Monday, April 27, 2009

The Seven Words You Can Never Use on the Web (except, not really)

My grandfather was a lovely and caring man, but he had a filthy, filthy mouth. Think a white Eddie Murphy, older, portlier and more jovial looking, not to mention a lot more Italian. I say Murphy because in my grandfather too the cussing didn't have a semantic value so much as a rhetorical one, having to do with the rhythms of speech. It was his way of making full use of the vernacular.

But naturally I didn't realise any of that when I was a kid. We used to visit him and nonna for the weekend a couple of times a month, and then on the Monday and the Tuesday I had to be patiently deprogrammed from speaking like him. Not that my mates or even the teachers at school would have necessarily understood - mercifully the dialects were different enough. And in truth even I didn't quite understand, they were very flowery words and phrases that I enjoyed uttering and vaguely knew I wasn't supposed to, that it was grown-up talk, but their full and gloriously dirty meaning didn't actually become known to me until some years later, by which time he had passed away.

I think if you swear and don't know that you're swearing, it doesn't count, right?

As a matter of fact I was quite a prudish kid. Which is odd, in that my parents never consciously raised me that way. My nonna, she did have a few hang ups. Some religious weirdness - by which I mean actual weirdness, she wasn't pious or churchy in anything approaching a traditional sense - which might have rubbed off. At any rate in my early teens I didn't wallow in the smut quite as enthusiastically as many of my contemporaries. There was a little time lag there. And I was a bit slower in making full and conscious use of the vernacular, too.

But eventually I caught up. Perhaps because I was a bit older than some by that stage, I can recall the self-conscious feeling. I never smoked, but I always likened the experience: you try some of those words on, it's like puffing on your first cigarettes: you look like a total idiot. It takes a while for the proper gestures to set in and the coolness to emerge; you learn to follow your own rhythms and it becomes a form of expression, for better or worse. In some people, it's an art form (I mean the swearing, not the smoking), and it compels you to stand back and admire. I recall for instance how a friend of my father's who was known for not lacking in that particular area went to Tuscany for a carpentry job and came back soundly defeated: "They have a swear word for everything down there," he said, and gave the example of madonna chiodina, the particular incarnation of the Virgin Mary that you curse when you're hammering away and you hit one of your fingers instead of the nail. That is called being specific.

In one of his shows Roberto Benigni had a rather wonderful monologue in which he just enumerated the words, in Italian but especially in the Tuscan dialects, for the male and female genitalia, some of them highly poetic, others positively painterly. And you only have to think of the rhymes of Dante or the prose of Boccaccio to realise the long pedigree and history of that particular craft, the sedimentary cultural process involved. George Carlin, in thanking the fans who contributed over the years to expanding a similar list of his own to a most respectable corpus of 2,443 Dirty Words, had this to say
But, of course, the real credit belongs to the thousands of people over the centuries who invented these phrases in the first place, folk poets, all. To those who sent me their suggestions, you know who you are, and I thank you from the bottom of my farting clapper.

Carlin's list had begun of course with just seven words, the seven words you can never say on television (transcript: here, and YouTube audio of the original routine: here), from his Class Clown tour and album of 1972, the high mark of a fifty year career of consistent genius, as well as a turning point: for the moment he crossed that line and made his work once and for all a study of the use and misuse language, Carlin embarked in a progressively more embittered and nihilistic, anti-humanist journey that a quarter of a century later would come to be perfectly crystallised in the title of one of his final tours: You Are All Diseased.

George Carlin died in June of last year, JG Ballard just this last week, and it may be timely to observe that they were both reluctant misanthropes; they wanted to love people, and I am quite convinced that they did, but in fact precisely because they did, they just couldn't bring themselves to look away and stop reporting on the atrocity exhibition of the social. For Carlin, it all came under the rubric of what he called bullshit, that is to say the sum of the misrepresentations, the distortions, the lies we tell ourselves and one another. And there’s no prize for guessing the words and phrases that he considered truly obscene. Here's a sampler, from a routine on adspeak in 40 Years of Comedy, but his choice of targets was by no means comfortingly confined to advertising, politics or religion. 'Bullshit is everywhere', he would often observe. And it’s bad for you.

The seven dirty words landed Carlin in some trouble: he was arrested for disturbing the peace while delivering the routine in Milwaukee in 1972, and a broadcast of the same led to a radio station being sued by the FCC in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled against the radio station in 1978. Pretty ordinary acts of censorship, by most standards, but indicative of the extent in which the modern state still regards controlling public speech as a key to its proper functioning, especially in the area of sexuality. The degree to which the expression of political dissent is tolerated by comparison in Western countries should make us wonder what it is about the language of the body and sex that makes it so dangerous and subversive. Quoth George: ‘These are the words that will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war,’ and there must be a number of people out there who believe it to be quite literally the case.

