Monday, September 21, 2009

A story of words - 2

It is certainly not to be found in the person of Barack Obama.

Just as there is little difference between Coors and Miller, so also is there little difference in the policies of Bush and Obama.

I realize that this statement will provoke outrage from many of my readers.

Sure, there are some differences between them - enough to establish Obama as a new brand - but the basic course of empire, of finance, the military, medicine, law, education, of all the defining institutions of our society remains unchanged.

Significantly, during the campaign most of the media commentary on his speeches was about the image they created, their emotional effect, and not their content.

Today, the content barely matters except for what image it creates.

Words become merely emotive signs, not semantic ones.

Therefore, even though I don't think Obama tells deliberate lies as did his predecessors, the change in the way we use and receive language makes it impossible for him to tell the truth either.

Everything is heard through a filter of meta-interpretations; we hear not words but code-words, not semantic meaning but signals and "messages."

Words don't mean what they mean.

Speaking into such a listening, it becomes impossible to really tell the truth.

Even if a politician speaks plainly, we hear an attempt to create an image of plainspokenness.

Thus it is that people detect a certain indefinable insincerity underneath Obama's words - insincerity is now built in to the language of politics. (It is also inherent in the contradictions of our civilization's deep ideology, but that is a different matter.)

Playing by the rules of the political game, as Obama most definitely does, he can do naught but lie.

His "hope" and "change" will be exposed as the brands they are.

People will see that there is little cause to hope, and that not much has changed.

The despair, cynicism, and sense of betrayal that will result will foment a dangerous crisis and, in the end, a profound renewal of public discourse that demands truth and has no patience with inauthenticity.

Above I asked, "Where is the indignation, the outrage, at the lies in which we are immersed?"

Clearly, the answer lies deeper than the machinations of one or another faction of the power elite.

It lies deeper than the subversion and control of the media.

Part of our society's apathy arises from a subtle and profound disempowerment: the de-potentiation of language itself, along with all other forms of symbolic culture.

Words are losing their power to create and to transform.

The result is a tyranny that can never be overthrown, but will only proceed toward totality until it collapses under the weight of the multiple crises it inevitably generates.

As we acclimate ourselves to a ubiquitous matrix of lies, words mean less and less to us, and we don't believe anything any more.

As well we shouldn't!

We are facing a crisis of language that underlies and mirrors all the other converging crises of the modern age.

Just as a growing profusion of material and social technology has failed to bring about the promised Utopia of leisure, health, and justice, so has the profusion of words and media failed to bring about better communication. Instead, the opposite has happened

We are faced with a paradox.

On the one hand, in a technological society, words are themselves actions.

The entire modern world is built on language, on symbol.

Any endeavor requiring the coordination of human activity beyond a very small scale requires language.

You cannot build a microchip, run an airport or a government, wage a war, organize a peace movement, or build a wind turbine without a vast apparatus of codified instruction books, technical manuals, educational curricula, time schedules, planning documents, memos, instructions, measurements, and data.

If the President decides to bomb Iran, do you know how he will do it?

With words.

He literally has the power to speak a war into being.

Like the Old Testament Jehovah, we create the world with our words.

Neither the President nor Congress really ever does anything but talk (and write).

Unless you work with your hands as a carpenter or garbage collector, you are probably the same.

What are we to do, then, when words, our primary creative tool in the modern world, have become impotent?

Surely political activists must ask this of themselves, as they shout the truth from the rooftops, loud and clear, to so little effect (yes there are some small victories, but the inferno rages on).

We feel the urge to stop talking and get out there and DO something.

But to do is to speak.

An exception might be the activists who, impatient with all the talk, go out there and sabotage tractors and spike trees.

Ironically, the main impact of such operations usually comes from their symbolic power, which has quickly diminished (in the public consciousness) to the status of gimmicks and stunts.

Something similar might be said of mass protests, which began to lose their power after the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

Originally, marches and demonstrations were intended not only to attract media attention, but carried the threat of actual physical action.

Their essence was, "We're sick of sitting around talking, we're going to do something about this!"

But as protests turned into media events, whose success was defined by the amount and kind of coverage, they became just another form of talking: they "raise awareness" and "send a message."

Not since Seattle in 1998 has the physicality of street action had much of an effect. (In other parts of the world it is a different story.

In China, for instance, protesters in rural villages are wont to [literally] tar and feather corrupt local officials.

In Europe, mass demonstrations paralyze commerce and government.)

It is not that the symbolic aspect of such actions is unimportant, but when they become wholly symbolic, the symbol loses its connection to - and impact on - reality


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