2 dic. 2010

I've always hated the idea that a certain kind of linguistic "hygiene" can save us from error of moral or political judgment. I call this idea "Orwellian" because it is expressed in Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." It is also present in Pound: somehow if you get your language straight you will be in a position to see reality more clearly.

Now obviously misuse of power does involve misuse and abuse of language too, but the Orwell/Pound argument seems to imply that you can preemptively inoculate language itself from such misuse, make language a prophylactic barrier against certain kinds of abuse.

Poundian clarity of image and Heideggerian mysticism both lead their authors to Fascism. The prodigious metaphorical language of Neruda entails no guard against the Stalinist temptation. The null hypothesis should be that language in itself makes no difference.

23 comentarios:

Sarang dijo...

I've always felt that there ought to be a word for Orwell-esque ideas that aren't Orwellian in the usual sense.

Thomas dijo...

This is where I draw line, Jonathan. Pound did not say that. Orwell did not say that. I defer to you on Neruda. But even if that were a halfway fair characterization of their "politics of language" it would not imply or any other way "lead to" fascism. That's as silly as those who claim that Soros's dad's love of esperanto implies (the son's) desire for World Government.

You are sounding like Moses Herzog: "It was easy for the wastelanders to be assimilated to totalitarianism. Here the responsibility of the of artists remains to be assessed. To have assumed, for instance, that the deterioration of language and its debasement was tantamount to dehumanization led straight to cultural fascism."

Language makes a big difference. Care for the meaning of words matters and those who don't respect the language are the enemy. Pound and Orwell understood this even if they misunderstood the enemy in other ways. Heidegger too. (Again, I defer to you on Neruda.)

No one has ever proposes an inoculation. Rather, Pound and Orwell undertook a series of treatments, based on a serious diagnosis. It remains true if you you use your language "straightly" (i.e., with Confucian sincerity) you will see reality more clearly.

(I agree with you about hygiene, you'll note. I just note that hygiene is the approach of mediocrities, not people like Pound and Orwell. They cared.)

Jonathan dijo...

I think there's a sort of philosophical naiveté in both Orwell and Pound, a simplified understanding of the relation between language and reality. That's what I was driving at. Take Orwell's distrust of abstraction as an example.

What I meant by the Pound / Heidegger comparison is that there is no particular use of language that is well-suited or ill-suited to the fascist temptation. People associate Heidegger's language with a certain obfuscation of reality, of which they are suspicious and with which they identify a certain fascist temptation.

On the other hand, If you use language straightly in the Confucian sense, you ought to be able to see reality more clearly, but it did not work for Pound himself, did it? The medicine is not sufficient to the disease because it is philosophically naive.

The language of hygiene is certainly present in Pound. I don't have the quotes in front of me now.

Thomas dijo...

I think Orwell's attack on the "not un-" construction is as silly as you do. But I think he was against empty abstractions, not abstraction as such.

"Any general statement is like a check drawn on a bank," said Pound (ABC, p. 25). Both Orwell and Pound were against those who use abstract terms without any understanding on the particulars they cover.

Whatever his failings, Pound saw the reality much more clearly than a great many anti-fascists. I know this position of mine is almost impossible to defend. But I want to emphasize that we can't just say "look where that got him" about every one of his ideas. Not all what he believed led him to fascism.

I want to see the quotes you are interpreting as calling for hygiene and inoculation. I think he was calling only for a certain kind of directness. It was a corrective.

Jonathan dijo...

I agree that the "look where that got him" argument is tiresome to some degree. Not ALL that he believed led him to Fascism, but some of what he believed clearly led him there, or at least did not prevent him from going there. That's what I miss: the safeguard. Shouldn't something in his legendary clarity of thought stopped him?

Hugh Kenner talks about hygiene in the Pound Era. The word also occurs 3 times Pound's Literary Essays. I haven't checked his political writings, but I seem to remember the word pops up there too. Doesn't he praise Mussolini for draining the swamps?

He had a very lucid sense of the tragic and stupid destruction of The Great War, for example. We can credit him for that, at the same time as we scratch our heads at his support of the people who would start the next war. He got a big thing right, and another bigger thing wrong. I could go on and on in a similar vein. He got his aesthetics largely right, for example. I continue to think of some of his thinking as philosophically naive in its distrust of abstraction. This aside from the sheer lunacy of his radio broadcasts.

