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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Displays of Authenticity (16a)—Bayonets and Buggy Whips

One year ago on Round and Square (24 October 2011)—Styling Culture: Exaggerated Language
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Displays of Authenticity.
[a] Temporalities RF
This is the first post in a two-part series. Click here for the other post:
Buggy Whips 1               Buggy Whips 2

Something is Raton in the state of Boca. Last night's presidential debate at Lynn University in Florida certainly had plenty going on that shook up the majority of the blogosphere's interest today. The spindles were whirring as Democrats and Republicans sought to make it look like their guy won, tied, or did "good enough." If you spent any time reading online today, you encountered phrases such as "looking presidential," "getting scrappy," "over-the-top," "low-energy," and just about anything that partisans wanted to see. Just for a little of the polarized flavor, we couldn't do much "better" (I use the term loosely) than to have almost completely opposite perspectives from two hyperpartisans.
[b] Partisan RF

To hear them tell it, Obama mopped the floor with a lackluster Romney and Romney soared into the presidential stratosphere, cementing the confidence that voters have already developed in him. Romney is headed for the presidency and Obama is on the path to reelection. He will be in the White House come January.

Depending on your perspective, of course.

As readers of Round and Square know by now, I have no interest here in the partisan side of the debate. Presidential debates interest me (as a cultural historian and anthropologist) for one reason: seventy milliion people watch a high-stakes encounter on which billions of dollars (and a whole lot of swag) depends. When you get that level of cultural focus, interesting stuff just has to come out of it.

It did, and I shall call it language

Old language. This is fascinating to me, and it is not the first time that I have touched upon it on the "pages" of Round and Square. Last March, we took a look at the somewhat "distant" phrase "in my wheelhouse." Today, the big-click items included "battleship," "horses," and "bayonets." Although these were part of what some viewers saw as a zinger and others perceived as a cheap shot, I am more interested in language, history, and culture than partisan politics. What I want to know is why phrases such as "horses and bayonets" resonate as examples of a dusty past.

Well, this is partly because they represent a...dusty past (I mean this both figuratively and literally; unpaved roads were pretty darned dusty back in the day). There is more, though. President Obama's clearly-prepared line about Governor Romney's (as he saw it) outdated approach to military preparedness could have been stated in many different ways. For example, he could have droned on in the fashion of "...the key to military preparedness lies in having up-to-date technology, and my challenger is speaking of an outdated military era." On the other hand, there is a certain kind of linguistic and cultural kick that comes from word pictures of "horses and bayonets." 
[c] Olden RF

What kind of word images do they call to mind? It depends on who you are and how much history you have read or viewed (I am thinking of Ken Burns here). It is hard for me not to think about Crimea, Antietam, and Sedan. It is difficult to push it further, isn't it? Somehow D-Day just doesn't call to mind "horses and bayonets." Neither does Pusan or Laos...or Kabul or Tripoli. Heck, even Verdun had bypassed that technology (mostly).

Horses and bayonets. Wow. That's old.

I think this was the point, but I still find it fascinating way beyond its political implications. Now we come to our title "Displays of Authenticity," and precisely in the sense that anachronicstically inauthentic language was being invoked to make a cultural (and political) point. There is something here...something that historians and anthropologists and linguists need to ponder. We would do better to check fewer polls, obsess less about partisan politics, and spend our free time studying the ins-and-outs of our cultural peculiarities.

I mean, let's get serious. All but a small handful of non-partisans has decided by now. A whole bunch of us have voted. We all know that thirteen voters in Akron are going to decide the election. Nonetheless, vote (no matter your persuasion or your state of residence). Vote.

In the meantime, let's think about words.
[d] Low-carb RF

What kind of "oldish" words and phrases really make the point that "you're out of touch?" I mean this in the sense of I want to make you look old and out-of-touch. Let's think about this. Well, if you characterized your feelings about the debate as "groovy," you might be signalling that you are a little bit dated in your thinking. What if you stated that Obama's (or Romney's) campaign has "jumped the shark?" Would that be timely, or would you be betraying a little bit of your own early-modern past?

Anachronism is a funny thing. Most of us think of it as a mistake—something that people who don't know the past very well do because they just can't help it. We wince if they talk about Hank Williams in bell bottoms or Warren Harding sipping a latté instead of pouring from a teapot (dome). Those of us who study a fair amount of history are used to sniffing at anachronisms and saying something along the lines of moron under our breaths. 

Who would have thought that a well-placed anachronism could work as something other than an unforced error? Who would have thought that it could be used as a weapon?

It is actually not politics that first brought this to my attention. It was the management guru Peter Drucker. Reading along in the revised and expanded posthumous edition of his textbook on management, I was struck by an argument that both made the point and showed just how anachronistic thinking can derail our very best managerial plans. It went something like this (I am paraphrasing).

          Positive thinking and active strategies are important in business. They do 
          not solve core problems, though. No amount of innovation, pricing, an
          strategy could have saved the manufacturer of buggy whips from going out
          of business.
[e] 19th Centureee-reader RF

Wow. Buggy whips. Where do you put the whip in your Chevy Impala? The glove box? And let's not forget that Professor Drucker has an excellent point here. If you prepare for a world that just does not "fit," there is no amount of passion and focus that will overcome all of the obstacles, no matter how much you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This is not something we learn in Horatio Alger stories or breathless portraits of success in the face of overwhelming odds. In other words, if positive approaches are going to work, your ladder needs to be up against the right building. As more than one management writer has noted, you can climb the ladder of success with all the might you can muster, but it won't matter much if it is on soggy, uneven ground—or up against the swing set and not the hay barn

Trust me—the horses care. Better position that ladder correctly, pardner. 

Why does any of this wordplay work anymore? Not many people spend much time on ladders or around barns these days, but the very rootedness of these words mixes with their datedness to create an evocative language cocktail. "I'll have a buggy whip and a ladder with a splash of barn, please." Or "give me a double horse-and-bayonet with a battleship shot on the side."

What is it with words...that they can speak right to the worlds in which we live? 

How can a candidate use dated words to convey his own "authenticity" and his own perception that his challenger is "inauthentic?" How does that work? Could it go the other way, too? Could we coin words that are so new—linguistic territory so untroddenthat no one has ever heard them before?

Yup. That is the flip-side of this little examination of history, language, and political culture. We'll look at those matters tomorrow. Just make sure you don't get Romnesia and have to receive Obamacare in the meantime.

See you tomorrow. See you later, alligator. Be there or be square

This is the first post in a two-part series. Click here for the other post:
Buggy Whips 1               Buggy Whips 2
[f] New-old RF

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