Journalism, Literature, Society and Identity

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Photo by Nitish Meena

While we can generally agree that realism fundamentally changed the way journalism as a writing form was practiced, clearly the lines that separate journalism, from non-fiction, from fiction have all but disappeared. There are so many media outlets today that, even within the genre of journalism, a distinction of validity generally must occur. In fact, recently, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, Kellyanne Conway, was interviewed on the same topic by TMZ, MSNBC, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. Do all three of these media outlets contain the same merit? Perhaps the bigger question here is, does it even matter? Isn’t information, just information? Or, is journalism the basis for the propaganda that we, as Americans, must inevitably absorb?  And, does journalistic propaganda provide identity for society?

Furthermore, as all journalism is duplicated, paraphrased, and re-circulated across media platforms, are we left with any validity— regardless of if literary elements were contained in the original piece? Or, does every slightly altered re-publication of journalistic content lose its place in the “journalism genre?”  If so, then, where is the threshold!? Where does journalism become non-fiction, and non-fiction become fiction? Perhaps most perplexing: since all media is, at the very minimum unconsciously, influenced by every writer or producer’s ideology, does pure non-fiction even exist?

While Riis’ work, How the Other Half Lives, contains key elements that could easily send this journalistic piece over the threshold toward the non-fiction realm, there is one essential element missing that keeps it from crossing into realistic fiction. That element is character. To highlight these differences and to help define journalism, non-fiction and fiction, we can compare Riis’ journalistic work with the non-fiction of Ernest Hemingway and the fiction of Mark Twain.

In How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis inserts his opinion using a first person narrative voice. This style makes his journalism appear literary. Riis writes, “I know of only one easier way, but, so far as I am informed, it has never been introduced in this country. It used to be practiced, if report spoke truly, in certain old-country towns” (Riis). Similarly, he highlights his observations of people that live in the tenements with a highly stylized use of dialect, “S’ppose your wifee bad, you no lickee her?” he asked, as if there could be no appeal from such a common-sense proposition as that…” (Riis). This technique also makes his journalism appear literary. In fact, it is very similar to the realistic style of dialect used by Mark Twain in, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Po’ little Lizabeth! po’ little Johnny! it’s might hard; I spec’ I ain’t ever gwyne to see you no mo’, no mo’!” (Twain). Finally, Riis uses a dramatic literary technique called “an aside,” in which the narrator speaks directly to the audience:

“What is truth?” to attempt to weary the reader by dragging him with me over that sterile and unprofitable ground. Nor are these pages the place for such a discussion. In it, let me confess it at once and have done with it, I should be like the blind leading the blind; between the real and apparent poverty, the hidden hoards and the unhesitating mendacity of these people, where they conceive their interests to be concerned in one way or another, the reader and I would fall together into the ditch of doubt and conjecture in which I have found company before” (Riis).

The missing element in Riis’ work that keeps his journalism non-fiction, is the omission or lack of character. Even his narrative voice appears to have none. In fact, his narrative style seems as if he is watching B-roll footage for days, and narrating right along with every frame. Whereas, in Hemingway’s work of non-fiction, “Camping Out,” even his informal main character, “He,” contains some sort of “star quality.”  Hemingway writes, “The call of the wild may be all right, but it’s a dog’s life. He’s heard the call of the tame with both ears. Waiter, bring him an order of milk toast” (Hemingway). I imagine Riis’ journalistic depiction of a similar scene would read more along the lines of, “Nature has set in and the Jew has no choice but to accept the hard facts of life. There is no milk available this morning to drink with the breakfast toast.” However, both authors infer economic realities in very similar ways. Riis writes, “He opened a sort of breakfast shop for the idle and unemployed in the region of Washington Square, offering to all who had no money a cup of coffee and a roll for nothing. (Riis). And Hemingway, “A pan of fried trout can’t be bettered and they don’t cost any more than ever. But there is a good and bad way of frying them” (Hemingway). Making it seemingly harder to differentiate between the two respective genres.

All this said, it is important to understand the cultural impact inherent from society’s willingness to accept journalism as truth. What shapes reality when journalism is coming in from so many different outlets?  More importantly, how does this reality impact society? In other words, does society form its own identity or, is the identity of society determined from the influence of media (journalism, non-fiction and fiction)?

Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology sparks a debate as to the multitude and magnitude of ways by which people absorb their assumptions from media. His theory provides that individuals’ identities stem from views placed upon us by culture (society). And, in 1987, John Fisk provided examples as to how modern television journalism enhances Althusser’s theory.“These meanings are not only meanings of social experience, but also meanings of self, that is constructions of social identity, that enable people living in industrial capitalist societies to make sense of themselves and their social relations. Meanings of experience and meanings of the subject (or self) who has that experience are finally party of the same cultural process” (Fiske).

