Adjectives as code

by Rob Horning

22 August 2005

 

In the science of real estate listings—I think I read this in Freakonomics—certain words communicate key sales information to other real estate agents in code while suggesting something totally different to prospective home buyers. This quaint form of collusion is used to help real estate agents rig the game against buyers while maximizing their own commissions. Like Bush’s old stump trick of talking in coded phrases to his evangelical base while disguising his intentions from the general public, it’s a good example of the way language allows multiple meanings to coexist in any single instance of speech. And it also points to different ways of hearing or reading: real estate agents scan listing for the key words to decode, buyers take the language at face value and puzzle over the peculiar specificity and recurrance of certain arbitrary seeming adjectives.

You can see something similar at work in music reviews; there often purports to be an argument at the sentence level, some semi-coherent point about the construction of the music or the intentions of the artist or something, but littered in among those points are adjectives—“angular,” “dark,” “sunny,” “hooky,” which function independent of the argument and serve to cue certain subsets of readers to the genres involved. Some genre fans—if genre music can be likened to something like romance novels—aren’t especially interested in arguments about their chosen subject, or rather they have specialized criteria that can be evoked by buzzwords. Genre fans don’t need to be convinced that something in the genre is worth hearing; they often have an almost professional interest in hearing whatever the genre produces, well-reviewed or not. When the code adjectives seem to have nothing to do with the logic of the argument, the different audiences reading are both likely to be disappointed.

It may be that adjectives in all criticism generally function this way, as a shorthand for illogical criteria that defy labored explanation. The adjectives are subverting the pretense of logic and objectivity (which are discarded by genre devotees, who are partisans beyond logic) even as they seem to serve it by providing the illusion of specific detail. Critical adjectives pretend to specify while they are in the process of generalizing and categorizing, exploding the very notion of specificity in favor of assigning everything a genre.

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