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Amor Mundi: Words That Mean Nothing

Words That Mean Nothing

Masha Gessen, who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on “Crises of Democracy,” turns to Hannah Arendt to understand Donald Trump’s assault on language and our common world.

“Trump also has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is great and everything is tremendous. Any word can be given or taken away. NATO can be “obsolete” and then “no longer obsolete”—this challenges not only any shared understanding of the word “obsolete” but our shared experience of linear time.

And then there is Trump’s ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing. Here is an excerpt, chosen from many similar ones, from his interview with the AP about his first hundred days in office:

Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.

Here is a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” the “United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, means nothing here, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered during a face-to-face interview? The role of the journalist is, too, rendered meaningless in the most basic way: the interviewer feels compelled to participate, interrupting this incomprehensible monologue with follow-up questions or words like “right,” but these serve to create the fiction that something is indeed “right” or could be “right” about what Trump is saying—when in fact he is saying nothing and everything at the same time, and this cannot be right.

Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static. This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality. This is what language is for: to enable you to name “secateurs,” buy them, and use them. To make it possible for a surgeon to name “scalpel” and have it placed in her open palm. To make sure that a mother can understand the story her child tells her when she comes home from school, or a judge can evaluate a case being made. None of this is possible when words mean nothing.

Now, we writers have often spent time—much of it in the late twentieth century—questioning the ability of words to reflect facts, and the existence of objective facts themselves. There are those who have, whether with glee or with shame, observed a sort of relationship between those postmodern exercises and Trump’s post-truth, post-language ways. I think this reflects a basic misunderstanding, or perhaps a willing conflation of intentions. When writers and academics question the limits of language, it is invariably an exercise that grows from a desire to bring more light into the public sphere, to arrive at a shared reality that is more nuanced than it was yesterday. To focus ever more tightly on the shape, weight, and function of any thing that can be named, or to find names for things that have not, in the past, been observed. Our ability to do this depends on a shared language. As Hannah Arendt wrote,

We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it. If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.”

Illiberal and Uneducated

It is increasingly possible, that “For the first time in Europe since World War II, a university will have been closed for political reasons.” That is the increasingly likely possible for the Central European University in Budapest, which has been targeted by Hungarian President Viktor Orbán. Orbán has embraced what he calls “illiberal democracy.” As Jan Werner Müeller writes, Orbán also seems set on creating an uneducated democracy.

“In recent years, Orbán has moved Hungary in a more authoritarian direction than any other European country. Since 2010, he has written a new constitution, enfeebled the judiciary, put much of the news media under the control of government-friendly oligarchs, and created a system of crony capitalism in which economic success depends increasingly on connections to his party. He has also taken an extremely hard line against refugees, building a fence with Serbia and running government-sponsored campaigns that portray all asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” posing a threat to the nation’s Christian European identity.

One would have thought that the nation’s well-being is in fact much more endangered by Orbán’s drastic reductions in education budgets at all levels; rare is a government in today’s world that seems determined to make society less smart. The number of university students has been declining dramatically since 2010; meanwhile, the age at which students can legally leave school has been lowered from eighteen to sixteen. Orbán, as part of his self-professed turn to “illiberalism,” has put forward the notion of a “work-based state.” In theory, such a state is the opposite of a polity where financial speculation generates most of the wealth. In practice, this idea has meant public works programs—especially for Roma—that critics view as highly exploitative; it has also resulted in an attempt to create a workforce primarily of manual laborers, where everyone knows their place and can at most aspire to employment by German industry (Mercedes is currently spending a billion euros on a new plant in central Hungary).”


Theatre Without Drama

Holger Syme worries that under the direction of Chris Dercon, the Volksbühne in Berlin—which just announced a new season shockingly light on dramatic theatre— is giving up on theatre as a medium to reflect upon human experience.

“From their intellectual perspective, that appears to make sense. Dercon’s director of programming, Marietta Piekenbrock, essentially announced at their press conference that theatre as we know it is moribund anyway:

The stage of spoken-word theatre is indebted to a sense of the world that is centred on the human. On the stage of the 21st century, however, we find a new distribution of power, a new dynamic of creatures, ghosts, machines, objects. The things we once invented to define identities or let them manifest themselves on stage have lost all traction. The [human] subject – is that even a topic anymore these days?

From Piekenbrock’s perspective, a post-human world cannot rely on forms of representation that still focus, naively, on the human. At the same time, she also thinks that “the body – that of the refugee, the maimed, the rebel, the injured – has returned to the centre of political discourse. Across all boundaries of language its signs and messages are universally comprehensible.” So perhaps not post-human after all, just post-discursive. Bodies that stand for other bodies: old-fashioned. Bodies that speak for themselves: cutting edge. Which is presumably the reason that dance is taking centre stage in this new vision, and it obviously is the reason Susanne Kennedy comes to stand for whatever future the theatre may have: a director who hides her actors’ faces behind masks and takes their live voices away, replacing them with recordings (of their own or other voices).

It seems to me that the answer to Piekenbrock’s question is an obvious and resounding “yes” – of course the subject is “still” a topic. How could it not be? If anything, the omnipresence of vulnerable and injured bodies in our newsfeeds is surely a reminder that we’re very far from being post-human. We still walk and talk amongst and with other bodies, we still interact with other beings in their embodied form, not merely through their avatars; we aren’t quite machines yet. Our lives may be more and more affected by algorithms and mediated by devices; but those lives are still the lives of bodies – bodies that speak, and feel, and sometimes think. That the relationships between bodies and feeling and words and thoughts is complicated and subject to alienation and distortion is hardly news – it is, after all, one of the main themes of the drama of the twentieth century. And certainly not just Beckett’s. But despite that complexity, and because of its awareness of it, the theatre seems to me the place where art can insist on the abiding centrality of lived human experience even and especially in a world that seems to move towards the post-human. Theatre surely is the place to highlight the inadequacy of that discourse rather than yet another art form used to echo and represent a human-made world devoid of humanity.”

