Tag Archives: genre

Word herds: are they changing and why?

Get_On_Up_posterRichard Corliss describes Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in Get On Up as something that “radiates sex, drive, menace and spirit.”

Oh, I thought, that’s kinda new.  Normally, a series like this (“sex, drive, menace and spirit”) would have a little more redundancy.  The “word herd” repeated itself to aid comprehension.  In effect, the terms in the word herd meant roughly the same thing.

Words in the herd might even be near or actual synonyms.  Thus the performance might be said to be “deft, subtle, nuanced.”  The first term sets up the meaning, the last one spikes it.  (To use a volleyball metaphor.)

But these days it is much more likely to see word herds that are diverse, with meanings working not together but happily in opposition.  Each word does it’s own work.  These word herds are heterogeneous.  If terms used to be synonyms, now they are a little closer to antonyms.  And the pleasure of reading comes less from going “Oh, that’s what she means.  Got it.” to having to read the whole thing through, admiring the bumper-car effect of unruly language.  Good writers aim for whip lash.

The methodological question: could we examine a large body of texts and see if indeed word herds are changing?  The tricky part, I’m guessing, picking word herds out of millions of words of text.  If this problem can be solved, then the question is whether there is some technique for judging the semantic distance between terms.  What we are looking for, for the sake of this suspicion, is a “before” with relatively little distance and an “after” with lots of it.

Not to rush things, but I think there probably confirmation is waiting to happen.  And not to really rush things, but my guess is that word herds are more heterogeneous for the same reason that so many things in our culture are more heterogeneous.

If once we were monolithic as a social and a cultural order, now we are various.  And we are learning to live with this variousness.  Homogeneous word herd are really training wheels of a kind.  They were designed help us grasp the meaning of a text.  And now they feel like a tedium tax the author is forcing upon us, as an unreasonable condition of entry.

It does feel like everyone is getting smarter.  Certainly, and against the odds, popular culture is getting smarter and this lifts all boats.  But the reason might be there in the everyday act of thinking.  There was a time when we staggered beneath a weight of unanswered questions.  Yes, we could go to the library and find an encyclopedia, but, Dude, really?  All that indeterminacy created, to shift my metaphor, a film, a gauze.  Meaning was hard to see.  Distinctions hard to make.  So it was left to the author to make everything clear, definite and precise.  Got it?

Got it???  How laborious.  Now that we can answer almost any question almost instantaneously, some of that film is gone.  The world is windexed.  The homogeneous word herd just feels like we are being struck about the head and shoulders by a schoolmaster who resents the fact that we are more interested in stray and playful meanings than his lesson plan.  This is language acting like genre, setting up meaning over and over again to remove all doubt…in the process removing all surprise.  We don’t need training wheels.  Not any more.

This is a question for people with methodological skills I do not have.  Maybe Tom Anderson  might care to have a look.  Or perhaps Russ Bernard might have a student who cares to take this on.   Please, if you have a way of solving this problem, sing out!

Being Human, US and UK versions

I am a big fan of Being Human, the US version, that recently appeared on SyFy.  

It’s a wonderful “what if.”

What if there was a vampire, werewolf, and a ghost living in a house together?  I have to say that my initial response was puzzlement.  As in, “um, er, I don’t know. What would happen if they lived together?”

Some part of the show comes from how well the producers work out the “what if” in a manner that satisfies my sense of the plausible and takes me places I never would have guessed.  Being Human works a productive balance between “oh, that makes sense to me” and “wow, how interesting!”  

The new media consumer is especially fond of things that satisfy a sense of the plausible and the possible.  (We get to keep a foot in the familiar and one in the new.)  Managing both is key…and difficult.  (I was able to predict the death of The Good Guys early because it was clear it could not find this balance.) 

When Pam got me Apple TV for my recent birthday, I was thrilled to see that it contained BBC America and that this contained Being Human, the UK version.

What a delicious opportunity to consume what Henry Jenkins calls “transmedia,” one story told in more than a single form.  (I know someone is going to object that both shows are TV and this is not transmedia. Saying that British and American TV are the same medium is like saying British and American football are the same game.)  This transmedia opportunity is sweetened by the fact that the media in question are transatlantic. With their special relationship, the UK and US continue to be, for certain purposes, variations on a theme. How interesting then to see what these two cultures would do with the same cultural artifact. 

The first thing to notice is a bit stunning.  In the old regime, the American version of a transatlantic exercise would feature actors who were more beautiful and less talented. This is NOT what is happened in the case of Being Human.  The UK actors are better looking and the US actors might actually be the better actors.  (They may be tied on the acting question.) 

This tells us that American TV is getting better or at least ballsier.  Not to lead with beauty, or (to think of this as the trade-off it probably it was) to go with talent even when it costs you beauty, that’s a big shift for an American culture producer.  

The second point is harder to assess.  Being Human uses diversity to propel itself out of genre.  By this time, we have a pretty good idea of what and who vampires are.  Indeed, the genre is starting to congeal and now takes quite deliberate innovations (True Blood) to sustain life (all puns intended).  Ghosts too.  As a culture we have gone from having no idea what a ghost is to having a pretty clear script.  (Blame Whoopi) Goldberg.  Werewolves, not so much. 

