Friday, August 16, 2002

The other day, I was talking to my Dad about the absurdity of "business-speak," the acronym-studded, jargon-laden, nonsensical babble that you hear in conference rooms these days. Sure, we've all heard the jokes about TLA's (Three-Letter-Acronyms), we've listened to opaque and seemingly-interchangeable technical terms that seem to serve no purpose other than to inflate the speech balloon over the speaker's head to bursting, some of us have even been lucky enough to hear people with C's in their titles tell us we need to "Grok the opportunity that [this or that endeavor] represents."

I've heard this said. No kidding.

Yes, these are sad and frightening trends, but what I've been noticing is more sinister trend towards blurring the line between the two most fundamental linguistic elements, Nouns and Verbs.

Now, nouns and verbs and their dichotomous interplay form the very basis of our language. The fundamental rythm of subject-verb, subject-verb, with the occasional coda-like addition of a direct object conducts the dance of ideas from mind to mind. The rythm is almost as natural as breathing in and out. Noun, Verb. In, and out. Dominant, tonic. Like waves on the shore. Pause, and step. Pause, and step.

But there's now a move underway in the business world to squash this semantic ballet by creating a new form of word that is neither noun nor verb, but a blurry smear of both - the "Nerb".

Consider the bastard creation, "decisioning," as in "that issue is currently going through the decisioning process," or "our company delivers decisioning software to Fortune 500 companies." How about "actionable?" There's a fun one - trying to masquerade as an adjective by hiding behind that "-able" suffix. Don't be fooled. It's a nerb at heart.

These are words that should not be. Their parentage is not only questionable, it is discernably monstrous. These are the linguistic Cat-Dogs that are being bred in the secret chambers of our lexicon. And this is not happening in the gutters and asylums, my friends, oh no, it's being done in the cathedrals of power - the boardrooms, the conference tables, the executive toilets. Like the Royals in England, these combinatory mistakes are destined not only to exist, but to rule.

Apart from just sounding absurd, these words actually do something potentially harmful, and I suspect that this is the competative advantage that has allowed these mutants to survive, even thrive, in a business environment. Like the passive voice, they remove responsibility from action.

Here's how. Consider the sentence "That issue is in the decisioning process." Compare it with "We are deciding that issue," or even "That issue is being decided." Even the latter, which is in the passive voice, seems more direct. "Decisioning processes" (or the previously-cited "decisioning software") actually place the responsibility for deciding on an external, often inanimate thing; a process or a program. "Wait," you might ask, "Isn't it the words "process" or "software" that actually obscure the responsibility by replacing the human actor?" In a way, this is correct - the word "decisioning" is just a modifier; it is actually the thing modified (a noun) that picks up the responsibility of the subject or actor. However, the blurriness of the word "decisioning" makes it easier to take as a modifier for poor scapegoats like process and software - somehow "deciding software" or even "deciding process" sound more awkward, are more difficult to swallow.

By the same token, the phrase "I decisioned that" doesn't work either. The use of the Nerb seems to force the use of the passive voice. Since there is already a more appropriate transitive verb ("to decide"), the brain doesn't accept the use of the Nerb ("decisioning") in this same role. The introduction of the Nerb into the sentence is made palatable only by the use of the passive voice. Perhaps the fact that it is part Noun allows the Nerb to assume some of that responsibility itself, thus removing it from any subject whatsoever.

They're wiley, these bird-fish.

Like most business-speak, the goal is to soften, to obscure, and to beguile; to shift the responsibility for action or inaction away from the human beings involved, and to artifically place it on abstractions, systems, processes, and the like.

Who knows. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, we are bound to try to determine if our date is "wifeable" or "husbandable". Our Salami and Swiss will be "put through the sandwiching process," and we will read about the "deathing" of convicted felons in the paper.

Actually, more likely, that kind of news will be Televisioned.

Thursday, February 21, 2002

So I was talking to this guy I know the other day (we'll call him "Mike," because that's his name) who had just visited the SF MOMA for the first time. "Wow, What'd you think?" I asked, "Isn't it fantastic?"

