A Short Catalogue of Words and Phrases That Need to be Placed Under a Moratorium (2013)

2 Apr

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Award-winning: When used in reference to an artist as a synonym for achievement, this phrase combines debasement (artists who aren’t award-winning now seem perversely rarer and more valuable, on the whole, than those who’ve won at least one prize of some sort) with abdication of critical responsibility. If you’re intent on telling me the artist you’re describing is worth my time and attention, then surely it’s best to do more than make a vague hand-gesture in the direction of some former good fortune to indicate why their work might appeal? If I wanted to convince you of the business genius I sadly don’t possess I’m not sure pointing to a one-time lottery win would be the way to go about it.

Brilliant: When almost everyone and everything is said to be brilliant, as they invariably have been in reports scattered across social media for several years now, users might consider that the implicit tone quickly slips from admiring or complimentary to something suggestive of routine politeness, then, at the hyperbolic extreme, into a kind of unintentional sarcasm. Brilliant is probably best reserved for reports on light intensities until it’s properly rested and manages to regain some of its original lustre.

Career: In some respects, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just notable that it began to replace ‘work’ and ‘job’ to describe what we do to earn money at the very same point that actual careers – that is, ways of earning money over a lifetime that show a logical and progressive development – became increasingly rare, and former careers were being transformed into casualised, low paid work, as in academia, journalism and a host of other professions now run on a succession of short term and zero hour sessional contracts. This gives career a distinct whiff of Orwellian double-speak, its purpose being to extend the illusion of more people becoming middle class and having careers at a point when the reality is that former professions are being redefined with terms and conditions of employment formerly known mainly to dockers, piece-workers and navvies in the 1930s.

Creative: As a very reliable rule, it should be considered a given that any person, business or institution that uses the word creative to describe itself, isn’t. [See also: Innovative]

Digital: In this case, it’s the use of the word rather than the word itself that needs consideration, particularly in the tendency to designate digital as the future in publishing, cinema, retail, and pretty much everything else, rendering anything outside its own realm ‘obsolete’. There’s no question that the development of the internet has been important and transformative and little doubt that over time it will evolve to facilitate new forms. The problem is that this potential has been conflated with its current condition, which is mostly as a conduit for many kinds of old media – text, radio, music, film, images, games, graphics, animations and personal communications  – which find a new means of distribution rather than take any radically new form. The economic effect has nothing to do with digital itself, which in fact changes very little of fundamental importance, and everything to do with a wider tendency to devalue labour in markets heavily skewed towards the interests of rent-seeking and ownership. What is paid for is essentially rent: access, via subscriptions to technical networks, and terms of trading online, rather than content. As in the real world, the model seems unsustainable mainly because it relies on near-monopolistic positioning and the devaluation of the material distributed in order to generate significant income for key platforms. Like globalization, but less transparently, the invocation of digital as a justification for this devaluation of labour leverages Neoliberal outcomes. The real potential of digital will only be known when wider economic and social factors are brought into the calculations about its longer term sustainability.

Edgy: The word of choice in fiction, film, comics and theatre for one of two very different things. The word ‘edgy’ invariably signals either that the work in question includes some vaguely plausible descriptions of poor people, preferably in cities, and is being read or viewed by extremely sheltered [see Lovely] audiences, or it is a gambit by someone determined to gloss their cheap formula exploitation tropes, usually murder and torture with sexual aspects, in a context of courageous and daring social critique. The former use is commonplace in the worlds of literary fiction and arthouse cinema, the latter more prevalent with reference to blockbuster cinema and mainstream media.

Excited/Exciting: Another social media mainstay, casually dropped into tweets and status updates to justify some friendly spamming. Excited is at fault mainly for being so widely deployed, almost always in the same formula, that it long ago began to convey its precise opposite. When typing a formulaic phrase like “we’re very excited” or “I’m so excited about…” the user indicates that they’re reduced to reaching for a stock phrase rather than feeling sufficiently inspired to coin a fresh one, which is the polar opposite of exciting. [see also: Thrilled]

Emerging: A fine and useful word when used to describe, say, a badger emerging from its set, but becomes problematic in its recently acquired application to artists. It seems to be a management-speak usage designed to make a situation (being at an early point in terms of public recognition) into a dynamic process: to pretend, in short, that an undesirable situation is a desirable one, and that being unknown and struggling is, in fact, being on the way up. The use of emerging in this sense is also ludicrously imprecise, being used to mean pretty much anything from ‘still at college’ or ‘under-35’ to ‘well on the way to a Nobel Prize or Tate retrospective’, all at once. When something’s this inelegant and so loose as to be mostly meaningless, it’s probably best that it does the opposite of emerge and hide itself away until a badger, rabbit or earthworm comes along and justifies using it in its original sense.

Grab: Widely used on social media, and intended to generate a sense of urgency around an event, publication or product for which payment is being sought, as in: “last few tickets – grab yours now!”. Grab tends to suggest both greed and desperation while aligning an activity, publication or event with the worst excesses of late capitalist marketing-speak. This means it can seem particularly odd coming from some of those quarters where it’s now routinely used. When we get to “Grab your tickets for the Occupy Marxism Conference” we’ve passed too far beyond parody to contemplate a return.

