Ad Nauseam Reading for Lit Crawl NYC
As part of Lit Crawl NYC, Carrie will be joined by fellow contributors to Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture for a reading at Gallery Bar this Saturday night. Here are the details:
FSG Presents: Ground Up & Consumed
Featuring Michael Idov and some of the nice folks who contributed to Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture. This is an evening about the American Dream, how it woos you, and how it can bite you in the ass.
120 Orchard Street between Delancey and Rivington
8PM - 9PM
DAMIAN CHADWICK is a writer and comedian based in New York. He writes for the Upright Citizens Brigade house sketch team Gramps and performs around town with the long-form improv group Sherpa.
GAYLORD FIELDS, the
senior editor at AOL Music, has previously worked at Rolling Stone and Spin.
He also currently hosts a free-form radio program on WFMU in Jersey City every Sunday evening.
CARRIE McLAREN is the
editor of Ad Nauseam. For over a
decade, she published Stay Free!,
a nonprofit magazine focused on American media and consumer culture. Her latest
venture is Adult Education, a monthly "useless lecture series" that
she curates for Union Hall in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
MICHAEL IDOV is a staff writer for New York magazine and the editor in chief of the literary quarterly Russia! Ground Up is his first novel, inspired by the author’s own failed attempt at opening a coffeehouse.
I'll be there.
Unmarketable: book and event
Yes, the Stay Free! Book Club just finished a meeting - my book was Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity. The book has since come up my conversations so much that I wish I had a box of them to hand out to everyone I know. Anne Elizabeth Moore holds the magnifying glass to a string of peculiar events from the past few years, such as Nike's copycat Minor Threat poster, Axe commissioned graffiti in Chicago, and Toyota's rubbing elbows with craft communities to promote the Yaris. All are examples of marketing towards "indie culture," cultures that have been established, more or less, in opposition to corporate culture. Not only have major corporations targeted these various groups, but they've successfully recruited crafters, graffiti artists, and punks to participate in or even create the campaigns.
Anne Elizabeth Moore was interviewed on Murketing last week. Also, I'm proud to be speaking with Moore and Josh MacPhee on November 14th at Ad Hoc Arts in Brooklyn. Come on out...
7pm Wednesday November 14
Ad Hoc Arts (49 Bogart Street Unit 1G, Buzzer 22) Brooklyn. Near the Morgan Ave L.
The sociology of transit
I've been reading about urban planning and transportation lately and thought I'd share an observation gleaned from a couple of books—namely, The Geography of Nowhere by Howard Kunstler and How Cities Work by Alex Marshall. The observation goes something like this: seemingly simple changes to city streets or pathways can change entire ways of living. In the same way that removing a particular insect can spark a chain of events that ultimately transforms the "natural" world, the design of roads, trains, and city spaces can radically alter the social environment — the way people live.
One of the very few cities to fully recognize this in the U.S. is Portland, Oregon. For a couple of decades now, Portland has been working toward stopping sprawl and encouraging mass transit. In a way, you could say it's becoming "New York-ified."
To discourage driving downtown, Portland's regional government has reducing parking and increased the cost. People who can't afford the new rates now take light rail to work. Alex Marshall interviewed a typical commuter—a middle-aged woman—who, at first, hated the public rail.
"I didn't want to ride it at all. I didn't like being so close to other people... But now I really like it...It's turned me into a reader. I didn't used to read at all, but now I read about 20 books a month. I've become so accustomed to using the MAX [light rail] that now I forget I have a car."
As Marshall writes, Portland's policies have not only changed how this woman gets to work, it has given her a new hobby and a new comfort amid strangers. While surrounded by a standing-room-only car filled with workers, execs, and kids from all walks of life, she now feels at ease.
Portland's planners have also encouraged the co-mingling of retail and residential buildings. We New Yorkers tend to take this for granted, but mixing retail and residential allows us to do our shopping by walking—saving the time, expense, noise, and pollutants associated with driving. By walking, we stay in better shape and also benefit from a safer and more vibrant street life. Areas where commercial is separated from residential building tend to be the lifeless and scary after shops or offices close for the day. Think Wall Street in the 1980s.
