State of the Union

Will Global Wilsonians Take Us to War?

While the neocons have rendered themselves ridiculous by either acting like petulant children when called out on their record (see Kristol, William) or dabbling in what amounts to overlong exercises in historical fiction (see Kagan, Robert), the liberal interventionist crowd deserves more scrutiny than they have heretofore been subjected to, because these Wilsonians, unlike their right-wing counterparts, are a not a specifically American phenomenon: the Wilsonians have gone global.

The Canadian scholar-turned-politician Michael Ignateiff channeled his inner Kagan and brought forth a wondrous account of what he sees as a “rising authoritarian archipelago” in last week’s issue of the venerable New York Review of Books. Ignatieff, acting in the role of Cassandra, warns us that much like the 1930s when “travelers returned from Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany praising the sense of common purpose they saw there …. democracies today are in the middle of a similar period of envy and despondency.”

There is, I think it fair to say, aside from the horrendous shape of the American economy, very little with which to compare the world of 2014 with that of the 1930s, which brought us the demonic Nazi regime, a lunatic Communist one, and the untold misery of millions of people even prior to the opening shots of the World War II. Yet for the Global Wilsonians it’s always 1938.

And so, we are darkly warned, that Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to China was about far, far more than a mere gas deal, rather, “it heralded the emergence of an alliance off authoritarian states with a combined population of 1.6 billion in the vast Eurasian space.” Well, perhaps. But any discussion of why Mr Putin has turned East was, it seems, beyond the scope of Ignatieff’s piece.

Over the weekend on a CNN roundtable, another Canadian thinker-turned-MP, Chrystia Freeland, struck back hard at the Council on Foreign Relations chair Richard Haas for having the audacity to suggest the U.S. and the EU are at least partially responsible for the turmoil rollicking the Near East in their eagerness to topple autocratic regimes like Qaddafi’s and Mubarak’s, without giving sufficient thought to what may replace them. Freeland seems to think that this kind of second-guessing is really most unhelpful to the Global Wilsonian project of worldwide democratization. Message: don’t look back.

Moving on from our Canadian Globalists, the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was in town last week at the invitation of the Atlantic Council. Bildt, as is by now widely known, was one of the principal architects—along with fellow Global Wilsonian and Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski—of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership project which aims to incorporate six of the former Soviet states into the EU. Bildt, much like Ignateiff, looks at the world and sees nothing but trouble, trouble, trouble. (Maybe we should call them the Taylor Swift caucus?)

Bildt noted, “new dangers and challenges seem to be rising wherever we look … these are not easy times, and they call for clear headed strategic assessment of the challenges we are facing.” No doubt, but if the audience was expecting such an assessment to follow, they were mistaken. Read More…

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Israel Runs Up the Score

At this writing, one Israeli has been killed by Hamas fire; hundreds of Hamas rockets have either fallen harmlessly or been destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense. The toll among Palestinians in Gaza is roughly 200 dead, and about 1,500 wounded. This then is not so much a war as a high-tech slaughter. Israel could kill Palestinians more rapidly of course, but seems to have judged it can go on at this pace, killing 15 to 2o a day, without provoking an international reaction. For some Israelis it is pure entertainment: yesterday The Independent reported that Israelis had set up couches and were serving popcorn to watch their air force’s destruction of Gaza’s homes from the nearby hills.

It is useful to try to construct a timeline, to understand how we got from Point A, the failure of the Kerry peace mission, to the present. My sympathies are more with the Palestinians subject to bombardment than with the Israelis who are bombarding them, but the timeline to be as objective as possible, so I would welcome reader suggestions of alterations, additions, or changes of emphasis.

1) March: Israel announces settlement expansion while negotiations are going on.

2) April 1, Negotiations break down. Israel refuses to comply with a scheduled and previously agreed-to release of prisoners. PA president Abbas announces PA will apply for membership in 15 UN organizations.

3) Abbas forms a “technocratic” unity goverment with Hamas.

4) May 2, American negotiators both on and off the record blame Israeli settlement construction as the main reason for the talks failure.

5) Both Western European countries and the U.S. ignore Netanyahu’s demands to sever their relations with the Fatah-Hamas “unity” government.

6) May 15, Israeli snipers kill two Palestinian boys in Beitunia, on the West Bank during Nakba day demonstrations. The killing was caught on video.

