I was Literally not Going to Write This Post Today

If I read/hear the word “literally” used to draw emphasis to a phenomenon, my head is literally going to explode.

Alright, you have probably heard the trite use of the word “literally” endorsed from celebrities and rock stars, to journalists and media moguls; but I think it is time to stand up and reconsider the use of the word literally as a way to emphasis and clarify our reliance on clichés and metaphors.

I wasn’t going to write a post about this topic. In fact, I have been jotting down a list of chapter ideas for a non-fiction book regarding the use of popularly accepted idioms such as “like,” “really,” and so forth in order to, perhaps, start a new blog. I firmly think that these words betray something unique about our experience in this world as it is right now. I think it betrays what Jean-François Lyotard first named the “Postmodern Condition” in which all of our experiences are kept at a relative distance form ourselves—obviously I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but you get the point.

In an earlier post, I analyzed the use of the word “like” as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as “really” and “seriously” to bring that simulated experience (the “like”) closer to us.

Here is an example from my post:

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

It comes down to our basic social function in this world: communicating our experiences and lives to another human being. But if we cannot grasp the fundamental description of life experiences that happen to our own person, then we will find a way to make up for that, let’s call it, gap in proximity or happening.

My point of focus today is the word “literally,” and I think it fulfills three social functions:

  1. It acknowledges the trite overuse—and universal knowledge of this overuse—of a cliché and amends its overuse by attempting to make the cliché a real occurrence.
  2. It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
  3. It makes the experience closer, more alive, more Real, more True.

Okay, I literally just went to The Atlantic Monthly‘s website and scanned four articles for the word “literally”. I found one use of it in the comment section (yes, it aids my point). So, let’s dissect his or her’s little sentence with and without the word “literally”

“So the point is, you literally *cannot* escape at this point”
“So the point is, you *cannot* escape at this point”

The commenter is discussing Google, Facebook and Technologies hold on our lives. Yes, yes, it’s horrible—he types across a wi-fi network. The author’s point is that we cannot escape from technology. So, why is he or she using the word literally? The sentence functions perfectly without it, right? Well, kind of.

TechThe author is using an absolute idea. To his or her absolutist point: you cannot escape technology. Well, but, you probably can. There is no way for this author to account for all cases of occurrences where someone attempted to escape the Internet’s grasp and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, no one has that knowledge. It’s impossible to know. In our postcolonial era, claiming that you have absolute knowledge is a logical fallacy, and this author is aware of that fallacy. So, what the author does is place the word “literally” in front of the fallacy in order to emphasize the absolutism of the word “*cannot*”. The irony is that the use of the word “literally” implies that the author cannot prove this fact, so without the word “literally” the sentence becomes closer to a type of Truth.

Here is my final argument: it is not that the sentence needs the word “literally” to emphasize the absolutism; rather, it is that the reader needs the word “literally” to verify and communicate something unique to our time and space. As far as I’m concerned that intangible thing that the reader needs is capitalized Truth. And Truth over the Internet is very, very, really, super-hard to come by because it is unverifiable. Truth over the Internet is intangible. It is the very thing that we are seeking when we type “How do I…” on Google, but then scan three sources before believing the top result.

Sure, this could be simple cynicism and mistrust of knowledge, but I am not about to write off the social predominance of the word “literally” by news media corporations, pundits, documentary film makers, learned individuals, and average Americans. It cannot be that simple.

So, I ask you to aid me in my quest for Truth, and let’s reconsider our use of the word “literally” before we speak or write. Hmmmm, I didn’t even discuss the use of metaphor vs. literally, but that’s for a different post.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

(Edited: To add to my point, I found this a few minutes ago by one of my favorite writers, Derek Thompson: “That other websites don’t do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation”. Sheesh. “Literally” is literally everywhere!)


The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!

Simulacra and Simile: This Post is Really, Like, Super Important

“That really, seriously just happened, like, literally, two minutes ago.”

