"Language and Politics" -- by Kelvin Yearwood
By David Peterson at Sep 23, 2007
Not for some time have citizens of the Western world
been made so acutely aware of the politics of language.
This issue has moved from muttering gripes about po-
litical correctness onto the center stage of public con-
sciousness. Bush, Blair & Co. have made war on words -- blown them up, strafed and up-ended them, or simply tortured their true meaning in dystopian style. Hundreds of thousands have died, and many more have suffered injury, neglect, humiliation and the destruction of all means of material security. Their hearts and minds division, the Western press, has often been complicit with this exercise of abusive power, overwhelmingly falling-in behind elite political/business agendas, re-articulating the political class's “doublethink” that resonates so bleakly with the operations of the state in Orwell's 1984. Consequently, “doublethink” functions as a reactionary resolution of class, gender, race and other divisions acted out in foreign and domestic policy. -- For unrepresentative power, “Ignorance is Strength.”
This said, do we now require Orwell's warning, in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" as to the dangers of “the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes"? We should now be more keenly aware of elite political and dominant media power to frame linguistic doctrine. But are we fully aware of our obligation to shape language as a tool of resistance to unrepresentative interests? Language has become something with which we need to struggle, from which we need to wrest representative meaning. Language has openly become a battleground in which we have to fend off despair, shake-off the line of least resistance at the end of which looms only a descent into fitful cognitive dissonance, the tortuous re-articulation of the multi-filtered fantasy that is the dominant text of the intersecting truisms that pass for intellectual capital in our current age. Political regeneration depends on this struggle over language, the struggle for language as the first point of democratic political practice.
In a sense, Bush, Blair & Co. lost this battle before it began. Orwell condemned -- among a series of stock phrases -- the divisive “War on Terror” trope: “stand[ing] shoulder to shoulder.” It would seem that those who do not know the history of their language are doomed to repeat its hackneyed phrases. Of the political writing that deploys such clichés, Orwell says that “one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.” For Orwell, a language is one of strong, critical political images. If he had given mannequins speech, it would surely have resembled Blair's tawdry rhetoric, as when he fielded questions next to Bush (May 17, 2007):
“It [the war on terror is] not about us remaining true to the course that we've set out because of the alliance with America. It is about us remaining steadfast because what we are fighting, the enemy we are fighting is an enemy that is aiming its destruction at our way of life and anybody who wants that way of life.”
Erasing all class, gender, and race divisions, and a multiplicity of human desires, Blair's "way of life" is an opportunistic trope of the kind long exploited by the U.S. political elites, which New Labour and its U.K. allies (including the Tory party) are attempting to import wholesale into the U.K.
Never before have we been made so keenly aware of how the social and the intellectual are dynamically integrated. Social emancipation goes hand in hand with emancipating knowledge, with the building of a democratic language as political practice. But when Marx stated, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he was not espousing a simple movement from language and thought to action. Political consciousness -- that is, knowing oneself in the continual process of knowing the material world -- is not easy. There is complexity supporting Marx's statement, “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and existence of [people] in their actual life process.” Paramount is the awareness of the need to reintegrate the division between mental and manual labor. We must reclaim the intellect fully from the thought-specialists of media, cultural commentary and academia and their too common commonalities with elite power.
There is no doubt that post-modern theory has rendered this need problematic. It has brought important insights in respect of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and, even, class. We need only think of the United States and its large, burgeoning "minorities" to appreciate this. Native Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics all comprise significant presences in the U.S, but the first represent the dispossessed aboriginal population, the second largely the descendants of slaves, and the last immigrants from southern countries with unique historical trajectories in relation to the North. There is much complexity and variance to know and understand, and each of us possesses blind spots in social being and imaginative construction of the world. In his book The Condition of Post-modernity, David Harvey cites the “multiple sources of oppression in society and multiple foci of resistance to domination [that] can be identified.” The world can seem to open up into an infinite network of intersecting stories, reproducing endlessly irreducible meaning, and possibly producing, in the global citizen, despair and a flight from understanding, let alone action.
Language as a project in political praxis has to embrace the complexity of human experience and the material world in which it is continually lived. Yet we must also resist being deflected by this world's intensification of “fragmentation and ephemerality” as the elite quest for profit accelerates the processes continually reproducing our world. Behind this market noise, in the midst of it, underpinning the myriad flourishes of cultural capital, are “the universals of monetization, market exchange and circulation of capital.” But we must resist simple notions of objectivity.
In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes characterizes the covert positioning of classical liberal thought:
“One reckons all the methods with scales, one piles them up on each side as one thinks best, so as to appear oneself as an imponderable arbiter endowed with a spirituality which is ideal and thereby just, like the beam which in the judge is weighing.”
The above is a sterile procedure, unsurprisingly devoid of moral engagement for a philosophy that so often professes the primacy of its moral basis. It is intellectual double-entry booKKKeeping.
