Friday, April 28, 2006

In Defence of the World "Sucks"

Lee Siegel's "Culture" blog at The New Republic is kind of a train wreck. (That publication's pop-culture coverage has sunk a long way since the days of Manny Farber.) It seems like Siegel mostly spends his time writing incomprehensible rants about how terrible pop culture is these days and how nobody is producing the kind of challenging, wonderful culture he wants and how the only person who really knows how bad things are is Lee Siegel. I picture him as a guy who keeps a gun by his bed in case the marauding hordes arrive to steal his Dwight MacDonald books.

However, his new post, "Against 'Sucks,'" reaches a new height of unintentional hilarity; it's a jeremiad against those vulgar, vulgar Internet people that may even be dumber than that Wall Street Journal one I linked to the other day. (And when you're dumber than the Wall Street Journal editorial page, that's really saying something.) Siegel is angry, really really angry, that every time he reads a big bad blog he encounters some punk kid using the word "sucks." Now, who invented that word? Could it be... Satan?

I see it used in online magazines with rising frequency. It's all over the Internet. It's the pejorative verb of the age. Let's be blunt about the word's origins: It's short for "sucks cock." (Forgive me. The situation requires it, and the context allows it.) So when some case of stunted development writes in to his favorite blog in order to register a thoughtful dissent from another visitor--e.g. "Thucydides862 sucks!"--what he's really saying is that Thucydides862 "sucks cock." Considering how many times "sucks" is used in print, in conversation, and online now, the entire country is evoking the act of fellatio on a continuous basis.

And he wants you to know that the use of the word "sucks" is a deep manifestation of contempt for that person, because, when it comes to oral sex, the suck-er is (so Siegel seems to have heard) distinctly inferior to the suck-ee. Few have summed up the oral sex caste system as well as our Lee, and he will tell us What It All Means:

So saying someone or something "sucks" is not just an expression of contempt. It's a verdict on that person or thing as being, literally, beneath contempt. It's a wish not so much to rise above others as to subordinate them, an angry anti-democratic retort to the nettleseome tides of democratization. After all, when someone "sucks," they can't talk back. Isn't that the bully's and the tyrant's timeless dream, to move among people who can't talk back? It's certainly the dream of a child's fragile ego. It could be that we are surrounded by adults who have the fragile egos of children. And I know exactly what those unwitting people would say about that situation.

It takes a special talent to find a threat to democracy in the fact that my generation grew up watching too much "Beavis and Butt-head."

I think a post like that speaks to a failure to understand how the widespread use of a term can develop it beyond its original meaning. Yes, "sucks" means what Siegel says it means. But it's taken on a whole host of other connotations, to the point that when you say something "sucks," it means something different from just saying it's "bad." The advantage of "sucks" is precisely that it seems to have a slightly obscene edge to it -- so that when you apply the term to a work of popular culture, you're not merely criticizing it but insulting it and dismissing it as a waste of your time. "Boy, that movie was really bad!" is a critical judgement; "Boy, that movie sucked!" is a statement that it wasn't even worth the effort of finding specific terms to criticize it with. And of course, there's just the sonic quality of it; the "k" sound is just funny, as any comedian will tell you. Plus you can play around with the way you use the term; somebody -- I think it was Joe Queenan -- came up with the noun "suckitude" to describe the degree to which something does or does not suck.

I'll leave the final word to Louann Van Houten from "The Simpsons":

"Well, Marge, the other day Milhouse told me my Meatloaf 'sucks!' He must have gotten that from your little boy, because they certainly don't say that on TV."


npetrikov said...

Mr. Siegel has an imperfect grasp of lingual dynamics in two senses. When it comes to relative power, is a fellatist or cunnilinctor necessarily subordinate to the recipient of his attentions? And I wonder whether Mr. Siegel recognizes a non-sexual sense for, say, "jazz," "boogie-woogie," "in like Flynn," or "get the shaft." If so, he's being a bit inconsistent when it comes to "suck."

Anonymous said...

Funny you should end your post with that quote.

You can call me a prude, but there was a time when the word "suck" was not on TV. I remember it well, because my 8 year old boy was watching the ABC Friday night shows back in the late 80s. You know those _supposedly_ family shows for that age group.

During a commercial break ABC put on an ad for the following _supposedly_ family show. That ad showed a clip where some boy told his mother her cooking "sucked". Appearantly, ABC figured this was not only funny.

Me? My reaction was to wonder who exactly decided that the word "suck" was suddenly a word the whole family can use? Certainly not _this_ parent....

My point to you? While the word "suck" is now part of everyone's vocabulary in everyday life... and has come to mean things that have absolutely no sexual leaning... there once WAS a time where this wasn't the case. Annd guess what? To me, this is yet another case of TV making it harder for a parent to raise their kids.

Remember, the moment I was talking about was an ad for a show who's target audience are 8 year olds.

Flame on, sir.


Loren said...

How could you choose the Luann quote over this one?

Bart: These uniforms suck.
Marge: Bart, where did you pick up words like that?
Homer: Yeah, Moe, that team sure did suck last night. They just plain sucked! I've seen teams suck before, but they were the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked!
Marge: HOMER!
Homer: Oh, I gotta go. My damn weiner kids are listening.

Rob Bates said...

All right, I agree Lee Siegel is pretty horrible cultural commentator, or whatever he calls himself, but it is kind of telling that another big word people use for something being bad is ... "blows."

Anonymous said...

Rob, good point.

Loren, consider one thing - it seems you believe TV decides what is proper for everyone - not the viewers. If viewers really have any say - beyond the almighty ratings and ad $$$ - than where exactly is this part of the machine?

Again, my only point is that - in a post "in defense" of the word "suck"... it ends by using a quote from a TV show - aired in "family hour" no less - that chose to actually force it down the viewers in the interests of....

Making a point? Or ratings?


Loren said...

Loren, consider one thing - it seems you believe TV decides what is proper for everyone - not the viewers.

Actually, no. I don't like the word, refrain from using it, and honestly, I'd prefer that it got a lot less use during the 'family hour.'

But that doesn't change the fact that I just find the Simpsons quote really, really funny.

Kenny said...

Here's the thing: When you grow up saying "sucks" (and by the way, I learned it from other kids, not TV, so stop blaming TV for everything, unless your home-schooled angels have never interacted with a peer) you don't realize the connotation until a grown-up freaks out about it.

Also, here's a more humorous and sensible take on the use of the word: is unclear why English speakers, particularly men, would want to associate such negative connotations to the act of fellatio... My humble suggestion: Why not replace the word "sucks" with another verb that actually signifies bad, or unpleasant activities? Instead of continually sending the message to girls that sucking is bad, opt for a different form of negative verbal reinforcement.