The Geography of Nowhere is the more entertaining of the two books; Kunstler is funnier and a better wordsmith. But How Cities Work, by focusing on transportation, arguably brings us closer to the truth.
Kunstler is an advocate of "New Urbanism," a school of planniing that focus on aesthetics and ignores the radical force that is transportation. New Urbanists purport to build community by bringing back front porches and sidewalks, hiding garages, and planning small shopping areas within walking distance of neighborhoods.
But Marshall cuts to the heart of the problem with the New Urbanist critique:
The classic suburban home with the double-wide garage doors facing the street is a symbol of suburban banality and the triumph of the car. But in an automobile-dominated setting, this is an appropriate an honest way to build.... If you don't like houses with garage doors on their front, then you have to change the overall transportation system... Putting alleys and garages behind houses will not magically create a streetcar system. It will just mean that residents have sacrificed both their front and back yards for the sake of appearances.... Hiding the driveway is a kind of urban puritanism, hiding the real workings of our society.
Kinda like astroturf.
Why "free" often doesn't come cheap
Interesting anecdote in Sunday's New York Times: in his new book The White Man's Burden, William Easterly discusses one example of how the millions of dollars that the U.S. and other Western nations give in foreign aid are wasted.
Say you want to reduce the number of deaths due to malaria. Public health officials tend to agree that a cheap way to do that is to encourage the use of insecticide-laden mosquito nets in poverty-stricken, equitorial countries. So the U.S. has poured millions of dollars into distributing free mosquito nets. Problem is, the nets end up getting used for things other than protecting people from mosquitos. Why? Because people face no costs for taking multiple nets--or for using the nets for whatever purpose they like. Easterly shows that by working with local groups to sell the nets for as little as 50 cents, donor nations can dramatically improve the results--more nets get out to people who use them for the intended purpose, and thus fewer new cases of malaria.
I love this story because it validates some long-held instincts I've had about selling Stay Free. Whenever I bring bunches of Stay Free! to conferences or other events, I try to sell them for low price--usually $1--instead of giving 'em away free. People who get something for free too often treat it as trash; they'll pick it up without thinking about whether they actually want it, but even a nominal fee will jolt them into consciousness and force them to make a decision.
Because it doesn't come with everything
My good friend Paul Haven has a new book coming out next week, Two Hot Dogs With Everything, a novel for youngsters about baseball, superstition and magic. The book itself isn't particularly Stay Free-ish, but for the fact that it is by a friend of the magazine and includes a character named after me. So I was just going to write about it on my mostly dormant personal blog.
I ran a quick Amazon search to find the book. Fortunately, the book was easy to find. But kids don't have credit cards, so I guess Amazon wanted to make sure that the adults buying the book could get something for themselves.
Friend of Stay Free! Francis Heaney knows that the best advertising for his hilarious book is, well, his book. Lacking confidence that he will get much play in traditional advertising channels, he and his publisher are issuing Holy Tango of Literature as a free eBook. It is currently in two formats (Palm and web-readable), but he'll convert it to whatever you want. Seriously. The eBook is covered by a Creative Commons license, so share it freely. A brief explanation of the book, and my favorite poem, is below the fold.
The premise of Holy Tango is: "What if famous poets wrote poems whose titles were anagrams of their names." He also extends the idea to longer forms, such as a 2001: A Space Oddysey parody in the style of David Mamet - "Dammit, Dave" - but this remains my favorite:
I Will Alarm Islamic Owls
by William Carlos Williams
I will be alarming
the Islamic owls
that are in
you warned me
are very jittery
and susceptible to loud noises
they see so well in the dark
and so dedicated to Allah
Interview with Leslie Savan on pop language
It's been almost eight years since my friend and hero Leslie Savan stopped writing her advertising column in the Village Voice and hunkered down to write a book. Lo and behold, her labors have finally delivered us the think-book of the year: Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever is now out.
