“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re old enough, it’s easy to spot language anachronisms in period TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m old enough. I notice the terms that we now take for granted but were nowhere to be heard in the wordscape of a few decades ago. (Earlier posts on these shows are here and here.) It’s much harder to remember the opposite — words and phrases from the period that have since disappeared, words that place the scene firmly in its historical context.

I’ve been watching “The Deuce” on HBO. It’s set in the  world of West 42nd Street circa 1970, with its pimps and hookers, strippers and porn merchants, cops and gangsters, and assorted others who plied their trade in that neighborhood. Nothing in season one seemed out of place, maybe because the episodes were written or overseen by people old enough to have been bar-mitzvahed by 1970.

In Season Two, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), has gotten into porn as a way to escape the dangers of life as a street hooker. She has gone from being on camera to writing scripts. In Episode 4, we see her at a shoot where an actor complains about his lines, and others support him. It’s bad even for porn, they say. Candy agrees.

“I’m gonna try to tweak it,” she says.

No, no, no. In 1970, people didn’t tweak scripts. They didn’t tweak much of anything, but if they did, it was an actual thing you could pinch with your fingers. In porn, it might have been a nipple. Anywhere else, it was most likely a nose. Nothing had changed in the 370 year since Hamlet.* It was only towards the end of the 20th century that people began tweaking less tangible things like systems, colors, or designs.

(Click on the image for a larger view. 
The graphs show the last few years of each period and the 
most frequent completions of the phrase "tweak the” for the entire period.)

Candy has ambitions beyond grinding out low-budget, poorly written fuck films. She wants to produce a film with multi-layered story, with characters, and with a woman’s point of view. She has come up with the idea — a porno version of Little Red Riding Hood — but she realizes that she doesn’t have the talent to write the script. So she meets with a writer. When she reveals what the film will be, she fears that he’ll reject the project. But she’s wrong. “It’s genius,” the writer says.


The trouble is that in 1970 (the year the writer of this episode was born), genius was not an adjective. It was a noun and only a noun. Even today, Webster online does not recognize genius as an adjective.

I know what people did not say in 1970. But what did they say? What is the language equivalent of the disco suit? The only thing I can think of is groovy.  Yes, there was a brief period — a few weeks back in the late 1960s — when people actually spoke the word without a trace of irony. But what else?

--------------------------------
* Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? (II, ii)


Flashback Friday: Asians in the Library

October 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2011, I did a blogpost with the title “Ethnocentrism and Family Values.” I should have called it “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

It was inspired by a YouTube rant that went viral — a UCLA student complaining about Asian students talking too loudly in the library. Much derided, she soon removed the video, leaving my blogpost with a large open space.

Yesterday, an Inside Higher Ed article about anti-Asian messages posted at Washington University referred to the rant and informed me that once again copies of the video were available online. So I’m reposting it. I think it holds up. (Yes, it has a lot of text in the footnotes. A Sociological Images, where this was cross-posted, someone commented, “You, sir have unseated the late, great David Foster Wallace as the Prodigiously Lengthy Footnote King.”)


March 20, 2011


When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I'm not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:
It used to really bug me but it doesn't bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they've brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It's seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That's what they do.
(The transcript does not quite do justice to Ms. Wallace’s presentation. The video was taken down, but in 2018 a copy became available.)



These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:
I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**
Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,
Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”
Do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don't teach their kids to fend for themselves.”

-------------

*

I'll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany... Over here from somewhere, “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.”
** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”

I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds,

I'm sure he's very good at this chess thing,
but that isn't really the issue.
Mantegna loses it.
My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you
acknowledge that, then maybe we'll have something
to talk about. Chess is what it’s called.
Not the “chess thing.”
*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs,-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.

“A Different Person”

October 5, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Benjamin Wittes is baffled. Wittes is a Washington lawyer — he’s the blogger-in-chief at Lawfare — and he thought he knew Kavanaugh fairly well. But he was completely taken aback watching Kavanaugh at the Senate committee hearings earlier this week.

The Brett Kavanaugh who showed up to Thursday’s hearing is a man I have never met, whom I have never even caught a glimpse of in 20 years of knowing the person who showed up to the first hearing. I dealt with Kavanaugh during the Starr investigation, which I covered for the Washington Post editorial page and about which I wrote a book. I dealt with him when he was in the White House counsel’s office and working on judicial nominations and post–September 11 legal matters. Since his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, he has been a significant voice on a raft of issues I work on. In all of our interactions, he has been a consummate professional. The allegations against him shocked me very deeply, but not quite so deeply as did his presentation. It was not just an angry and aggressive version of the person I have known. It seemed like a different person altogether. [source]*

For Wittes, what’s troubling is Kavanaugh’s seemingly unprecedented behavior. But unwittingly, Wittes opens up a broader problem — our idea about what a person is. Wittes, like most of us, thinks that each person has a “character,” a set of qualities or traits that determines how he will act and react in any situation.

In a post earlier this week (here) and in a much older post, I tried to explain the limitations of this idea. One obvious limitations is that we base our idea of a person’s character on a seeing them in only a narrow range of situations. Yet we think that we can then predict how they will respond in very different situations, situations that we have never seen them in and that may be completely new to the person himself. As Wittes tells us, he knows Kavanaugh mostly, perhaps entirely, as a lawyer at work.
He has never seen Kavanaugh reacting to accusations — damning accusations that may well be true and that may have momentous consequences for his career. And of course, he has never observed Kavanaugh the callous and sloppy-drunk teenager.

What if we abandoned this idea of the person as unified and consistent set of a few traits? Suppose we thought of a person as having a large repertoire of emotions and behaviors, some of them contradictory. After all, we generally allow for this kind of variability when we think about ourselves. We can be proper and we can let our hair down. We can be even-tempered and we can lose our temper.

Even this broadening of the range of traits for ourselves helps. It allows us to cling to this same theory of the person. But even with ourselves, anomalous events can threaten that theory. When we have a reaction that is truly new, we say things like, “I don’t know what got into me.” This explanation is the only way to maintain the idea of the person as an object with clear and permanent boundaries and within those boundaries a more or less permanent “character.”

As Clifford Geertz says, this is a unique and weird notion.

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

Our idea of what a person works fairly well most of the time, but, as Wittes’s bafflement illustrates, not always. In any case, it’s the only one we’ve got. That’s our theory, and we’re sticking to it. And according to this theory, the Kavanaugh Wittes saw at the hearings was  “a different person.”

----------------
* Aside from the puzzlement over Kavanaugh as a person, Wittes’s article is excellent for its explanation of why the Senate should not confirm Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

Trust and Tribalism?

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gallup could use a headline editor. Today (here), they went with this:



Better would have been

Tribalism Drives Republicans’ Trust in Politicians.

Gallup provides this graph:

 (Click to enlarge.)

When Obama took office in 2009, Republican trust or confidence in elected officials fell by thirty points. During the Obama years, Republicans remained 20-30 points less trustful of politicians than in the Bush era. In 2016, when it looked likely that Hillary Clinton would be the next president, that trust fell to its lowest point in the century; only 33% of Republicans had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in politicians. Since Trump took office, Republican trust has regained 20 points.

Democrats’ confidence in politicians shows nothing like this partisan volatility.

So here’s yet another accurate alternative headline
Republicans Don’t Trust Anybody But Republicans