Oro y Plata

Anne Helen Peterson travels to Montana to look in on a house race that–shockingly–seems to be more about Montana than it is about Washington:

“On April 26, the Washington Free Beacon — a publication out of Washington, DC — broke what, to its mind, was a major scandal in the special election for the Montana House seat vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke. “Montana Democrat Rob Quist Is Regular Performer at a Nudist Resort,” the headline declared. The Republican National Committee, which is backing Quist’s opponent, Greg Gianforte, quickly sent out an email blast, declaring “The more Rob Quist’s past is laid bare, the more his claim to represent Montana values is exposed as another charade.”

The story was next picked up by USA Today, which added additional context: “According to his campaign, he doesn’t discriminate about which gigs he takes,” the piece explained. “And no, Quist is not a nudist himself, nor does he perform in the nude.”

The resort where Quist performed is indeed a nudist resort. But to suggest that Montanans would be scandalized by this choice of venue is to fundamentally misunderstand Montana, where the standard dress code at dozens of natural hot springs in the state is “clothing optional.” The first time I saw a naked adult was at a hot springs in Western Montana; many Montanans will tell you something similar. If anything, voters who received that email blast from the GOP were more offended by an outside attempt to define “Montana values” than someone playing music, fully clothed, at a resort.

The story — and the GOP’s aim to exploit it — points to the problem with attempts, both financial and ideological, to transform the races in Georgia, Kansas, and now Montana into political bellwethers. In trying to nationalize these races — and framing them as macro-commentary on politics in America — we lose sight of the actual lessons they can teach us.

Some of those lessons are simple: to remember, for example, that endorsements are unpredictable variables. But others are more complicated, and frustrate the inclination of both Democrats and Republicans to turn every race into a national statement. The Montana special election won’t be a referendum on Trump. It won’t even necessarily tell us what will happen in the midterms. But it, and Montana politics in general, does offer a master class on something even more important: namely, how to cultivate and actually sway one of the most valuable, and increasingly rare, of political entities — the independent voter.”

Race and Education

The photojournalist Chris Arnade offers this Twitter stream on divided America. It begins:

“The US right now is massively divided. The biggest division is race. Even after Obama. The next biggest division is education.”

Energy Sublime

David McDermott Hughes visits a town in Spain that’s become centered around the creation of wind power. In the process, he asks how will we adjust to the simultaneous rise of automation and the increasingly important demand that we find new ways to power our lives:

““I am annoyed,” declared La Zarzuela’s mayor, a short stocky man known for blunt talk. Osvaldo Santiago (a pseudonym, as are all the names below) works as a foreman in the port of Algeciras, just across a narrow bay from Gibraltar itself.

Nadie! Nadie!” he says while jabbing at my stomach. “No one, no one” has gotten a job from these monstrous blades. Local unemployment is 40 percent, he tells me. The turbines only require a few maintenance workers—educated, skilled technicians of the sort you won’t find in rural Andalusia. Santiago, who hangs out with the captains and deck hands of container ships, cannot quite believe that such large hunks of steel can run themselves.

We can expect more such conflict and resentment. Denmark generates roughly 40 percent of its electricity from wind; Spain follows at roughly 20 percent. For now proponents and opponents agree on one tacit principle: that turbines should stay out of the way and preferably out of sight. Installers run them along ridges, in the empty spaces between settlement, or out at sea. But even this last option can provoke staunch resistance. Well-connected residents of Hyannis, Massachusetts, all but killed the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in the 2000s because they contended it would “pollute” their ocean views. Americans seem to prefer their windmills in Iowa, west Texas, and eastern Oregon, hinterlands where few people (and fewer rich people) live and vote. Unfortunately much of that electricity dies on the cables, never reaching refrigerators and light bulbs hundreds of miles away. Therein lies the problem: to power the grid with 100 percent renewables, every society will need to put wind farms and solar farms in places where the wind blows, where the sun shines, and where consumers of electricity live. Saving the planet from catastrophic climate change is going to be inconvenient.”

The Let Down

Enrico Sarsini/Time & Life Pictures/Getty

Chris Kraus remembers Mary McCarthy, through one particular reading in 1963:

“McCarthy, whose entrée to upper-middle-class life didn’t really occur until she entered Vassar, speaks in the clipped dulcet tones of an already nearly extinct mid-Atlantic accent. About fifteen minutes into the reading, McCarthy pauses and explains what her strategies were in writing The Group. She mentions her use of indirect free speech—the same device used by Flaubert in Madame Bovary, whose gift for harsh pathos McCarthy shares. She explains, “The voice of the author is heard, but very rarely, and quickly lost. All through the book, when a girl is thinking about her own life or telling her own story … the tone of the chapter is as if she were telling a story to a group of friends.” “Everything,” she goes on, “in the girls’ lives tends to be technologized—the breastfeeding and contraception problems—that is, technologized, and in some ways socialized and alienated in some way. Everything that happens to these girls is turned into a subject for group conversation … What I’m trying to do in this book is to make some kind of study of what it meant to be young, for one thing, and what it meant to be a young American trained in progressive ideas, and trained to be a consumer … I hope that I made myself clear. I thought I made myself clear when I was writing it, but it appears that I hadn’t.”

And from here, she relaxes. When she reads the passage about the domestically slovenly staunch communist Norine going to Bloomingdale’s to buy black chiffon underwear to turn on her impotent husband—“that should get his pecker up”—she puts her hand on her hip, and the audience roars.”

Posted on 21 May 2017 | 9:30 am

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