At first blush, Slam Dunks is a bit of a departure from Savan's advertising criticism. But on closer look? Not so much. The book focuses on American pop language--on everyday expressions and their ability to spread like viruses--Bring it on! Whassup? or “thinking outside the box." So how does this connect to Savan the ad critic?
Imagine, if you will, a society overwhelmingly dominated by advertising aliens, one in which people not only confront ads in schools, hospitals, homes, and offices, but internalize the language and values of advertising in their personal lives. How might you expect the inhabitants of this peculiar world to communicate? Well, one could reasonably expect that their lingua franca would resemble the advertising that surrounds. It would be pithy, punchy, with a bit of Hollywood glitz. It would, in other words, be pop.
Savan, in this smart and original book, documents the handprint of commercial media on American language, drawing parallels along the way between our homogenous cultural landscape and increasingly homogenous language. Pop language, Savan convincingly argues, resembles advertising itself.
I talked to Savan via phone from her home in New Jersey last week. An edit of our conversation follows below. For some basic background on the book, you might find it helpful to read the Q/A on the Knopf site--or Savan's piece in the New York Times Magazine--first.
INTERVIEW BELOW THE JUMP
Stay Free!: You mentioned that the strongest influence on pop is black American vernacular. Why is that?
Leslie Savan: Under slavery, black people in American often spoke in code in order to communicate under the master’s eye without him suspecting what they were really feeling. The code inevitably led to a kind of cool stance--a show of self-control and restraint. [As in, "keep cool."] They couldn't be seen yearning for escape. White people assumed a lot of slave songs were about God and heaven when they were really more along the lines of, "Get me out of here!"
Speaking in code also produced a lot of clever wordplay, and a playful, ironic alternative to the standard tongue. Creating a language that allows you to speak to “the Man" while at the same time giving a wink to your fellows is in itself an art, a form of poetry. I'm interested in the point at which language changes from poetry to PR.
Stay Free!: And, of course, the oral tradition is central in African American culture...
Leslie Savan: Yes. Partly because throughout much of American history blacks weren't allowed to be educated or to own property. They passed things down using storytelling and music. To this day, a lot of black English is full of irony and wordplay, and much of that came down through music.
Stay Free!: What about the word cool itself?
Leslie Savan: It comes down to us from black American vernacular. Cool is the preeminent pop word-the engine that drives most of pop culture itself. The fashion business, the entertainment industry, they're all striving for the Holy Grail of cool. In this day and age you can't separate cool from consumption. We think we can buy cool through our purchases, or borrow it by using pop phrases, which are a form of advertising for ourselves.
Stay Free!: Is the phenomenon of whites talking black universal? Does it happen in other cultures?
Leslie Savan: There is a universal tendency to seek out what sociolinguists call "covert prestige"; that's where a high status group gains prestige by imitating a lower status group. It's not necessarily a white/black thing. In England, upper-class white men have been shown to imitate the speech of working class white men.
Stay Free!: Why? Because it makes them sound more masculine and tough?
Leslie Savan: Yes...
Stay Free!: So is it mostly men who do this?
Leslie Savan: Yes, especially young men. Men are more prone to associate formal speech with being “proper” and being proper with femininity. This is nothing new; it's been true for generations. But more and more now, girls are also aspiring toward a certain toughness. In speech this comes out, say, in You go, girl! Or in women referring to themselves as “guys.”
Stay Free!: Corporations have been co-opting slang speech for ages. You mentioned that in the 1940s, Hallmark issued a “jive” series of greeting cards. In the past, this kind of mainstream attention signaled the demise of a slang term. Is that still the case?
Leslie Savan: When a word goes mainstream, it's no longer slang or outsider, but it doesn't necessarily die. It MIGHT just lose its edge.
Stay Free!: But don't some words die out once they become popular? Jive, for instance. Once suburbia started using it, it just sounded ridiculous...
