Friday, April 23, 2010

Being American: The Voice of the Sock Monkey

I. The Diamond-Studded Lemur

I used the phrase "Ironic Lite" in the previous post, referring to a communication style that's popular now.
It's a precocious style that might include, say, composing a song about your sock monkey's preference for root crops.

I don't know if it's prevalent all over the Western world, but recently this clever style has become one of the dominant ways of communicating in the United States, among certain groups. *

"Ironic Lite" is too sharp-edged to be the right name.
I'm going to call it Voice of the Sock Monkey, because it often includes some sort of exotic but endearing, possibly endangered or old-fashioned, animal or toy.

Like, here, I found this on Vitaminwater's Facebook page:

"take that refund check and spend it on something important like a pet lemur named 'richard' or diamond-encrusted belt buckle that reads 'head honcho'. what are you going to spend your tax refund on?"
[image from Nat'l Geographic.]

(Need I mention, the speakers/consumers of Sock Monkey are usually not poor.)

II. Sock Monkey Mammy

I went looking for images of sock monkeys, and they're more popular than I realized.
After scanning through many pictures, it struck me that there's a kind of frightening old-fashioned "cozy" (to whites) racism to sock monkeys, with their soft brown color and thick lips sewn shut.
Like the myth of Mammy or the old picture of Aunt Jemima, they are meant to be comforting to the privileged children they care for.

This Obama sock monkey was meant for supporters of Obama. The makers pulled it after accusations of racism, but you can hear the hurt in their voice, because they are nice white children who meant no harm.

If only the harm done by people who meant no harm didn't count.

I don't mean people who speak Sock Monkey are racist.
The common element isn't the toy, it's the child.
How comforting to think of oneself as a privileged child, since children are not repsonsible for the social inequality they benefit from. And how dangerous.
There's nothing wrong with being children.
Except when we're not.

III. Putting Padding Between Oneself and Horror

I say the Voice of the Sock Monkey has become popular recently, but I don't know since when.
Could it be since 9/11?

I'm tempted to say so, because as an American, to express authentic hopes after 9/11, even if you speak very intelligently, opens you up to charges of naiveté, opens you up to ridicule.
While to express authentic fears is again to make yourself vulnerable to social disapproval:
no one wants to hear that fear because they feel impotent in its presence too.

This was probably always the case in the past too, more or less. No one likes prophets of doom, and "laugh today, cry tomorrow" is an old formula warning against being too happy: it will bring bad luck.

I suppose we just come up with new ways to pad our hopes and fears to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
If I tell you my sock monkey lives in the root cellar, there's enough of the padding of humor to make the palpable fear palatable.

There is irony in this style, just not full-on irony. You can see--are supposed to see--the tender heart underneath. But if you come at that heart with a stick, the sock monkey can step in front and take the jab.

Sock Monkey/Irony Lite seems to me to be the protective voice of someone who's smart and educated enough to express themselves smoothly but not sure where to go from there.

In some ways, it's the voice of a young person--though it is not just people in their teens and twenties who use it-- like Holden Caulfield, feeling their way forward in a hostile world. Reluctant to take on full adulthood because the mantle of power that goes with it looks--is--so heavy and cumbersome.

Maybe that's why it feels so American to me.
We are a young nation, in so many ways... precocious and powerful, but not sure what to do with that.
And then, we get hit--hard, on the nose--and now we're even more unsure.

But don't make the mistake of confusing Sock Monkey, who truly does not want to hurt, with a being who is unable to hurt.
That sweet hand is quite capable of dropping the sock monkey and pulling the trigger--and then feeling truly and horribly sorry afterward.

I like Sock Monkey/Irony Lite the way I like Holden Caulfield:
I recognize myself in it, and I really like the tender heart that peeks through.

Today, in fact, I relate a lot, because I'm sick with a fever (spring cold? or flu). I feel little,
the way you get when you know you couldn't defend yourselves against ravening wolves. I felt this way when I came home after I gave blood for the first time (almost fainted twice), and took to my bed with my toy panda.