As an English major and an adjunct professor of English/Humanities, many people make some pretty classic assumptions about me: I’m a grammar nerd, I’ve read every classic work of Literature you name from memory, and I detest slang. Well, none of those are true: I haven’t, until recently, paid enough attention to grammar, I read more Said, Marx, and Spivak than Defoe, Shelley, or Austen in my MA program, and I love how slang functions and defines a culture.

I want to put this post into context. Over the last one and a half years, I have made three trips to Germany to visit my gf. ZeitDuring that time, I have been listening to Pimsleur German audio in my car to improve what remains of my very limited high school and college German language and grammar skills. I’m going to focus on two characteristics about the German language that distinguish it from American slang, and reveal a particularity about American culture.

First, you have to listen to the entire German sentence to know what is happening! (Because the verb comes at the end. For instance, in the last sentence, the word “listen” wouldn’t come until the end). Second, time is very, very important, and usually occurs before location or the verb. The more specific, the better. So, what does this tell us about American slang?

Well, our discourse is quite general and often hyperbolic. Words such as “really,” “seriously,” and “literally” are attempts to make a language that is general, specific. They are adjectives that replace specific knowledge, or rather, the communication and therefore required memorization of specific times and places. Let’s take the intro quote as an example: the words “really,” “literally,” and “seriously” are added for emphasis. Again, they serve to bolster the non-specificity of general language. But why? Why do we need these words to reenforce the measurement of time?

The first reason is because of the event’s relation to the present. Something that just happened only occurred within a specific time period. SimulacraA phenomenon occurring sixty minutes ago did not just happen. Although, something occurring within 15 minutes may have just happened. To make sure to close that gap we add the adjective “seriously” to emphasis the now-ness of the event. With the advent of “seriously,” the time gap then shrinks to a minute or two of now-ness. The term “literally” conveys a sense of believability, both on the speaker and listener’s part. It is not that we do not trust what the other has to say, but simply that we do not trust that a phenomenon happened to them—something I will discuss later. What is at the core of needing these repeated and quite superfluous emphases? One simple word: “like”.

“You should, like, seriously read this.”

Like is a simile (“a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of different kind; method of comparison”); it is also “similar to” and “in the manner of,” “appropriate to,” “as though,” and finally, informally, “used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty” (all definitions from my Mac Dictionary). The last one is my favorite, yet it does not convey the true cultural significance of the word like. For that, we need another example. This time with a verb.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit.”

I know you’ve heard this conversation. You may even have had this conversation! No worries, though. Slang is a significant method of socialization when eliminating those not, um, biologically speaking, the most fit for secure reproduction, e.g. “cool”. Ahhemmm… Now that we got that out of the way, I ask you: What did Gill do today? Did he throw the football around? Well, technically, no. When Gill uses the simile “like,” he states that he did something like throwing a ball around. He performed a simulation; therefore, he may or may not have thrown the football around. We don’t know. So, he didn’t throw the football around. So what? Well then, smarty-pants, if Gill is stating to you that he didn’t do something that he says he did, then how does he reverse that negative “not doing”? He uses emphasis. Now watch.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

Finally! Gill has provided some much needed emphasis in order to substantiate his earlier claim that he was throwing the football around. The words “really” and “superfast” provide hyperbole that negates this nothingness of simulation, proving to his friend that he actually did do something! He did so much of something that he really did this something! And it was amazing! Really!

What’s important in this post and our understanding of slang is not to dismiss it as insipid, stupid, useless, or a tripe form of communication. Rather we should notice that those overused adjectives betray the postmodern value of a simulation—as nothing really happening directly to us; as the televised launch of the Gulf War; as Jane Austen updated with zombies. The point is: you don’t need anything to actually happen to you (although it does make events richer). You don’t really need to read Pride & Prejudice to get the zombie version, and you don’t really need to hold a gun to be cynical/sympathetic of war. So, when our state of non-being and non-experiencing bumps in to reality, we swing the pendulum back and must overuse hyperbolic adjectives in order to prove that we actually lived…

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to read your comments. Really, I would.

The Mercenary Adjunct, or What Would Machiavelli Do?

