Is there an English word more uninspired and superfluous than the adjective “remarkable”? Unless one is indulging in a bit of ironic self-consciousness, it announces nothing of its subject except the self-evident: that one is remarking upon it. And this is only one way by which the abuse of language lets the inarticulate get the better of us.
Lately I was treated to another, while revisiting the warped and little labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges, for which the only apt descriptor must be “mind-blowing.” A similar fate befalls Nabokov’s Lolita, which still manages, through so many decades, to be “shocking.” To say more would be extravagant, and rather oversensitive; any less would be an unconscionable feat of understatement. And yet—how might one proceed to say these words without middling into banality? “Mind-blowing” and “shocking,” like the misappropriated “epic,” mean nothing more now than “mildly and momentarily amusing.” In many ways these are the opposites of the indiscreet “remarkable”: here are words that had meaning, eviscerated on the altar of the commonplace.
These semantic extinctions are the height of verbal abuse, for to use them now does justice neither to the subjects they describe, nor to the speaker’s intelligence. It was the Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher who called language “a reef of dead metaphors”; but it is looking more and more eroded, bleached and bland.
You should know precisely what I mean if, like yours truly, you too have found yourself unable to express genuine enthusiasm or wonder since our language has been bungled by promiscuous praise and honeyed headlines à la Upworthy, Buzzfeed et al.
We who have brutalized our minds upon the endless digital doggerels of our age know all too well the feeling—numbness, jadedness, general disillusion—and our remedy has been to see our farce and raise a greater filth. Hegel thought that comedy annihilates, by mockery, the privilege of the absolute; in our zeitgeist one finds the best expression of ironic dialectic. If this is not revolutionary, nothing is. The Upworthies of the world want none of it. While the ironical mind’s transgressive struggle nears the mock-heroic, the Upworthy mind stands stubbornly athwart history, trying pleadingly to say, “This matters, you guys.”
Which is not, by itself, entirely unforgivable. What offends us is the curious blend of pathological sincerity and sensationalized mediocrity, nestled on a bed of bloodied hearts in a bleak marinade of boredom.
The word “pathological,” by the way, is not incidental. Viral is the perfect way to describe these hackneyed headlines, for they allow their contents to proliferate and leave their hosts all the worse for it. Why else does one emerge from an Upworthed video, or a Buzzfed laundry list—an insult to laundry—feeling perhaps slightly amused but more palpably used? One then clicks “share” and spreads the contagion, conspiring free of charge in web traffic’s congestion.
Thus do the curious link hand in hand with the gullible. The sinister genius of Upworthy and Buzzfeed is to blur the grandiose with the coy, the bold with the vague, thereby to manufacture interest where little ought to be. How has this nine year-old child blown the minds of millions, and will I be next? Which single, elusive fact am I completely wrong about, that just might change The Way We Live Now? What are these twenty-two criteria to know if I’m a ’90s kid? And is there significance to the number twenty-two, that these take precedence to the exclusion, say, of a birth certificate?
The religious have been doing this for centuries: Might this illiterate merchant’s poem change the face of pre-modern Arabia? A young man leaves his family to sit for fifty days beneath a tree; what happens next defies human comprehension. Watch a carpenter feed the hungry with this one amazing trick; see why fishermen hate him. And like religion, viral media is hopelessly presumptuous—will I truly “never guess” what Time said about homosexuals?—and impressively solipsistic—must introverts read about the “twenty-seven problems” already known to them and them alone?
Thinking persons ought naturally to resent being told what they think—let alone what to think—and so much worse it is when hype dwindles into anticlimax. Yet the most insidious thing, more so than disappointment, is the rather subtle way these bagatelles legitimate themselves into our cultural discourse. Lionize something loudly enough, and one can’t rid it from one’s head; behold, the normalization of the banal.
This is the lowest and most mercenary form of seduction, which has always been the province of the unimaginative and the dull. Notice here another symptom of virality. Much like a bumbling gossip (“Guess what I just heard”), the thoughtless make do by making us do the thinking for them: they are parasitic upon our own imaginations.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell warned that the abuse of words allows the ruthless and tyrannical to elude detection. “Ethnic cleansing” is less menacing, and much less a mouthful, than “systematic removal and mass murder of unwanted peoples.” Our problem here is quite the opposite: the petty hagiographists of Upworthy and Buzzfeed make the minuscule and trivial unable to escape our notice. And so a better comparison, I propose, is Aesop’s lupinally eager boy. Imagine one’s frustration in the face of genuine danger, when preempted days before by a crowd of false alarmists, howling “Wolf!” in unison.