7) June 1, Netanyahu announces plans for 3,300 new housing units on the West Bank.

8) June 12, three Jewish Israeli teens are kidnapped and murdered on the West Bank. Netanyahu immediately claims Hamas is responsible, but gives no evidence. Hamas denies responsibility for the kidnappings. The Israeli government names two suspects, Hamas members from a Hebron clan which has previously been in disputes with Hamas leadership. It is soon reported that the government has known from the beginning the kidnapped teens have been shot. Israel goes on a campaign against Hamas on the West Bank, arresting 500 and raiding 1,500 schools and businesses.

9) June 30, Bodies of murdered Israeli teens found on the West Bank near Hebron.

10) July 2, Three Israelis kidnap and burn alive a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem. They are arrested within days.

11) July 3, Israeli police are caught on video beating up a Palestinian-American boy, the cousin of the murdered Palestinian. The photograph of his battered face are shown world-wide, and the U.S. State Department protested. Meanwhile several stories are published in Israel and the United States lamenting the violent and deeply racist currents running through Israeli culture, particularly its youth.

12) July 6, Israeli air force bombs a tunnel in Gaza, killing six Hamas men. The bombing ended a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that had prevailed since 2011. Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets, and Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Read More…

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Slenderman and the “Mythos” of Modernism

On May 31, a bicyclist found a young girl, stabbed 19 times with a five inch blade, after she crawled out of the Wisconsin woods and dragged herself toward the nearest road.

The perpetrators Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 and classmates of the victim, are being charged as adults with attempted murder. The stabbing was an attempt to pay tribute to Slenderman, a faceless, betentacled, and besuited character from Internet lore. The two girls were caught along the road after they had committed the crime, apparently walking to an imaginary rendezvous point with Slenderman.

They first discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta Wiki, which is where most of the current fan fiction resides. They reportedly planned the attack for months, finally luring the victim into the woods with a game of hide-and-seek.

The Slenderman myth is one of the first pieces of popular lore truly borne of the Internet, beginning online and accruing momentum and backstory as people photoshopped and blogged Slenderman into existence. The rapid spread of his legend surprised even Eric Knudsen, Slenderman’s creator. He said in an interview that he didn’t expect it to move beyond the Somethingawful forum where he posted the first Slenderman image:

It was amazing to see people create their own little part of Slender Man in order to perpetuate his existance [sic]. … I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend.

When he created Slenderman, he said that he wanted something “whose motivations can barely be comprehended,” and that caused “general unease and terror in a general population.” He here pinpoints the power of Slenderman: the omnipotence of the unknown. The Internet has, after all, given us the ability to know every imaginable aspect of our world; but not to belong to it.

Vice chalks the violence up to poorly-managed hormones and small-town boredom. An Mytheos Holt at R Street asks whether their violence could have been prevented by addressing mental illness openly. Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times makes Slenderman’s faceless horror emblematic of the “selfie” age—an attempt to use fear to push against compulsive, narcissistic self-documentation.

Collin Barnes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hillsdale College, mentioned in an e-mail that the need to find meaning and community, to craft an identity, could have driven the crime, “Killing in the name of Slenderman and investing oneself in religious rituals are not entirely different and may reflect latent fears we have about being utterly alone in the universe.”

In the mythos, Slenderman’s victims are always alone, and radically estranged from help or support. There is no intelligible pattern or motive to the victimization. In contrast to the bogeymen of “organic” folklore, he has no distinct vendetta against transgressors of social or moral norms.

The two girls were not driven to violence by their encounter with Slenderman. He was emblematic of faceless, nameless dread: of complete alienation. As Kathleen Hale pointed out at Vice, girls of their age are experiencing radical emotional isolation, and possible mental health issues and public school social dynamics only exacerbate the problem. In a way, the killing was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to connect with someone or something when faced with being “utterly alone.” Slenderman is the demon of a suburban age.


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Will the U.S. Become Balkanized?

Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Albuquerque in 2001, George W. Bush declared that, as Mexico was a friend and neighbor, “It’s so important for us to tear down our barriers and walls that might separate Mexico from the United States.” Bush succeeded. And during his tenure, millions from Mexico exploited his magnanimity to violate our laws, trample upon our sovereignty, walk into our country, and remain here. In 2007, backed by John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, and Barack Obama, Bush backed amnesty for the 12 million people who had entered America illegally. The nation thundered no. And Congress sustained the nation.