Mike was not as enthusiastic as I had thought he might be. "Well, I liked some of it, but a lot of it was just stupid. Like there was this one painting, it was just this huge gray canvas, with like one little tiny squiggle of white paint at the bottom. I mean, what the hell is that?"

This is not an uncommon response to modern art, particularly the more abstract stuff. When my Dad got a membership to the SF MOMA, he only went once, maybe twice, and expressed much the same opinion - that there were some things that were interesting, but a lot that just didn't seem like art to him. "Where's the talent that goes into putting a bunch of rocks in a circle?" he once asked me, "Why does that get put in a museum?"

Now I'm no art connoisseur - I mean, I can identify Van Gogh's Sunflowers when I see it hanging in the Dentist's office, and I can even sometimes be counted on to differentiate between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but for the most part, I'm pretty ignorant, particularly when it comes to making value judgements. I can't say I totally get what makes "Piss Christ" a valid work, nor can I really support either side of the argument as to whether or not Andy Warhol does, indeed, suck a big one. Despite my ignorance, however, I have developed certain opinions about modern art, particularly the stuff that "looks like my neighbor's three-year-old mentally-retarded kid could paint it."

Modern art asks us to appreciate not the talent, but the message. The statement it makes is not so much "Look what I can do" as "Look what I have done." Where more traditional, representational forms come to us with an answer in the form of a picture, modern art comes often with a question in the form of an image. Modern art doesn't ask for admiration (the artists generally do - but that's a whole separate issue). It asks for a reaction, a response, a willingness to go down the path that the image directs us towards, even if that path is covered in leaves and brambles that make it difficult to see, much less traverse. In a sense, "Why would anybody call that ART?" is exactly the appropriate question. Rather than make the answer obvious by way of depiction ("Here's a Lion. He's pretty scary."), modern art goes in for more subliminal, subconscious suggestions that may lead you to any number of further questions ("Here's some yellow. How do you feel about ducks? What does butter make you think of? What are you so afraid of?").

It doesn't help that so many people who DO profess to know a great deal about art are so deliberately obfuscatory and intellectually territorial. The fact that the general public, with the hearty support of popular culture and the media, considers modern artists shysters and ninnies is probably the most natural response to being told that that big white ball in the center of the room surrounded by magenta pilotfish with flaming batons in their mouths is representative of the artist's anger at the repression of women in central Zamibia. I've heard tour guides say this kind of stuff countless times to their tour groups. They always seem surprised when eyes begin to glaze over, and smirks begin to appear. People don't like to be made to feel stupid, so in defense to having their intelligence insulted, they just reject the whole thing as artsy-fartsy hogwash.

The truth is that it's not that the meaning of the work is inaccessible, it's that it isn't intrinsic - each person experiencing the work brings a critical part of the meaning with them. By trying to prove the value of the work through elaborate pontification and parroted criticism, the percieved expert actually destroys the effect of the piece by bringing the audience to a particular destination without undertaking the journey. It's like going to Disneyland, waiting in line for the rides, and then being shown to the exit right before you get on. "So, what'd you think of Disneyland, kids?" "It SUCKED, Dad!!"

No duh.

So, next time you're in a modern art museum and find yourself confronted with what looks suspiciously like, and may actually be, a piece of moldy Keilbasa with a cockroach pinned to it under a display case, rather than discounting the thing out of hand, try going down the path. Take the journey. Go along for the ride. Don't rent the audio-headset-tour-with sister what's-her-face. Ignore the guys in berets and goatees who walk around smelling like cloves and sneering at everybody. For God's sake, don't talk to the docents. Just go with it. It's a dialogue between you and the work. It goes something like this:

You: "Why the hell would anybody take a picture of a naked dead guy with flowers coming out of his head?"

Art: "Exactly."

You: "What's the point of hanging a Urinal in a gallery?"

Art: "Yes."

You: "I can't believe anyone would smear elephant crap on the Virgin Mary!"

Art: "Well, there you go."

