Oct 27, 2009
Notes on honest language
1. There is, it seems, an internal contradiction in the Anglicans who are considering placing themselves under the auspices of Rome, in that they are schisming for more authority. This is not the most politically or religiously critical point opposing the conservative Anglicans or their possible place in the Roman Catholic Church, but I find the contradiction interesting & maybe, in a broader way, important.
Isn't it somewhat similar to the sort of radical, revolutionary things American conservatives have proposed, e.g., privatizing social security or abolishing the Department of Education, extreme & experimental things, in the name of conservatism & preserving a (fictional) traditional way of life?
Perhaps the Papal authority & Catholic orthodoxy is likewise a fiction, though the fantasy of an authoritarian, straight male Church has clearly driven some people to some weird measures. It is, it seems to me, schism in the name of authority, rebellion at perceived rebellion, & methodological apostasy conceived of as opposing an apostasy. The situation, I think, is one of holding orthodoxy as more important than charity, & imagined purity & homodoxy as more valuable than love, humility & respect. But there is, maybe esp., this problem of an internal contradiction & dishonesty.
2. The assassination of a leader, it seems to me, is an assertion of control against perceived chaos, an attempt to have control over a world that the assassin thinks should be, was, & would be under his control except for X, with X being whatever forces, personal or political, have broken & breached the dam of order & which will be affected, adjusted or corrected (at least symbolically) by the assassination. It is a response of fear to chaos, then, & an extreme attempt to regain control, motivated to some large extent by the fiction that control was once had.
This is also true of conspiracy theories about assassinations.
3. Why is it that certain fictions, esp. certain motivational fictions, can only function as fictions while concealing what they are?
My problem w/ motivational fictions in 1. and 2., above, is not that they're not true, but that they motivate to fear & violence. From that endpoint of recognizing & rejecting the fear & violence I see how poor -- how truly, horribly poverty stricken -- these fictions actually are. Part of that poverty, it seems to me, is the claim, or, even more, the need, for these fictions to be true.
There is a connection here to ideology & literalist readings, both of which must, to function, deny being fiction & conceal themselves esp. from themselves, adamantly & vigorously denying, for example, that a literalist interpretation of the Bible involves any interpretation at all.
4. There's something about technical language that "feels real." Evan Wright's work about the Marine's invading Iraq was praised for it's use of jargon, military acronyms, official names, etc., with that language connected to or even equated with authenticity & the feeling of "being there." David Foster Wallace often uses the same technique of technical writing, as for example in the short story "Mister Squishy," where he uses (or even deploys) the very technical language of marketing research to a) accurately represent the jargon-textured environment described, b) accurately represent the dense, inter-tangled, dialectical and deconstructioning reality of our, as Wallace might say, quote-unquote postmodern existence, & c) to give us, the readers, & also probably himself, the sense that the trick or manipulation of language is revealed as it's deployed (in contrast to the concealment & insistent denials of 3)) and is, therefore, esp. honest.
There is a strong sense in which this works. Technical language does give this feeling of reality and "being there." This is odd, tho., when juxtaposed with the very, very strong Anglo-American anti-jargon tradition. That tradition is so strong, cf George Orwell's Politics and the English Language or what he says about language in 1984, that even rather lame, mostly meaningless & cliched restatements of the orthodox, anti-sophistication sentiment are basically immediately canonized into commandments of "good writing," such as attacks on adjectives or the vague and not very helpful directiton to rewrite what "sounds like writing."
I think it's possible that there's something going on here with regards to the (unstable and probably incorrect) minimalist vs. maximalist split in American writing (where blue collar & not college educated = minimalist, e.g. Raymond Carver, John Cheever & all who follow Ernest Hemingway, while postmodern, hard-to-read & intellectual = huge, complicated works, e.g. Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, & everyone following Herman Melville & William Faulkner), but it also seems true that those who use technical language to achieve verisimilitude & those who don't are both worried about manipulation & dishonesty.
There's a sense in which, too, I think, that the very technical and jargon-textured language feels honest right now, in particular, because of the recent American experience of being manipulated (in this case into war, torture & disregard for civil liberties) by men who pretended to be less sophisticated than they were, basically using the schtick of "good ol' country boy" & "just us folks" to move Americans to support & embrace horrible, horrible things. In "Mister Squishy," Wallce used high-powered, well-educated market researchers to explore the manipulation within manipulation within manipulation, but you could do the same thing, I think, with the language of hack lawyers & car salesman ("I ain't a big city law-yuh"). This makes me wonder if writers aren't lagging behind salesmen, & if honest language isn't badly losing to dishonest manipulations.
5. Christopher Hitchens has an interesting trick of dismissing anyone who'd have a sophisticated & complicated response to his atheism. He calls them wincing & insincere, evasive, wittering & mumbly, while praising as bold & brave & truly religious the kinds of religious people who he elsewhere describes as basically stupid, insane & evil. Richard Dawkins does this too, at some points claiming the Pope, who believes life evolved & is evolving & that this is not in contradiction with Christian faith, doesn't understand Christianity, while saying that those who are not educated enough to understand even the basics of Charles Darwin & Gregor Mendel do completely & rightly understand the Bible & all of Christian theology.
This has the tone of someone insulting the goalie who can actually block goals, while praising the goalie who lets you score, but also & more importantly, it serves to legitimize the fundamentalist & least educated versions of faith, while also ensuring permanent marginalization. I assume Hitchens will not be converted during his debate tour, & also find unlikely that anyone is going to suddenly become an atheist after seeing their pastor spar with a prominent, pop atheist. Thus the result of the exercise, I think, will be that both sides can claim increased legitimacy, specifically w/ the claim "I have debated the other side," while the actual debate & ongoing conversation will be stagnant, fixed in a permanent stupidity.
I think I'd like to say Hitchens is violating a version of the Principle of Charity, if I can expand the principle to say that you shouldn't just attribute to your opponents the strongest argument, but should also find the best & most sophisticated opponents for the argument you opposed.
6. The above trick of dismissing the moderate & most educated opponents & instead legitimizing & permanently marginalizing those who are more aggressive & less nuanced is also, I think, an exact description of what the Democrats & President Obama have done to conservatism this year.
It's good politics (as long as the craziness is always a minority & you're not a minority in one of the local govts run by the now-raving right wing). I worry, though, that it's bad for a) the discourse (be it between Christians and atheists or American conservatives and liberals), & bad for b) the space available for intelligent & nuanced positions, & c) language that isn't captured by ideology, hackishness & partisanship, & d) all of us who believe in the Principle of Charity & want honest language.
By Daniel Silliman at 3:56 PM