English: Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiav...

Taken from http://www.storiain.net/arret/num60/artic6.htm. Svenska: Furstens omslagsbild. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Chapter XII of his world renowned, sixteenth century instruction manual to Lorenzo d’Medici of Florence, The Prince (1532), Niccolo Machiavelli states that “The chief foundations of all states… are good laws and good arms” (Machiavelli, all quotes taken from Gutenberg & are public domain). What he meant is that a nation should produce its own military forces, and never hire outside forces to defend its own land. If they do so, then they will suffer penalties he articulates later on in the text. But he makes clear that these two foundations are contingent upon one another. He states: “there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws” (ibid.). Essentially, one is both a determinant of, and a dependent upon, the other.

Over the past few years there has been debate and general discourse concerning the allowance of the coveted “tenure-track” position within academic institutions. Many argue that this provides teachers with a “free-ride” where they are allowed to do or say anything they wish, regardless of university approval.

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Mac...

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their rivals argue that tenure is one of the last bastions of organized labor, and a reward for the excruciating intellectual labor that takes place in academia. I believe that there are allusions that can be drawn from Machiavelli’s The Prince that would lend credence to an argument against the way universities and colleges employ adjunct professors. While I am not wholly in favor of tenure, I do take issue with the use and abuse of the adjunct’s position. As would Niccolo Machiavelli, but not for the reasons we may at first assume.

Before I put my opinion into the hat (as they say), I want to make something clear: I’m an adjunct professor of English. Out of maybe seventy general education instructors at the college where I teach, which shall remain anonymous, maybe twelve are full-time employees of the company. The rest are adjunct. Mercenaries. Hired guns used exclusively to fortify a business and protect it against closure. We work for a flat, per-credit remuneration, with the only chance for an increase being the coveted full-time position. Furthermore, we have no guarantee of further employment, since we are on a contractual basis. Our contracts state that it may be cancelled, or prorated, at any time the employer feels necessary. We have no health insurance, nor life insurance. No 401k. And no vacation time accrues. We are simply mercenaries.

Machiavelli is quite opinionated when it comes to mercenary forces. He states: “mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies” (ibid.). Well! That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does hold some basic truths. What is the motivation of the adjunct to be disciplined and faithful to a particular college’s ideals? What is their reasoning for teaching beyond personal ambition? The mercenary doesn’t attend regular staff meetings because he or she has outside responsibilities, such as other jobs, and has little loyalty without immediate reward. So, he or she is less informed of important matters. And less likely to recognize, and thus respect or empathize with, his or her superiors.

Henry V of England

Henry V of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that the mercenary has no loyalty, save for her art and her livelihood. If you fought in a national army, you would be surrounded by fellow countrymen. What a joy to discuss your lives and your country with your co-combatants, and then fight for your patriotic ideals as one! Waving a flag high and singing patriotic tunes, as if you were fighting with “God for Harry! England and Saint George!,” screaming “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” (Shakespeare). The patriotic spirit is precisely what the mercenary lacks, and precisely why Machiavelli sees them as the eventual ruin of a nation.

What is then created is a state protected and guarded from failure by those who harbor no loyalty to the state for which they fight. Machiavelli continues: “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend” (ibid.). Essentially, the adjunct goes where she is called. If the college is unable to hire them, or they find a more lucrative position, then they move on. Plain and simple. Someone else may come and fill the position, but all this does is create a stressful and bureaucratically laden administration whose sole job is to hire/re-hire on a whim. This then creates a college/university of which the majority of its inhabitants are administration, rather then serving their most elementary function: teaching (see note 1). With instructors routinely coming and going, attaching themselves to a university based on only a few basic personal factors, at the bottom of which resides loyalty. The university does not harbor camaraderie, intellectual engagement and interactivity amongst co-workers, or a shared notion of the universities or department’s ideals and mission. The deterioration of not only the universities status, but the educational standard of the university, is at stake. And it seems eminent from what Machiavelli warns.