You: "What makes this pile of dog kibble with a flag in it significant?"

Art: "I don't know, let's figure it out together, you and me. What do you say?"

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Last night, several of us were sitting around talking about how we'd like to be disposed of when we die (I think it came up because we were watching "Ocean's 11" - the original one). We discussed the merits of building your own casket, the rules about embalming, and that episode of Northern Exposure where they catapulted that dead biker into the lake. Lee expressed a fondness for the idea of a pyre over which mourners could toast marshmallows. Rob wants to be blown up (exploded, not inflated).

Now as for me, being a claustrophobe and thus rather averse to the idea of spending forever in a box not big enought to roll over in, standard burial isn't too appealing either. Honestly, I've always kind of liked the idea of being posed and encased in a block of clear Lucite, kind of like a human version of those novelty bug-in-the-ice-cube gags. I could have a clause in my will that whosoever should inheirit my vast fortune would be obligated to prominently, yet tastefully display my smiling, waving corpse on the grounds of my estate. Of course, this would be rather expensive, and it would suck if my estate ended up being a condo by the freeway - exhaust fumes are hell on Lucite.

I've also thought taxidermy would be a nice condition in which to carry out my eternal rest, but I don't know if any reputable artisan would undertake the task, and I don't want any disreputable artisans having unsupervised access to my vacated earthly vessel. Lord knows what kind of satanic tomfoolery my remains would be subjected to by the kind of person who would actually stuff a human. I've watched enough tabloid TV to know better than to fall into that trap.

Of course there's cremation, but that always seemed like a cop-out to me - you either end up dispersed into the air, where you will probably be breathed in by countless jerks and lazy people, dumped in the sea, where fish will eat you and poo you out, or sitting in one of those stupid urns on somebody's mantel, just waiting to be mistaken for coffee grounds or tea by some idiot house guest in a cheesy, farcical sitcom-episode-come-to-life incident.

So what's a body to do?

Then it hit me. I'll combine the convenience of cremation with the class, staying power and affordability of taxidermy.

I've decided to have an animal stuffed with my ashes.

It's brilliant, really. Not only do I become part of my own memorial, but I'm infinitely portable, and there's little or no risk of Desecration By Beverage. And really, if you were a little kid, and someone had to point to something on the mantle and say "That's your Great Grandpa," which would you rather it be - some old dusty urn, or a friendly old badger? Faulknerian metaphors notwithstanding, to me it seems an easy choice.

Only one question remains. Which of God's many creatures would make the best final resting place? With the whole of the animal kingdom to choose from, it's a pretty tough decision. There are so many factors to consider, such as size, personality, endangered species status...the list goes on and on. What if it turns out that reincarnation is for real? Would the animal I go out as influence the results of how I'd come back? What about the many varying religious interpretations associated with various animals? I'd sure hate to be immortalized as a snake if that whole "Fall of Man" thing turned out to be true. And don't even get me started on Aesop's Fables. When you think about it, this decision is as fraught with pitfalls as any of our toughest life choices.

Take, for example, the common city rat. While this might seem an appropriate choice from the standpoint of Chinese Astrology (I was born in the Year of the Rat), the unpleasant associations with the plague and general nasty living conditions tend to rule it out, as does the risk of being nick-named "Ben," "Templeton," or "Chuck E. Cheese."

Now a Lion on the other hand has lots of fantastic qualities and associations - bravery, royalty, the whole apex predator thing - that would tend to recommend it as a worthy choice. Unfortunately, lions tend to be on the large side, and would take up quite a bit of space in the sitting room. Moving the thing around would also present a problem, and kids would always be sitting on it, hanging on its neck, and generally abusing it, so that's kind of out, too.

Really, this tends to eliminate most if not all of your basic large mammals. Birds carry too much easy, trite symbolism. Fish? They've got too much of a victim mentality. Invertebrates are right out. Maybe a whole family of shrews? Might that give people the wrong idea, like maybe I was a multiple-personality case?

Of course, I've always had a soft spot for weasels...