Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lorrie Moore on language for sale

There's a whole body of First Amendment law on "commercial speech." This is a weird grey area: the First Amendment isn't irrelevant, but it doesn't confer the full protections you think of when you hear the phrase "freedom of speech." That's why the law can prohibit false advertising and require companies to say certain things, e.g. to put nutrition labels on food.

But isn't "commercial speech" vs. "noncommercial speech" a false dichotomy? Isn't most speech commercial?

My mom, Ann Althouse, embeds a short video clip of Lorrie Moore (who, as another full disclosure, is a family friend) saying:

It's important to get language that isn't commercially mediated, and increasingly, we don't have that. . . .

I sometimes think: is reading a book itself a value? . . . It doesn't matter what book, as long as you're reading a book? And I go either way on that. . . . It's not valuable because it's a book. It would be better to spend time watching a good movie. . . .

Most language that we encounter is trying to sell us something. And that's really unfortunate, and it degrades the language, and it degrades encounters with language.
I agree with all that.

At one point, she starts to say that fiction writers are "presumably" an exception — but she immediately catches herself and points out that they're also working for money.

Once the 2-minute segment is over, the embedded video switches to a black background with the word "PREMIUM" in a gold rectangle. The screen urges us:
Get full access to this premium program:
If you click on that link, you'll see a list of "PREMIUM EVENTS." To the right, there's an explanation in fine print: Premium Events offer pay-per-view programming from the world's top conferences, universities, and public forums. Now, you can enjoy many of the benefits of these exclusive gatherings without the costs and hassles of travel, and at a fraction of the ticket price. We offer flexible access plans to suit your interests including annual and monthly subscriptions, and full event and single program passes. . . . We invite you to watch Previews of our premium programming to take in a big idea and sample the panel, presentation, or debate.
So, when Lorrie Moore said, "Most language we encounter is trying to sell us something," those words were part of a teaser for a website that's trying to sell us more words (including more of her own words). On that same webpage is a list of titles in gold type (with the color gold signaling, "This is worth spending money on").

One of the more attention-getting titles is "Hollywood, War Crimes and the Search for Love," which is accompanied by a photo of a blond-haired woman wearing sunglasses, a revealing shirt, a jeans skirt, hot-pink stockings, and high heels that are mostly blue but have pink heels to match the stockings. She's writing on a pad of paper while lying on her stomach, legs crossed, in classic lying-on-the-bed-writing-in-a-diary pose. It isn't immediately apparent what any of that has to do with war crimes, but that doesn't matter because the image got us to stop and look.

Each of these visual elements was meticulously selected in order to persuade people (male and female) to spend money in exchange for language.

Speech is always going to be commodified — we're never going to solve that problem. As consumers/readers, the best we can do is to keep this in mind: when you're reading a text that seems strikingly authoritative or persuasive, remember that the words are so powerful because the person who wrote them was trying to make a living. If we're skeptical of the statements we see on food packages in the supermarket, we should be just as skeptical of statements we read in a book. It's all "commercial."


XWL said...

"Speech is always going to be commodified — we're never going to solve that problem"

I think the only problem is viewing commodification as being a problem.

That's a feature, not a flaw. Money talks. Money is also an excellent feedback mechanism.

Doesn't mean speech that doesn't earn money is valueless, or that well compensated speech is inherently better, but speech as commodity has opened up writing (and more diverse kinds of writing) as a full time pursuit for far more people than can be supported under any other patronage model.

John Althouse Cohen said...

"Speech is always going to be commodified — we're never going to solve that problem"

In an earlier draft I put a parenthetical after this: "(if you even agree that it's a problem)." But then I figured there was no need for me to add this qualification; with the more simplistic sentence, someone else would be more likely to make that point and expand on it.