This article by John Palmer on “Scissor Labels” got me thinking.
A scissor label is a word or phrase that, for the first time, establishes a widely embraced name for a trend without simultaneously establishing a canonical definition. It is a vague term masquerading as a specific one, where the missing definition is still up for grabs. Scissor labels aren’t coined or engineered, nor formally initiated by an institution. Rather, they’re discovered by accident, suddenly adopted en masse amidst a trend that’s already in motion.
Once a scissor label is established, controlling its definition means controlling whatever the trend represents. A scissor label therefore represents the battleground for a power struggle. By nature, scissor labels have a peculiar divisive power, building energy and momentum around a trend while simultaneously bringing about controversy and debate.
Plenty more scissor labels from the past come to mind once the concept is familiar. In his interview with Charlie Rose (6:30), David Foster Wallace describes the popularity of David Lynch in the grad school environment he was part of, and dives into what is and isn’t “Lynchian.” In his article for Premiere on the subject, he writes: “…like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively-i.e., we know it when we see it.”
In their own time, words like “normcore,” “hipster,” and “vaporwave” were scissor labels as well. When I think of all these terms, I remember the arguments that happened around them, but I don’t remember any of them being particularly edifying. The details have faded in my memory, and the only impression I have is that we debated these terms for no reason other than that the term was trendy, and some cultural cache was at stake.
It reminds me very much of what happened to “alt-lit” and “bizarro” (although the latter still exists in its own way). The theory presented here by scissor labels is that while the label might help the genre to solidify itself in one way, it also spells the doom for that movement. It is the unfortunate price to pay for branding something: it will die, and soon. Or, in some rare cases, it will get lindy.
I remember the debates over what alt-lit was and wasn’t. The way I remember thinking of it back then was that “alt-lit” was more of a description of a certain type of person than genre. They were usually glassy-eyed sex pests who were good at both being on the internet and speaking in monotone, which people found charming in the waiting room of the early to mid ’10s.
Bizarro, of course, has much more positive connotations for me, because that was my preferred group of weirdos. They tended toward the sincere. When I think of that genre I think of bad (but awesome) covers, typos, and performances with live fish, fake blood, and heart. I think of homemade beer and cigars in shacks.
Again, though, it seems as soon as the scissor label is applied, the end is nigh. Bizarro started fragmenting over, surprise, the definition of what was and wasn’t Bizarro, and the offshoot presses kept up this embarrassing “rebel” status against an “establishment”…but anyway.
Is it worth it to put a name on something? We all know that things begin to die as soon as you write them down.
Worth thinking about.