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.

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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?

 

 

Quote #13: Seneca (65 AD.)

Now let me tell a story. Asclepiodotus writes that a number of men were sent by Philip down an old mine that had long since been abandoned; they were to explore how rich its deposits were, what state it was in, whether past greed had left anything for future generations. They descended with plenty of lights, enough to last many days; then, when exhausted by the long journey, they saw enormous rivers and huge lakes of stagnant water, like our own, not cramped by the earth weighing down on them, but with plenty of open space—and they could not help shuddering at the sight. I read this with great pleasure. For I realized that our generation is struggling with vices that are not new but inherited from long ago; in our day it was not the first time that greed had rummaged in the veins of earth and rock and searched in the darkness for what was inadequately concealed. ose ancestors of ours whom we are con- stantly praising, whom we complain that we so little resemble, were led on by their hopes to hack into mountains, and stood on top of their gain, beneath their ruin. Before King Philip of Macedon there were people who would pursue money into the very deepest re- cesses,and,though endowed with upright, freespirits,would stoop to enter those caves where no contrast between night and day ever penetrated. What great hope made them leave the daylight behind? Human beings stand erect, facing the stars, so what great necessity made them bend down, buried them, and plunged them to the depths of the earth’s interior, to dig out gold that is no less dangerous to search for than to possess? For its sake they dug tunnels and crawled after their grubby, undependable plunder, forgetting the daylight, forgetting the better world on which they had turned their backs. Does the earth lie as heavy on any corpse as it did on those people, over whom great greed threw the weight of the earth,whom it robbed of the sky, whom it buried in the depths where that foul poison lurks? They were bold enough to descend to where they encountered a new natural order: earth suspended above them, winds blowing aimlessly in the darkness, grim springs of water owing for no one’s benefit, and deep, endless night. Then when they have done that, they are afraid of the underworld!

From “On Winds” in Naturales Quaestiones, this English translation by Hine. I hear this passage reverberate in language and theme throughout Tolkien and
“Middle-Earth.” He was, after all, an eminent Classics scholar before he wrote his bestsellers. It is striking just how clearly a short text can affect, color, and shape one’s imagination, and even one’s worldview.

word #13: “chalazophulakes” (n.)

noun.

  1. hail-guards

From Seneca:

[…] people who watched out for hail coming. When they had given a signal that hail was imminent, what do you suppose? That people ran for their cloaks or their waterproofs? No, they all performed their own sacrifices, one person with a lamb, another with a chicken. Instantly those clouds turned away, once they had tasted a bit of blood. That makes you laugh? Listen to what will make you laugh even more. If anyone had neither a lamb nor a chicken, as an inexpensive alternative he turned on himself, and, so that you do not think clouds are greedy or cruel, he pricked his finger with a really sharp stylus and performed a sacrifice with the blood. The hail turned away from his tiny farm no less than from those where it had been appeased with larger victims.

Gives some cultural/historical context to the “Chicken Little” tale.

Quote #12: Jean-Baptiste Dumas (1844)

Vous voyez qu’à la considérer ainsi, la machine animale devient bien plus facile à comprendre ; c’est l’intermédiaire entre le règne végétal et l’air […] (Essai de statique chimique)

[Translation (from Art and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century France by Greg M. Thomas): “the animal machine is [simply] the intermediary between the plant kingdom and the air […]”

