Friday, 24 February 2017

The Optics Thing

Have you noticed the expression "the optics" creeping into media discourse recently? It means "how something looks", or more particularly, how something looks to the public, as mediated via the lens, literal and metaphorical, of the media. For example, a collection of exclusively white, middle-aged men might be said to give "bad optics" at a press conference, in media-relations terms. Better mix in a few women and ethnics, yeah? And get the good-looking ones front and centre. Who cares who they are or what they do? It's all about the optics.

I think "the optics" still has the status of a buzzword. That is, a term used by a particular community as part of its own jargon, which both marks off insiders from outsiders, and also encapsulates some "buzzy" contemporary concept in a suitably concise shorthand. However, the fact that I, an observant outsider, am noticing "the optics" being used (mainly, paradoxically, on the radio) probably means it is in transition from a buzzword to a cliché, which is what inevitably happens when people other than the original users notice and adopt something, in the same way fashions are copied from the subcultural and the young by the middle-aged – a particular way of tying a scarf, say, at one extreme, to body-piercings at the other – and are as a result emptied of their authentic excitement, or "buzziness". It's not beyond the bounds of possibility, for example, that a few "respectable" public figures are sporting tattoos, even the odd "tramp stamp", though this is not a thought we wish to dwell on. Certainly, Samantha Cameron has a tattoo on her ankle. The desire of the conventional to appropriate the cachet of the unconventional, without sacrificing any of the privileges of conventionality, has always been one of the drivers of art and fashion.

Not all jargon is catchy, of course. Much contemporary academic prose is impenetrable to the lay reader, rendering a discussion of a poem as rebarbative as, say, the full-on anatomical description of a newly-discovered insect species. Mind you, personally, I love (but barely understand) the precision of the language of taxonomy. What's not to like (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) about this:

The head shining, punctured, the clypeus coarsely so; the face with dark griseous pubescence. Thorax with the pubescence beneath the wings fuscous, that on the legs beneath paler, the floccus on the posterior femora beneath of a dirty white; the scopa on the posterior tibiae fuscous; wings subhyaline, the nervures fusco-ferruginous, the tegulae testaceous.
(from the description of a Mexican bee, Colletes intricatus)

Mind you, that is pretty catchy, even if incomprehensible. I mean, "fusco-ferruginous"! It just trips off the tongue, doesn't it? It could be the name of a character in Star Wars, or a red-haired rapper, and I can't wait to drop it into a conversation. Though I may have to wait some time for the opportunity, and even then "a dark rusty colour" might be more readily understood. But the whole point of jargon in transition to cliché is that it should – even if only slightly – resist immediate understanding. The speaker's status is elevated by the level of attention piqued in the listener. Cor, what does that mean?

Naturally, nearly all buzzwords, when extracted from their original context, cease to mean what they were originally intended to mean. A classic example is "deconstruction", which does not mean "to take something apart to see how it works", although of course it does mean that, too, and if everybody else prefers to use the word that way that will continue to be its main signification, to the annoyance of "theory" scholars everywhere. But, given it's become a signature move (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) of humanities and social-science scholars to take an existing word and give it a new, specialised, often counter-intuitive meaning, then it serves them right. Lay users don't want to understand "theory", merely to appropriate the aura its vocabulary lends to their conversation, signalling that the speaker is not just down with the kids but also up with the academics.

BBC Radio 4 presenters pretend to disparage such "trendy" coinages, but use them nonetheless, usually prefaced by some sanitising phrase like "in that awful expression..." or "with that dreadful word...".  I see no reason to be so bothered by most buzzwords or even clichés, if they're used consciously and appropriately, perhaps with a suitable sense of irony, perhaps with a little added personal spin. After all, almost all idiomatic English is nothing but a collection of clichéd turns of phrase so worn-out and threadbare as to be virtually transparent. The recycling of novel slang and jargon is a democratic sort of creativity: everyone can enjoy using and sharing vivid new language, especially when it is in that lively transitional phase from specialists' argot to common currency. At worst, like Samantha Cameron with her tattoo, it's a harmless way for someone to show they are alert to trends and novelties, and to feel at the same time a little transgressive, a little ahead of the curve (hmm, buzzwords or clichés?), but without risking exclusion from polite society.

Which, I suppose, means that "the optics" may, for now, be a thing. As in, "I didn't know that was a thing", an expression that is itself now definitely well on the way to becoming a cliché. Although I am still eagerly waiting to hear the first government minister on the radio, protesting to their interviewer: "But, with all due respect, Mishal, that isn't even a thing!" It probably wouldn't sound great, though; I wonder if you can have "bad optics" on the radio?


Zouk Delors said...

We're often told (by people on the radio, usually) that "the best pictures are on the radio", so why not?

How about using "fusco-ferruginous elements" to mean black people living in the now notorious rust-belt of the USA?

Zouk Delors said...

Ha! The next thing I read after your post was about this co-option of an everyday word by an academic:

amolitor said...

My sister, who was a biochemist for a while, takes great delight in the fact that taxonomists are among the rare (perhaps are the only instance of) scientists who would resort to open fisticuffs over the arcana of their field. In the sense of charging the stage and beating up the speaker on the grounds that he is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

Omer said...

Has sign language adopted the gesticulation of rappers? I mean, it is a thing. Nice photographs, particularly the first.

Paul Mc Cann said...

I'm sorry but 'Optics' to me are those measures attached to the upside down neck of the bottle that a barman uses to measure spirits.

Mike C. said...


Why, thanks very much, mine's a double Balvenie!


Thanks, always appreciated when someone notices the *real* content!


Hilarious -- as a recovering cataloguer, I can easily relate to this.


Interesting -- had no idea about the significance of "significance" in stats. But then I have a very mean understanding of stats.