Above: career newspaperman Ricardo Baca — music and film writer, entertainment editor, a twelve-year veteran of the Denver Post’s staff, began forging a new language when he was tapped by the paper to launch the Cannabist, an online column devoted to the evolving marijuana culture in Colorado.
In his landmark essay “Éléments de Sémiologie,” originally published in French in 1964 (and translated into English as Elements of Semiology in 1968), critical theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes wrote on the nature of language and writing using culinary parlance as an example of the equilibrium between “collective usage” and “idiolect.”
“The alimentary language is evolved only from a broadly collective usage, or from a purely individual speech,” he observed.
“One might consider cookery within one family, which is subject to a number of habits,” he proposed, “as an idiolect,” or a language intelligible only to one person or, in Barthes’ application of the terms, to an intimate family unit.
This notion echoed a theme addressed in a previous work, Writing Degree Zero, in which he criticized the socialist realist writers of his time for their reliance on literary cliché: writing is always a balance between “collective usage” and the purely intimate language of the individual, he wrote.
Above: the housemade pâté at Coohills in Denver, where Ricardo and I met for glass of wine earlier in the week.
These notions on the nature of language and writing were on my mind when I met with Ricardo Baca (above), who made history last year when he became the editor of the first mainstream column on the culture of marijuana: the Cannabist, published online by the Denver Post, the city’s “paper of record.” Since the launch, Ricardo has appeared on the Colbert Report, MSNBC, NPR, and has been featured in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, among other high-profile mastheads.
I was thrilled to meet and chat with Ricardo (to whom I was introduced by a mutual friend, my band’s music licensing agent): like the Futurists in 1913, like the revolutionaries of post-war France, Ricardo — in my view — is the blacksmith of an entirely new and unstoppable language, the new language of marijuana in mainstream culture.
The essays by Barthes, and in particular, the note about “alimentary speech,” came to mind when it occurred to me that Ricardo’s work has made him the mediator of a language in transition, the usher, as it were, of a lexicon in balance between the intimate and opaque and the collective and transparent.
After all, when my peers talk about marijuana, even to this day, it’s always in hushed, furtive tones. Like the vampires in the show True Blood, bourgeois “stoners” live among us but feign ignorance of marijuana culture (which is now evolving from “sub-culture” to mainstream culture) and pass as “straight.”
And of course, the analogy between the new wine writing and the new pot writing wasn’t lost on either of us. In some ways, the two fields are inversely convergent: where pot writing is coming “out of the closet” and being elevated to higher social status, wine writing has been wrested away from the elites in recent years and opened up to the bourgeois.
It was fascinating to hear Ricardo talk about how he and the paper’s editorial staff discussed sanctioned terminology for months before the column was first published.
And I was riveted by his research into the history of the post-war campaign to make marijuana illegal in this country. DuPont, he told me, lobbied heavily to outlaw its cultivation because it felt threatened by the hemp industry, which had expanded greatly during the Second World War.
He talked about his close reading of early anti-marijuana propaganda, its morality tale, and the arc of marijuana users’ disenfranchisement in our country.
But the most moving thing was hearing him talk about the hundreds of notes and inquiries that he has received this week in the wake of news that “anywhere from a few dozen to more than 10,000 people could be eligible to have their old marijuana convictions overturned as the result of a landmark Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that applied marijuana legalization retroactively.” (The story was reported on Monday.)
Just think, he said, of the countless people whose lives have been ruined by a marijuana conviction in the era of our nation’s aggressively disproportionate and dishuman drug laws. His column stands alone as a resource for citizens affected by our country’s evolving attitudes.
In the past, he noted, no marijuana-centered media platform was recognized by public institutions. This week, he said, after assigning the story to one of his writers, he called the governor’s office himself for comment (and they took his call). When he and I met, he had just come from a meeting with a state representative and a serious conversation on how the eyes of the world are on Colorado and its new model for the commercialization of pot.
I can’t conceal that I envy Ricardo and his work. How many writers today can lay claim to such a momentous undertaking: the creation of a new and brave language?
The movement for the legalization of marijuana in this country is evolving swiftly. Most believe that California will legalize recreational use in an upcoming election cycle and New York is now considering legalization of medicinal marijuana. And with these breakthroughs into mainstream culture and the fabric of society, the language of marijuana is also evolving at breakneck speed.
What a thrill for me to share a glass of wine with marijuana’s Wordsworth!
Chapeau bas, Ricardo. Your behemoth task is rivaled only by your unbridled talent and your warm heart. Thanks again for your time.