Sunday, February 03, 2013

War on 'piece'. Can I just say that I loathe the way the word 'piece' gets used these days. Traditionally, 'piece' implies an ellipsis: a piece… of something. 'Piece' meant a portion, a constitutive element, and always referenced a wider purpose.

My dictionary gives several senses. There's "one of the items that were put together to make something and into which it naturally divides" (eg a piece of an engine or a jigsaw puzzle). There's "an item of a particular type" (for instance, a piece of luggage). There's "an instance or example" (eg a piece of evidence). "A financial share" (a piece of the company; they got $X apiece). "A coin of specified value" (a 50c piece). "A token used in a board game" (chess pieces).

As you may have noticed, these different senses get interchanged metaphorically, so that evidence is described as "a piece of the puzzle", a financial share is "a piece of the pie", or coins are tokens of financial exchange.

My mother sometimes uses 'piece' to refer to a young woman (always a woman!) she feels is unpleasant and conceited: "She's a real piece." (Similar to another of her favourite pejoratives: "little madam".) This is short for "a piece of work", which has a generally contemptuous sense. Perhaps it comes from Shakespeare's "What a piece of work is a man" speech from Hamlet, which is deeply sarcastic in praising the virtues of humankind.

Interestingly, the sarcastic meaning in general discourse seems to date from the mid-20th century: for example, in a New York magazine story from April 1969: "I said to the cop, 'You're a real piece of work.'" Before then, "a real piece of work" tended to refer admiringly to an honest effort or a really good end result.

But these days, we seem to have adopted wholeheartedly the term 'piece' in its sense of "a written, musical, or artistic creation or composition", and we have dropped the corollary "…of writing", "…of music", "…of art". I have kept quiet about my hatred of the usage of 'piece' on social media in this way, because I don't want to seem churlish and it really is a petty complaint. But I really hate it when someone will praise an essay, or an op-ed, or a blog post, or some other unit of writing, as "Nice piece", or a writer will say, "Here's a piece I wrote…"

What do we mean by a 'piece', anyway? Used to refer to writing, 'piece' is deliberately imprecise. Personally I worry that the usage marks our increasing inability or unwillingness to consider the specific forms, genres and contexts of writing. When an analytical literary essay gets mixed up with a persuasive issues-based commentary and an anecdote written on a personal blog, and we call them all 'pieces', we are reducing them to the act of writing, or the act of publication.

'Piece' also implies that a writerly career consists of a constant flow of such 'pieces'. For me the term is depressing because it so obviously references the piecemeal way that freelancers earn an income. I guess it could imply that there's an intertextual relationship between the 'pieces', or that a writer is 'assembling' a professional persona, bit by bit, like a mechanism; that's certainly what lots of writers hope their work does!

But it could equally imply disorderliness, as if the structural integrity of someone's oeuvre has been smashed and reduced to random pieces. Who knows what else Sappho wrote about? She's known to us only from surviving fragments of her poetry, which frame her mainly as an enthusiast of girl-on-girl action.

I still, however, haven't put my finger on something else I dislike about 'piece'… something poncy… Let's consider the term 'think piece'.

Google Ngram Viewer is an excellent way to trace certain words and phrases through various language corpuses. I found it while researching the debates over anachronistic dialogue in Downton Abbey.

"Think piece" first appears in 1866-72 and and then again from 1890-1912, but may have been used primarily to denote opinions about industry: eg "I do not think piece-work is practicable…"). However, it really took off from 1940. (Many dictionary websites, including Merriam-Webster, date its first appearance to 1941.)

The earliest reference I could find to the contemporary sense, happily for me, frames 'think piece' cynically. It's from The Washington Correspondent, a 1937 insider's account of American political journalism by Leo Calvin Rosten: "There is an excellent phrase heard in Washington newspaper circles which suggests how news is 'manufactured' when the season or the day is dull: 'I'll write a think- piece,' or, 'I'll suck my thumb.'" I can sense a certain self-deprecation here, as though the journos recognise that this is lazy and juvenile, but they have to do it anyway because of the pressures of the news cycle.

'Think piece' reached a peak of popularity in 2000, which, you may recall, is the year the film Almost Famous came out. In the film, legendary music journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) advises rookie William Miller (Patrick Fugit) to pitch a feature to Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres as "a think-piece about a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom."

As William scribbles down the unfamiliar phrases, Lester smirks, "Yeah, he'll wet himself." The phrase is ironised here, because Lester knows how to game an editor's pretensions. Fong-Torres's response is, "Let's see if we can get you another thousand words." LOOOOOL. No wonder this film was such catnip to wannabe music writers. That's the fascinating thing about Almost Famous: that it managed to be quite knowing about rock and rock-critic mythologies, but at the same time it bought into them earnestly and sentimentally, and encouraged the same from its audiences.

This was my real introduction to both the term 'think piece' and its dog-whistle meaning of an audience impressed by bullshit. And perhaps another reason why I dislike the use of 'piece' now is because it evokes both bullshitting – the writer's 'piece' is retrieved from his/her arse – and a pretentious audience lapping that shit up.

I also loathe the way the term 'piece' is used in the fashion and design worlds. You will hear about pieces of clothing being referred to solely as 'pieces' in a way that's clearly intended to evoke the sense of artworks: unique expressions of a creative vision. Same with pieces of furniture, or objets d'art décoratif.

For instance, I was reading Nicole Jenkins' eloquent blog post about what vintage means to her. She recognises that her ways of valuing material objects aren't for everyone – basically, she values the patina of history that accretes to a garment or an object over time. Her commenters agree… but they frame the objects as 'pieces'.

"I love the life and breath within each vintage piece and knowing that there is a mysterious history," writes Terri.

"…nothing can compare, not even in the slightest, to a vintage piece because with it comes a story," writes Suzi.

Here's where I worry that I am being petty, because there's nothing ostensibly wrong with using 'piece' in this way, But the danger arises when words become jargon: they're used primarily to signal membership in a group and connoisseurship of that group's shared cultural capital. Fash-speak, that quippy genre of fashion reportage, is much maligned because its meaning is so impoverished to a general audience, but it makes complete sense if you're immersed in that world.

For me, a workaround is always to be specific about what I mean. I will always refer to a link on Facebook or Twitter as an "article", "story", "blog post", "essay", "op-ed", or whatever else. Either that or it's a "piece OF" something.

I realise that I am leaving myself open to a most obnoxious response: people tweeting or Facebooking this blog post and adding, "Interesting piece by Mel Campbell". But I feel confident enough in this blog's low readership that people will not read this, much less rub my nose in it. I feel as if I say this all the time, but thank god for blogging! It really enables me to express the things that bother and intrigue nobody but me.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Site Meter