Leslie Savan: Words of all kinds die when we don't need them anymore. Often, technology makes them irrelevant. Sometimes it becomes too embarrassing to use a particular phrase, but many phrases hang around longer than we think. I remember in the early 80s “Go for it!" was hot and we'd use it around the Voice office ironically. But we continued to use it long after it was hot and after a certain point it ceased to be ironic. Even as tepid as the phrase has become now, it still has a patina of glamour, a bit of a punchline in itself.
Stay Free!: You wrote a chapter on "weapon words"-phrases like Hel-lo?!, Puh-leeze!, and Ex-CUSE me? that serve as a kind of comeback or put-down. Weapon words remind me of a trend in advertising toward portraying a beleaguered everyman who has to deal annoying people, when the everyman would rather just be consuming some product. Like a husband will be playing sick in bed so he doesn't have to go out with his wife, and he's fantasizing about ducking out and riding around in a new SUV. Do you see any parallels with this kind of thing and weapon words? Both seem to reflect a kind of mean strain in pop culture...
Leslie Savan: Many Pop phrases are punchlines that replace a punch. As I say in the book, there are parallels between pop phrases and ads themselves. Both like to have snappy endings, both are good deal-closers. Pop phrases are basically mini- or micro-ads. They advertise us, tell our audience that we "get it" and that we have the crowd behind us. The first job of any ad is to get attention. Like effective ads, pop words are more likely to pull attention and consensus their way. The problem is that we're more likely to be persuaded not on merit of an argument but on how catchy it sounds.
When television first came out, people feared that images would overtake language and literacy. And in many ways they have. One thing I find interesting is that pop words are as much like images as words can be. In many ways, pop language has more in common with images than words—it’s the word as image.
Stay Free!: Pop words are like brands or logos.
Leslie Savan: Like logoed thoughts--licensed thoughts, licensed in the sense that they seem to descend from something big and flashy in the media. They’ve got the sound of money running through them.
Stay Free!: Your point about pop phrases working like images reminds me of an old debate among primatologists about gorillas and chimps who learn sign language. Some scholars say that when primates sign, they're not actually using language because they don't put words together to form original sentences. They're not coming up with their own ideas, they're just using isolated words, which, some argue, is comparable to dogs that do tricks. Maybe pop language is the equivalent of ape sign language, then. It's not actually language because the words aren't used in a sequence to form distinct ideas.
Leslie Savan: That's a great metaphor. It's language at a primal level--a primate level! [laughs]
Stay Free!: So many marketers have used pop phrases as a form of advertising. And yet it still seems to be that many pop phrases don't have a specific author or source. Most don't originate with marketing but rather boil up from "real people." Why do you think that is?
Leslie Savan: All language comes from real people using and spreading it. A phrase that began with an advertiser wouldn't attract as many people because most wouldn't know what it meant. You want to use language that people are already using. I think Wendy's really did come up with Where's the beef? but Show me the money, which was popularized by the movie Jerry McGuire, could be traced to a baseball player who almost certainly got it from someone else.
It's hard to draw a line between "real" people and Hollywood, because the words are reflected back. You could think of the road to pop as three steps. First, a phrase is used by "real people." Next, TV, movies, or advertising pick up and spread it. And, finally, more real people use it, and with an extra bit of pizzazz.
Stay Free!: Some pop phrases seem sourceless. I remember years ago, out of the blue, I started saying HIH-larious [with an exaggerated emphasis on hih] all the time and my friends came to associate it with me. But later I realized that people similarly say hi-larious [with an exaggerated hi]
Leslie Savan: I've experienced that too with different words. Things come to us before we are conscious of them, and spread.
Stay Free!: Exactly is another one.
Leslie Savan: Right. It's a placeholder. When we flounder in conversation we grab certain words and feel more together and in control.
