Category Archives: Language

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

IDENTITY AND THE ALPHABET or NO ONE IS AN ACRONYM

Five years ago it did not exist, but these days LGBTQI is everywhere.

The LGBTQI community is referred to in the audio media, the LGBTQI community is in the print media. Every right-thinking person can let those letters roll off their tongue. They believe they are being inclusive, they believe they are rescuing a bunch of marginalised people from invisibility, they believe they are revealing their liberal credentials. These motives are fine, indeed, they’re very welcome, but using this absurd term is not the way to proceed.

LGBTQI. In this unpronounceable acronym which becomes a clumsy 6-syllable word, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer and intersex people are all lumped together – very fairly, it must be said, with each group being allocated a single letter, so no one can complain of discrimination.

BUT —

It is oxymoronic to put all these different groups together. Moreover, it’s a travesty of the complexities of identity to reduce a person to their sexual preferences. Imagine if we were to refer to the heterosexual community as a single homogenous grouping. Julia Gillard would be there with Tony Abbott, Emmanuel Macron with Theresa May, along with Fraser Anning, Waleed Aly and Jessica Mauboy. To reduce these people to their heteronormative status tells us nothing about who they are, what they believe, how they participate in the world.

In the case of the grouping LGBTQI, six entirely different sexualities (NOT identities) are combined into one, so even the quality that marks these people as non-heterosexual is watered down. Indeed, the only quality that unites lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, transgender and intersex people is that they are NOT heterosexual. Is this any more useful than defining someone as not black, or not red-haired, or not tall?

This acronym, this clutch of letters, designed to make non-hetero people visible, actually emulsifies difference. Lesbians have no more in common with transgender people as do most heterosexuals, and they’d probably have a closer identification with other women rather than GBTQ and I people. Throw everyone in together as a bunch of letters and it’s a great way of making people disappear.

Women have for aeons been sexualised. This term LGBTQI sexualises in the same way, reducing complex human beings to a highly specific sexual identity. So the well-published academic with a world-renowned reputation is just a T, and the criminal lawyer who’s also a fine cricketer is just a G, and the tennis player with umpteen tournament wins who works for the rights of women is only an L. It’s ludicrous.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex people do not form a community, they do not form a single group. Every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex person is also many other things: a sportsperson, a worker, a parent and relative, a Muslim or Jew, black or white, a traveller, a cook. Each is the entire alphabet.

VOLUPTUOUS LANGUAGE

In 1998, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted an exhibition titled, Beyond Belief – Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. The exhibition appealed to me not because of any strong religious beliefs of my own, but I was drawn (and continue to be so) by the pairing of different types of imagination, in this instance, the spiritual and the visual. I did not know which artists were to be included, but I understood from the advance publicity that many were well-known.

The day I visited the exhibition there was quite a crowd. I was alone and in no hurry, so loitered beyond the outer edge of onlookers, waiting for the crowd to thin. And so it was that I walked around a screen and there, several metres away, I saw a small Rothko (it was Black, brown on maroon, 1957). My first response was delight at the unexpected meeting with one of my favourite artists, my second response even while the delight continued, was tears. I stood there in an open space beyond the crowd gazing at this Rothko with tears rolling down my face.

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

The painting affected me in a way I did not understand. But something profound HAD happened. If I say about the experience that I was moved (and I clearly was moved) it does not do justice to what was an intense and complex reaction. If I say that I was overwhelmed by intense emotion, it still gives little indication of what I was feeling at the time.

There are certain experiences, intense and significant, for which common language usage all too often fails. The appreciation of music, for example, or the expression of pain, or a description of wonder, or my unexpected reaction to Rothko’s painting. More often than not the attempt to explicate, actually leeches the experience of its essence.

So what happened when I caught sight of that Rothko hanging on the gallery wall?