This, taken into account with the (now expected) repetitive exposure to all media and, we are left to wonder if we are wasting our time seeking to define journalism. Instead, should we seek to define the identity of the American Media Entity where, “the repeated use… makes “America” into a living, breathing body (like the one “we” inhabit) …” (Fiske).  The latter may help to identify what roll, if any, writers have in shaping “reality.”

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Fiske, John. “Culture, Ideology, Interpellation.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd Edittion. 1998. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest.“Camping Out.” http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/campinghemingway.htm. 1920. Accessed 12 Feb. 2017.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. 1890. http://www.authentichistory.com/1898-1913/2-progressivism/2-riis/index.html Accessed 5 Feb 2017.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/76. EBOOK #76. Released 20 Aug. 2006. Accessed 2 Feb. 2017.

Digital Social Discourse

Digital Social Discourse

Mikhail Bakhtin was a 20th century Russian philosopher who expanded upon Marxist thought to define the social function of language. His work, forever ahead of its time, stumps scholars to this day. In fact, much of what Bakhtin wrote aligns with poststructuralist thought, a movement that didn’t emerge until just before his death, in 1975. In his 1935 essay “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin draws attention to the way a variety of diverse discourses work together, to explain, “a concrete socio-ideological language consciousness … where consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language” (677). To quote my favorite professor’s favorite Bakhtin, “When we stare at each other, two different worlds are reflected in the pupils of our eyes. Dialogue, the give and take of language, completes these two worlds” (Salyer). But what if the person you are starring at isn’t physically there? What happens to language when pupils are replaced by a message board, a photo, or a post?  Is there a virtual give and take between dialogue and reflection in our digital world? Have we become blind to authenticity, communicating now through only that which is implied?  Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between, in the virtu-verse of social discourse.

Today, in the world of digital advertising, analytics reports and statistical analysis have nearly surpassed traditional communication.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you could easily find the statistics for how many Japanese-American men watched the “Ice-T Lemonade” ad last Thursday on the new iPhone while taking a sh*t.  Of course this would be accompanied by a pie-chart; highlighting location, socio-economic status, and if the toilet paper they were using came from Google Express.

Bakhtin claims, “a diversity of social speech types, sometimes even diversity of languages and a diversity of individual voices” (674), create language.  In essence, he is defining social discourse. Living somewhere among these various social speech types, within the world of social discourse, is the individual voice. And within every individual voice lies a multi-dimensional internal-verse, full of feeling and thought.  Thus, an infinite number of internal-verses exist within our social universe. But what happens when our social universe goes viral, when it itself becomes infinitesimal? How would Bakhtin define digital social discourse? What would he think of this virtu-verse?  Are there benefits and consequences from communicating through the in-between?

Everyone with a smart phone walks around with the ability to jump in and out of a virtual black hole. Either they are present and participating in society, or stuck in their phone, unconscious to the “real” world. But can consciousness exist above and below a thin transparent screen?

The virtu-verse is this threshold— where social discourse and internal discourse exist consciously and unconsciously, together and separately, virtually and authentically as one.

We’ve all met someone who lives in their own world. Someone who, when they actually speak out loud, is shocked back into “reality.”  For this person, entering the virtu-verse heightens their conscious identity, allowing them to virtually join the collective and enjoy unlimited new opportunities for social interaction.

There are also revenue generating aspects to consider. Throw a little money at the internet and in less than a second your computer sends a pop-up ad to the “right buyer” at the “right time” on precisely the “right quadrant” of the “right page.” Endless new jobs have also emerged, allowing more free time and a higher quality of life for people now choosing to work from home.

But can there be authenticity in virtual communication?  Can humans maintain accountability and consciously exist within an unconscious digital collective?

We’ve seen the power of virtual communication work both ways to inspire the human race.  A little girl from Aleppo can win the hearts of America just as easily as protesting can escalate into a state of emergency overnight. But there is a refreshing human quality to the movement behind the movement in our digital world. Something that makes a  9-year-old girl’s refusal to do her math homework  reach the national news, and remind us all about the importance of teaching and learning respect. Something that raises awareness for worthy causes—remember the “Ice-Bucket Challenge?” Something that allows us to watch the celestial motion of Jupiter and four of its moons, whenever we want, just by looking in the palm of our hand.

Regardless of whether we view digital communication through a positive or negative light, recognizing its ability to empower the virtual-human collective through the social function of language is something we should all consciously embrace. While I appreciate the amenities and services a commodified internet brings, I strongly believe the human benefit, the one we are almost missing, seriously outweighs every platform for capital gain. Don’t get me wrong, I love Google Express— especially when they deliver giant bundles of Costco toilet paper right to my front door. I just don’t see the benefit of others knowing what I’m watching on my iPhone when I use it. And I suspect Bakhtin, though he claimed, “consciousness at all times and everywhere comes upon languages, not language” (677), might also feel the same way.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. (674-685). Print.

