I am hard-of-hearing, so I watch television with captions. Television captions are a good way to observe – in slow motion, as it were – the dissolution of the culture. (I’m talking about captions of recorded programs, in which the caption writer has had the leisure to rewind and think again. Real time captioning must be almost as difficult and nerve-wracking as translating at the U. N.) The writers of the television shows and the caption writers are probably from the same liberal arts-educated, literary-oriented milieu, but the caption writers, just starting out in “media,” are in their 20’s and early 30’s, while the script writers are a decade or more older. When a caption writer misses a cultural reference, one can assume that one is witnessing the extinction of an idea.
I should have been keeping a record of these script-to-caption disconnects – I will try to from now on. They are not all that frequent, but frequent enough to churn up the disconsolateness that arises from realizing that the world as I knew it (whether it’s a matter of its butterflies or its ideas) is vanishing.
I remember the first one I noticed. I was watching a crappy mystery movie – which I did not finish – set in Spain. In one scene, one of the characters, commenting on a particular edifice, used the word “Gaudi” two or three times. (He was making a comparison; the building was not a Gaudi.) In each case, the caption writer – who otherwise was doing just fine transcribing the dialogue into text – wrote “[unintelligible].”
It wasn’t exactly “Goodbye Gaudi.” As long as tourists go to Barcelona, Gaudi as an architect will live on. It was “Goodbye Gaudi-as-an-idea.” In my generation and in the generation of whoever wrote that awful movie, one could look at a building, or a rock formation or a heap of snow for that matter, and say “That looks like a Gaudi.” In the caption writer’s generation – even if he or she has been to Barcelona -- the idea of Gaudi as a style, an aesthetic, a particular architectural eccentricity, does not exist.
Last night I was watching Damages. (I won’t get into a critique of the show; suffice it to say that its interest lies in the skill with which, often quite comically, every character and every action is encrusted with layer upon layer of deviousness.) (“Encrusted?” Thinking about Gaudi, I guess.) At one point someone referred to a Chippendale desk. The caption read “Chip and Dale desk.”
The caption writer might have been forgiven for misunderstanding “Chippendale” for “Chip and Dale” (cartoon chipmunks, yes?) if the word had not been used in the context of furniture. If the line had been, “As a lawyer, he’s like a Chippendale,” I could see a caption writer brought up in thrall to television making that mistake. But the idea of a Chippendale desk is, or was until recently, an iconic idea.
I wouldn’t know a Chippendale desk if I bumped my shin on one, but I do know that a Chippendale desk is a pricey, museum-worthy antique that appeals to the patrician class; I know what the idea of a Chippendale is. As, obviously do the writers of Damages. And as, just as obviously, the caption writer does not.
That is a cultural extinction of some magnitude.