I was waterlogged with wonder

I stumbled into paradise

I gazed into the face of God

I fell into a Mahler symphony

 

As to which metaphor I might use, that would depend both on my experience and the person to whom I was attempting to share it with. Gazing into the face of God might hit the spot with someone of a religious disposition, the Mahler metaphor with someone musical, natural world metaphors with those connected with the natural world.

Too often we treat language as if it were arithmetic, wherein an equivalence is assumed/sought between symbol and referent. But as Magritte so aptly demonstrated in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe, language is not the thing. We might speak of the infinite nature of language, can actually show how it works in theory, but in practice, language usage is all too finite. We have nailed language to the mast of unambiguity. We have stripped it of its music. We have smoothed out its paint strokes. We have made words into Lego blocks.

When language in this unambiguous and hobbled form is used to describe an experience like my Rothko experience, of course it fails, of course it falls short. So much of my Rothko experience was non-verbal, or extra-verbal, and only language that spills its usual boundaries will do the experience justice. We humans live in a language dictatorship. Like the Russian poets during the years of Stalin, we need to go underground.

It’s not vocabulary we are wanting (although the impoverished vocabularies of most of us could do with considerable expansion), rather we need to bring imagination to language usage, we need to impregnate our language with tone and texture and sensation and atmosphere.

Of all the tools of language and communication it is metaphor that subverts the whole notion of sign-symbol equivalence, that smashes the ties of immutability between language and its referents. Metaphor is the wild child of language, the recalcitrant offspring which can turn around and teach its elders what they did not realise they did not know. Metaphor makes the familiar strange and different. Metaphor brings music to language, it brings sensation and emotion. Metaphor subverts routine ways of seeing and thinking and communicating, and thereby it illuminates the shadows of meaning.

The right metaphor can portray complex emotional and intellectual responses with great power and economy – which is why poetry, good poetry, can have such a profound effect, and bad poetry, of which there is an inordinate amount, feels like such a betrayal. But in fact prosaic and routine language usage is no less a betrayal. If an artist were to restrict his palate to green, if a composer were to confine herself to a single octave, we would feel betrayed. So, too with banal and hackneyed language usage. It’s treating the great gift of language in cavalier fashion, it is also denying what marks we humans off from other animals: language and the imagination.

And why be concerned about this now? Public language as seen in the two second rehearsed grabs of our politicians, as seen in the mindless talking in exclamation marks of comperes of reality TV shows, has never been so impoverished. If we don’t act soon we will lack the language to describe what has gone wrong, much less fix the situation.

 

 

THE LANGUAGE OF LYING

1st November, 2012

Australia has just been removed from its own ‘migration zone’. Our country, this huge mass of land, no longer exists as a place of refuge, of sanctuary for desperate people.

‘Migration zone’: another euphemism to add to the pile that has steadily grown since the beginning of the Howard years.

One of the worst euphemisms of recent times is ‘the people smuggling business’. It first entered the public forum last year and it is still bandied around – on both sides of politics and increasingly in the wider community. Like all political euphemisms it is a form of propaganda. The word ‘model’, dangling precariously at the end of an already cumbersome phrase, has been added to suggest that if we don’t nip this ‘people smuggling business’ in the bud it will serve as the pro forma for umpteen more people smuggling businesses. And what is it about the construction of this phrase that the word ‘smuggling’ is so dominant? ‘Smuggling’ is a present participle, derived from the verb ‘to smuggle’. Verbs tend to be strong words, the most powerful and active of a sentence. ‘People’, in contrast, is a noun, and a collective noun at that, i.e. non-specific and relatively weak, but in this construction it is weakened still further by acting as an adjective. If instead of ‘people smuggling’ the phrase were ‘children smuggling’ or ‘infant smuggling’ or ‘kidney smuggling’, the more specific word would hold its own against ‘smuggling’. So when a member of the government says ‘the people smuggling business model’ the words we actually hear are ‘smuggling business’. And it sounds pretty awful, conjuring up pirates with machetes threatening innocent people – like us.

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