If you say that he saw some things more clearly than others, but that this is an indefensible statement (almost impossible to defend), than I cannot ask you to defend it. I agree that he was able to see things others couldn't, that sheer capacity was there even when it led him to the St Elizabeths.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Thomas and Jonathan arguing, what fun!


Jonathan, your initial comments made me wonder about using "1984" to criticize "Politics and the English Language." That is, are there ways in which the essay is heading toward Doublespeak?

Not that I'm going to write that study, but it's an interesting idea to keep in the back of one's mind when the usual suspects start celebrating Orwell.

Thomas dijo...

I'll have a look at LE and Kenner. The difficulty I have with my position on Pound's fascism is that, because (among other things) he compared Mussolini to Jefferson, I am inclined to think he saw "the good in fascism". And that combination of words is itself essentially indefensible. I still have a lot of thinking to do about that before I feel comfortable with it.

Jonathan dijo...

I was thinking about that, Andrew. The rulers in the world of 1984 promote doublethink, which is a kind of cognitive dissonance, or maybe its opposite, by proclaiming that war is peace, etc... I think there is a similar sort of linguistic naivete here but I would have to re-read the novel.

Real propaganda does not need to be so overtly simplistic. That propaganda is directed at the reader rather than the citizens of Oceania. In other words, Orwell wants us to see that mendacious governments call war peace, use double-speak.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Isn't there an "overtly simplistic" side to the real propaganda coming out of the mouths of American critics of WikiLeaks right now? "Kill the guy" is pretty damn simplistic.

But then again, maybe what you mean is that "really good propaganda" will not be as easy for someone like Glenn Greenwald to pick apart. :-)

Jonathan dijo...

Well clearly he saw the "good" in Fascism. That is, he associated it with other kinds of political ideologies he already admired. That "and/or" construction is kind of tricky, right? He liked strong leadership.

It's easy to admire Confucianism because it isn't a real presence in the West in the first place. If we had to live with it, then we would have all sorts of problems with its male supremacy and a lot of other aspects.

Jonathan dijo...

Orwell isn't even trying to offer a defense against direct language, propaganda that isn't euphemistic (PATEL) or self-contradictory (1984). "We should go kill those people" is pretty direct; it's not in the passive voice or anything, or deviously deceitful, no foreign phrases or unnecessary verbiage. It's blatant and simplistic so you don't really need Orwellian analysis to see what it's saying. I don't need to do a stylistic analysis of hate speech to see what it is.

Thomas dijo...

"He liked strong leadership." That's true. But we hold this against him because we know who that leader was.

I think we should ask why he liked strong leaders. Perhaps we could put this alongside our (implicit) preference for (what?) "weak" leadership. What Pound meant was that he preferred a leader who acknowledged his own power, who stood by it, took responsibility for it. What he saw (clearly, to my mind) in the 1920s and 1930s is that Europe (and to some extent the US) had weak political leadership. Orwell's essay, in a sense, was an analysis of the language of those who supported (covered for) that kind of leadership.

"The fogged language of swindling classes serves only a temporary purpose" (ABC, p. 33). But he did not say that this fog should (or could) be lifted by some act of "hygiene". Rather, he said that "Good writers are those who keep the language efficient." (32) That is: the accurate use of words cuts through the fog left by the swindle.

Thomas dijo...

I don't think Pound or Orwell would object to a world where people actually said who they hated and why they hated them. I don't think I would object to such a world either. (Malcolm X said something similar I think.)

Good clean animosity is something that can be dealt with. It can even be overcome. What Pound and Orwell objected to was a hatred that, through the habit of not articulating it, became a form of stupidity. They were okay with hate, we might say. What they objected to was pettiness. (There is some indication that Pound came eventually to see his own pettiness on some points.)

The problem with the propagandists who are calling for Assange's death is precisely that they don't really mean it. It's just empty verbiage. It's just stupid pettiness. To call it "direct" and "hate" is to give it way too much credit. They just talking trash to give cover to (Dept of) State.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

Orwell's point, or part of it, is that no public figures say "We should go kill those people." They say, "We will bring democracy to the Middle East," or "The bombing strike produced collateral damage." What I mean is that Orwell cared less about style than about the alignment of language with reality.

