Tag Archives: meaning

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!

Meanings, Models and Men in Black

imagesDriving to JFK airport today, I looked at the remainders of the 1964 World Fair and thought, as I almost always do, how successfully they were used in Men in Black, the comic book and the movies.

In the World’s Fair, they are observation towers.  In the film and books, they become alien spacecraft.

To use my parochial language, this makes them “culturematics” and that’s because they repurpose culture and change the meanings of one thing (towers) into another (spacecraft).

Men in Black is filled with repurposing of this kind.  My other favorite: turning bad, incredible newspapers into a one of the few sources of information the MiB take seriously.

Ok, a third.  A creature arrives from outer space and demands a weapon from an earthling farmer.  This scene turns the warning “you may have my weapon when you pry it out of my cold, dead hand” into a negotiating position that the alien takes literally and accepts.  “That arrangement is satisfactory.”

You get the little jolt when something in your head changes meaning in this way.  Good metaphors always have that effect.  I get a little vertigo.  “Wait, those meanings that belong there don’t really belong there!?!  Oh, ok, they do. Very well.  Carry on.”   (I am not saying all metaphors are culturematics.  Because most metaphors are not experimental.)

The answer to the mystery of this meaning relocation may lie in the book I took to read on the plane: The Power of Impossible Thinking.  I am not crazy about the title (a little too Norman Vincent Peale for me) but I love the contents.  It’s by Jerry Wind and Colin Crook, both at the Wharton School.  I know Jerry a little and like him a lot which makes especially irksome the fact that I missed this book when it came out in 2006 and found it only literally a couple of weeks ago.

Power of Impossible Thinking argues that there is no real world, an assertion sure to warm an anthropologist’s heart.  What there are the models in our heads that help form what we see in the world.  So there is no economic action, no managerial initiative, no strategy, no insight, no decision, that is unshaped by the models, or as I would prefer, the meanings in our heads.

When an artist like Lowell Cunningham or a film maker like Barry Sonnenfeld reaches into your heads and reworks that World’s Fair observation towers, they have changed the meaning (or the model) in our heads.  And this is one of the reasons we write comix and go to movies, for the frisson of meaning (model) relocation, prefigurement, reconfigurement….whatever you call it.  We like that.

This makes especially puzzling the fact that when we are all “large and in charge” and working for an organization of some kind, we don’t like to hear about meanings or models.  We look at a book like Chief Culture Officer or The Power of Impossible Thinking and go, “no, really, is this quite necessary?  I don’t think so.”

So I admire that Jerry and Crook took this on.  It is a very tough sell.  Meanings and models are a little like the dark energy of enterprise world.  Yes, it’s out there but frankly managers  don’t know exactly what it is, how to think about it, or what to do about it.  And talking about it just makes  heads hurt.  This makes getting meaning or models into decision making and managerial discourse is ever so difficult!

Worse than that, I think people in their enterprise modality think of themselves having a “swift self.”  (This was an idea that came out of research I did for a book called Transformations.  More detail there.)  People in enterprise mode see themselves as being aerodynamic, the better, the quicker to assimilate data, make decisions, and act.  They love this swift self.  It’s a thrilling way to be.  But they often find that it eventually hollows them out, estranging them from family, friends, and other aspects of the self.   Still, it’s great fun while the party lasts.  In this swift self modality, the individual is  formidably capable, forging a smarter, clearer path to market share, say, or the creation of potable water in the Third World.

My favorite example of the swift self is Khalil Younes, a young man I got to know when consulting in Atlanta.  He was equal parts French, Lebanese and Harvard Business School and in his elegant, formidable way simply stared at problems til they dissolved into solution(s).

Here’s the problem.  In the swift self modality, people see themselves as a creature who cuts through the ideas and confusions that stand between themselves and satisfactory outcomes.  What Jerry and I call meanings and models, they think of things they are supposed to cut right through.  In their world, meanings and models are  the things that get in the way.  As a swift self, Khalil is reason.  He is Occam.

When Jerry and I ask Khalil to look at the meanings and models that mediate between the understandings and the world, it may well sound as if we are insisting on the impairment of this swiftness.

I think it’s likely for the swift self to reply with something like “Look, I have managed to be capable without entertaining the meanings or models you claim are active here, what are the chances this knowledge will make a difference?  On balance, I’m guessing it is more likely to interfere, taking more than it gives.”

This is not a bad argument until we get to the meat of the argument that Jerry and I are making and that is that the world is getting faster, more confusing and less scrutable.  And in circumstances like these, it makes sense to look hard at the meanings and models we use as instruments of apprehension…because when we don’t do this, we often can’t see the opportunities or the dangers now at hand.

