal triumph.
Groys argues that once upon a time we were “expected to compete for public attention.” That seems backward. Once we took for granted a certain recognition of our place and worked to transcend that, to dissolve into something anonymous, urban, genuinely “mass” — the level at which dreams of cosmopolitanism and universal legibility are conceivable. People wanted to escape local attention and vicariously enjoy fame — indulge in the fantasy of ubiquity without surrendering identity the way genuinely famous people must, usually to their psychic destruction.
We want vicarious participation in the popular because it feels less lonely than reclaiming one’s inherent potentiality as a solitary, transcendent avant-garde artist. If everyone can be an artist, no one needs to be congratulated or recognized for being one. Instead, one needs to be recognized for the rarer skill of appreciation, of being able to sympathize with others and unite with them in feeling. Eternity is very lonely.
Black coffee, a long run in the rain, and Cold Cave on repeat.
Found some holes in my Schneider alpaca scarf. Now I’ve some moths to hunt down and kill.
Maggie Rizer shot by the duo Daniele Duella and Iango Henzi
Styled by Patti Wilson
Vogue Germany December 2013
"Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle". Diana Dondoe by David Sims for Vogue Paris, February 2003
Goals vs. systems
In my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, I talk about using systems instead of goals. For example, losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.
Expanding on that point, let’s say you have a choice between pasta and a white potato. Assume you enjoy both foods equally and you want to choose the best one for your waistline. Which do you pick?
I recently posed that question to a crowd of ninety senior managers at a huge tech company. About 88 of them chose the potato. That’s the wrong answer because pasta is only half as high on the glycemic index. The two people out of ninety who knew pasta was the better choice wouldn’t need to use as much willpower later in the day to stay within a good diet range. Studies have shown that if you use your willpower resisting one temptation you have less in reserve for the next. The systems approach to weight management is to gradually replace willpower with knowledge, e.g. knowing pasta is better than a potato. (The book describes more ways to replace willpower with knowledge in the diet realm.)
Here’s another example. Going to the gym 3-4 times a week is a goal. And it can be a hard one to accomplish for people who don’t enjoy exercise. Exercising 3-4 times a week can feel like punishment - especially if you overdo it because you’re impatient to get results. When you associate discomfort with exercise you inadvertently train yourself to stop doing it. Eventually you will find yourself “too busy” to keep up your 3-4 days of exercise. The real reason will be because it just hurts and you don’t want to do it anymore. And if you do manage to stay with your goal, you use up your limited supply of willpower.
Compare the goal of exercising 3-4 times a week with a system of being active every day at a level that feels good, while continuously learning about the best methods of exercise. Before long your body will be trained, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave the psychological lift you get from being active every day. It will soon become easier to exercise than to skip it - no willpower required. And your natural inclination for challenge and variety will gently nudge you toward higher levels of daily activity while at the same time you are learning in your spare time how to exercise in the most effective way. That’s a system.
By the way, it is only in the past few years that you could replace willpower with knowledge about diet and exercise and get a good result. That’s because much of what science told us in those realms was wrong. When I was a kid, science told us to eat plenty of Wonder Bread. I think we have finally crossed the tipping point where following the recommendations of science will get you a good result.
One of the systems I use but didn’t mention in the book is what I’m doing right now: blogging.
When I first started blogging, my future wife often asked about what my goal was. The blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make any real difference in my life. It seemed a silly use of time. I tried explaining that blogging was a system, not a goal. But I never did a good job of it. I’ll try again here.
Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicing on a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).
The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. I have my humorously self-deprecating voice, my angry voice, my thoughtful voice, my analytical voice, my half-crazy voice, my offensive voice, and so on. You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.
When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. Those articles weren’t big money-makers either, but it all fit within my system of public practice.
My writing for the Wall Street Journal, along with my public practice on this blog, attracted the attention of book publishers, and that attention turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests that are embarrassingly lucrative. So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.
My problem with goals is that they are limiting. Granted, if you focus on one particular goal, your odds of achieving it are better than if you have no goal. But you also miss out on opportunities that might have been far better than your goal. Systems, however, simply move you from a game with low odds to a game with better odds. With a system you are less likely to miss one opportunity because you were too focused on another. With a system, you are always scanning for any opportunity.
There are obviously some special cases in which goals are useful. If you plan to become a doctor, for example, and you have the natural ability, then by all means focus. But for most of us, we have no idea where we’ll be in five years, what opportunities will arise, or what we’ll want or need by then. So our best bet is to move from a place of low odds to a place of better odds. That means living someplace that has opportunities, paying attention to your health, continuously upgrading your skills, networking, and perhaps dabbling in lots of different areas.
The systems vs. goals idea is only one through-thread of my new book, but readers and reviewers are consistently mentioning it as the thing they found most useful, saying it is both fresh and obvious at the same time. That’s a rare combination.
By Scott Adams for Dilbert