Excerpt #6 — Thomas de Zengotita on the Word “Like”: One Effect of Media Penetration on the Moulding of Speech

I wish I could so recommend Thomas de Zengotita’s book Mediated highly enough to make you all go out and buy it this instant. Sadly, it’s unlikely I could pull this off.

Before getting straight to the excerpt, let me say that, from this book (there is an odd promo for what seems to be something like a Kickstarter for a video that is to deal with many of the book’s topics here), it is obvious that de Zengotita has not only spent some time amongst Middle Schoolers, but was paying attention when he did. At one point (chapter three) he asks:

[82] Has there ever been a moment in human history when females ruled so completely over a mixed-gender group as does the central clique of girls in the more progressive middle schools in the United States today? It seems unlikely. Their power is nearly absolute, ferociously acquired, disputed, and defended. Even teachers feel their spell and curry favor or, more hopelessly, attempt reform. But the phenomenon runs too deep for adults to influence very much.

What gives these girls such a hold on their society, and why do they eventually lose it? Adults chalk it up to differences in maturational rates; boys enter puberty later than girls — adults love to say that, it makes them feel like they know what’s going on. It is true, of course, and even relevant — if you’re far enough removed to (pretend to?) be Super-Objective Clinical Person about it all. But the actual mechanisms of control escape all top-down health-ed-type explanations. The reality is so much richer. Girls, certain girls, dominate these settings because they are impresarios of an evolving social art. Propelled by incipient [83] sexuality, yes, but across the whole range of its sublimations, they devote enormous energy to mastering an array of symbols and cues, an interplay of appearance, clothes, accessories, music, slang — a totality of customs that constitute their emerging world. And when they understand it well enough to play with it, improvise with it, innovate and disseminate, they take up their positions in that ruling clique and their authority will be recognized by all who know them. It will be their privilege to control the tones and the terms that catch on and shape the flow of days, and the long weekends. This clique of girls dominates because it presides over a Wittgensteinian language game — meaning, not just a language, not just the slang, but also the whole form of life that goes with it. Everybody who wants to be anybody must live by it, and they are the gatekeepers.

They are media queens. They are familiar with everything it has to offer by way of example, insight, and reflection. They become who they are through that media, gazing out its windows and into its mirrors, determining expenditures of billions of dollars as they steer vast industries this way and that — great, clumsy cart horses responding to the flick of their whims. They know everything. Every lyric, every gesture, every band, every brand name, every novel expression of approval or disdain. But they know much more than that. They are not mere scholars. They are not pedants. They are not just an audience of passive consumers. They are not even merely judges — though, Lord knows, they are that too.

They can do it themselves. They are performers.

That means obvious things, like being a really good dancer, but it also means subtler things, things that are as pervasive as the media windows and mirrors themselves, things that escape our notice for that very reason.

[84] Take, for instance, the notorious “like” — as in, “I’m, like, so not ready for this whole, like, gym thing.” Disapproving adults, dense as posts, blind as bats, think this is a verbal tic, akin to finishing sentences with “you know?” They discourage it the way liberal-minded adults used to discourage [vulgarity] when I was growing up — as if limiting one’s vocabulary were the issue. Please.

[The origin of such use of the word “like” in hippie usage — vi&, the inadequacy of speech in principle to contain profound experiences.]

“Like” still connotes the inadequacy of language in principle and it still operates in a competitive social field, but now –thanks to the queens of middle school– it is performatively integrated with conventions of that media. Adeptly employed (and only the [85] queens can do it just right), “like” acts as a kind of quotation mark in conversations that no longer work discursively, but work more like TV commercials or movie trailers. The word introduces a tiny performance rather than a description, a “clip” displaying a message in highly condensed gestural and intonational form. It all depends on the way language is coupled with the ongoing flicker of imitative visuals, as in this girl’s report on an encounter with an ex-friend:

“She was, like, ‘I’m so happy for you…?’ but she didn’t know that, like, I already knew what she said to him…? So I just played it, like, we are the sync sisters…? Because I wanted her to find out later that she, like, had this booger hanging out of her nose the whole time…?”

Each “like” is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant –the whole performance is a string of “takes”– and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received: a silent and subliminal call-and-response sort of thing, and woe betide the clunky wannabe who can’t follow the nuances, who can’t improvise a version of her own, and make it seem effortless and natural when her turn comes. Among such girls, the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance and permission to go on.

Painful to behold.

Life is one long improv, and only the method-ready thrive. You gotta keep it real, but you gotta be good at it too.

[Thomas de Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), 82-85]

I read this passage while I was a full-time substitute teacher at a middle school about ten years ago — the year the book came out. I’ve never forgotten this, because it described, perfectly, the social setting that I saw firsthand.

More on this passage in the near future.

One thought on “Excerpt #6 — Thomas de Zengotita on the Word “Like”: One Effect of Media Penetration on the Moulding of Speech

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