Quote #17: David Foster Wallace (2006)

We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?

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word #17: “moldiwarp” (n.)

noun.

  1. The European mole (talpa europaea).
  2. An underhand person; a sneak, a plotter, a spy.

Richard Burton prescribed other associative literary traits on the moldiwarp in his epic The Anatomy of Melancholy:

Be silent then, rest satisfied, desine, intuensque in aliorum infortunia solare mentem, comfort thyself with other men’s misfortunes, and, as the moldiwarp in Aesop told the fox, complaining for want of a tail, and the rest of his companions, Tacete, quando me oculis captum videtis, you complain of toys, but I am blind, be quiet; I say to thee, be thou satisfied

Can a name for an animal be an onomatopoeia ?

word #16: “mytacism” (n.)

noun.

  1. using the letter M incorrectly or to an extreme.

This has nothing to do with alliterative tongue-twisters, like reciting “A missing mixture measure” over and over. The OED offers the necessary context for such an obscure word:

In Latin prose composition: the pronunciation of a final m before a word beginning with a vowel, regarded as a fault by grammarians. Also: the placing of a word with a final m before a word with an initial m.

Interesting fact about Latin grammarians: the profession is not some continuation of Ancient Rome; they only came to exist after the civilization’s collapse. Thus, there is no actual authority on how to pronounce the language, only reasonable arguments that are hashed-out ad infinitum . Think about it: from California to Bangalore people read and write grammatically near-exact English, yet the spectrum of pronunciation and orality is as diverse as Kew Gardens. No one can see the word “Ladder” and figure folks in Chicago say “Lehteh” or that the correct way to say “water” in Philadelphia is “wüdder.”

This is why some words die.

word #15: “Ozymandias Melancholia” (n.)

noun; term coined by Woody Allen:

In Stardust Memories I used the term ‘Ozymandias Melancholia’. That’s a symptom I’ve invented that describes that phenomenon specifically, the realization that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line. Eventually, there won’t be any universe, so even all the works of Shakespeare and all the works of Beethoven will be gone.

Post-Word Literacy

The state of Michigan, as argued by lawyers for its Attorney General and acting on behalf of Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s office, currently supports the position that its children’s fundemental right to education does not include a fundamental right to literacy. Their motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit suing the State for unlawful failure of duty to students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District states the position bluntly: “There is no fundamental right to literacy.”

There is something in this argument that escapes the typical criticisms of legal cynicism and semantic decadence. In other words, the supposed plausibility that one’s right to education is provided in the tools to learn alone irrespective of results of having learned, or that there are meaningful distinctions to be made parsing the terms education, learning, schools, and literacy are both insulting arguments, but they both also fail to reveal the truly heartless core of the document. The State of Michigan has, to my hears, entered into Lewis Carroll territory of Catch-22 deadlocks and tyrannical fantasies. Rights themselves are based upon literacy. Our legal system is one elephantine literature. As far as the courts are concerned, citizens are already grafted into this literature of laws and rights (our names, social security numbers, passports, driver’s license number, fingerprints) than our corporeal or emotional experience bares witness. One cannot be a citizen without the literacy of citizenry. So to say that students have no fundamental right to literacy is akin to saying they have no rights to rights, or legal recourse: they are always-already unjustified.

In “A Mad Tea-Paty” (Alice in Wonderland Chapter VII), Alice is relentlessly misunderstood, misrepresented, and ignored to the tune of everyone else’s ignorance, arrogance and stupidity:

`[…] I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

Here, the arbiters of logic (Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse) refuse to acknowledge Alice’s inherent human dissonance (i.e. that even though she didn’t say exactly what she meant, she did attempt to communicate with the party with what she did say, and not purposefully confuse the proceedings) while ignoring how their own permutations of proper speech and correct civility reveal further conflict, their absolutist premise that individual particulars always refer to different ideas and never the same breaks down within a few supposedly supportive exchanges.

What makes Michigan’s legal verbiage additionally worrisome is that American society has very recently entered into something close to a post-word era where what you say, what is written, and what words mean, means terrifyingly little. For confirmation of our immediate context, here is The Atlantic‘s James Fallows from just earlier today:

A man who will literally have life and death power over much of humanity seems not to understand or care about the difference between truth and lies.

