Where Language and Technology Collide: A Review of “Mercury Retrograde” by Emily Segal

"Mercury Retrograde"

The world is built on language. In language. Through language. And ergo, obviously, the novel is built through language. Emily Segal has written a novel, Mercury Retrograde, that is about many things, but is mostly about language, and what happens to humans’ vocabulary when it is placed into a bubble and told to do something new. 

The novel begins, and endures, as a story of a woman (also named Emily Segal) accepting employment at a start-up called eXe. She, and the reader, are never really aware of what exactly the company does, or how money is made, or why investors are giving them more money to spend. eXe is explained multiple times, it’s goals and aims enumerated. The company is pitched as “the Talmud of the internet” to investors, and describe as: 

It had to do with creating a meta-layer of language all over the web, like a sandwich. There is all this code under the graphical user interface. And eXe would be the text all over it, on the other side.

The founders of the company had previously designed a Urban Dictionary-like website that signaled their interest in language and the uses it can have when isolated, especially in the online world. 

It wasn’t long before the eXe site became a collaboratively gamified system for gathering free expertise from a seething viral community of young ‘scholars’ who did the linguistic and cultural work, defining all the words and phrases. Certain scholars gathered points as other scholars verified their definitions, thus giving their definitions more sticking power in the visual hierarchy of the site – and it was this points-driven aspect that gave eXe the edge over Urban Dictionary.

Segal, a trend forecaster, and coiner of the term “Normcore” as part of her art collective, K-HOLE, focuses on the language that builds up around these kinds of start-up companies, the kind of language that is for people “inside” and part of the world they are constructing. The kind of language that has no basis in reality, only in the quasi-tech-Silicon Valley-office space world that has seemingly taken over America, and Segal’s novel. As is often the case with hyper-specific language, the meanings of words are reshaped and molded to best be utilized by those in position to define them anew. 

The company had a huge number of proprietary phrases, listed on a staff-only page of the web site, but probably the most significant part of the lingo was the innovative use of the word ‘meme’. Meme here did not (simply) mean a viral image or phrase from the Internet, nor did it have the Dawkinsian control of a cultural gene, although it was related to both. No, meme at eXe was what they called a M.A.W or ‘Major Abstract Word,’ kind of like ‘thing’ or, in Philadelphia slang, ‘jawn.’ It was a word that could stand in for almost anything.

The effect of this usage of language is that a clear community is created through the repetition and acceptance of the new terms of speaking. In a way this ties back to Segal’s normcore idea, which she defines quickly at one point as: “opting into being similar or the same as others.” The same can be true of language; it is a vehicle towards togetherness, to shared knowledge and customs but also to excluding others. On a micro-level, how language can be used is also emphasized. Segal, at one point meets two of her friends before a presentation she is to give, and finds herself focusing on the cadence and speed of their speech. 

They spoke very slowly, dragging their vowels. By contrast my speech was getting quicker, more and more pressured, and I felt my heart rate accelerating even though nothing exciting was happening.

Along the way abnormal psychic phenomena plague the main character, she deals with love interests and her art-friend Marcus, she travels and puts up a massive billboard on Canal Street for the company which gets her plaudits, she slowly breaks down under the stress of the company and the world that she has thrust herself into. The engaging and entertaining parts of this novel are not the descriptions of a start-up company that fails to deliver anything tangible; it is expected that those running these businesses, especially in fiction, are going to break down from the built-up façade of their company image at some point. (Who would want to read a novel about a successful Zuckerberg-type?) The exceptional parts of this novel have to do when the language around Segal refracts and distances itself away from common speech and becomes it’s own cultural artifact, intact in it’s own bubble and no where else, until it’s not. 

This is a binary world, you are either in or you are out. But the language can seep out, because language is a spectrum. No group of people or single person fully owns or inhabits one language; there is a spectrum of usage, even in the most enclosed formats. Language slips out, makes its way into the world and evolves as every other living thing does. But maybe Segal’s point is that language is as un-binary as it’s ever been. That it’s mayhem out there, and trying to categorize or contain any part of it might be futile. Maybe the answer is up in the stars somewhere. 

No longer a planetary astrological transit, Mercury Retrograde could be seen as the name for the zeitgeist, a curt summary for a global cultural situation in which information/knowledge-based economy (‘Mercury’) was in a state of perma-chaos (‘Retrograde’).


Mercury Retrograde
by Emily Segal
Deluge Books; 214 p.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.