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Leslie Savan on Cant

Leslie Savan's Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever (Knopf, 2005) is a collection of clever journalistic pieces on assorted aspects of modern cant. As Ms Savan points out, cant has always been with us. But not nearly so inescapably.

There was a time - the twilight of respectability - when manufacturers and other businessmen wanted to associate their products with the highest standards, and this produced rather starchy copy. Now that they're interested only in projecting some refraction of cool, however, advertisers take jargon right from the streets, while it's still in limited use, give it a high shine, and pump it into the ether, where it presently becomes familiar to just about everybody.

Nor is this a question of vocabulary alone. Catchphrases are encapsulated in a package of accent and attitude. It's this, perhaps, that puts cant in the same relation to expressive speech that a scanned image has to a text file. Cant and image alike cannot be analyzed into component parts. When Coke calls itself "The Real Thing," the ensemble of red waves, pretty faces, or vocal charms dampen the meanings of "real" and "thing." What does "It's the Real Thing" signify? Ultimately, nothing - nothing more than the drizzle of coolness that envelopes every bottle of the stuff. Meaning comes not from actual words but from multimediated associations. Modern catchphrases, then, are smooth pebbles capable of scoring powerful hits, while at the same time, they're as inarticulate as stones. If you don't deliver or receive the whole nugget intact, you get nonsense, not a fragment. But even if you do establish contact, much of the content of your message may be spurious, for the simple reason that it was not originally intended for you.

Ms Savan illustrates this process of falsification best in her essay, "What's Black, Then White, and Said All Over?"

Hip-hop truly is the young world's vernacular. But borrowing black language alone doesn't bridge people together. The bridges are often not so much between people as they are between people and the media. The college slag expert Connie Eble puts into perspective, for instance, the white use of the black term of address girl. "Well, girl is just used and that's all there is to it," she says. "It's one black phrase that has been taken over by white females, middle-aged secretaries around campus," as well as students. Eble once believed that the white use of girl and other black slang was a sign of hope. "At first I thought, Maybe race relations are improving after all. But I have absolutely no evidence that there is more mixing among the races than there ever has been. After researching it, I found that hardly any black slang entered the white vocabulary because a white student has encountered a black student. They've learned it from MTV, the movies, and rap songs.

What's wrong with whites gaining covert prestige through black talk isn't that it fails to bring the races together (that's too much to ask from any one trend or proclivity). What's wrong is that it usually allows whites to feel good about themselves without having to do anything particularly worthwhile. Such easily picked-up prestige encourages the belief that high-fiving or giving it up are the extent of political commitment that an enlightened person needs nowadays. Whites get to blacken up their act "at bargain-basement prices, as Smitherman writes. "They don't have to PAY NO DUES, but reap the psychological, social, and economic benefits of a language and culture born out of enslavement, neo-enslavement, Jim Crow, US apartheid, and twentieth-century hard times."

This essay is strong because the offense encapsulated above is so egregious, but the theme of false consciousness prevails on every page of Slam Dunks. The book is a must-read for anyone who writes, because it forces a reappraisal of one's inventory, the vocabulary and expressions that are the elements of writing. I am not so puritanical as to deny that there is ever an appropriate time to write Yesss! But those who do so ought to know that the gesture was born on the basketball court. Not a sports fan, I encountered it first in Home Alone, and thought that it was original there - and very clever, because, after all, the little boy was puny, with not much bicep-pumping power. Now that I know where it really comes from, I'm intrigued by the fact that Yesss! originally signified not victory but a momentary advantage that might lead to victory. And it was not bark of an underdog. Ms Savan's chapter on the gesture, "The Great American Yesss!", makes clear that it is the badly shopworn badge of zero-sum satisfaction. It is actually highly partisan and not a little nasty.

Nastiness is more overtly to the fore in the longest chapter in the book, "Don't Even Think About Telling Me "I Don't Think So: The Media, Meanness, and Me." It begins,

Terry Gross, the host of NPR's Fresh Air, was interviewing a French journalist about how she covered the war in Chechnya. Her tale was fascinating. I wanted to hear more, but I was rushing to leave the house. The journalist said the Russians' excuse that they were fighting guerrillas was an utter lie. "The reality is, it's a full-scale war. The citizens are suffering." On "suffering," I turned off the radio and, in my head, I said to her, "That's too bad. But nothin' we can do about it now, so let's just get over it."