Terry Eagleton counters with a call for “genuine moral argument, which sees the relation between individual qualities and values and our whole material condition of existence. Political argument is not an alternative to moral preoccupation; it is those preoccupations taken seriously in their full implication.”
The worker-don must reintegrate those philosophical specialities -- Morality and Politics. That is, a social-material morality needs to be applied to the founding concepts of political practice; we are not interested in a call to the current practitioners to clean up their act, though drawing attention to the abyss between their rhetoric and the reality is, of course, entirely legitimate. This necessarily involves being aware of “the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power structure and power-relations of the society we live in.” It is the practice of making social use of language and of making actions socially accountable. In many respects, it is the process elaborated by Michael Albert in his book Parecon.
Many powerful dissenting voices posit a new vision in broad terms. In her essay "Resistance is Creative: False Options and Real Hopes," Theresa Wolfwood states:
“Resistance is an open borderless country which we can only create if men and women are equal, a community where people of all colours and backgrounds are at home, where nature is respected for its abundance, where we ‘put life in the centre', and where creativity blooms in everyone.”
And Samir Amin in Obsolescent Capitalism:
“The time has come to say loud and clear that a different system must be invented, one in which human beings individually (their health, education and inventiveness), people collectively, and nature in its resources, are not treated as commodities. The terms of the above are no different from those Rosa Luxemburg formulated in 1918: ‘socialism or barbarism'!”
Yet, as fine as these political visions are, the incessant barbarous noise of corporate capital, its relentless penetration into so many levels of social narrative, its rapid escalation of its influence in framing all possible worlds and individual life trajectories, its mediation of all visible notions of social becoming, has to be resisted in a concrete, detailed and workaday manner, contextualising and grounding the argument in material democratic terms. The alternative is simply succumbing to the present, which Samir Amin succinctly describes as “subordination of democracy to the market.”
Without going too far down the road of prescription, I believe Terry Eagleton has provided some examples in his Literary Theory:
“The ‘unique individual' is indeed important when it comes to defending the business entrepreneur's right to make a profit while throwing men and women out of work.”
“[Liberal humanism's] valuable concerns with freedom, democracy and individual rights are simply not concrete enough. Its view of democracy, for example, is the abstract one of the ballot box, rather than a specific, living and practical democracy, which might somehow concern the operations of the Foreign Office and Standard Oil.”
Eagleton denatures, estranges the language economy of the corporate capital age. Individualism, as contemporary myth, is invoked, turned on its head and dumped in the midst of its elite-centred, anti-social, inhuman consequences. And “freedom, democracy and individual rights” are seen often to exist as ephemeral abstractions that melt away before our revered voting rights, while at the same time covert state and unaccountable private interests continue to enjoy free, despotic and dehumanizing reign.
I believe that Eagleton's is a more bread-and-butter, daily campaign in the language economy. His is a method which can expose and topple the foundational concepts of those commentators we know so well, those who remain at the corporate print-face after all linguistic value has been stripped away in the multi-filtering process of corporate human re-sourcing of language; those who pick the line of least resistance, endlessly re-articulating aspects of the established doctrinal lexicon.
Therefore, I propose, that it does not hurt to re-imagine processes of resistance. A dynamic and democratic language as political practice should make foundational systems of belief, that are intrinsically antagonistic toward the interests of most human beings, visible, re-framing them in context of the global political-economic realities in which political-social practice should work in a material, egalitarian manner. The emergence of the global knowledge economy, the concomitant commoditization of language, its apparent ownership and articulation by "experts" emerging from various acceptable, usually dominant institutional contexts; and the penetration of language as commodity-carrier into every aspect of our existence, private as well as public, serves to intensify this challenge of wresting political meaning from the barbarians. Language as democratic political practice is a materially creative happening.
---- References ----
Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism. Verso, 2004.
Samir Amin, Obsolescent Capitalism: Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder. Zed Books Ltd., 2004.
David Barsamian, "Terrorism: The Politics of Language," excerpted from: Stenographers to Power: Media & Propaganda. Common Courage Press, 1992.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1972.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd Ed., Blackwell Publishing, 1996.
Suzanne Goldenberg, "'I do not regret close relationship with Bush'," The Guardian, May 18, 2007.
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Orgins of Cultural Change. Blackwell Publishing, 1991.
Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter, Eds., September 11, 2001 -- A Feminist Perspective. Spinifex Press, 2002.
George Orwell, 1984. Penguin Books, 2002.
George Orwell, Essays. Penguin Books, 2000.
White House Office of the Press Secretary, "President Bush Participates in Joint Press Availability with United Kingdom Prime Minister Blair," Transcript, May 17, 2007.
[ * This contribution to the ZNet Blogs was written by Kelvin Yearwood, a longtime contributor to the comments section of my blog as well as to many others. Kelvin resides in Bristol, England, where he works for the Bristol City Council Social Services Department. As Kelvin just reminded me: "The overt sterility of dominant Western political and pseudo-oppositional thought is in fact an opportunity for us all to re-think our position in the world and new possibilities of collective action." ]