Like-talkers just do not get it

Art Saltzman - Professor of English and Philosophy

Art Saltzman – Professor of English and Philosophy

Art Saltzman

It is morning at Missouri Southern, and the halls are rife with like-talkers. A tic and an infix, a hiccup and a flinch, “like” pervades so many conversations that you’d think the campus was the site of a beatnik convention.

Like-talkers inhabit a likelihood, a state of almostness more tentative than any Arkansas.

“Are you, like, going home this weekend?” “He was, like, all ‘I’m really sorry,’ and I was, like, ‘Right, just like last time.'” “I, like, him, but I don’t, like, him.”

Like-talkers obsessively test the water, treating each statement not like a staked-out claim but like a bowler’s shadow frame, the implication being that this effort doesn’t really count. Their discussions are stilted, halting, as if the participants were all practicing lessons from foreign language tapes – those rigged interchanges in which everyone is enormously interested in how many brothers and sisters you have and whether or not you want to go to the cinema. As awkward as golfers caught trying to improve their lies, like-talkers conduct a perpetual verbal reconnaissance, stepping gingerly around the treacheries words might hide, tiptoeing past conviction like a strange dog.

You’d think the very air was pot holed, given the stammered way they move from hedge to hedge. But maybe “Vaselined” is more like it because of how “like” gentles any declaration, softens salience, bundles interruption with apology, licks the issue smooth. It is the pre-emptive alibi, which says, “I only meant to say something somewhat comparable to what I said, and even that dilution is something I’d gladly rescind rather than risk offense.” “Like” is the swaddled dialect of political campaigns, dinner guest etiquette, and extended care facilities.

Don’t confuse like-talk with the venturesome business of metaphor. Although Wallace Stevens refers to poetry’s “intricate evasions of as,” and a fresh crop of “liking” rises from each new edition of the Norton Anthology, that brand of association is intrepid, in that it widens and enhances the lexical play field. And perhaps literature will be the means by which like-talkers may be coaxed out of their stifling caution, so that what sputters out in class may yet find full-throated expression. Otherwise, confined to like-talk, they will be relegated to like-analysis, like-engagement, like-learning-surrogates which, like polyurethane lovers, are dependable enough but seldom inspire.

True, like-talkers may like being liked well enough and may in fact pass inoffensively and unchecked through this university like a bit of gristle through a bowel, but will they shape authentic fascination or forge belief from such relentlessly bated breath? Not likely.