For these people, some of whom happen to be politicians, the Internet represents the ultimate threat but also an opportunity. For the grand contemporary narrative of the migration of the social onto a single electronic platform, no matter how vast, offers tantalising prospects of total control. Suppose you could search for indecent or inappropriate speech, however defined, and selectively switch off whole regions of the Internet. It might just be technically possible, given the right amount of political willpower. Over at Up Front, Emma Hart wrote some time ago and then updated us about one such attempt going by the name of Clean Feed, the Australian government's plan to introduce mandatory filtering of all Internet content at ISP level in order to, as she explained,
remove child pornography. And other pornography. And R-rated content. And violence. And 'inappropriate content'.
You can no doubt see where this is going. But setting aside the implications regarding free speech for the briefest of moments, a glaring problem with filters of this kind is that they don't work: they leave out content that fits nobody's definition of inappropriateness, and fail to catch much content that does. I know because some years ago I experimented a bit with Net Nanny, and then scanned my computer with a now-defunct piece of software called ContentAudit, which produced a host of ludicrous results - files containing the words sex or cheerleader, regardless of context, but also and more entertainingly the word "dice", that in Italian means "says", so as you can imagine my hard drive was rife with it. I was promptly flagged as a problem gambler.

Clumsy and clunky and ultimately useless as it was, ContentAudit did have something going for it, the following delicious piece of advertising from 2002:

So much stuff going on there, a whole world of fear and ambivalence, of self-loathing and self-surveillance. One possible reading is, I am an Internet user, with no interest in anything remotely inappropriate, and yet porn is so darn insidious it found its own way onto my computer! Somebody please help me get rid of it. And another is, okay, I frequent the odd pornographic website, but I'm a father, respectable, well dressed, good hair, Irish! I couldn't allow it to be found on my machine. How can I be sure that I've deleted it all? Somebody please help me conceal the true me!

There are tools these days that help you manage your inner conflicts and public personae, and keep your Dr Jekyll at an arm's length from your Mr (or Mrs) Hide. The PrivateBrowsing feature of Firefox would be one of them, and its dedicated wiki urges us not to assume that its sole purpose is to view pornography: you may want to enter a private session to organise a surprise party for your loved one, or make arrangements to cheat on them. It's really up to you. And I welcome that, and think that it provides a helpful counter-narrative to the madness of the Clean Feed. For there is no such thing as a global filter for culture, communication and expression: what is objectionable to me might be perfectly appropriate for my neighbour; my medicine is bound to be somebody else's poison. And a trip in the dark woods can be an opportunity for self-exploration, too. There is nothing inherently wrong with going there, having a private space, and feeling that you don't need to always leave a trail of breadcrumbs, a cached trace. PrivateBrowsing is all of those things.

But beyond that, as Carlin reminds us, 'words are all we have, really'. It will do no good to demonise them, to sanitise them, to regulate them. Words will find a way, mutate if necessary. Here's Emma, again, in an email conversation she allowed me to quote
One of the things we get [at Bardic Web] is that people invent artificial languages - conlangs like Klingon - for their characters, and the first thing they do is come up with a word for 'fuck'. Frack or f'nark or skag or skrun goes through filters, and also fails to offend people who'd be offended by the use of the word 'fuck', even though the meaning is the same.
In order to fool word recognition software, both the computer's and the one we keep in our skulls: that's how we got pr0n, that most postmodern of idioms, filter-fooling, speech-empowering, playful and naughty, signalling awareness, a shared understanding of the means to sully the feed, as it were. For I would like to propose that pornography is one thing, pr0nography another. The former is entirely consistent with the neoliberal ethos and there is nothing remotely subversive or morally threatening about it: its consumers are credit card holders, its owners pay their taxes, its deployment is strictly metered. The latter is produced and shared freely and with consent, unregulated, subversive insofar as it leverages a self-conscious and critical sexual politics, if at times uncomfortable and often problematic. Try this blogger for size if you think that an easy distinction can be made between dirty and clean, appropriate or inappropriate, damaging and empowering.

I think the distinction between porn and pr0n has memory implications, too, for while we wait for the revolution of semantic search engines, word recognition, for better or worse, is what enables recall on the Net, as well as erasure and enforced amnesia by means of censoring filters. It plays out therefore the same tension between the desire to remember and be remembered, on the one hand, and the fear of leaving too revealing and permanent a trace, on the other, that accompanies all our digital journeys, and needs to be laid out for us whole, unfiltered, so that we can understand what we're about.

Hence I'm breaking out a new tag this week, and shall come back to it, but in the meantime you could do worse than bookmarking Emma's blog. She's by no means a single-issue blogger, but you won't find many more engaging writers or better guides in this area, and I recommend her from the bottom of my farting clapper.