So, I'm sympathetic to the Voice of the Sock Monkey, even if I don't want to hear much of it.

IV. The Monkey on Our Back

Here's what seems to me the Most Important Thing:
Like it or not, the Voice of the Sock Monkey is an expression of people who are feeling their way (one hopes) toward growing up (even if they are in their forties).
As such, I am fine with it. We all need comfort and funny voices.

Who am I to judge, with my Captain Kirk obsession?
(That's organic vitamin-fortified Saurian brandy he's drinking, in a reusable container. And his makeup was not tested on animals.)

But what I do judge negatively is the theft or co-option of that voice by marketing.
There's nothing authentic about the top quote from Vitaminwater, owned by a subsidiary of Coca-Cola, btw (link to Wikipedia). The clever quirky copy on its every label was mindfully composed to sell colored water in a plastic bottle.

V. Rebel, Rebel

Here's an idea of how to resist this particular marketing:
Eat oranges.

Really. I read on one of your blogs (RR's?) that people aren't eating many oranges because they don't want to do the work of peeling them.
We could start a rebel group...

VI. Mockery and Mufflers

I've been wanting to write about this peculiar American voice for a while.
What triggered me today is this interview with David Foster Wallace, who does not use it.

[Below, part 3 of 10, from 2003; sent to me by Lee. Thanks, Lee!]

Wallace says here--with awareness of the paradoxical bind he's in--that he thinks the idea, the work, of being a citizen is important.
He's ashamed to say stuff like that, he says, because "it'd be very easy to make fun of what I'm saying." He says he can hear the mocking voices in his head.

Boy, do I recognize this.

I think this is where the Voice of the Sock Monkey comes in. It muffles the voices inside our heads and the mockery outside.

Wallace does not use a muffler.
You can see him working hard to speak authentically here, wriggling to get around the blockades of doubt and dismay, which are visibly, in his body language, present.

And now, me and my fever are going to take a nap with Stuffed Panda.
But first I'm going to eat an orange.

* Besides Sock Monkey or Irony Lite, another popular modern style is belligerence, which we've seen a lot of lately.
Possibly belligerence is an expression of people who feel intellectually insecure;
while Ironic Lite is the expression of people who feel emotionally insecure?

Country-Western tends toward belligerence;
bright young things tend to employ Irony Lite.

P.S. An earlier post, on a related subject: Being American: Cheetohs and Arrogance.

I think the Voice of the Sock Monkey is also related to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon.
2016 Update, via Tumblr--The Sock Monkey Abides!


Margaret said...

Fascinating and insightful post.

I'm not sure I understand completely what the Voice of the Sock Monkey is, (I think I could recognize it, but I'm at a loss to define it).

"I think this is where the Voice of the Sock monkey comes in. It muffles the voices inside our heads and the mockery outside."

Yes, this helps to understand it. Strange how we cope with the recognition of these two voices standing side-by-side.

Tell me if I'm off, because I would like to understand - would an example of the Voice of the Sock Monkey be the little quips they put on Taco Bell sauce packets? "The feeling is mutual", "Where am I? It's dark and I can hear laughing...", "I collect straws", etc.

When you mentioned belligerence, the first thing that came to mind was the raging, all-caps, fan spilling on a given subject, ("TAKE A LOOK AT THIS MOTHERFUCKING SHIRT", etc). They're often violent and, when taken out of context, sound inhumanly brutal.
In context they seem different - affectionate belligerence?
(Although there have been a few that cross the very broad and blurred line of fandom decency.)

You know, Fresca:
Shat was running a fever during the filming of "The Turnabout Intruder" (disgusting that I know this, really). I imagine his way of coping was to be Xtra hammy.
But Oranges are good, too.

I had not one, but two Oranges late last night: the 1st for taste, the 2nd for the SHEER PLEASURE of peeling it - the best part.

Captcha strikes again: "snesses" - how Clouseau would pronounce "sneezes".

Fresca said...

Dear Margaret:

I'm groggy from a night of "snesses," but I'm no longer feverish--perhaps due to sleeping next to orange peel, which I was too fatigued to put in the trash. A plastic bottle just doesn't have the same healing properties.