The latest mass border crossing by scores of thousands of tots, teenagers, and toughs from Central America has killed amnesty in 2014, and probably for the duration of the Obama presidency. Indeed, with the massive media coverage of the crisis on the border, immigration, legal and illegal, and what it portends for our future, could become the decisive issue of 2014 and 2016.

But it needs to be put in a larger context. For this issue is about more than whether the Chamber of Commerce gets amnesty for its members who have been exploiting cheap illegal labor. The real issue: Will America remain one nation, or are we are on the road to Balkanization and the breakup of America into ethnic enclaves? For, as Ronald Reagan said, a nation that cannot control its borders isn’t really a nation anymore.

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay wrote,

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs …

He called Americans a “band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties.” The republic of the founders for whom Jay spoke did not give a fig for diversity. They cherished our unity, commonality, and sameness of ancestry, culture, faith, and traditions. We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789.

They came later. From 1845-1849, the Irish fleeing the famine. From 1890-1920, the Germans. Then the Italians, Poles, Jews, and other Eastern Europeans. Then, immigration was suspended in 1924.

From 1925 to 1965, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants were assimilated, Americanized. In strong public schools, they were taught our language, literature, and history, and celebrated our holidays and heroes. We endured together through the Depression and sacrificed together in World War II and the Cold War. By 1960, we had become truly one nation and one people.

America was not perfect. No country is. But no country ever rivaled what America had become. She was proud, united, free, the first nation on earth. And though the civil rights movement had just begun, nowhere did black peoples enjoy the freedom and prosperity of African-Americans.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Sunday that America is today in “a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago.” In some ways that is so. Equality of rights has been realized. Miraculous cures in medicine have kept alive many of us who would not have survived the same maladies half a century ago.

But we are no longer that “band of brethren.” We are no longer one unique people “descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.” We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion, and roots. Read More…

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Why World Cup Culture Wars Vindicate American Soccer

As more Americans than ever tuned in to watch the World Cup over the past few weeks, the American media’s quadrennial habit of analyzing soccer’s place in the country raged on. Cranky right-wingers, embodied by Ann Coulter’s now-infamous ramble, put forth common criticisms of soccer: it has an insufficient gender gap, allows scoreless ties, prohibits using hands, is foreign and liberal, prioritizes team effort over individual prowess, and constitutes all-around “moral decay.” In the face of such resistance, soccer fans like Daniel Drezner proposed simply changing the rules of the game to assuage his fellow Americans’ sense of fairness, rather than asking Americans to adapt to the game’s delightful capriciousness like the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart and other commentators on the left celebrated the “soccer coalition” of youth, immigrants, and liberals—the same one that elected President Obama, he recalled—proving that Americanness is not contingent upon the white working-class culture idealized by Coulter. In short, Americans loudly participated in a soccer nation’s rite of passage by reading domestic politics into the sport every chance they could get.

Though the debate largely focused on whether soccer could possibly have a place in accepted American identity, this process of political theorizing and contention mirrors the way soccer has been absorbed into other cultures throughout the sport’s history. Americans who chafe at the sport’s European origins join the long tradition of our southern neighbors who idealized the “creolization” of soccer while forming national identity after the Latin American revolutions of the 19th century. In Argentina, soccer was the manifestation of the “melting pot” where Italian and Spanish immigrants took over British cultural imports, a process crafted in the pages of the magazine El Gráfico. In Brazil, soccer was a place to reconcile racial tensions by highlighting diversity as a source of American ingenuity and creativity, superior to formulaic and homogenous European play. The contemporary American media’s ongoing narratives of soccer are similar not just in their obsessive nature, but in the diverse subcultures they are trying to weld together.

Soccer has always come with class connotations that plague burgeoning sports cultures. The prevailing image of soccer, both in the U.S. now and in Latin America a century ago, is of white urban and suburban elites who use the sport to moralize. Soccer was formalized in British public schools in the 19th century in order to promote Victorian morality and “muscular Christianity”—as well as to simply keep boys busy—but it largely came to the Americas as the pastime of the “gentleman-athletes” among British immigrants to South America. The “amateur era” of early 20th century soccer parallels the American “soccer mom” values that encourage teamwork and cooperation in children before moving on to more individualist sports as adults, and it is just as widespread and pejoratively viewed as its predecessor. As American pundits critique this intrusion of foreign collectivist values, they are echoing, among others, 1920s and 1930s Argentines calling for “our own style” (“la nuestra”) to counter and replace British beliefs. Read More…

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Labor Union Brings Community Bookstore to Heel

Sex isn’t the only thing that will get New York City’s liberals hot and bothered.