On Waves and Cycles

In political science – and the social sciences in general – there is a perennial debate about the character of change – whether change comes in waves or if instead it is cyclical. This is most prominent in discussions clarifying and giving shape to the nature of revolution, a focal concern in the West since first Mercantilism and then Enlightenment triggered modalities of regicide, revolt, and rebellion across formerly feudal Europe, thus paving the way for republicanism, parliamentarianism, representational democracy, and other liberal and self-governing forms of government in tandem with rational (and irrational) arguments against divinized hierarchies and monarchical power [NOTE: our newest augmentations to participatory governance were shaped to accommodate the Industrial Revolution and, even more recently, the Digital Information age; exactly what these tweaks were (beyond a widening definition of citizen) and their larger significance remain contentious and on-going]. A historical generality can be drawn: anything which hampered (or seemed to hamper) the cultural flow of the age (be it the flow of goods, ideas, capital, binary code, etc. ) was seen as a form of tyranny, a word that still today harkens back to the authoritarian rule of unchecked kings, and sentenced (sometimes swiftly, sometimes haphazardly) to be lopped-off. The debate between waves and cycles has to do with explaining the continuity of tyrannical hampering (i.e. Why does authoritarian injustice keep bubbling up after both rhetorical advancements and cultural practices – even laws! – become bedrocks of developed civilizations?) – and the always-recurrent response or corrective to privileged impingements, now ambiguously referred to simply as “change”. Is change seasonal, or is change generative?

This well-known dualism is strangely united in its use of ecologically-centered metaphors. Waves are as well known a natural phenomena as any; when one thinks of how metaphorically they apply to political analysis of revolutions, it is hard not to think of Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. The idea is clear: the phenomenon is a one-off swelling tied to the contingency of the moment (the political philosophy of Alain Badiou and his notion of the “Event” seems closely related). On the other hand, the cyclical or seasonal metaphor is equally rooted in ecological consciousness. There is in fact no true cycle outside of the natural world, merely analogies, or else a mechanical rotation, which is a synthetic (robotic) imitation/doubling of a cyclical process. Claude Monet’s “Haystack” series is illustrative of the idea as it relates to our understanding of historical revolutions: different but not different; each historical event offering up a variant refraction of another (or all others); slight shifts sometimes apprehended imperceptibly, other times seen as unheimlich. The issue that these ecology-minded metaphors pose is that ecological change is essential to explain socio-cultural change, yet at the same time, it is ecological change which is now the tyrannical thing. This the case whether one is a tree-hugging environmentalist or a hoax-mongering conspiracy theorist: ecology – including the ecological forms of waves and cycles – hampers cultural flow. Social and political change in an ecologically terrifying world has, therefore, paradoxically lost – or is in the process of losing – its metaphors.

The problem is classic chicken-and-egg algebra, and not unlike etymological questions that surround ancient myths. Take the word odyssey as a structural example: Homers’ Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s great odyssey. When we use the word odyssey now, are we using a word that is itself being poeticized by the Greeks, or is it only after the story of Odysseus that we then use the word that first referred to Odysseus’s-quest to now mean epic-journey? (This is an especially improbable head-scratcher when you think about how many hundreds of years the story was orally circulated before it was finally transcribed) Is The Odyssey a story of a prescribed word or a word born of a story? In political and social terms, global warming has returned us to a place of similarly uncertain origins, a “nonlocality” where historical causalities seem to have arrived in a state of suspended animation.

Seneca unwittingly points to such a suspension or gap in On the Shortness of Life:

Men are tight-fisted in keeping control of their fortunes, but when it comes to the matter of wasting-time, they are positively extravagant in the one area where there is honor in being miserly.

This quote pops with irony in our age of click-bait, fake news, and touch screens, but his simple point (Why waste your life?) is undermined by something more deeply disturbing: Is life nothing more than wasting-time? David Foster Wallace’s repetitive use of “wastoid” in The Pale King makes this point well: something at first mocking becomes descriptive and in the end a poignant rephrasing of “human”. Importantly, both Seneca and Wallace still rely on an ecological metaphor to shape their rhetorical/poetical expressions, as the abstraction of time is not mechanized without the observable change of the natural world, in this sense wasting, decomposition, decay. The day before last, Stephen Hawking said we wastoids have roughly one more millennia to whizz toward another rock because this one won’t fit the bill. It is hard to imagine a future where technical marvels advance while the foundations of our understanding of the world – the world itself – becomes violently uninhabitable.