So Being Human has a built-in “refresh” feature.  Just as we are beginning to think “been there, done that” about any one of the subgenres, we are obliged to follow the story line as it crosses these subgenres.  Or, less abstractly, just as we are thinking “vampires, yawn” we are obliged to watch a vampire interact with a werewolf and then a ghost.  New life returns to the vampire.  (ditto).  And definition comes to the werewolf.   

In effect, Being Human is an interesting and successful TV series because it is not the product of the grammar that comes from genre.  It is interesting and successful because it contains a grammar that helps it escape genre.  It is not generated but generative.  Being Human contains the secret that characterizes all the culture we care about these days.  It is both familiar and unpredictable, both from genre and beyond genre.  

Scott Caan discovers culture’s secret machinery

Producing TV that’s fresh and interesting is a challenge.

The moment we, the audience, gets a whiff of formula, we’re gone.

What’s an actor to do?  If he’s Scott Caan, there’s not one problem but three.

First, he’s got a part in a police procedural.  If there is something that is over-formed and formulaic it’s the police procedural, that great work horse of American television.  (I’m guessing that between them the Law and Order and CSI series produced maybe 10% of prime time.)  We know this formula inside out.

Second, Caan is playing a familiar character (Danno).  Third, he’s playing this character on a once famous show (Hawaii Five-O).  So Caan is trebly bound: familiar character, familiar show, familiar form.  Caan had virtually no degrees of freedom. His hands were tied. He was virtually obliged to "phone it in."

Caan found a way out of this artistic captivity.  As he told Entertainment Weekly,

The last thing I wanted to end up being was a cliche.  I wanted to be fresh and different, so I actually based my character on a criminal

Hey presto. You play "criminal" and when this gets strained through "cop," something magical happens.  We the audience can’t see "criminal" any longer. But "cop" looks a little like something we haven’t seen before.  This cop zigs when we expect him to zag.  Who knows what he’s going to do next.

It’s a clever tactic.  It would be interesting to know if this is something Caan devised or whether it is a traditional tactic in the actor’s skill set.

Let’s assume the former and call this the Caanian culturematic, a way to make popular culture that does not feel like predictable culture.


McCracken, Grant. 2009.  Culturematic: a device for making culture in two easy steps.  This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  September 21.  here.

Rice, Lynette.  2010.  Scott Caan: Fall TV’s new action star.  Entertainment Weekly. November 5. here.

Are Vampires Done Yet?

The Vampire genre has been a big producer in popular culture.  

The question is, will it remain so?

No, that’s not the question. (For this too shall pass.)

No, the question is, when will Vampires fall from fashion.  

I gave a presentation this summer to a big media holding company

One of my slides read "Are Vampires Done Yet"

I was trying to be provocative.  I was talking about the inscrutability of our culture and the difficulty this causes, um, big media holding companies.

The head of the publishing house came up afterwards, her eye’s wide.

"I heard you on Vampires.  We’re still signing up authors.  And I just know the thing is going to turn, and we will be stuck with projects we cannot publish, let alone sell."

The question, then, is, how?  How do we track the Vampire trend and spot its decline.

This morning I dropped in to HSX.com to see if I could find any evidence.  And I found this. The Hollywood Stock Exchange is tracking a Vampire movie in production and the HSXers now evidence a waning enthusiasm.

To be sure:

a. their enthusiasm is not waning very dramatically.

b. HSXers may be not be a useful measure of popular opinion.

c. even if HSXers were a measure, they might be acting out of other motives.  (They don’t like the choice of director or leading lady, for example.)

Still, it’s a project that expresses our (and Hollywood’s) interest in Vampires.  It’s a measure. It changes over time.  

Not perfect.  But better then, "I just have this feeling."

The talking point: is there a way to use the Hollywood Stock Exchange as a cultural metric and, if so, how.  


McCracken, Grant. 2009. Chief Culture Officer: How to Create a Living, Breathing Corporation. Basic Books.  

McCracken, Grant. 2006. Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace. Indiana University Press.  

The Good Guys

The Good Guys, the new cop comedy from Fox, is showing in my Seattle hotel room as I write this.  A month ago I argued that this show has no place in contemporary culture and therefore no hope of success.  (My assumption, unless you are have made contact with culture, your chances of making contact with commerce are remote.)  I am sorry to say that The Good Guys is as predictable and uninteresting as predicted

Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford) is a big dope, cheap, fast and out of control, a walking set of appetites, politically incorrect and proud of it, inclined to play loose and fast with the rules.  Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks) plays by the book and spends a good deal of time rolling his eyes and suppressing the temptation to tell Dan Stark to join the 21st century.  Dude!  This version of the buddy pic has been with at least since 1987 and the release of Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson as the guy who is out of control and Danny Glover his law and order loving partner. 

There are ways out of this problem.  Producers could have given the Dan Stark role to Colin Hanks.  That would have been a little counter expectational.  Better, Dan Stark could have been both cheap, fast, and out of control, and fastidious about procedure.  In the first case, the actor plays against type.  In the second, the character does. 

The old argument is that no one will bind with the show or indeed follow it unless the thing runs on the rails of established expectation.  Follow genre.  Play to type.  But these days this is the path to an early cancelation.  How is it someone at Fox failed to get the memo?  Present audiences are good enough at TV that they can watch without rails, without genre, without type.  


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  Calling all CCOs: how good is your gut?  This Blog. May 13. here.