February 13, 2005

Sphere is here

In today's NYT, Frank Rich discusses the PR problems of Clint Eastwood's latest movie:

"What really makes these critics hate "Million Dollar Baby" is not its supposedly radical politics - which are nonexistent - but its lack of sentimentality. It is, indeed, no "Rocky," and in our America that departure from the norm is itself a form of cultural radicalism. Always a sentimental country, we're now living fulltime in the bathosphere. Our 24/7 news culture sees even a human disaster like the tsunami in Asia as a chance for inspirational uplift, for "incredible stories of lives saved in near-miraculous fashion," to quote NBC's Brian Williams." [emphasis added]

I spent a few seconds puzzling about our national exploration of the oceanic abyss, before I got it. Oh, he's coining a new word, based on bathos, sense 2a and 2b:

1a. An abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect. b. An anticlimax. 2a. Insincere or grossly sentimental pathos: “a richly textured man who . . . can be . . . sentimental to the brink of bathos” (Kenneth L. Woodward). b. Banality; triteness.

The etymology is Greek bâthus "deep, thick, strong, violent, copious, abundant", from which we also get bathysphere:

A spherical deep-diving chamber in which persons are lowered by a cable to study the oceans and deep-sea life.

Hence my confusion.

The -sphere (or -osphere) part is a hot morpheme these days, with blogosphere one of the spreading recent coinages. The OED explains that -sphere is a suffix "[u]sed in names of more or less spherical structures or regions forming part of or associated with the earth (or any celestial object)", giving the examples barysphere, biosphere, ionosphere, magnetosphere. Others include hydrosphere, lithosphere, noosphere.

In case you've forgotten, or never knew, there is apparently some controversy about the invention of the term blogosphere, with Brad Graham (1999) and William Quick (2001) the claimants.

As far as bathosphere is concerned, Frank Rich is late to the party: there's already bathosphere.org (an artists' website), and bathosphere.com ("e-commerce solutions", featuring a picture of the inside of a bathysphere...), and a picture album from 2003 entitled "!!Hot Bathosphere Action!!" (safe for work, but not really worth linking: the subtitle is "Some funny, embarassing, and slightly odd pictures of your friendly neighborhood otaku").

I suspect that credit for the contemporary exploration of this morpheme's possibilities (the spherosphere?) belongs to old Teilhard de Chardin and his concept of the successive evolution of lithosphere, biosphere and noosphere.

Checking the spherosphere via Google, I find that another blogger commented on Frank Rich's use of bathosphere, back last Thursday 2/10/2005. Which is strange, since Rich's column is dated 2/13/2005. Cue Twilight Zone theme. Could this be transnoospheric blogleakage from a slightly desynchronized parallel blogiverse? Resulting from quantum entanglement in Cisco's new Bose-Einstein switches? This may be a premise of Pynchon's next novel, but in this universe, it's just that you can't trust cyberdatelines.

[Update: several people have written in to observe that Frank Rich's column, printed on in the Sunday edition and datelined accordingly, normally goes online on the previous Thursday. That's what I meant about cyberdatelines and all. And the parallel blogiverse business was a joke... ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 13, 2005 08:19 AM