Those idiotic words were a product of my busyness, not of my sympathies (where were This is too bad and it's disgusting to suggest that anybody should "just get over" Chechnya.) My glib, fake toughness was also the product of a larger cultural habit - an urge conditioned by years of sitcom put-downs, advertising zingers, rabid political campaigns, and mob moments throughout the media. When people are talking about something you'd rather not talk think about, as often as not, you cut them off with a verbal stun gun: a pop phrase, usually on the peevish side. The small cruelty gives you a cleaner break. Your distance from the speaker is confirmed, and any guilt, ambivalence or annoyance they might have stirred in you is dispelled. The percussion of the phrase's pop! signals the end of the minor disturbance, helps you to ... just get over it. 

There is a lot about pops and plosives in this exhaustive chapter, which might better have been shaped into chapters within a defined section of the book. (There's more?) The real topic at hand, however, is thought itself, and how cant takes its place. Ms Savan intriguingly posits the "Person Nouvelle, a pop-culture ethnic of indeterminate heritage ...Only one trait is really required: that, on a fairly regular basis, you vibrate with autonomic media responses." Unfortunately, Ms Savan has already made this point, and much of "Don't Even Think..." seems to be inspired by the fear that all of her readers suffer from Attention-Deficit Disorder. The author refuses to take a strong position on the morality of checking one's mind in for a litany of "pop!" phrases; in the manner of so many critics of popular culture, she is content to condemn some of the nastier consequences of the affliction while in general affecting a helplessness about the pervasiveness of lazy mental habits. It is my theory, as regular readers will know, that television is bearable only if and to the extent to which you can stop thinking; to any engaged, curious mind, it is unspeakably tedious, a tundra of repetitions. The repetitions are loud and colorful, but they stale at the speed of light if you watch with the intelligence that you would bring to a history book. This isn't to say that you ought to spend your free times reading demanding books. No. But you really ought to learn how to sit still in a quiet room and collect your thoughts - an activity that, like so many, ceases to be tedious only when it is mastered. That's what television is an addictive, deadly substitute for: recollection. Ms Savan's chapter ends:

Think about it. For all the references to thinking - I don't think so, no-brainer, clueless - for all the surgeons and rocket scientists you don't have to be, for all the things you can't wrap your brain around, even if you are a brainiac, for all the other things you're told not even to think about, isn't the real message of these phrases simply "Don't even think"?

After all, only an inflection, a pause, and a question mark separate "I don't think so" from "I don't think - so?"

Among the many other provocative matters that Ms Savan brings to the reader's attention is the care with which advertisers avoid confusing "marked" (exceptional) men with "unmarked" (regular) guys; the miasma of technology-based cliché's ("I don't have the bandwidth..."); the strange way in which the proliferation of good-sounding words ("community") inverts the actual withering of corresponding institutions (communities); and the difference between pop and slang: pop is cant as I have defined it above, while slang is a form of poetry. The book winds up with a witty riff on "the Slacker Seven" - misusages of like, go (for "say"), whatever, and others.

Leslie Savan makes her living writing about popular culture, from advertising to song lyrics. She is an intelligent woman and a gifted writer. But her ambivalence about the subject of her book - cant - is disturbing, because she appears to accommodate it as a way of belonging. If she were to stop watching television and appraising advertising campaigns, then she would lose her cool and, with it, her friends. But her book demonstrates, whether or not she intends it to, that copied cool is a substitute for belonging, not the real thing. Cant keeps friends at a healthy distance; it makes sure that no argument will get out of hand. I'm reminded of the actor Kevin Spacey, who has perfected a persona of hip alertness: whatever you're puzzling over, his character has already worked out. The minute you realize how cool he is, you have a moral choice. You can pretend that highly mediated proximity to such a man makes you cool - which is false - or you can face the fact that he is simply, over and over again, one step ahead of you, and, like, give it up. (November 2005)

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