Chris Doelib is an independent bookseller who owns a bookstore in the Morningside Heights neighborhood next to Columbia University. As the New York Times detailed in Sunday’s paper, Doelib self-identifies as “an extremely progressive liberal,” who “hung photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. above the cash registers … threw open his doors to local authors, provided a home for the Queer Book Club and created a weekly story time program for children (in English, Spanish and Mandarin).” Thus to many in the neighborhood, “he is a lanky warrior for the written word, celebrated for creating and sustaining an intellectual haven in the neighborhood for nearly two decades.”

Or he was, rather, until Doelib resisted attempts to unionize his store by firing several employees involved in the effort (saying they were management employees who illicitly voted in the union election).

Within a week, the Times reports,

…[m]ost of Mr. Doeblin’s remaining employees went on strike, picketing his two stores with the help of the union and its giant inflatable rats, and urging neighborhood residents to join in a boycott. The news spread on Twitter, in the local news media and on community email lists. Sales plunged.

The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, brought giant inflatable rats to their picket lines as they rallied a neighborhood against an independent community book store that had supported so many of its cherished causes over the years. The Times story then contrasts an expected lengthy, drawn-out battle between management and labor with what was in actuality a clean and speedy resolution.

As it tells the story, “something happened as Mr. Doeblin watched his staff protest, as he was peppered with questions while walking to work and as he fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls at his stores.” It wasn’t that he feared for the solvency of his business, or was frightened at the scale of opposition pouring out of the community he had served for so many years. Instead, Doeblin ”started to wonder where he had gone wrong.” After some perfunctory self-examination, he “agreed to rehire the four fired supervisors, provided that they agreed to give up their titles and return to hourly status for now. He gave a severance package to the fifth person he had let go and has agreed to recognize the union.” All this within a day of the giant inflatable rats being deployed outside his store.

As James Poulos articulated in his “Conservative Case for Unions,” ”unions wind up being the only way industrial workers can bargain effectively with the massive corporations that employ them. Unions exist because, without them, the path is opened wide to crony collaboration between big government and big business.” Given the enormous scales at which billion-dollar companies and trillion-dollar governments operate, unions can serve a vital organizing role in connecting wage-labor workers at similarly large scales.

An independent community bookstore staffed largely by Columbia University students, however, is the furthest thing imaginable from the circumstances that legitimate union activity. Here, the hand of organized labor was brought in to signal noncompliance with one of the tenets of contemporary liberal norms, so that the offender might be brought back around. And so he was.


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Is the RomCom Dead Yet?

"The Philadelphia Story" /  Wikimedia Commons
"The Philadelphia Story" / Wikimedia Commons

The romantic comedy film is either dying or dead, according to writers at The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. After watching “They Came Together,” a romantic comedy that parodies the genre, the Beast’s Andrew Romano argued that the romcom’s heydey has come to an end, due to shifts in audience targeting and gender preferences, as well as money problems and failed branding.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber thinks that romcom plots no longer address the “way we live now,” in the age of online dating and delayed marriages. Christopher Orr made a similar argument last year: he said romcom plots are too outdated for today’s society—we no longer have taboos against premarital sex, nor do we have societal class divisions. The romantic conflicts of yesteryear are outdated in today’s society. However, Noah Millman wrote a rebuttal to Orr’s argument, reminding us that the romantic movies of 1940 weren’t popular or good “because there were arranged marriages (there were none) and it isn’t because women couldn’t get a divorce (all the female protagonists of the movies I cited are or get divorced) or couldn’t have sex … they work because they go internal, into character, to find both the conflict and its resolution, and they work because they don’t isolate the world of romantic love from the rest of the social universe.”

The troubles of the modern romcom may have monetary or societal threads, but it also has a problem with simplification and homogeneity that we can’t ignore. Most romantic comedies follow either a star-crossed lovers plot, or a “You Got Mail” storyline—the man and woman hate each other, or would never marry each other, but then slowly find out they’re perfect for each other (examples: “When Harry Met Sally,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “The Switch,” “27 Dresses,” et cetera).

