Rizz Riff: The Linguistic Beat That Charmed 2023

In the News

Oceanit’s Chief Philosophy Officer and Head of AI, Dr. Jeffrey Watumull

“Rizz” was crowned as Oxford University’s Word of the Year for 2023, an award voted on by many thousands worldwide, including language experts. The Oxford University Press defines “rizz” as a colloquial term encapsulating style, charm, or attractiveness, particularly in attracting a romantic or sexual partner.

It’s not surprising if some are unfamiliar with “rizz” as it, along with other WOTY contenders like “situationship” and “Swiftie,” is quite recent addition to the collective vocabulary, most frequently used by Gen Z and younger generations.

Below, Dr. Jeffrey Watumull, Oceanit’s Chief Philosophy Officer and head of AI, dives deeper into the charm of “rizz”, exploring its rise as a cultural phenomenon and its broader implications. From his perspective as a linguist and philosopher, Dr. Watumull examines “rizz” in the context of human-generated art and expression, highlighting how it reflects the complexities of human behavior in contrast to AI.

“Merriam-Webster announced that one of the site’s most looked-up words of 2023 was rizz, which is slang for charisma. But if you have to look it up, b***h, you ain’t got it.”

-Saturday Night Live

And if you’ve got it, you know it.

You know, implicitly if not explicitly, that it connotes not simply charisma but “romantic appeal or charm”, as in I have limited rizz (or when used as a verb, “to charm or seduce”, as in Agent 007 rizzed up Dr. Swann). The word itself is charming, evidently having seduced the world: “This year’s choice reflects the way social media has increased the pace of language change exponentially. Plus, [as the president of Oxford Languages said of Oxford’s Word of the Year], the word simply has … rizz. ‘One of the reasons it’s moving from being a niche social media phrase into the mainstream is, it’s just fun to say,’ he said. ‘When it comes off your tongue, there’s a little bit of joy that comes with it.’”

Rizz, qua species of knowledge, is not discursive: it is not something acquired studiously and expressed intellectually. This knowledge, be it innate and/or affected, but always cultivated, is embodied and enunciated; it is, therefore, something enacted. To enact it successfully is to know it, to feel it at some level. (“From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type” (Oscar Wilde).) Stated syllogistically: If you’ve got rizz, then you know it; If you know it, then you enact it; Ergo, rizz is an enacted characteristic.

Of course, we all are actors playing characters, for “All the world’s a stage”; and, of course, acting is pretending; and therefore, we all are pretenders, “players” as the Bard said. One of the roles played is the rizzer, “the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. But, counterintuitively, this does not make us inauthentic. Au contraire. Such pretense is not at all ignoble: it is not only inevitable, it is surpassing noble. A kind of pretense is the precondition for actualization; we conjecture a counterfactual of who we could be—who we think we ought to be—and then, with courage, rehearse it into reality. (The craft of the actor—the human—is to become a palimpsest of all the roles they have ever played, selecting their virtues, eliminating their vices.) It is what the Romantic—and passionately rizzful—poet John Keats described as “soul-making”: By acting in/interacting-with the world, our innate “intelligence”, which can “feel […] in a thousand diverse ways”, is made into a “soul”, an identity—a singularity of authenticity.

Authenticity—one of Merriam-Webster’s words of the year: “Authentic saw a substantial increase in 2023, driven by stories and conversations about AI, celebrity culture, identity, and social media[…]. Celebrities”, “especially Taylor Swift”, “all made headlines in 2023 with statements about seeking their ‘authentic voice’ and ‘authentic self.’”. Here let us make a lovely, Swiftie-like bridge from authenticity to rizz, in the key of style:

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye
And I got that red lip classic thing that you like

And when we go crashing down, we come back every time
’Cause we never go out of style
We never go out of style

James Dean did indeed have rizz. Taylor Swift is, super inter alia, so rizzy to so many that she earned antemortem secular canonization as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year: “While her popularity has grown across the decades, this is the year that Swift[…] achieved a kind of nuclear fusion: shooting art and commerce together to release an energy of historic force”. The metaphor is surely purposely reverberative of the nuclear pink elephant in the room and one of the most powerful totems not merely of 2023 but of modern art: Barbenheimer, which, breaking the fourth wall here, would have been my pick for word (phenomenon/noumenon) of the year, for it effected a kind of phase change in cinema—and possibly even metaphysics.