Innovative: Generally, this is deployed as a diluted synonym for inventive or original, and this usage tends to suggest that what is described as innovative is not sufficiently inventive or original to justify using the stronger terms. Innovative, then, signals a desire to project an aura of fresh thinking and inventiveness without having to go so far as to think in an original way or actually reinvent anything. In business, innovative is generally a question of rebranding and justifying Market Reforms [see: Markets] by, for example, making use of technology to reduce labour costs, or redesigning and repackaging products to reflect current fashions. In poetry, innovative has come to be used of a range of approaches, often rooted in academic theory and American models of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ultimately, as with the business use of innovative, the application of the word to poetics is largely an issue of branding, signalling a desire to appear (by the self-conscious adoption of a recognised set of stategies arbitrarily designated innovative) rather than be genuinely exploratory or original. [“Those who claim to be innovative would do well to note that if innovation is already labelled and its desirable characteristics are known, then any chance of actual innovation taking place will be remote.”]

Lovely: Mainly used to non-commitally describe anyone and everyone met at an arts event, and used with a particular frequency and insistence about the people met at book launches and at literary festivals and events. Like exciting, there’s probably nothing inherently wrong with lovely, as a word in and of itself, but it might be noted by its users that it does carry a more than trace aura of exclusionary self-definition for a very particular social demographic: that class of stalwart types on the arts scene that tends to be educated, comfortably-off, well fed, at ease with itself and most likely white and middle class in everything but its taste in wines, where robust reds made by swarthy artisan peasants might be favoured. Lovely people display their common touch by tweeting about Bake Off heats and Archers storylines, seem disproportionately involved in poetry and writing generally, and in those contexts like to signal their Edgy credentials by using the word ‘edgy’ to describe anything that falls outside the confines of a quiet garden setting. [See also: Edgy]

Markets: Also referred to as Free Markets and in the formulation Market Reforms, this is a word deployed mainly by politicians over the past thirty years as a cover for a return to the kinds of Crown Patronage that granted monopolies to businesses like The East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These monopolies granted by patronage and decree (The East India Company was founded in 1600 and ran a private empire under licence from the British government until 1874) were the targets of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, not their recommended models: for Smith, the ideal market was defined by equality between the actors within it, ranging from producers and suppliers to labour and the holders of capital, all of whom must establish their worth by a constant ongoing negotiation facilitated by trade. This, ultimately, means the Free Market demands that asymmetries in wealth, power and position are equalised at the outset of trade if it is to function, making the concept of the Free Market as idealistic and utopian as the Communism formulated by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Once this fact is recognised, it is immediately clear that the Free Market as conceived by classical economists can only exist in conditions where there is no inherited wealth or position, and where no inequality between labour and capital, producer and consumer, is permitted to distort the pure flows of trade between the parties involved. Once asymmetries of wealth and skewed entitlements enter the picture, as when Market Reforms sell heavily subsidised monopolies in privatised state concerns, or laws restrict the rights of labour to organise in defence of its own interests, the resulting system is not a Free Market at all, but a return to the very system opposed by Adam Smith in the 1770s, even as his name is invoked to justify the process. When the word Market is used by Neoliberal politicians and their advocates, we can be sure that their intentions are not remotely aligned with the ultimately utopian equalised system imagined by their chosen figurehead, but a regressive cover for a return to patronage.

Opportunity: Ubiquitous weasel word for something unpaid and/or that charges a fee to enter or attend, with a hint of blackmail. There’s always a slightly toxic suggestion that refusal to comply or pay up might have negative effects on your future CV and employability. Avoid, unless you’re Iain Duncan Smith and that’s exactly the impression you’re setting out to create.

Practice: In its sense of “my practice”, as used by artists, practice is under suspicion of being a Neoliberal imposition for its transparent attempt to justify the escalating costs of obtaining the newly necessary qualifications to gain employment in a previously more open field – writing, visual arts or performance, say – by eliding these fields with other kinds of middle-class professional career traditionally closed to outsiders, such as law and medicine. Perhaps it’s worth noting that if you make, do or are something, it’s indelible and yours: if you “have a practice” you’re operating under an implied permission that can be revoked. (This, of course, may be precisely why this usage of practice has achieved ubiquity in the years since tuition fees were introduced in higher education, just as degrees at all levels became both essential and economically devalued for the purposes of gaining employment in most of the previously more open fields that now use it).

Talented: Like brilliant, talented is used a great deal by organisations about the artists they’ve been working with, or by artists in reference to their students and audiences, but in both cases to a level of ubiquity that gives the impression that saying someone is talented means about as much as complimenting them on an ability to watch TV. This over-use of talented seems benign but is so cheaply bought that it begins to look non-committal and feel like something of a back-handed compliment: [“I want to be nice, but can’t be arsed to commit to anything specific”].

One Response to “A Short Catalogue of Words and Phrases That Need to be Placed Under a Moratorium (2013)”

  1. A4 December 17, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Desperately trying to work these into the shortest and most offensive paragraph I can muster. BRB

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