I'm with you--peeling oranges is fun.
I like opening things--books, presents, fruit...
Thinking is even a little like peeling an orange, do you agree?

Thank you for trying to understand what I was saying---I'm afraid I don't truly understand this voice either..!
I just notice it and am curious.

Yes, those Taco Bell phrases are exactly what I mean about the rip-off of the Sock Monkey voice. Like Vitaminwater, they are the perversion of what I'm sure started as a non-commercial voice.

I hate the commercialization of it.
In its authentic form, it is sort of sad and sweet: what one might expect from bright children in the midst of an apocalyptic culture.

[Hm. That reminds me of WALL-E---when did Disney start making sweet and smart movies about the apocalypse?]

I think of a ferry trip to Nantucket I took twenty years ago. For some reason (bought in the discount bin, probably), my friend and I had Winnie-the-Pooh paper napkins.
A lovely college-aged boy came over and expressed gentle delight and curiosity, and then asked if he might have a couple--he and his friends were celebrating Winnie-the-Pooh's birthday!

As a Midwesterner, this type was foreign to me. I felt like I had met some youth on the eve of World War I, sort of Bertie Wooster/PeterPan.
I think Sock Monkey may be an evolution of that.
(Oh, right, and as I said, with Holden Caulfield in the middle.)
I'm truly not sure.

(Probably some New Yorker article has explained this all brilliantly, but I like to muddle my way to my own (mis)understanding.)

I hear the voice in the blogosphere a lot too--bright, deflective perkiness, with a surrealist twist. ("Where am I?" on hot sauce packets.)
It's amusing, but to me, its shiny surface doesn't provide any place to enter. I don't linger there long.

Hey! Good call on the sort of mock-belligerence (ALL CAPS! LOTS OF SWEARING!) of fandom! It feels very related to me.
"affectionate belligerence"--what a great term.
You can see it's not truly violent. Usually.

But then there's the "Closer" fanvid, which crossed the line into actual violence (rape).
I can see why its creator didn't want it shown outside the context of slash fandom---specifically the department of hurt/comfort stories:
the violence and separation at the end of the vid is not the end of the story; in fanfic, it's just the beginning of a tale of healing and reconciliation.

Without knowing that, it's just brutal.
I've wondered what people make of it who don't get this.

I only recently read that Shatner was sick during the final filming. I wonder if it helped or hindered. I've been meaning to write up my notes about that episode--one of the most interesting ones---maybe I'll do that now, while I'm on a roll.

Thanks for your good comment!

Margaret said...

"In its authentic form, it is sort of sad and sweet: what one might expect from bright children in the midst of an apocalyptic culture."

This is very interesting to me. It was - is - such a prevalent means of communication for my generation, that it was familiar enough for me to overlook it's cultural implications. This explanation makes a lot of sense.

I'm thinking of the difference between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.
Conan is big big big on the Voice of the Sock Monkey, and his fan base is almost entirely youngies. My brother (14) and I think he can be pretty funny. My parents think he's, (to use their coincidentally fitting words), "a monkey".

And yes! Thinking IS like peeling an orange!
(Although sometimes it's more like peeling a hard-boiled egg....)

Fresca said...

Thanks, Margaret, for pointing out Conan v. Leno!
(I didn't/don't watch either, but I know what you mean.)

I remember a time when the voice of the sock monkey was not heard in the land, so I hear it as a new song in an old land, and I think, "What is this?"

Yeah, you're right: thinking *is* often like peeling a hard-boiled egg---an egg that the shell sticks to, so you end up with an egg so gouged it looks like the surface of the moon (or a shelled field in Belgium).

Lee said...