For certain theorists of language this is problematic because they essentially deny that such an alignment is possible. I believe this attitude is fascist in nature, as is suggested by Ron Suskind's New York TImes report back in 2004:

I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

It's eerie to me how the tone and content of the comments by Bush's aide parallel certain pronouncements by avant-gardists of the Silliman stripe, all of whom lionize Pound and who would, I presume, dismiss Orwell as distressingly "School of Quietude." But never mind. My point is that Orwell cared about clarity of statement and Pound did not, as anyone who has slogged through the vast muddle of his Cantos can attest.

Jonathan dijo...

You are conflating a whole lot of things, there, Joseph. Avant-garde poets revere Pound, but hate his politics. Postmodern theory might suggest reality is socially constructed, but Pound would hate that theory. That same postmodern theory could be used to deconstruct the Republican discourse you are talking about. Silliman's poetic theory is completely reality-based, etc... In short, four or five things you want to lump together but that I would split apart.

See Charles Bernstein's "Pounding Fascism" for a nuanced view of what Language Poets really think of Pound. That might be better than putting words in their mouths.

I haven't had 15 comments here in ages. It's great. Thanks for your comment, Joseph, even though I disagree with almost every word of it. I'm much more of a splitter than a lumper.

Joseph Hutchison dijo...

Funny, I'm typically a splitter myself—and suddenly I'm lumping. Must be something I ate....

Since you've read (for me, suffered) through Silliman's work in a better frame of mind than I could muster, you might explain someday how it is "reality-based." For me there is about as much reality in it as in a game of Monopoly.

I do love seeing all the comments. All of a sudden the readers you maybe didn't realize were there emerge and cast their lantern light not just on this post but on the others you know they read but kept silent about. Hmmm.... Evidently you touched a nerve. What nerve exactly, I wonder.....

Thomas dijo...

I'm exactly just coming out of the woodwork now. Nor am I nervous. Just saying.

mongibeddu dijo...

"Not a jot or tittle of the hebraic alphabet can pass into the text without danger of contaminating it."--Ezra Pound, Selected Prose, pg. 320

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, Ben. That's a good example of "linguistic hygiene" and the metaphorics of contamination.

Thomas dijo...

OK. Ouch! But don't we all agree that his hatreds undermined his clarity?

In the ABC he talks about not watching the language decay. He talks about being like a doctor who can't sit by watching a child infect itself with tuberculosis while under the impression that she's eating a jam tart.

I think his anti-semitic application of the idea is of course contemptible. But it is important to keep in mind that his real enemy was "the indefinite wobble" itself. He misindentified the source of the wobble, yes. But I think the basic point holds.

And again: he does not want to "innoculate" the child, or destroy all the bacteria. He wants to intervene with "corrections". I don't think that's a completely comptemptible goal.

mongibeddu dijo...

I think he began with an imperial view of language, identifying languages with nations (and later nations with races). Purity was alien to this view, since nations grow in strength by absorbing other nations--languages should absorb other languages and men should be polyglot. The eugenic view, in which language practices can be healthy or diseased, was present but subservient. In the 1940s, the eugenic view became dominant, leading to all sorts of contradictions and other sorts of problem. So yes, there is an undermining of clarity. But I would take exception to Pound's views, both of them (the imperial and eugenic), even when they are expressed with utmost clarity. They are, to adopt one of Pound's own phrases, too viewy: not the thing itself, language as historical artifact, but pictures of language.

What did the philosopher say? "A picture held him captive."

No, the other one: "Asses mistake hay for gold."

Thomas dijo...

One of the great ironies of Pound is that he was so iconoclastic and such a fan of "civilization". He had such high hopes for culture, but was himself such a kook.

He was himself a symptom of so many of the things he was trying to diagnose. You know your culture is in trouble when the enfant terrible is the only adult in the room.

Another side of the imperial view of language (and I agree that pretty much any view of language as such is too viewy): Caesar non supra grammaticos.

mongibeddu dijo...

Caesar non supra grammaticos. I like that! But then, Caesar didn't have a media empire. Berlusconi has since replaced the grammarians with showgirls.