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What the college uses the adjunct exclusively for then is their skills and capabilities as an instructor. But Machiavelli warns about this as well: “if they are [skilled], you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way” (ibid.). The best interest of the college would be to hire those who are not too skilled so that they leave for a better job or a specialized degree, but someone skilled enough so you retain students. This is not easy. One has to make sure there is a minimum requirement of intellectual activity, but not too much so that the adjunct doesn’t wander for better employment. It should better them in their art, but not so much that their confidence grows beyond its place. The result is a lack of educational standards that are necessary for the globalized workplace. In other words, there are not “good laws where the state is not well armed” (ibid.).

I cannot conceive of any immediate solution to the problem of the use and abuse of adjunct instructors. In fact, I think it is here to stay for quite some time. The influx of work can often be a perk, allowing for a sort of “freedom” from responsibility. No classes? You’ve got time to right that novel! Or polish your resume! Or backpack across a state or two! But with this supposed “freedom” comes the life of the mercenary adjunct. And the realization that you never know where or when your next paycheck is coming, what would happen if you became ill, or if you will ever find steady employment. And with a mercenary army comes the lack of “good laws” along with “good arms,” in the shape of falling educational standards and the inability to understand how those standards can be measured (see note 2).

As Machiavelli warned Lorenzo d’Medici so long ago: “the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries” (ibid.). So should we heed his warning by conceiving a negotiation between the sacrosanct position of tenure, and the vulnerable predicament facing the mercenary adjunct.

1. A quick Google search will display numerous articles regarding the dwindling ration of instructors vs administration employed in colleges, universities, and public schools.

2. See debates on No Child Left Behind, and other modifications, thereof.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg. Ed. John Bickers, David Widger, and others. Oct 2010. Web. 14 Jun 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry V. Project Gutenberg. Tudor Edition. Nov 1998. Web. 14 June 2012.

How to Teach Yourself Parallel Structure, While Standing and Holding A Red Dry Erase Marker

TWO hours ago this white board was filled with erratic markings from a red, dry erase marker. I was trying to explain parallel sentence structure to my one-and-only student. And she was tired. This is understandable. For the last two hours, she had been taking a series of tests designed to assess her mastery of reading comprehension. After passing the reading section—a feat I congratulated her for repeatedly—she was on to the writing section, but she had hit a wall.

So, parallel structure. You have four answers: A, B, C, & D. C is the correct answer. You know this, but you can’t tell your student the answer and then explain; that’s not what a teacher does. You have to lead them to C, by teaching him or her about parallel structures. She has to do this on her own. Even if her eyelids are beginning to droop as the small, drab, and windowless room finally drains the last of her energy. But you have no lecture planned for parallel structures. So, what do you do?

I did what came naturally. I visualized. I aligned my hands side-by-side and demonstrated how two parallel lines are situated. Not very helpful. I was losing my student. I grabbed the red marker standing on the the table to my left, and stood up with no clue what to do next. My first instinct was to demonstrate the incorrect answer: B. B reads: “Scarlett flirted with the men, and sung a song.” I now had to isolate what is parallel in this sentence. My first demonstration was underlining. I wrote on the board: flirted with the men, and directly underneath that: sung a song. Four words in the first action and three in the second: this is the first clue that the sentence is not parallel. Your second clue: the tenses do not match.

Next, I demonstrated a non-parallel sentence (due to tense) that contained the same amount of words. I think I confused her more. So then it dawned on me: I could write them as a list! Answer A: “Tom turned down the position because the hours are too long and low pay”. I wrote on the board: “Tom turned down the position,” and to the right of that: 1) “because the hours are too long” and 2) “low pay”.

(please excuse the mirroring)

Finally, I wrote C on the board in the same manner as A: “Phillip” 1) “mopped the floor” and 2) “fixed the sink”. As a list, the comparative structure became more evident. I was teaching…

I knew this because I had learned something. I had learned how to teach parallel structure. That moment is my favorite moment when instructing. The specificity of the subject matter is not very important. What is important is that moment when you both understand something that you didn’t not just five minutes ago. That is the ephemeral moment of teaching.