Saturday, February 07, 2009

How Ned Yost and Axl Rose Fight Postmodernism

Minutes after the Milwaukee Brewers disappointing 2006 season came to an end, then-manager Ned Yost said the following: "It is what it is. Why it is, I don't know." From that moment until Yost's firing with weeks remaining in the 2008 season, he repeated this phrase or a variation often enough that fans began to notice. A few examples from late last year:

7-27-08: "Have you ever seen anybody try to turn a pig into a horse? It is what it is."

8-4-08: (speaking of Mike Cameron): "He saves us a ton of runs out there. It is what it is."

9-5-08: "I don't like it. I don't think anybody likes it, but it is what it is."

But Yost wasn't the only one in a Brewer uniform to use this phrase. In 2007 when Rickie Weeks was asked about losing his starting job he said, "It is what it is." (He would use the same phrase when discussing his wrist injury in spring training the next year). One year later, when Bill Hall was asked about losing his starting job he said, "It is what it is." When a bad scoring decision cost CC Sabathia a no-hitter in September of 2008, what was his response? You guessed it: "It is what it is."

If this were a phenomenon isolated in the sports world, I wouldn't think much of it. After all, just last week I wrote about the banality of journalist/athlete exchanges, and it is obvious that athletes are going to spout cliches when called upon to answer questions, and this particular cliche seems like a deft way to avoid making any definitive or self-incriminating statements (and therefore a safe answer when asked about a potentially inflammatory topic, a context most of the above quotations would fall under).

But that doesn't explain why Axl Rose would use the phrase. Good ol' Axl actually had a longer streak of not speaking to the media than not putting out an album. And though Dr. Pepper didn't give everyone a free soda, Axl finally broke the former streak this week, in a lengthy e-mail interview with He pulled no punches in a diatribe against his record company, and had no problem speaking on behalf of his bandmates: "I can say how the band feels, and that is that to a man they hate the record company other than Universal International with a passion...they don't go around [complaining] about things all the time and they don't let it get in the way of whatever they're supposed to do here, but it is what it is."

And about the same time Axl Rose was typing this into this computer, DC Comics was releasing Superman #684, in which a superhero named The Guardian assumes command of the Science Police (long story). In his speech to assembled law enforcement agents, the Guardian says "You don't have to like it. You don't have to like me. But this is what it is."

Three quite different contexts: verbal interviews with athletes, an e-mail of a rock star, and a scripted statement of a fictional character. But when I see any kind of confluence among my three areas of geekdom: sports, music, and comic books, I know something is up. This sent me to google, where I was somewhat disappointed to realize that I had not stumbled upon this phenomenon myself, that William Safire had analyzed it back in 2006. About a year ago, addressed the trend. What these two sources seem to agree upon is that the phrase is used as an abdication of responsibility, a way to avoid accountability.

I certainly don't disagree with this assessment, but I don't think that is all that this is. Since the practice of evasiveness is centuries old, why has this phrase only become prominent in the last decade? I would argue that this phrase increases in frequency in an inverse relationship to Sigmund Freud's influence on culture.

One of Freud's most famous quotations (whether he actually said it or not) is "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." But what made that phrase noteworthy is its contradiction to the general tenor of his work, that there is a hidden meaning in everyday actions and words. This thread was picked up a few decades later by French post structuralists, who argued that nothing just "is," that everything is connected in an infinite chain of "signifiers," that everything is "overdetermined," in short that one can never "read too much" into anything because there is always more meaning to be mined. But the flip side of this is that if something means everything, and has no one "real" meaning, it actually means nothing.

However, as that philosophy became dominant, it invited resistance, and today Freud is more likely to be venerated by English majors than Psych majors. And though I would doubt that the likes of Ned Yost and Axl Rose are making a concerted effort to drive more nails into Sigmund Freud's coffin, I see their phraseology as part of an unconscious cultural attempt to bury him. And if Freud were alive today, he'd probably appreciate the irony in this. And if he were asked to assess the situation in five words, I can only guess at what he might say.


Blogger zen ironman said...

I would just like to add that the usage that I employ (as I use this phrase fairly often) is more along the lines of the serenity prayer...accepting what you can't change and knowing it.

"It is what it is" is, to me, a way to get past a mental/emotional block caused by worrying about something that cannot be changed. (i.e.: It's raining, so no biking today. It is what it is. What else can we do?)

11:05 AM  
Blogger PurrPrints said...

Hey--just wanted to let you know that i just left a comment on a much older post of yours ("the most boring post ever") when it dawned on me that you might not still check the comments on posts that were literally years old, so i figured I should leave one here to be safe :)

It's basically a question about whether you did any further research, or got published, on the reading aloud practice--I'm putting together a diss. on the topic now, and it seems like no-one is discussing it (still).

8:59 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Hey PurrPrints, I sent you a message through your feedback form on your website. Hopefully it got through okay. And yeah, I never would have found your previous comment!

1:13 PM  

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