Barbenheimer, like Swift’s Eras Tour, was an Event. A true Event takes place in a metaphysically different kind of time from our ordinary, chronological time (“the seven ages of man” kind of time). Evental time—Kairos, discussed by philosophers from Plato to Augustine to Martell—is when an Event erupts out of original, primordial time (i.e., pure, empty, atemporal time—Aeon—which itself projects as past and future from the infinitesimal present) to shape a moment that transcends the linear path of chronological time, the chaos of chthonic time (described by Hesiod as the time of gods and monsters, continuous creations of new beginnings), and the fatalism of cosmic time. Evental time forms a chaosmos (to put it in Joycean terms). Evental time is a trinity (as Oppenheimer would discover): past, present, and future “all at one”, fused into a single event of meaning. From Trinity to Eras to Barbenheimer, eventually, time underwrites the world as aesthetic.  

Taylor Swift, Oppenheimer, and Barbie further overlap in the Kubrickian magisterium. Greta Gerwig opens Barbie with a brilliant exaptation of the opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, substituting the eponymous doll for the latter’s alien monolith. The analogy is frighteningly apposite, for both are infinitely interpretable objects. (Swift is an infinitely interpretable subject, constantly creating herself.) One interpretation, to wit, mine, construes the monolith as the embodied singularity of all art, the ur-artwork if you will. Entering it like a cinema screen (rotated ninety degrees) takes us to “Beyond the Infinite”. Is that not what one does in playing with a toy? (Oppenheimer’s bomb—referred to as the “gadget”—is the Monolith, and also a Promethean toy; it is a work of art, analogous to the film itself, the horrifying (meta) irony being that, unlike the film, the creativity necessary to construct it was infinitesimally inversely proportional to the destruction it wrought.) The brilliance of Barbie is that the object becomes a subject when Barbie commences to play with her own identity in a mirrored parallel to how others have played with her in making their own identities; “I/thou” relationships are created in this conversational process. Barbie’s heroic journey through the looking glass is that of authentic soul-making, answering for herself what she was made for. Along the way, she and her comrade Barbies repel horrifyingly hilariously toxic rizz from the Kens and declare independence for their identities, which ironically, if implicitly, is a triumph not only for the women but equally for the men (i.e., it is a relief to realize that “being a man” does not mean maximizing rizz), thereby defying binary essentialism entirely.    

The metaphysical gestalt in Barbie from object to subject is also the key to deciphering the enigma of 2001’s monolith and, by extension, all art—and vice versa, understanding all subjects (e.g., persons) as works of art. The fission and fusion of subject and subjectivity and object and objectivity are the framing devices of Oppenheimer. (It is telling that Christopher Nolan made the exceedingly unusual yet ingenious move to write the screenplay in the first person.) We see the subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, in color, alive; the object, the world, in black and white, doomed. “I am become Death,” Oppy susurrates, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, “the Destroyer of Worlds.” In the climactic explosion of the film (which is the courtroom, not Trinity), his authenticity collapses like a dark star, his identity splits like the atom—his Promethean soul condemned to eternal torment. Oppenheimer is thus the Melpomene to the Thalia of Barbie (whose identity radiates authenticity like a light star at the end of her film). The collision of such Tragedy and Comedy in one cultural moment is why Barbenheimer was ontologically comparable in its sublimity to a force of nature.

Indeed, the sublime was the aesthetic concept the philosopher Immanuel Kant used to describe the beautiful mysterium tremendum et fascinans of nature, which—like the protagonists of Barbie and Oppenheimer—draws into a terrible and fascinating distinction that of object and subject:

“In the experience of the sublime, Kant [argued that] we are presented with an intimation of our own worth, as creatures who are both conscious of the vastness of nature, and also able to affirm ourselves against it. Somehow, in the very awe that we experience before the power of the natural world, we sense our own ability as free beings to measure up to it and to affirm our obedience to the moral law, which no natural force could ever vanquish or set aside” (Roger Scruton).

Thus, in the encounter with the sublime—the ultimate object—we affirm ourselves as the ultimate authentic subjects.

