Starvation

In a world where cornucopia is the norm – in the west in any case – hunger does not touch most people. There are even reliable stories, and research, which suggests that children today never experience hunger; not the twinge of emptiness, but real hunger, because they are fed frequently. There are some people who suffer from hunger, or a type of nutritional deprivation, for one reason or another, but it’s still relatively rare.

This predicament is exceptional in history. That is an achievement. For the last thousand or so years humans have struggled to beat, not just hunger, but starvation. For most of history hunger was normal, frequent and ever-present. Even in good times, when ordinary people had regular work they didn’t eat much; not by today’s standards, anyway.

With hunger conquered there are new important things to do. Winning the consequences of the victory over hunger – obesity, diabetes – might be considered. That has been tossed around for a while now and it still hasn’t got much traction.

The other thing might be a sovereign currency. Money-food: it’s an obvious connection though it’s not especially interesting. But that’s not what I am talking about, although there will be a few people who see the connection, or for ideological reasons, make the connection. About three hundred million Europeans do and in Italy voters have decided they’d like to eat.

Italians voted on a constitutional referendum which has implication for Europe, the European currency and whether it might disappear. I won’t chorus in with opinions of what it means, there are plenty of others doing that now. While the ramifications are going to be clearer in the months ahead; the motive, the link to food, and national currency goes back 24 years.

A month after Europe decided to merge, a lone English voice wrote a prescient and very pithy analysis of why it was inevitably going to end badly. It’s a technical commentary which may seem obscure. Towards the end he states explicitly what happens when a country, like Italy, in its current position, has fewer options and no lira to use for its advantage: it declines and its people must emigrate, an Italian solution from a century ago, in order to survive starvation.

The Italian referendum, like Brexit, doesn’t end their problems; it signals that other ideas are needed which will, in all likelihood, come from the belly.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Worship

At this stage of human history we have collected a lot of junk. Some is accidental, a bit like opening an old drawer and finding a bookmark you were given with that thriller you can’t read any longer. The other kind of junk is the result of bad habits and shows that people ought to clean things up more frequently.

Still typing at a QWERTY keyboard is a bit demodé but most people still do it. At The Times (London) clinging to old ways has found new life. To increase productivity management introduced typewriter sounds over loudspeakers. Either Times’ journalists are Pavlovian animals or they are so old that the sound of a typewriter actually means something in order for them to react. Imagine the productivity boost if they piped in the sounds of a pub to a newsroom.

It’s all in the past anyway. Most of that won’t mean much as quite soon most of won’t even have to type we’ll just talk to it; a bit like we talk to customer service and search engines. This situation will be ideal as it means machines will do everything for us and that leaves all that time, futurologists promised us fifty years ago to do creative things, such as read Paradise Lost or the Mahābhārat in Sanskrit.

That promise may be just too optimistic. Recent behavioral data suggests we’re more likely to slouch on the couch and do a marathon box set and streaming TV event.

This curious ramble of connections began with a book on the history of collective nouns. Collective nouns are mysterious and fun. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back to the fifteenth century. Collective nouns are typically associated with groups of animals and birds. The reason for this lies in The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It’s the combination of unusual usage from an ancient past that gives collective nouns their allure. With the spread of supermarkets and chains stores hawking and hunting have tended to dwindle as common experience in everyday contemporary life. They have in my case and local government can be really petty about medieval hunting practices.

Language requires use to stay current. In the sixteenth century, The Book of St Albans was apparently reprinted many times, which kept the lists of various fauna in the public’s mind – the elite’s mind that is. A few hundred years later and many of the nouns are still in circulation today but let’s be honest, some of them are archaic; it’s been some time since I heard one used on a conference call.

The collective noun is therefore, in desperate need of modernizing. But if you search for updated collective nouns they all tend to the snide, smart and rude as if created by knowing, but not very alert, college students who use them as a way to accuse the world of all types of corruption.
I decided to work out some collective nouns that would be useful today.
•Microbes of software developers: not intended to be critical but to assign the biological affiliations that software plays in running everything.
•Rictus of real estate agents: just too many options with this group, but their smile is the perfect visual synecdoche.
•Gloat of hedge fund managers: they don’t as well as the index but that doesn’t stop them attracting the serious money.
•Capsule of domestic robots: every home will have their own wired angels dusting and polishing.
•Intrigue of hackers: this ought to be broken down into black and white hackers, and all the others in between, but this a top level domain use.
•Deficiency of species: because it’s getting to hard to count all the expired creatures.

The one collective I left untouched is for writers. Perhaps there ought to be an updated collective noun, though as people they tend to roam alone, but it hardly needs changing and it’s not as if writers get too much of it.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick. All Rights Reserved. 2014

Never Saying Anything Clever

Public language, that is, the language uttered by politicians and the media is often shop-worn, stale, occasionally idiotic or just cliché. This is true in many places around the world, especially with the 24 hour news cycle and spin that the public have had to live with.

It’s a bargain that is accepted because there is no alternative and besides it’s not very important because action speaks louder than mere words. It’s easy to adopt the same trick and avoid an argument – just insert a cliché.

The idea that words serve ideas and that poor articulation simply demonstrates bad thinking is rarely accepted. We see through that connection as simply “rhetoric”; a word that is applied as facilely as any other cliché, because – again – actions speak louder than words.

What this perspective permits between the public speaker and public is a choice between banal ordinary speech and management jargon, which has somehow been adopted as the linguistic form that exemplifies action and leadership. How that is possible, when verbs are almost always absent from such speech, shows how bad things really are.

If Nietzsche were alive today he would feel vindicated in his views on the
dispiriting nature of public life as viewed through the words of its practitioners, anti-democrat, that he was. He could reach that view simply parsing the state of discourse. In some nations they do quite well, at least they keep up appearances, though there are lapses. The capacity of “the human being to coexist with fish peacefully”, for instance, has been disproved, though it was valiant to advocate it.

In the land down under the last week has been especially dismal. In a continent known for its dryness, public speech is profoundly arid. This quirk of natural selection is perceived with some relish as a unique quality and to be exalted as a characteristic of the nation. The same thing can be said of any sub-idiom; that its limitations can be celebrated.

Likewise hippies managed to convey quite a semantic range through ‘man’; as no doubt gangstas do with their homies. The essential restrictions on what can be said and in what form however act to inhibit thinking. On this nexus Wittgenstein was right. Thinking and language are intrinsically connected.

Exploring words and thoughts show how. James I of England’s translation of the bible was a significant political act. At the time religion was a means of social and political control. The new translation was critical to James’s project of a Great Britain. There is one facet of that bible translation that is relevant to public speech. Every sentence was read aloud to committees to ensure that, it was not only accurate with the ancient languages from which it was derived, but that it also sounded perfect to the ear. From that one book hundreds of sentences, metaphors, and similes have entered the language. It has nurtured thought and extended the horizon of what can be uttered.

By comparison it would be almost impossible to find any instances today of public language, especially political speech, that would provide the same inspiration.

In Manchester in 1906, Winston Churchill (his speeches were somewhat mocked, even in his own day, for being old-fashioned) observed with typical patrician arrogance:”Fancy living in one of these streets,” he mused, “never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savory… never saying anything clever!”
Turning it away from the masses that last clause could be reflected on many politicians today.

Guy Cranswick
16th June 2013