In a book review for Bruce Bawer’s The Victims’ Revolution, another one of those humanities-in-decline books, I read this:
At a gathering of the Cultural Studies Association at the University of California, Berkeley, Bawer encounters the young Michele, who’s “like, a grad student at UC Davis?” She’s “sort of reviving a Gramschian-style Marxism,” involving the idea that global warming is “sort of, like, a crisis, in the human relationship to nature?” Bawer claims that his heart goes out to her. (His heart is bigger than mine.)
So according to the reviewer, this “Michele” anecdote is supposedly about the “inability of many young Americans to express a simple or even grammatically coherent thought,” which “owes to a variety of academic fads that in the early 1980s captured the American university.” However bogus this is, and I think it very, what interests me about it is how this Bawer guy judged “Michele’s” hesitancy. The “likes” and “sort ofs” really bugged him when judged against a norm of “coherence,” and this is supposed to constitute evidence of a decline in academic standards. This judgment is later un-PC-ly affirmed by book reviewer Claire Berlinski when she calls “Michele”—say what?—a “stammering bimbo.”
What I think might be going on here for Bawer and Berlinski isn’t really about academic standards or “coherence,” but a lot more about generational differences and rhetoric. “Michele’s” “likes” and “sort ofs” aren’t about not knowing English grammar or reading so much Derrida that she’s uncertain about her own speech. It’s about how a particular white, middle-class, education subset of a particular generation establishes rhetorical authority.
I’m no sociologist but I’d guess that previous Bawer-Berlinski generation probably associated clear, “grammatically coherent thoughts” with a particular level of education, which then implicitly establishes that seemingly educated person’s authority. The thinking is that this person speaks “well” therefore they get some respect. But a lot of younger people—again, in that mostly white, middle-class, educated subset—are suspicious and uncomfortable around strong, clear, traditionally-educated-sounding rhetoric. There’s a preference for hesitation and demotic diction and being upfront about what you don’t know, which are valued probably for lots of complex reasons, some having to do with politics and wanting to seem sensitive and humble and non-threatening, but I think it mostly has to do with what sounds “real” or “authentic” at the moment.
So here’s Zadie Smith basically pulling a “Michele” in the New Yorker:
I wandered through that shop, as I always do in record shops, depressed by my ignorance and drawn toward the familiar. After fifteen shiftless minutes, I picked up a hip-hop magazine and considered a Billie Holiday album that could not possibly contain any track I did not already own. I was preparing to leave when I spotted an album with a wonder title: “More Songs About Buildings and Food.” You will probably already know who it was by—I didn’t. Talking Heads.
It’s almost impossible not to like the implied author of these sentences. She doesn’t know everything about music (like you). She cowardly prefers the familiar to the new (like you). She didn’t at first know the title of the Talking Head’s album (like you—but if you did know the title, don’t you feel a little ridiculous for being proud of your knowledge somehow?). It’s a strategic kind of vulnerability which is so attractive and winning, and which I think is roughly similar to the effect of “Michele’s” “likes” and “sort ofs.”
Wielding this softer kind of authority seems to be a generational rhetorical strategy, as evidenced by Smith, by those “mumble-core” movies, and by those sentences in Infinite Jest that start with “So sort of like…” It’s probably difficult for the Bawer-Berlinski generation, who were raised on the overly polished, pretty, higher-ed.-sounding sentences of people like John Updike, to understand why messiness, hesitation, and um-so-likes are really important to a certain demographic of younger people. They don’t talk that way because they’re dumb or uneducated. Maybe they do because they want to sound educated and sensitive and “authentic” in a way that doesn’t sound like John Updike.