Suppose the sublime is the phenomenology of apprehending nature and affirming our authentic subjectivity in relation to it. In that case, the Ecstatic, as Spinoza conceived it, is almost the inverse: it is the phenomenology of objectifying and thereby transcending our immanent subjectivities—attained by viewing ourselves sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”). This may sound esoteric, and it can be (e.g., the practice and experience of mathematicians, psychonauts, magicians, philosophers, inter alios), but it is the quintessence of great art. For instance, a director, by enframing—objectifying—their characters (which may or may not be human) on/in film, a director (e.g., Kubrick, Nolan, Gerwig) simultaneously singularizes and universalizes the sublimity—the living Form—in all things, from the microcosm to the macrocosm (or should we say from the microchaosmos to the macrochaosmos); this is Plato’s idea of the anima mundi (“world soul”), later expressed as credo of Hermeticism:

Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est sicut quod est superius.

That which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like that which is above.

In great art, we see the infinite in the finite; it is shooting out far beyond ourselves whilst simultaneously folding in upon ourselves and, in so doing, experiencing the Ecstatic.

Ecstasy may, therefore, be dispositive of correct aesthetic judgment. Ecstasy may evidence the validity of aesthetic realism. Beauty, in other words, may not be a matter of taste, as commonly assumed (by non-Platonists). It may be as objective—as independent of our subjective opinions—as Truth. (To Truth and Beauty we Platonists would alloy the Good.) The fact that aesthetic judgments are based on personal (internal) perceptions instead of objective (external) data does not invalidate aesthetic realism. Consider mathematical realism, the validity of which is equally based on a kind of perception (that of nous—the eye of the mind—to the ancient Greeks), limned here by one of the greatest mathematicians in history:

“[D]espite their remoteness from sense experience, we do have something like a perception also of the objects of set theory, as is seen from the fact that the axioms force themselves upon us as being true. I don’t see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of perception, i.e., in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception” (Kurt Gödel).

By analogy, we perceive the reality of beauty in great art. And what is its valence in us? What is it we feel?

“for me, the answer comes with the one word: Ecstasy. If ecstasy be present, then I say there is fine literature; if it be absent, then, in spite of all the cleverness, all the talents, all the workmanship and observation, and dexterity you may show me, then, I think, we have a product (possibly a very interesting one), which is not fine literature. Of course, you will allow me to contradict myself, or rather, to amplify myself, before we begin to discuss the matter fully. I said my answer was the word ecstasy; I still say so, but I may remark that I have chosen this word as the representative of many. Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case, one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case, there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness that justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning. I claim, then, that here we have the touchstone which will infallibly separate the higher from the lower in literature, which will range the innumerable multitude of books in two great divisions, which can be applied with equal justice to a Greek drama, an eighteenth-century novelist, and a modern poet, to an epic in twelve books, and to a lyric in twelve lines” (Arthur Machen).

This touchstone can function now and, I submit (for reasons proffered elsewhere, elsewhen), forevermore to separate art (authenticity) from artifice (inauthenticity): the former attainable only by humans; the latter the only “content” that artificial intelligence—qua large language models (e.g., ChatGPT)—can generate.

ChatGPT was the most Wikipediaed entry of 2023. The chatbot’s artistic inauthenticity—its failure to induce Ecstasy—was brilliantly demonstrated in one of modern culture’s finest artworks: South Park. In the “Deep Learning” episode, Stan, wanting in rizz and wanting it to rizz up his bonny lass, Wendy, secretly begins to use ChatGPT, texting sweet nothings to his desideratum. As if this were not insidious enough, Stan discovers an unexpected “benefit” of the technology: the inauthenticity of sustaining the situationship (another contender for Word of the Year) whilst not needing to actual devote any thought, feeling, and time into it. (Such “efficiency” is particularly pernicious when invoked to justify “sharpen[ing] the knife blade of capitalism” (Ted Chiang).) The episode ends with the ridiculously recursive resolution of Stan writing his way out of the disaster with the assistance of ChatGPT. But the ultimate irony is that—with almost Inception-level meta-ness—South Park creator Trey Parker and ChatGPT are credited as having “collaborated” in writing the episode.

Now, you may be asking, dear reader, have I, your dear author, used ChatGPT to assist me with this squib? Perish the thought! As I have argued elsewhere, elsewhen, I consider large language models—and “generative AI” generally—to be not merely incompetent in themselves but positively immoral for society to use. If you need ChatGPT to generate your rizz, b***h, you still in goblin mode.