It’s true that both these types are rooted in classics—the star-crossed lovers are classic “Romeo and Juliet,” while the we-hate-each-other-no-wait-we-love-each-other is usually some reincarnation of Pride and Prejudice. But both these classics had greater complexity and depth than most of their modern manifestations. Both told stories of class and family, prejudice and tradition, virtue and vice. Their supporting characters were just as important as their leads—we couldn’t have Pride and Prejudice without Mr. Collins or Mrs. Bennet. Modern films don’t usually give us this rich, colorful tapestry.

As NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote in response to Orr last year, “The best [films] often have other elements, elements of real sadness, like the terrific and underappreciated Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts vehicle Notting Hill, for instance, which touches on not artificial obstacles, but on the way people in difficult circumstances sometimes hurt each other’s feelings and let each other down, not to mention supporting characters struggling with disability and fertility issues.” In contrast, says Holmes, “The [films] that take nothing seriously except dating … rarely work, and they’ve rarely ever worked, because love in life is usually mixed up with all kinds of other nasty stuff.” Millman agrees:

The romantic comedies that suck are the ones that adhere to a formula that none of the great romantic comedies of yore followed. They try to make both protagonists as “relatable” as possible by making them into everymen and everywomen – thereby depriving them of any interest. They focus overwhelmingly on the romance, treating the rest of the universe as so much “business” for low comedy, rather than exploring other themes that might reflect productively on the romance at the center. And they gin up artificial external obstacles instead of persuasive, character-driven internal ones.

Yet these are the films that we keep getting, with increasing regularity. They all tell familiar stories, with familiar conflicts—the plots may change somewhat, but they never surprise us. And romcoms aren’t the only films that suffer from this problem: modern cinema is teeming with stereotypical superhero stories, underdog sports stories, exploding/smashing action films, and their like. We can usually guess exactly how the plot will unfold in the first few minutes of the film.

People increasingly want different, surprising stories—and we’re starting to see some that are new, interesting, and complex. Many explore themes of friendship, rather than romance. Disney created an international sensation when they released “Frozen”—and perhaps one of its greatest surprises was that it was mainly about sisterhood, rather than the usual romance. “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Monuments Men,” “Gravity”: all were primarily stories of friendship, trust, camaraderie, sacrifice. In the realm of television, many people love BBC’s new “Sherlock” series, and the friendship between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s Watson.

We may be tired of films that tell the same old story—but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of the romcom, or the dystopian film, or the action movie. We just need to reconsider the stories we tell, the plots we create, and bring innovation and complexity to these genres once more. We need stories that allow tragedy in their endings, stories with real protagonists and real villains, stories that reflect the complexity and confusion of life. If we get rom-com movies that reflect these things, then perhaps the romcom will be revitalized. But for now, the genre feels much like a broken record. It isn’t that we’ve run out of stories to tell; we’ve just told the same story too many times.

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Carrie White Will Never Die: “Carrie: The Musical” at the Studio Theatre

Carrie is the only book I ever put down because I knew I was too young for it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was staying with cousins, taking the opportunity to raid their bookshelves. I flipped idly through the book’s opening, got to the shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), and–for once in my life–realized I was in over my head. The combination of nudity, menstruation, and sadism, all happening to kids just a few years older than I was, overwhelmed me. I’m not ready for this, I thought.

Part of Carrie’s power is that it’s a story about the universal experience of not being ready: for change, for moral responsibility, for life after high school. It’s a story which speaks to the boy sitting in jail, the girl staring at the pregnancy test waiting to see if the second line will show up. We treat youth as a Las Vegas of the soul, but what we do in our youth is as irrevocable as what we do everywhere else.

Spoilers for Carrie–the book, movie, and musical–below.

Read More…

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Can the GOP Replicate Nixon’s Resurrection?

nixon 100

One question I am asked while on tour for my new book, “The Greatest Comeback,” on the resurrection of Richard Nixon, is: Does Nixon’s rise, from crushing defeats in 1960 and 1962, and the debacle his party suffered in 1964, to capturing the White House and beginning a string of five victories in six presidential elections, have relevance for today’s GOP?

Can the “Great Silent Majority” of yesteryear be replicated?