Anyhow, I have just started the book and I will report back when I know more.   At a minimum, I think those who are Chief Culture Officers (or fellow travelers) might look to The Power of Impossible Thinking as another and perhaps a better way of communicating cultural understanding into the organization.  “Mental models” does sound a little less obscure than “meanings” and even this would be an improvement.  This might make a good Google Plus hang out at some point.  Anyhow, more to come.  I want to get this posted before I run out of internet service on board.

(Filed from 32,000 feet somewhere on the way to Austin.)

Kickstarting kickerstarter (new models of meaning and value)

My remarks at the recent Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT are now up.  Click here to see it. 

It starts slowly.  And I now look at the hand surfing with a little embarrassment.  In this photo, I am captured trying to demonstrate the mutuality of meaning and value.  (My idea of a special effect.)  

I was opening up the second day, and Sam Ford has asked me to contemplate what we had heard in the first day.  

FoE is always an exercise in severely compromised air traffic control.  The moment you think you have a fix on the array, a new idea, fashioned according to unprecedented aerodynamic properties appears in the heavens, and you have to factor this in.  

As you will hear, I fix upon the distinction between value and meaning.

We are inclined to think of these as mutually exclusive categories.  Value belongs to markets, to pragmatism, to self interest.  Meaning belongs to creativity, to exploration, and self expression.

But I think it’s a false distinction.  It keeps us from creating two things:

1. a model that would show us how value and meaning interact in our world.

2. a market that would allow us to source new value to fund new meaning.  

Have a look at the video to the full argument and please let me know what you think.  

I am especially interested to hear from people in the capital markets on the question of whether we could indeed create venture funding and investment markets for cultural projects. (Whether and how we could kickstart kickstarter, so to speak.)  

Ida Blankenship R.I.P.

Ida Blankenship died on Sunday.  At her desk at the advertising agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  She will be remembered as Don Draper’s secretary. As one her colleagues put, it "She died as she lived–surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

The good news is that Ida is a fictional character.  Her death was therefore a fictional event. No mourning is called for. Unless of course you had grown to love her contribution to Mad Men, as many of us had.  

(It tells you how absolutely, effortlessly creative the Mad Men team is that they could kill off Ida so casually and so early. Most TV shows would thrill to have a character half as rich and funny.  Having created her, they would have given her up only with the greatest reluctance. The Mad Men team evidence a certain arrogance.  As if to say, "Oh, there are plenty more where she came from.  She was easy as anything.")

That Ida is a fictional character didn’t stop the Daily Beast from running a eulogy for her. Which is pretty charming.  I think.

For starters, it plays out the Mad Men fiction.  It pretends Ida Blankenship were the real thing.  It’s a small act of cocreation.

But it’s more than cocreation.  It’s witty.  It attributes the honor given real humans to a pretend human.  "Ah," we think, "clever."

Lots of wit has this quality.  We take the properties of one thing and we assign them to another thing.  When we say Roger, the family poodle, is considering an advance degree in opthalmology,we suppose…  Well for starters we are acting as if Roger has a first degree. This is a cultural act of transposition or relocation.  We are moving cultural meanings around.  We are reassigning them.   (Witness relocation, kinda.)  

We may also think of the Ida eulogy as simple play.  It’s a little "what if."  As in, "what if we treated Ida is if she were a real person."  As in, "let’s act as if Roger isn’t a dog."  And this gets us a little closer to the mechanics of the transposition.

This movement of meanings is successful when it fails.  If we attribute something to Roger that does work, "Roger is a good doggie woggie" for instance, it’s like "so?" It’s only when we say Roger is a) thinking , b) about an advanced degree, that we begin to get somewhere humor wise.  

This cultural act is designed to make a small buzzer sound in our brain.  It designed to forces us to say "that doesn’t go there.  Roger is a dog."  It’s only when we think of Roger otherwise that it’s drole (drool?).

I’m surprised.  Apparently, we don’t mind it when meanings are reassigned.  Apparently, we actually quite like when culture is corrupted.  (Well, not stupid people.  Stupid people get confused and then they blame the rest of us for their confusion.)  But the rest of the world, and that’s most of the world, love this kind of play.

Maybe this is just the kind of thing that bothers an anthropologist.  (It is after all only linguists who do not groan at puns.  They just fall into a reverential silence.)  I guess when you spend your life looking at how we build culture up, there is something astonishing at looking at the pleasure we take when someone ever so briefly tears it down.   

It could also be that I am writing this at 31,000 feet courtesy of American Airlines and Go Go In Flight.  It’s the oxygen debt talking.  But it is weird.  No?  Just me?  Ok, it’s just me.  


To Pam DeCesare for giving me the head’s up on the Daily Beast article.  

To Randee Heller, the very gifted actress who helped invent Ida.  


Anonymous.  2010.  A Eulogy for Don Draper’s secretary.  The Daily Beast.  


Sapir, J. David, and Jon Christopher Crocker, editors. 1977. The Social use of metaphor: essays on the anthropology of rhetoric. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.