That was a good choice on the DFW clip. He did hit some very good points there while at the same showing that diffidence and multi-consciousness or whatever we'd like to call it. I'm struck again by how we're so uncomfortable with talking about things that MATTER, while if it's something that DOESN'T matter, knock yourself out, because we're all onboard. What's the source of this profound unseriousness? An unseriousness that even affects Wallace, as he admits? Is it because we'd LIKE to carry strong voices and well-grounded views but don't want to sacrifice the time and don't possess the patience to develop them? Is it because, somehow, being a serious person is not valued anymore and we're just going with the flow? (It's better to be rich, famous, own stuff, look good, be liked.) Is it because the unserious people will mock you and look down on you or feel you're looking down on them from atop a pillar of elitism? Is it because there are so many self-righteous buffoons in politics and religion and everyday life, and subconsciously, perhaps, we've come to associate expressing large views or judgments with their arrogance? Is it because we simply don't have TIME because of work, socializing, family, the temptations (potentially now omnipresent) of entertainment? Or do we honestly not care? The irony, of course, is that by keeping in a state of uncertainty, or immaturity, or by hewing to convention, we're not really being modest or non-elitist or safe or wise: we're just allowing ourselves to be enslaved by the status quo while living unexamined lives. Which is precisely what "the system" wants. (And as William Blake said, I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's.)

Now, having said that, I don't mean to be critical of honest uncertainty or informed suspensions of judgment or what we might call epistemic modesty. Life, etc., really is very complicated, dogmatism is evil, and perhaps nothing is more precious than the power to say "I don't know." So much suffering has been caused by people who were certain they were right—though the masses who didn't know what to think and just sat by contributed as well to horrors. As ever, the world and lives and societies and minds need balance. As I said in an email earlier, let's dare to be right AND wrong!

I mean, assuming that makes any sense.....

bink said...

Just wanted the mention the sock monkey voice also shows up in art and music... and in the perversion of the actual, true, sock monkey itself (see link below).

Look at the sock monkey dresses clothes and art that slyly makes fun of the sock monkey-- even while forcing it to participate in apocalyptic culture (sock monkeys in blenders/meat grinders).

The sock monkey voice in music often shows up in anemic "alternative" bands like they play on "the current". An hour or two of wistful whining, smart posturing, and pretentious and self absorbed death fixations one hears listening to "the current" is enough to make one want to cut one's throat.

Fresca said...

LEE: DFW summed it up when he said that the interviewer's questions led to the realm of paradox, which is best treated in story.

As with so many artists, the best DFW had to offer is in his work. He's doesn't give good interview, that's for sure.
He might have done better if he'd taken the reins from the rather inept and overly worshipful interviewer and simply told some stories.

BINK: Brilliant!
The sock monkey "art" is a great find! As you say, it mocks and shocks the childhood toy... but I think there's that same tender heart peaking through that peaks through in literature.

And the wistful (yet grating!) voice that also appears in films about an over-educated boy wandering around America in his Volvo...

Pleez, people, get a drum set!

I'm sympathetic because I recognize some of myself in it (when I'm feeling wee and put-upon), but yeah, as I keep saying, a little goes a long way.

Clowncar said...

Great post. Insightful and nuanced. This is slippery pig to wrestle with.

I'd say the Voice of the Sock Monkey allows you to voice an opinion without committing to it. The more innocent form allows you to take ideas out for a test drive, unsure of whether you believe them or not. I said lots of stupid things while young in just this voice. It allows you to explore the world, view it through different prisms, take on new personas.

The more damaging form is, of course, that voice used to say whatever it takes to sell you something. Whether it's Vitamin Water or political views on Fox and MSNBC.

Fresca said...

Hi, Clowncar:
Thanks! It's a real greased pig running in Iowa mud all right. Still got grit in my teeth...

What you say is very helpful:
"I'd say the Voice of the Sock Monkey allows you to voice an opinion without committing to it."

I like that insight a lot.
It helps pinpoint my paradoxical feelings about the voice--I appreciate its charm but I weary of its deflectivity.

But yeah, I appreciate the "innocent form" of it as a way to "test drive" ideas and personas--something I've done a lot of over the years--and still do, to some (smaller) extent.

I don't follow politics much---does Fox et al. employ a charming voice?
The bits of it I overhear of it seems full of passionate certainty.

Michael Leddy said...

I have to come back and read through everything when there’s more time. But just this link:

DFW is everywhere about trying to speak and live without irony. A big AA influence.