Correspondence concerning this journal should be addressed to Rebekah Austin, Department of Linguistics and Science, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720
The principle of this essay is to discuss the consequences of open media, reading online, and online journalism in the digital age. Fast capitalism and neoliberalism create identities in the current episteme that reinforce the myth of the “millennial.” Through expectation and myth-making, identities are reinforced and recreated on a continuous spectrum through the cognitive process of reading comprehension. The over-saturation of digital content creates a world in which attention spans are weakened and personalities are reduced. Mass-produced literature simplifies the grammatical categories and language we read, that we use, and in turn, view the world through. Reading is no longer a form of resistance (de Certeau) to institutional disciplines but is a marginalizing force that weakens and stupefies our relationship and understanding of the world.
Fast Journalism in the Digital Age of Fast Capitalism
Language has been continually changing at a slow velocity until now. Online literature and online social interactions through the written word have created massive accessibility to open media and information. Through the Digital Age, we have a new way of linear reading and contemplative thinking that have in turn created new modes of narrative presentation, description, and ultra-simplified grammatical categories. Language shapes the way we think (Sapir), and reading is a process of comprehension, a “silent production” (de Certeau) where reading is a form of resistance and non-conformity. In the Digital Age, readers have become passive pawns at the disposal of massive and invisible forces of neo-liberalism. Mediums that produce online literature profit and are responsible for the diversified field of digital media. Reading has been a mode of resistance (de Certeau) against the institutional disciplines (Foucault) that we are subscribed to and thus marginalized. How can we maintain modes of resistance if we are intrinsically bound to our language? The shallow consumption of reading in fast capitalism is creating a simplified use of language that is stupefying peoples relationship to the world around them their ability to resist marginalization.
To support the aim of this argument, the paper will address Roland Barthes theories published in Mythologies (1957). His theories on myth-making will explore neo-liberal motivated implications within the signifier, “millennial.” Gee et al.’s theories of “fast capitalism” from the journal (1996) will support the identities created for a millennial consumer society within the production and distribution of literature. Through Dan Slobin’s research on “thought and language” form his book Linguistic Relativity (1996), the examination of how reading affects our grammatical categories and in turn our experiences of everyday life. Michel de Certeau’s theories on reading in The Practices of Everyday Life (1980) discuss the agency of individuals that counter Michel Foucault’s theories on the “disciplinary society” from his book, Discipline and Punish (1975). By examining literature online I will assess the nature of “fast literature” that measures the anticipated audiences “time to read” that in turn has direct consequences on thinking for speaking. The associations that are generated to and of the world around us are filtered through a grammatical lens of relations. Speech communities are becoming interconnected and interdependent through the globalization of the Internet. Fast capitalism and neoliberalism have adopted infrastructural imperialism creating a shared knowledge that in turn reinforces the mythology of the “millennial.” The “millennial” is an identity manifested within the boundaries of neo-liberalism and fast capitalism that is continually produced on a spectrum. The access to the online sphere of information and literature liberates people from the disciplines of the institution but at the same time produces and reinforces the construct of the “millennial” myth. Reading has regressed from being a mode of resistance into a force of manipulation and marginalization.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, discusses the fate of language through Science Fiction: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten” (Orwell 1.5.23,). George Orwell is asking the question which we are faced with in present-day: how much power can invisible forces of institutional power weld over users of language? What medium is being used to do this? The answer to this second question is complex, because language, meaning, and signs take form in various media, one namely being the written language. Globalization has as Foucault puts it “liberated the peoples at the same time creating the disciplines.” People are liberated by access to information and to the access of reading. It is a source of tactfulness—you don’t have to have the backing of institutional power to be able to comprehend a body of writing, to form your opinions of the world and to create your own distinct worldview. Another point that Orwell brings to light is the destruction of language: through resignifying the meaning of words through semiological chains (Barthes), you can create a world where resistance is impossible because you will no longer have the words to convey your feelings, sentiments, and emotions towards something. It is the process of repressive desublimation: because we are given certain freedoms we are oblivious to the freedoms that we are not given. Just as we are oblivious to the restraints of identities we are given and which we produce and recreate in everyday life.
