Monday, September 8, 2008

Words, Words, Words, Words, Words II

If confusion is the sign of the times, I see at the root of this confusion a rupture between things and words, between things and the ideas and signs that are their representation.

The quotation above is from Theater and Its Double, by Antonin Artaud. To a devoted fan of The Daily Show, I sympathize with that statement. We watch the political cycle today, and it feels as though words have become meaningless. Take, for instance, "time line." The Bush Administration, unhappy with the concept of a "time line," branded it as "cutting and running," saying that an "arbitrary time lines" would shackle them from responding to conditions on the ground, and would embolden the terrorists.

Then Obama laid out his 16 month time line, and very shortly afterward, the Prime Minister of Iraq echoed it. And the Bush Administration said that they would begin drawing down troops, to end in about sixteen months.

Was this a time line? No, it was a "time horizon."

To anyone with an understanding of the accepted meaning of words, that's clearly some jiggery-pokery. Both of them imply the same thing. But the point is that the phrase "time line" has become an ideological symbol, rather than a linguistic symbol. The tags "pro-choice" and "pro-life" mean the same thing; certainly the ambiguous tag "change" has. "Torture," "message force multipliers," "patriotism", etc. are words which have their original meaning erased, and replaced with an ideological meaning.

Take Mitt Romney (and others') use of the word "liberal." He is not talking about a person whose viewpoints are slightly left of average, he is talking about a charicature: the ideological imprint of liberal in the conservative mind (namely, a tax-and-spend elitist plutocrat with little interest in family values or faith).

This is dangerous, because it corrodes something even more fundamental than our politics: it corrodes our language itself. And, in fact, it corrodes our thought.

Intelligence is often distinguishable from unintelligence by the proper use of symbolic logic. If the brain can assemble symbols in a correct fashion, it answers questions and creates solutions better. If we confused the internal logic of our brain, muddling facts and decaying the links between language and thought, we are corroding our thought-process. This is a fairly extreme case, but in point of fact, if you cannot clearly interpret facts, and if the landscape of your assumptions are ideological rather than reality based, then you cannot properly think. And if you cannot properly communicate, you cannot properly exchange ideas and thoughts. Corroding language corrodes the marketplace of ideas.

This phenomenon can be seen in totalitarian societies: a perfect example is the Communist world. Take from Havel:

From being a means of signifying reality, and of enabling us to come to an understanding of it, language seems to have become an end in itself.

And further:

When we lose touch with reality, we inevitably lose the capacity to influence reality effectively. And the weaker that capacity is, the greater our illusion that we have effectively influenced reality.


He illustrates these points (in the essay On Evasive Thinking) very clearly when he relates the story of a window-sill which breaks off, falls, and kills a person. This has happened many times, he writes, and a newspaper person writes an article which raises the question of whether better care must be taken of window sills, but then proceeds to pat the communist regime on the back for being the sort of free and open place where one can question to state's upkeep of window-sills. The newspaper is forced to contort and bend over backwards to match the ideology.

I say all of this as a prologue for an excellent Czech play I saw yesterday on this very subject. It was called Tika Tika Politika (translated as Ticks Ticks Politics). It was a four-part experimental vocal score made up of syllables and proto-language (in the first part, for instance, it is entirely repetitions of different syllables of Politika) in such a way as to render all of the vocal language meaningless.

This is, to a certain degree, the way the words in our political language have been treated. In an era of talking points, the constant repetition of ideologically charged phrases redefines those phrases permanently. The only way to reverse this is to remove the content of the language entirely, and to analyze the other communication provided.

In Tika Tika Politika, the analysis comes mostly through body-language and tonality; seeing how they say what they say is the important part. You learn to follow the narrative outside of the message. In real life, this takes a strong ironic mind, and you need all the help you can get.

Which is why, right now, I'm watching the Daily Show.

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