This week’s New Yorker has a review of a new book, The Language Wars, by Henry Hitchings. In the book, Hitchens traces disputes over the proper use of the English language over the last century, dividing its participants between prescriptivists, who argue for maintaining language’s rules governing writing and speech and descriptivists, who argue that language’s fluidity allows only description of its changing practices. He aligns himself with the latter while the reviewer, Joan Acocella, takes a more agonistic position, pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the various warring sides and observing that “nowadays, everyone is moving to the center.” While the book and review usefully discuss an interesting historical subject, the language war they present was more properly a culture war. Its skirmishes and battles concerned, not with language, but its civilizing effect.
In Astounding Days, his autobiographical reminiscence of a youth reading science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke recalled that English fans learned that Woolworth’s was the best place to find the pulp magazines where the stories they wanted to read. “According to legend, all these ‘Yank pulps’ invaded the United Kingdom as ballast in returning cargo ships. Presumably it was worth disposing of unsold issues in this way, rather than recycling the paper.” Colorfully entertaining, Clarke’s recollection also illustrated the incidental—and often unseen and unconsidered—consequences of distribution for publishing’s sales and circulation.
One of my favorite passages from Raymond Williams’ cultural criticism and commentary is from his essay, “Communications and Community.” Encountering it in his book, Resources of Hope, it helped me realize the broader sensibility I wanted to take in my dissertation. I printed a copy of the passage and taped it to my monitor with “READ ME!” handwritten for emphasis above while I wrote to remind me to maintain its perspective. Its point, a response to post-World War Two developments in advertising, marketing, and culture and their academic study, remains relevant in contemporary considerations about social media in the age of the Internet.
“For it is a terrifying thought that most of the real work on communications is now being done by advertisers, to discover more effective ways of selling the products of whoever hires them. It is just as bad that almost all our terms for talking about communication come from America, where you among some good sociology a very largely debased and hired sociology. There nothing is an effect or impression, it is always an impact. People even are not people, they are mass audiences, they are socio-economic groups, they are targets. And the aggression within those terms, the aggression within ‘impact,’ the aggression within ‘target,’ is the expression of people who want to control. But the basis of a democratic system is that ordinary people should have control in their own hands, that they should not be targets for anybody.”