Reading practices are being produced for an anticipated audience (de Certeau) whose attention spans are shortened. According to the new data from USC Annenberg on the MIT Technology Review, the average American spends 23.6 hours weekly online and 84% of Americans have a smartphone. With this much screen time, technology users expose themselves to various media outlets in the fast-paced world online. According to Paul Zelevansky in his journal, “Attention SPAM,” the “attention span has shortened not just because ebooks consist of a continuous, digital, searchable text, but because they are being read on devices we use for other things… A large percentage of people read ebooks on their cellphones—dipping into them in the coffee queue or on public transport, but then checking their work email or their online love life, thumb swipe away” (Zelevansky c 8). The oversaturated nature of the online world consequently affects how long we can become interested in one subject, and in turn, affects our comprehension of the written language. The literature in which we read and develop our knowledge from is designed for a fast capitalistic society that creates social roles for people through readership. The smartphone has mostly fulfilled the consumer wants of plugging in and out of the digital sphere even though this want was not largely recognized until its development in the early 2000s. The accessibility to literature, news, email—all in one social platform creates a reality where people will grow to spend more time plugged into their online social universe within the real social world of everyday life. The time that is spent plugged in overwhelms the user with options that creates a paradox of choice. Literature online is being produced to be consumed fast: it is being produced for the myth of the “millennial” (Barthes).
The word “millennial” originally means, “a person reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century” (Oxford dictionary). Through the forces of fast capitalism, “millennial” has transfigured from this meaning to: “we appear to be obsessed with figuring out what makes these young Americans — the first generation of “digital natives” — tick. Marketers want their dollars, media organizations want their attention and employers want to know how to make them happy and productive” (Cummings c 4). Sociolinguist, Vaidyanathan describes the relationship that generationally categorized peoples have to the millennial as, “I have been teaching at the university level for more than 20 years,” he said. “And ever since I started teaching, I’ve been told that I teach this strange creature called the Millennial. But nobody has been able to tell me when those Millennials arrived on Earth; no one has been able to tell me when those Millennials will be displaced and get out into the world so I am no longer teaching them; and every time I venture such a question I get a completely different set of answers, which is suspicious” (Cummings c 7). What is most troubling about this generational stereotyping of the millennial is that there exists an inexactitude of what a millennial is, but one thing is for certain, the powers of our social climate generate the myths of millennial which brews a sentiment of anxiety and a need for control. Myths distort meaning from a sign in a first semiological chain to create a [new] motivated meaning of something in the second-order chain. Massive media outlet corporations distort the literal meaning of millennials being a generational term for people into a myth to signify technology-driven and addicted people. The speech is stolen, meaning that it originates from a pre-existing first order of signification (M-I-L-L-E-N-I-A-L+ a generational term for a group of people). Myth comes from a first semiological chain and then gets restored (re-established) into a second-order semiological chain by which denotation leads to a chain of connotations. Myth uses the literal meaning (the denotative sign) as its signifier and attaches to it an additional signified to create the myth. The meaning of millennial gets reconstructed into a new signification through this process, in which technology obsessive and media influenced peoples to derive from the signifier of the denotative sign.
To provide a view at the paradoxical forces that manipulate and reproduce the myth of the millennial, the writings of Gee et al. further explicate the invisible forces of fast capitalism and neo-liberalism that produce these identities for the millennial:
“The new capitalism is based on the design, production, and marketing of ‘high quality’ goods and services for now saturated markets. In the developed world today, economic survival is contingent on selling newer and more perfected customized (individualized) goods and services to niche markets—that is, to groups of people who come to define their identities by the sorts of goods and services they consume. The emphasis now is on the (active) knowledge and flexible learning needed to design, market, perfect, and varied goods and services as symbols of identity, not on the actual product itself as a material good. And, thanks to technological and social changes, this sort of ‘quality’ competition is now fully globalized. The winner’s design customized products and services on time/on-demand fast and more perfectly than their global competition does or they go out of business” (Gee et al 26).