Stay Free!: You write that street talk once rarely made it into print. And that it's only been relatively recently that the gap between written and spoken language has narrowed. Obviously, electronic media and marketing are a large part of that, but why do you think marketers were reluctant to use street talk in, say, the 1930s?
Leslie Savan: Because it was associated with lower classes and advertisers wanted to reach higher classes. Of course, now advertising plays to "the street" because that's where it's at. This goes back to the idea of covert prestige. When corporations use black street language it comes from the same desire to be cool, masculine, and tough. This is deliberate. Companies pay big money to look like outsiders.
Stay Free!: Yet corporations are as inside as it gets!
Leslie Savan: Yes. There's a Sprint TV ad with a silver-haired CEO who says something like, "This will reallly show them that we want to stick it to the man." His assistant replies, "But, sir, you are the man." So Sprint execs are taking the fake rebel sell one step further—they’re telling us they know they’re ridiculous for claiming to stick it to the main, but are they cool or what for sticking it to the conventions of postmodern advertising?
Stay Free!: But going back to weapon words, I've noticed that a lot of pop words-especially weapon words-end with what are called plosives, the letters B, D, G, K, P, T—and especially the last three. They have a hard sound. So do a lot of dirty sex words: suck, fuck, shit, poop... and so do words that mean to hit: hit, pop, whack. I think it's a primal thing. The sensation in the mouth is a miniature of the sensation you're talking about—something connects and either hurts or penetrates.
Stay Free!: Is this cross-cultural? Is it true in other languages?
Leslie Savan: One linguist I talked to said no. But another linguist, who co-edited a book called Sound Symbolism, says yes. If you look at comic books in other languages, you'd see a fair number of plosives for words that essentially mean “hit.” The word pop is itself a plosive. Making plosive sounds is fun! Explosions are fun—they provide a feeling of release. That's the basis of pop language--the fun. And that's partly why it's such a useful tool to sell with. Fun, like sex, can persuade you of something that wouldn't otherwise stand on its own merits.
Stay Free!: There's a good anecdote in your book about the origins of the word Coca-Cola...
Leslie Savan: A linguist was teaching an ESL class in the 80s or so, and, to warm up the crowd, she'd ask the students for words that had been incorporated into English from their native language. Well, these people from other countries all thought Coca-Cola came from their country. They didn't believe her when she said it came from America.
Stay Free!: Are academics studying pop?
Leslie Savan: They're always studying slang, but they're not looking much at the connection to media and marketing--unless, of course, they’re anthropologist types hired by marketing researchers. Pop is really a dialect of media and marketing.
Stay Free!: Conservative critic PJ O'Rourke has accused you of being a killjoy. How do you respond to people who mistake you for the grammar police?
Leslie Savan: I use pop phrases all the time; I can't think without them! [laughs] So I'm not saying pop language is "bad" and never, ever use it. I just think it's fascinating to look at how language is changing and why. Does that make me a killjoy? I don't think so.
I haven't been very good about finishing books lately, but did manage to read this one the whole way through: Selling Sickness: How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning Us All into Patients by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels. The book is short, easy, and loaded with arresting anecdotes about drug company efforts to "brand" disease.
For instance, the criteria for what constitutes high blood pressure and high cholesterol have been defined downward in recent years, multiplying the number of people said to suffer from these problems. The pharma companies marketing new drug treatments essentially created the new criteria, but Moynihan and Cassels show that the drugs themselves have dubious value. In the case of high blood pressure meds, an extensive, long-term, federally funded study found that generic old diuretics were significantly better than new drugs--and a small fraction of the cost. But after the study was released, big pharma tried to bury the results. When one of the study's authors was scheduled to give a talk at a scientific conference in San Francisco, Pfizer even organized a sight-seeing trip for attending heart specialists to take place at the same time!
Each chapter focuses on a different ailment, including menopause, attention deficit disorder, social anxiety disorder, osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and female sexual dysfunction. The emphasis is not to deny that real people suffer from these problems, of course, but to point to the dangers of letting drug companies define illness. A good read, even if you're not paranoid about modern medicine.