Salyer, Gregory. Uberconference.com Interview.  23 September 2016.

A Screenwriter’s Take on Visual Language   

One could argue that film, the precise blend of dialogue, visuals, special effects & music, is the ultimate form of communication. As a screenwriter (doing my small part to create films), appropriately understanding and applying the English language plays a huge role: especially when it comes to expressing character thought with accurate and realistic dialogue. As society turns to technology for everyday needs, the English language will continue to adapt and eventually become the ultimate universal language. As a professional screenwriter, I hope to blend the English language with technology and convey heart-felt stories to diverse audiences, world-wide.

Technology has always influenced the English language, but recently, word formation methods like shortening (alphabetism, acronymy, clipping and backformation) and blending are on the rise to keep up with space and time saving trends that co-exist with today’s technology. In How English Works, Anne Curzan and Michael P. Adams discuss the trend of eliminating non-essential punctuation and characters from newspaper headlines and paperback books in the 20th century— as a means to save space and time (Curzan and Adams 459-460). Today, when it comes to the news and virtual media outlets, these space and time saving trends continue. Take for example the 140 – character limit on Twitter. This social media platform has mastered the art of telling the news via headlines only.  According to Craig Smith of DMR statistics, there are 1.3 billion registered users on Twitter (Smith).  Imagine the space and time saved when all these tweets add up! As virtual communication becomes the only form of communication, space and time saving word formation methods will prove more effective and become more popular.  Enter the emoticon.

Emoticons, although controversial, are a widely used form of picto-graphic e-communication. I believe they are a major part of the continued expansion of the English language.  In a recent article, Author Quinn Bartlett stated, “…the assumption that emoticons are fundamentally a juvenile form of communication not worthy of consideration as a legitimate language is to hold society to a self-imposed standard which is both unrealistic, limiting, and ignorant of human history” (Bartlett). I tend to think of emoticons as mini – movies, each expressing an intimate story known only to the sender and the receiver. The following series of emoticons could mean thousands of things, but in context, the message is perfectly clear:

emoticon communication

“I’m so sorry things didn’t work out with Harry, what can I do to help? You wanna get outta the house? Let’s go get a mani/pedi or lunch. It’s nice outside!”

Genius that we can say all this with just a few pics, dontcha think? Genius but not new. Over 40,000 years ago logographic writing appeared in the form of hieroglyphics, in ancient Egyptian societies (Scoville). If we look at a message similar to the emoticon example above, translated to hieroglyphics, we get the following scene:

H communication

To this day scientists struggle with understanding the true meaning of hieroglyphic communication.  Perhaps, in attempting to translate these pictorial messages, scientists are wasting their time. Just as its important to look back at history for answers, it is also important to consider that English is not an absolute, and never has been (Bartlett). If we were scientists studying the emoticon example above, we would never assume the receiver of this message was sitting at home, sulking over a bad break-up with a guy named Harry.  Similarly, one may never completely decipher 40,000 year- old Egyptian conversations. When discussing the meaning of words in context, in their book, How English Works, Anne Curzan and Michael P. Adams state, “Sentences, when uttered, can mean much more than the denotational meaning of the words they contain, and they can do more than describe or refer to the world around us” (Curzan and Adams 236). Hieroglyphic communication may too, mean much more than the intricate picture displayed, only to have been truly understood by the sender(s) and the receiver(s) at that precise moment in time.

Hieroglyphs, documentaries, feature films, emoticons: no matter the influence from technology, they all tell a story.  And for each reader/viewer/receiver, in context, each tells a different story – a highly personal one. As the English language evolves, linguistics, English and writing professionals will take on new roles, and function side-by-side, as partners with technology. Understanding the English language, where it has been and where it is going, will surely help these partnerships grow. Within this new role, as a screenwriter, my goal is to script stories in a manner that generates the empathetic appeal necessary to personally reach all audiences– throughout time.

Bartlett, Quinn. “Emoticons, a Return to Hieroglyphics?” Revelfoundry.com. 2 October 2014.

        Web. 24 July 2016.

Curzan, Anne and Michael P. Adams. “How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction.” 3rd ed.

        Pearson, 2012.

Scoville, Priscilla.  “Egyptian Hieroglyphs,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2 July 2015. Web.

        24 July 2016.

Sherman, Robert. “Online Hieroglyphics Translator.” Quizland.com. 1996-2016. Web. 24 July

        2016.

Smith, Craig. “By the Numbers: 170 + Amazing Twitter Statistics.” DMR.com. 14 July 2016.

        Web. 24 July 2016.