The answer is probably not. For while there are similarities between the America of 1968, and of today, the differences are greater.

The similarities: By the late 1960s, as today, the country was pivoting away from a Democratic Party and president that seemed incapable of mastering the crises of the times in which they lived. Then it was LBJ; today, Barack Obama.

In 1968, America turned to the GOP to manage a bloodier war than Iraq, that the Democratic Party could not win or end, and to cope with the social anarchy Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society seemed to have ushered in. And the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan delivered — eventually — a successful conclusion to the Cold War that had been the unifying cause of that generation.

America is another country today.

The Cold War is over. The nation is no longer united on America’s role. A majority want out of the Middle East wars into which George W. Bush led the nation. And the GOP is itself, like the Democrats of 1968 over Vietnam, divided on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and how to deal with the challenges of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China.

While distrust of government has rarely been greater than today, it is also true that dependence upon government has never been greater. Tens of millions of families rely on the government as a primary source of income, food, health care, housing and other necessities of daily life. Government’s role in education has never been greater. A Republican Party that preaches an anti-Big Government gospel or a rollback of programs is unlikely to be warmly received by the scores of millions who depend on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a host of other social welfare benefits. Republican proposals to cut taxes on income, capital gains, estates, and inheritances are unlikely to win standing ovations from folks who pay no income taxes and have no estates or capital gains.

America is another country in other ways.

Nixon’s Silent Majority, which encompassed much of the Greatest Generation and of the Silent Generation born in the 1930s and during World War II, is passing on. And with a birth rate among the following generations below replacement levels for 40 years, the demography of America is markedly different from the days of Ike and JFK. Read More…

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“Emoji Dick”: American Classic?

“Call me Ishmael,” the opening line to one of America’s greatest works of literature, looks very different when rendered in emoji characters.

The Library of Congress accepted data engineer Fred Benenson’s pictorial rewrite of Moby Dick, titled “Emoji Dick,” after Michael Neubert advocated its addition:

“[The book] takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?’”

Pictorial communication is becoming increasingly widespread as Emoji, “the more elaborate cousins of emoticons,” get deployed incessantly across social media. There is a forthcoming communication app called Emoji.li that uses exclusively emoji characters to communicate. One Tumblr account offers emotional analysis based on emoji use. There is even an art and design show dedicated to the pictorial system.

Hannah Rosenfield took a look at the linguistic possibilities (and impossibilities) of emoji. It has yet to develop syntax or grammar: changes in the placement of emoji within a “sentence” fail to convey any significant change in meaning. It shares many characteristics with pidgin languages, which often arise when two groups without significant linguistic common ground must communicate. “Pidgins typically have a limited vocabulary and lack nuance, a developed syntax, and the ability to convey register,” Rosenfield writes.

But just because pictorial systems are non-viable as a means of communication themselves doesn’t mean that they can’t enrich the language—and this goes beyond emoji to other forms of visual media. For example, teachers are utilizing graphic novels to aid reading comprehension in schools, as well as relying more upon digital and visual media to engage young children in their text work.

The key, though, is that these are used to supplement—not replace—traditional language. Camilla Nelson writes that “good transmedia narratives do not merely repeat across media platforms. Rather, each text offers a way to supplement, analyse and evaluate the rest—a bit like pieces of a puzzle that need to be put together through the use of imagination and problem solving.” Indeed, “Emoji Dick” is primarily an exercise in translation: Benenson accompanied the strings of emoji “sentences” with the original text, in order to provide context for the reader and intelligibility to the characters.

Picture languages give us an opportunity to emphasize or complement the language in which we think and speak, be it utilized for the sake of education, to bridge a language gap, or in casual communication. “Emoji, for all its detractors, is about embellishment and added context,” writes Rhodri Marsden for The Independent. “[I]t’s about in-jokes, playfulness, of emphasising praise or cushioning the impact of criticism, of provoking thought and exercising the imagination.”

The idea that pictorial systems could be used to engage language—streamline it, give it further nuance—has been around since before the 1500s. The problem is that visual representation is just that: representation. It refers to something concrete; points, as it were, to something else. Advanced languages derive meaning from context, from the relationships between the words themselves as well as the associations they evoke. Emoji and other visual media are highly contingent, useless without at least some explanation.

Useful? Perhaps, but by no means representative of the eclipse of the written word.

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