Since about the 1970s, sociologists and media theorists have speculated that we live in an aliterate society, where people can read but chose not to. And then in more recent decades, critics have discussed the “truthiness” of American public and the failure of evidence to effectively persuade or – in the case of Global Warming – progressively build consensus. Recent days have shown that perhaps these are mere symptoms to a far more oppressive paradox of living utterly outside the sphere of poetry, rhetoric, and apparently also meaning.

Victorian George MacDonald speculated on the what a post-word world might look like in his aphoristic “The Prison”:

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe… It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has (had) its sign, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him… Soon misery will beget on his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences.

This uncanny vision of modern subjectivity trapped in a feedback-loop of solipsistic misuse, unable to grasp the meaning of something even so basic as a sign, is a nightmare curiously attuned to our current predicament where the consensus path of least resistance is often simultaneously considered to flirt with unprecedented disaster.  The twin gods of Fate and Chaos seem to have superseded any and all principles of Modernity that help shape self-governance, conceptions of social responsibly, or mutual regard for the rights of individuals. The state of Michigan is essentially arguing to students, individuals, people, anyone, everyone—like the Hatter to Alice, like MacDonald’s cosmic prison—that they simply don’t exist. What words will convince them otherwise?

Is a Term a Word?

Terminology sometimes refers to specialized language, but it also can refer simply to language that requires more than one word as its signifier. Are terms then in this second sense not also words?

There are two ways that words can contain more that one signifier and still – incontrovertibly – be called words: the compound word (i.e. sailboat, birdbrain, loveshack) and the hyphenated word (i.e. half-baked, gold-digger, mind-boggled). These both leave unaccounted the so-called term (i.e. fish tank, human history, credit cards). Terms refer to a single idea or thing, so in this sense they are cleanly nouns, and yet they are simultaneously not words but are instead a kind of word-set, something universally compounded in usage but never formally linked whether typographically or grammatically. They are paradoxically two-word words.

While this contradiction in the definition of “word” may or may not hold, the OED points to a crack in the foundation of “term” as well:

13 a: A word or phrase used in a definite or precise sense in some particular subject, as a science or art; a technical expression

13: b. In wider application: Any word or group of words expressing a notion or conception, or denoting an object of thought; an expression (for something). Generally with qualifying adj. or phrase.

In the first definition, terms are something specified, technical, scientific and exacting; yet in the second, the thing is general, vague, whimsical, and inexact.

The word “signifier” is a linguistic term that appeals to the ambiguities and tensions of our common conceptions and definitions for the word “word.” Presumably, a signifier refers to what is being used to signal the thing subjected to discussion (signified) whether it is through a hyphenated word, compound word, utterance, term, word-set, sentence, sneeze, or hiccup.

These gaps in clarification highlight just how much grammar (which is a kind of mutant field of philology) and Linguistics (which is both a pseudo-anthropology and a pseudo-neuroscience) are distinctly separate disciplines. Besides their socio-political differences (Grammar is insular, Linguistics is cross-cultural), they have fundamentally different conceptions of what builds our symbolic networks. Each is helpfully insufficient, and both curiously incompatible. Moreover, both the slipperiness of the terms and their porously abstract conceptualizations that attempt to (with varyingly degrees and success) buttress as well as conceal the mechanistic virtues (or even sense) of either further supports the counterintuitive claim that language is far more material and physically resonant than semioticians or grammarians have historically highlighted when configuring the Whats and the Hows of language.

word #14: “feudal bourgeois” (n.)

noun (and oxymoron; overall though, really more of a term than a word).

From Franz Neumann’s Behemoth: the Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944:

[A]ll the conceit of the old feudal lord, with few of his virtues, [and] little of his regard for loyalty or culture. He represented a coalition of the army, the bureaucracy, and the owners of the large estates and factories for the joint exploitation of the state.

This portraiture by the Frankfort School-expat writing for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (what became / was subsumed by the C.I.A.) reminds me of what the Victorian fabulist George MacDonald wrote about clever people (in a passage called “An Old Garden” eerily reminiscent of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There):

[…] We do not half appreciate the benefits to the race that spring from honest dullness. The clever people are the ruin of everything.

As citizens we should want the State to be dull, but as 21st century consumers and perpetual audience members we want our State to be clever. Against this algebra however, how do we account for Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” or David Foster Wallace’s notion that corruption can hide in the great wide open under the t-shirt and shorts of dry, opaque tedium?