Language Politics, Censorship, and Reality

The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/  The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.

But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.

As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.

This, of course, leads me to the recent reveal of the Trump administration’s censorship of seven words for the CDC: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” While the initial call seems like it was over-blown, the words being discouraged for the CDC budget to make it more palatable, it follows a larger pattern: the EPA’s censoring of scientists, the removal of “LGBT” and “climate change” from the White House site, Trump’s attacks on the media and use of “fake news” epithets, etc. Indeed, even if the Post’s story was overblown, the fact they needed to police their language along ideological lines for research funds troubles me.

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CCR 633: Memory and Platonic Print

One of the main things I get from reading Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” is his primary thesis: that writing–particularly non-oral alphabetic discursive literacies–not only offer tools for communication but change how we think and communicate in fundamentally “noetic” way. As he writes, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (24).

Ong’s point connects to the ongoing discussion of whether technology or artifacts have politics, though in this case, it focuses more on the way that technology affects our thinking.

One way writing changes us is through memory. As we noted from Rickert–who drew from Hayles–people have tended to build “smarter” technology to help with memory. This could include the early tokens of Mesopotamia, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat discussed, and their capacity to track goods. It could also include the various  reminder and calendar apps that populate smart phones and computers. All of these keep track of other things so we don’t have to.

On the one hand, this is positive. Answering a few Doodle polls this past week to schedule meetings, I’ve consulted the calendar on my smart phone. I also use a more low-tech near-daily inventory of general to-dos. All of these keep my working memory from getting too cluttered.

But Socrates, via Plato–whom Ong cites–criticizes these technologies, particularly the technology of writing. As Socrates says, in the apparent voice of King Thamus, “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.” The person who writes something down, he goes on, is relying on extrinsic things–an extrinsic system of signs, materials outside the body, etc.–and is only creating a later sign-post to return to an earlier thought. The writer is not actually holding onto and engaging with the thought. They can’t defend it either. The thought is orphaned, isolated, and silent.

This leads Socrates to characterize writing as something static, like a visual image. As he  says, “The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The this is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” I find the turn to the visual to be an interesting shift, but it makes sense, as visuals are more static if we take an oral view of language.

This characterization made more sense as Ong took it up, connecting the static quality that Socrates ascribes to print to the static “being” of Platonic forms.  As Ong argues, “Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy precisely with visible form. Despite his touting of logos and speech, the Platonic ideas in effect modelled intelligence not so much on hearing as on seeing” (29). We see this with his discussion in the Protagorus, as they dissect a poem, which would be hard to do without a static referent.

Indeed, print is a visual medium, a series of squiggles carried through some medium–captured through handwriting, type-faces, or pixels. It is silent, like a fresco, and in a Platonic sense, it’s non-material. But this silent, non-material Being of writing, as Ong notes, “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (31). It gets “spoken” in our heads or through bodies and machines, but as the word-iself, it feels permanent.  Parmenides has triumphed over Heraclitus.

This non-material sense of writing brings me back to one of my teachers in Classical Philosophy who drew a triangle on the board. “What is this?” he asked. “A triangle,” we said. “No,” he replied, “it’s some chalk dust smudged a certain way.” He then wrote out the definition; we fell into the same trap. “No,” he replied, “it’s the definition of a triangle.” The triangle-in-itself is only mediated into existence, never actually existing as a material being.

With this Platonic view of writing, I think we are somewhat trapped in all the distancing that Ong ascribes to writing. It’s a somewhat long litany, but he often focuses on the growing divide between the “lifeworld” and the abstract, as writing makes our own thinking more abstracted from everyday life. We discuss more the idea of things than the things in themselves. Time and space also distance. We become more artificial in out being, though, as Ong paradoxically notes, it’s natural for humans to be artificial through technology. Technology, itself, is natural.

But I don’t think we need to be Platonic. As Heidegger argues–and Rickert–regarding the fourfold, dwelling assumes a lifeworld of both matter and meaning. “Hammer,” as word, is deeply stitched into the material of the hammer-object and the action of human-hammering, and in-turn, this layered ontology of the object, withdrawing and presencing as the situation changes, fits into the broader world of relations. So, to me, there is nothing Platonic about a hammer or the word hammer.

The same for visuals. I think here of Lauri Gries’ work. Following the Obama Hope image with a New Materialist underpinning, she highlights the “vital materiality” of the image. As she writes, “rhetoric transforms and transcends across genres, media, and forms as it circulates and intra-acts with other human and nonhuman entities. Rhetoric also moves in nonlinear, inconsistent, and often unpredictable ways within and across multiple networks of associations” (7).  Seeing the networked and networking threads and ripples of beings–both human and nonhuman, concrete and nonmaterial–something that feels “distant” or “dead” is very much alive.

A word on writing: Craft

Before shifting to philosophy, I was a journalism major. My passion was and remains writing and reading, although my topics have shifted over the years. I read grammar books for fun now and then, and get excited over a well-placed comma or a finite distinction, the difference between farther and further or prophesy and prophecy, for example. I think in words and try to pin down everything I can into coherent syntax. I recognize this has limits, but it’s how I process the world. Besides, language has immense expressiveness.

I have no other credentials than an ongoing college education; a passion for the page; a computer weighted down with essays, poems, short stories, and half-finished novels; and an exhaustive reading list. But I hope my opinion has some depth to it, and can entertain–or interest–a reader.

I think writing is a craft and a type of magic, a dichotomy made by Carl Sessions Stepp in his book Writing as Craft and Magic. Today, I’d like to talk about the first part: craft.

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