Speaking of Freakonomics: as discussed earlier, the authors attribute the 1990s drop in violent crime to the legalization of abortion (in combination with increased jailing and tougher gun laws). But anthopologist Grant McCracken has a still more novel hypothesis: the drop in crime, he argues, can be attributed to hip-hop. (After all, they coincided...)
Imagine how big the drop in crime would have been if only Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Jam Master Jay, et al. weren't gunned down.
(Via Consuming Things)
Thoughts on Freakonomics
Freakonomics, the best-seller by economist Steven Levitt and his wordsmith, Stephen Dubner, has been getting a lot of attention and I can see why: Levitt is a creative thinker whose practical concerns extend beyond the question of how to make money. An economist that isn't deathly boring? Yes, yes, sign me up. (Most of the work in this scattered collection is quantitive social science generally rather than economics in particular, but still...)
Yet something about this breezy read, with its interesting anecdotes and surprising conclusions, made me suspicious. Perhaps it stems from this statement in the introduction:
Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work -- whereas economics represents how it actually DOES work. Economics is the science of measurement.
Okay. If economics is a science, I am a walrus. Without getting bogged down in an old debate about "hard" science v. "soft (social) sciences" (a question of whether measuring the interplay of chemicals is equivalent to measuring human behavior) let me just say up front that I'm of the Neil Postman school, which holds that social scientists are "scientists" in quotes. Like cultural critics, historians, and journalists, they are essentially story tellers. The use of numbers and quantifiable data can add greatly to human knowledge but attempts at empiricism shouldn't be categorically privileged over other means of truth-telling (in matters of human behavior, that is). In other words, counting and data collecting can be as misleading as the expert opinions Dubner and Levitt purport to debunk.
One need look no further than Levitt's widely reported studies on the impact of legalizing abortion for evidence of just how fuzzy social "science" can be. Levitt provides compelling evidence that Roe v. Wade, by preventing unwanted pregnancies, is largely responsible for the drop in crime throughout the US in the 1990s. But the authors fail to acknowledge -- or even mention -- that a large body of evidence contradicts their thesis.
Though violent crime over all dropped in the 1990s, it actually increased among teenagers -- the group that would have been affected by Roe v. Wade -- and especially black teenagers. (African Americans are three-times more likely than Anglos to have abortions.) And even the assumption that Roe cut the number of unwanted births is debatable; illegitimate births maintained a steady climb after Roe, for example.
For a thorough and well-written examination of the abortion argument, see Did Legalizing Abortion Cut Crime by Steve Sailer (a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a conservative). The point isn't that legalizing abortion did or did not cut crime, but rather that Freakonomics grossly oversimplifies complex social matters... and in a deceptive, Gladwellian kind of way.
Another example: in chapter 4, the authors argue that the education, class-status, and age of birth parents largely determines how well their children do in school and that particular parental behaviors are more or less irrelevant. "It isn't so much a matter of what you do as a parent," the authors write, "it's who you are."
I'm sure there's a good deal of truth to this, but Levitt and Dubner gloss over the fact that demographic data such as class and income level are much easier to measure than behavior. To quantify parent habits, they relied on surveys, on self-reported data. It's widely understood in the ad industry that people don't respond accurately or honestly to queries about personal matters, so why take these surveys at face value? If you ask a parent whether they spank their children, take them to museums, or read to them ever day, what do you think they're going to say? (Dubner and Levitt acknowledge the unreliability of survey data with the spanking question, but not the others.)
So while it may very well may be that birth parent demographics are primary predictors of student success, you can't so easily write off parent behavior. Just because you can't reliably measure something doesn't make it irrelevant.
Dubner and Levitt conclude the book by predicting it will encourage readers to ask questions of self-appointed experts and others touting some party line. Hopefully those questions will begin by examining some of the authors' own arguments.
RELATED: For more commentary on Freakonomics, see My New Cuddly Pet is a Smith & Wesson