How metalanguage ate the universe

.   We were told not to engage in ad-hominem argument – that is, not to flame anyone in particular.  Fortunately, I don’t intend to flame anyone in particular.  Instead, as I mentioned in class, I intend to flame everyone (in the world) as a group.
.  The central problem of media today is that there is so much of it that it burns itself out.  Consider a radio playing Britney Spears. Any radio signal has a certain percentage of static and a certain percentage of music.  It always contains some static, but usually the static is like .5% so you don’t hear it.  In this example, since there is .5% static, we hear “Ooops I did it again” with 99.5% of the signal, and we can decipher the song.  The noise-to-signal ratio is low, so we can’t really even hear the static.
.  On the other hand, if we are driving through rural Manitoba, we might hear 99.5% static and .5% “Oops.” In this case, we only hear static and won’t hear Britney at all, because the noise-to-signal ratio is too high.
.  And this is the central disaster of modern communication: there is so much noise that we can’t even find the signal. According to “The Merchants of Cool,” teenagers are exposed to thousands of ads a day, not to mention (in 2008) hundreds of pages on Myspace, Facebook,, and whatever else. The human brain takes milennia to evolve, and evolves at a constant speed; whereas technology doubles in evolution speed every few years.  We are not evolved to process this information, thus the more communication there is, the less of it we process, and shortly or perhaps yesterday we will only process .5% of it. Thus, communication will effectively come to an end because when signal-to-noise ratio falls below a certain amount, it effectively falls to 0% in our minds.
.  Theory does not protect against an indecipherable (by us) onslaught of ads for ci@ li @ s. On the contrary, the integration of excess theory (meta-language) into mundane social processes like masturbation—by increasing the noise and decreasing the signal—moves us closer to falling off that cliff into the sea of static. As an example, suppose we see a hot guy. We can say that it is a hot guy, or we can analyse what being a hot boy is. However, perhaps it would be better to go and do our business over its picture or its person, e.g. just to have sex with it.
.  The modern linguist Michael Reddy (1979) regrets this plague of deathly meta-language.  He estimates that 70% of spoken modern language is devoted solely to analyzing failures to communicate.  (This may have declined to 69% due to the increasing use of the phrase “can you hear me now?)  However, he offered these sentences as examples:
.  1. What is the meaning in his words?
.  2. Try to get your thoughts into words.
.  3. I couldn’t get any meaning out of his words.
.  4. I couldn’t find any sense in his words.
.  5. His words were empty and ‘devoid’ of feeling.
.  6. His promises were hollow.
.  7. His ideas were hidden in a dense thicket of sentences.
.  8. Like a maggot in a turd he hid within the word.
.  9. How do I convey my love in mere words.
.  10. How do I get it across to you that I don’t want to see you again.
.  11. I gave her a call.
.  12. I received your call.
.  13. I got the message.

Reddy saw this meta-thoughtfulness as a neurosis, and rather than being helpful, he said these kinds of meta-language are instead a dehumanizing form of abuse; a way to appear like communicating while in fact alienating people from each other.
.  Or to look at this another way, I have two classes: Media Ideas and Stand-Up Comedy. In Media Ideas we are instructed not to flame anyone.  In Stand-Up Comedy we specialize in flaming everyone and having fun, not taking it personally (and in fact using four letter words, swearing, drinking, screwing, and whatever else).  Unquestionably, there is far more signal in Stand Up class and much more noise in Media Ideas.  This is no reflection on the members of these two classes, but rather demonstrates how meta-language ate the universe.

Peter Ian Cummings


4 Responses to “How metalanguage ate the universe”

  1. This Cummings attacks theory, but he uses theory to do so. And not to engage in ad-hominem argument, but doesn’t that make him an idiot? Or anyway he contradicts himself, and my friends all say not to hang out with people who pull that crap.
    . Cummings talks about signal-to-noise, and he says that rather than textually analyze a hot guy, we should sexually analyze him. What he doesn’t understand is that everything is mediated. Who is to say that static has no meaning? Who is to say that Britney Spears has meaning?
    . Beside which, there is no language at all. Everything is meta language. Hey there Cummings – if that is your real last name, which I seriously doubt – what makes you think that erotic attraction to a popstar is signal, or language? Everything is socially constructed. If you are attracted to Britney Spears – which frankly (rather than her so-called music) is probably the only reason you mentioned her – that is only because of the “values” of our time. Your desire to buy Britney Spears songs or look at a hot guy or visit did not fall on your head as if from outer space. Everyone’s sexual desire was conditioned by the advertising that they saw when they were two years old.
    . There is no signal. Everything is noise and noise is sexy! Go to hell!!!!!

  2. katherineer Says:

    U really made some excellent points here. I love when you explained how there is so much noise that we can’t even find the signal. I definitely agree that society today is given to much information then we are actually built to hold. And it is scary that because we are given so much we don’t process nearly a third of it! You stated how you believed that due to this communication will one day come to an end. Although I agree with what you say I don not agree that communication will one day come to an end because communicating is all about relaying messages. Without communication there is no speech or thoughts, which society would fall apart if that ever happened! Even the ancient Egyptians used hieroglpyics to communicate their messages.

  3. I hope it is safe to assume that this comment comes largely in response to the Hansen reading. I’m throwing that out there, because I had a similar reaction while reading Hansen — in fact, the word “masturbatory” floated through my mind on the third or fourth time trying to sift through it. If I’m completely off-base, feel free to respond and set me straight.

    But, yeah, as a pure impulse and without the background in good theory like the Reddy citation that you provided, I had a hard time digging through the Hansen reading because it was straight-up so jargon-y. Like you said, I thought it was steeped in “meta-language.”

    I had a journalism prof a while back who always used to say, “Good writing is writing how you talk.” With that thought in mind, I’d like to get this Mark Hansen in a room. I’d like for him to put on a brief presentation to our class. Simply because I highly doubt that in person he talks the way he writes.

  4. I am not exactly sure if this blog is related to the reading or if it is refering to our discusiion in class last week. I don’t agree that communication will come to an end as stated above. I do agree that there is an onslaught of ads and it is difficult to sift through the noise but as technology moves extremely fast and although we do not evolve as fast, we have this technology to help us keep up. I think it is just a matter of which new mediums and technology we decide to take part in.

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