The intensified competition for the audience’s attention has created the customization of products and goods for the “niche” market. In turn, this has created a fabricated reality that empowers the myth of the millennial and creates a spectrum of the everyday practice of the identities. This is where ‘information’ and the liberation of it comes in: globalization has liberated the masses through accessibility that seamlessly defines and changes the identities of the online media user through the literature in which we consume. The ‘customization’ of online literature allows by the companies who house the production and publication to weld an ample amount of power over the personalization of the identities of specific groups of people. As noted earlier by Gee, the forces of globalization, neoliberalism, has created an environment where competition exists in a fast-paced playing field and the competitors within the market for the millennials attention must be mass produces at a fast speed. The manifestation of this “fast capitalism” has as a byproduct created fast literature. Under the motivated myth to sell more information and to be first “click” on the first page of Alphabet’s Google search engine, literature and articles are being shortened to capture the attention of the user for a short period of time. The convenience of information is liberated through the accessibility of information: it is the democratization of making information accessible and organized. The multiplicities of information have created “fast literature,” and the disciplining of the liberty of reading; the consequences self manifest into different verticals, namely, through the anticipation of audience.
In a 2011 case study on the marketing technical practices of the millennial, the psychologist Claude Messner and Mechaela Wanke investigated what, if anything, could alleviate the “paradox of choice”—a phenomenon that “the more options we have, the worst we feel. They concluded that…the faster we decide something, whether it’s what we’re going to eat or what we’re going to read, the happier we become. […] The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it” (Konnikova c 8). Every word is chosen in anticipation of the following word that will come in suit of the “abstract grammatical form:” the time and space envelopes the word. “Language is a dialogic process of making meaning” (de Certeau 283). Through the anticipation of the millennial audience, literature is fashioned for the said audience who embodies the “paradox of choice.” Within an environment that is oversaturated with mass media and large media outlets vying for the attention and success over the competition, the “time to read” or “length” of a piece of online literature, create a society where everything is measured: the consumer, the author, the language. Through the lens of Foucault theories on discipline, things are itemized and need to be measured and tested. They exist under an umbrella of observation. At the core of Foucault’s “disciplinary” society are the three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. The control over people, the power, can be achieved by observation and through anticipation. De Certeau’s theories on anticipation and expectation from the receiver of the language can be applied to Foucault’s ideas of measurability. The measurability of online literature creates a signified anticipated audience that reinforces the neoliberal identity and myth of the “millennial” by subjugating and marginalizing people.
Online literature is changing the way we think from an abstract thought into simple grammatical categories. The process of reading puts into practice the knowledge and organ of language. Slobin, in his 1996 writing, “From ‘Thought and Language’ To ‘Thinking for Speaking’” from Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, discusses how “languages differ from one another; thought and language are inseparable; therefore each speech community embodies a distinct world view” (Slobin 70). To remove the idea of “other languages” and solely focus on the practice of English in reading, the language used in the mass production media outlets is oversimplified and reduced to a simple grammatical category.
“Grammar provides a set of options for schematizing experience for the purpose of verbal expression. Any utterance is multiply determined by what I have seen or experienced, my communicative purpose in telling you about it, and the distinctions that are embodied in my grammar” (Slobin 75). The article displayed above, written by Sarah Weinman in 2014 for the New York Times, not only measures the anticipated audience but also exercises grammatical categories of thought that are simplistic. The story begins in subject-verb agreement, “Alaric Hunt turned 44 in September.” This short sentence is one of the most basic linear grammatical categories to write or speak through. The sentences then shift to “he last saw,” “he works,” “he discovered,” “he found,” “he rediscovered,” and so on. The subject exists through the pronoun but the subject is seamlessly lost because we cannot remember the reference of the pronouns. This type of literature changes the way we think from abstract grammatical categories to simple schematizations. Moreover, the text is written in such a way that anticipates the audience not just through “time to read” but through this oversimplification; people have shorter attention spans and are expected to not read through complex language. In The New Work Order by Gee et al, the storyline of fast capitalism driving the needs of the consumer and the consumer in turn driving the market enacts a discourse that creates a new reality with new identities. Applying this logic to the mechanics of literature online in the digital age shares the same fabric. With the accessibility to various outlets online, users have a new way of reading that is cyclical and contemplative thinking that create new modes of narrative presentation, description, and distribution. “Ebooks are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write” (Zelevansky c 4), but at the same time broadening the accessibility to information and knowledge. While the Internet can help people learn more and have this access to knowledge, it also creates a type of standardization that controls the way people talk and the way they think. Reading is at its basic meaning a “cognitive process” of decoding symbols “in order to construct or derive meaning.” It is a means of language acquisition, “communication, and of sharing information and ideas” (Oxford Dictionary). Reading is a something specific to humans and it serves as a measure of one’s intelligence, but with the expansion of technology and the development of technology in an age where everything is digitalized for convenience, the process of literary deconstruction and comprehension is weakened. Ebooks and smartphone liberate the masses but weaken the disciplines.
Where we can be inclined to view the identity of the millennial as passively practicing the myth of it at the mercy of structural forces, de Certeau would argue, as explicated in the chapter “The Unnamable” from The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980, that we should see readers as those who “make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (de Certeau 191). Reading is viewed as a form of resistance to the confines of Foucault’s disciplinary society. De Certeau furthers his argument of reading as resistance in the chapter “The Unnamable”: “I bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline.’ Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline …” (de Certeau 198). Reading has been a way of “making do” and is a use of tactics. Reading doesn’t require the institutional powers special backing in order for “the little man” to better his knowledge and intelligence. The Greek word for Tactic, Tekhne, means the skillful arrangement dependent on the moment or the situation. Tactics cannot count on the proper place, they operate in a utopian time on the terrain of another. They manipulate events to turn them into opportunities; tactics are not revolutionary but oppositional (de Certeau 37). The invocation of the word, “proper” translates to “a triumph of place over time” allowing one to capitalize “acquired advantages” (de Certeau 34). This mode of resistance to the invisible structural forces of institutions is dwindling due to the globalization of literature and over-saturated market in the online world. As Foucault stated, “the “The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines” (Foucault 222). The Enlightenment, the transitional period from the late 17th century and into the 18th century was a time of reason rather than tradition. The King could no longer arbitrarily execute the condemned arbitrarily, nor could harsher punishments be acted onto the lower classes. The enlightenment period was in a “double-bind.” It discovered the liberties: the arbitrary coercion of the King wasn’t accepted and faded away into history, and there were newfound freedom and independence of coercion and inequality; people had rights. Whilst, at the same time those rights and liberties were granted into the hands of the people, disciplines (not just punishments, but teachings, ways to organize the multiplicities) were invented. They were created in the wake of the liberties to maintain order, to keep society from falling apart. Fast online literature changes the relationship between author and reader, where the reader was able of “occupying the space” of the author like a “rented apartment,” now that occupation has dwindled and readers can only occupy that space for a short period. The globalization through the Internet has liberated the masses, creating a place of strategy for the tactful, and in turn, empowering the little man. Yet, at the same time, through the infrastructural imperialism of the internet, conglomerate media companies responsible for the publication of online literature has begun to discipline the masses through the principles of fast capitalism and neoliberalism. This, in turn, reinforces the structures of power that create identities through the guise of liberated information through journals and literature.
through reading is dying because language is losing abstract grammatical
categories to frame and process experiences and the world. The written language
under neo-liberal powers instills the practiced myth of the millennial that
creates a dystopian world akin to Orwell’s 1984.
Michel de Certeau’s theories of resistance aim to counter Foucault’s
Disciplinary Society that held strong until the domination of the pervasive nature
of the Digital Age. Rather than resisting the structural powers instilled by
neoliberalism, online literature has created a system for control. Through
identity manipulation we are marginalized and coerced by invisible powers into
practicing the identities that are circumscribed onto us through the guise of
liberation. The power of myth making has begun to control our behaviors and
reactions in everyday life, reducing the possibility for tact in the online
world. How can we resist invisible powers? Is it possible to read online
without the structural powers welding control through the mythology of
identity? Reverting from open media to print may be a form of tactful
resistance. Yet, reading only a type of literature that must pass through
publication houses set of standards is a contradiction to being tactful. The
massive conglomerate company, Amazon, and their “self publishing” may be the
only medium to publish without the phantom control of a neoliberal disciplinary
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Cummings, W. (2017, May 12). The malignant myth of the Millennial. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/05/11/millennial-myth/100982920/
Gee, J. Hull, G. Lankshear, C. (1996). The New Work Order. Behind the language of new capitalism 24-48
Zelevansky, P. (1997). Attention SPAM®. SubStance, 26(1), 135-159. doi:10.2307/3684836
Konnikova, M June 19, 2017. The New Yorker. A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love
Certeau, Michel de 1984: The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley
Foucault, Michel, 1926-1984. (1977). Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. New York :Pantheon Books
Reading | Definition of reading in
English by Oxford Dictionaries. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/reading