Flying Over Language

I can’t write without knowing that each thing I define will be erased in time. There are no safe and secure places for language. The death of meaning is like the extinction of a species. But other meanings come forth to fill each ecological niche. The poet routinely wipes out entire taxonomic groups in order to make room for new forms of life. This culling is necessary; the poet who doesn’t do this is in peril. You must join with the fragility of sentience, recognize the elementary or undifferentiated consciousness where language originates. Writing poetry is like playing the piano with your hair. You don’t know exactly why it works, but somehow you’re able to make music. What I’m describing is intuition, the golden hunch behind all the explanations and theories, which allows you to take advantage of the fluidity of meaning. To intuit is to step outside language and view it from the air. What’s seen when you’re flying over language are the ruins of custom and interpretation, mighty edifeces meant to last milennia. But in fact, they’re made of straw, built on flowing water. No one who is seriously writing poetry can live in them for long.

Don Domanski

Hearts & Minds

From Ali Eteraz at The Guardian:

Growing up and then attending college in America’s deep south, I was taught that when it came to the English language liberals were like Humpty Dumpty. What with their “deconstruction” and “post-modernism” and “relativism” those leftists – linguistic anarchists! literary terrorists! – could make a word mean “just what I choose it to mean”.

Meanwhile, conservatives were the mature and staid and serious “defenders” of “the canon” and “the great books” and “the classics”. They believed that words had certain fixed, even sacrosanct, meanings that were rooted in religion, tradition and western mores.

Then I graduated and encountered the Bush administration.

Conservative in garb, southern in style, jingoistic in jargon, it was Osama bin Laden to English. All of a sudden I saw not just an absolute disregard for language but a complete subversion of it. Everyone from GW Bush down to his staff and political appointments traduced our lingua franca and left me feeling utterly disoriented.

It is worth considering some of the crimes against English that Bush conservatism wrought.

There was, for starters, the term “compassionate conservatism“. It should have immediately rung a warning bell. Here was a leader whose mantra was an insult to his own philosophy. Hint: if you need to put “compassionate” before “conservatism”, you are signalling that regular conservatism is brutal or indifferent. (Incidentally, some Muslims object to the use of the term “moderate Muslim”, because it wrongly implies that the average Muslim is an extremist).

Putting aside the seven minutes of silence that occurred on one of the most tragic days in American history – to what can those be attributed except a lack of coherent words? – one ends up in the arena of law enforcement, where the Bush administration turned English into a laughing stock.

The most serious error was the term “war on terror.” On September 18 2001, the Rand Corporation requested the government not to refer to our response as a war, as it would confirm the narrative that al-Qaida wanted to establish. And how can one wage war upon a feeling? A war on terror is as farcical as a war on pain or a jihad on arousal. “War on terrorism” is not a whole lot better because a) it doesn’t have the requisite ring and b) most of what we’ve done in response to al-Qaeda constitutes collaborative police action and doesn’t fit the traditional definition of war. The unsexy, but correct, term should have have been “counter-terrorism“.

The terror errors accumulated. Faced by a group of killers who fancied themselves modern-day Saladins and sought revenge for the occupation of Jerusalem, President Bush went ahead and called his response, yes, a crusade.

This was followed by the foolishly named “Operation Infinite Justice” – a theological phrase invoking God – which was the first title given to the operation in Afghanistan. It was eventually renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom” when someone realised that Muslims believed in God as well. By then, however, the damage had been done.

Then, as the United States tried to “win the battle for the hearts and minds” of Muslims, we gave our operations such conciliatory names as “Operation Hammer” and “Operation Mountain Fury”.

Read the rest here

Sarah Knows What She’s Saying

From anil dash, blogging about how culture is made:

What’s striking to me this election season, though, is that Sarah Palin has chosen to abuse her command of language so obviously without suffering any serious criticism for it thus far.

The crux of the issue is simple:

  1. Sarah Palin has unequivocally associated Barack Obama with the idea of terrorism and specifically with “terrorists”.
  2. Republican President George Bush has defined in our National Security Strategy, and the Republican Party’s platform affirms, that we may identify and strike at terrorists before they have committed any defined acts of aggression against American citizens.
  3. George Bush has made clear, by stating before a joint session of Congress that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
  4. Palin has used deliberate choice of language to avoid these connections being highlighted by the media, while increasing the likelihood that the target audience for her message will be incited by her statements.

Through these arguments, it becomes clear that Sarah Palin’s assertions are designed not to prove that Obama is unqualified for the office of the Presidency of the United States. Rather, she appears to be attempting to convince a substantial portion of her supporters that Obama supports terrorism against the United States and thus should be, at the very least, incarcerated as an enemy combatant (which we are doing to American citizens already) or at worst, assassinated for supporting terror. She has done this knowing full well that she can retain plausible deniability thanks to the ambiguity of her statements as they’ll be interpreted by the media, by her detractors, and by her more reasonable supporters.


… the most dramatic technique in Sarah Palin’s speeches is the use of vernacular to mask the seriousness of an assertion. Sarah Palin cloaks her ideas in “straight talk” to avoid them being subject to fact-checking that would happen if she were to use standard english to make the same points.

Put simply, if Palin says “Barack Obama consorts with terrorists”, she is making the assertion that he supports acts of violence against American citizens and the media will refute this obviously false assertion. If, instead, Palin says he “pals around with terrorists”, she’s used code-switching to mask the seriousness of the charge, obfuscating her meaning enough to get away with making an assertion that inevitably calls for the imprisonment or even assassination of a political opponent.

Reporters wrongly see a term like “palling” as imprecise, when compared to a word like “consorting”.

But these words are not imprecise to their intended audience. They are, in fact, clearer than using legalistic terms like “consorting”. They amplify the urgency of the statements, and increase the sense for Palin’s audience that they’re on the same page with her, speaking a language too “plain”, too full of “straight talk”, for the press to understand. And they’re right. Palin has consistently pitted herself against the media, depicting them as hostile and foreign to her campaign, and thus making it even less likely they’d take her less formal-sounding charges seriously.

On top of this, by deliberately omitting the word “domestic” as a descriptor of “terrorist” after its initial mention in her speeches, Palin has amplified the recurring theme of “otherness” that the McCain campaign and its surrogates have pinned on Obama. There is an unequivocal attempt to assign a commonality of purpose and intent between Obama, his supporters and campaigners, and terrorists who would attack Americans.


I believe the vast majority of supporters of the campaign of John McCain are honorable, honest, well-intentioned and sincere Americans who want what’s best for this country. And I believe that all of us, regardless of party affiliation or political support, deserve better than someone who cynically twists language to inflame and incite the very worst elements of our culture. That’s why it’s important to point out the danger of these actions.

Sarah Palin’s conduct has gone far past the bounds of decency, and far past even the most dangerous efforts of any previous candidate for such high office. This is an inexcusable, unforgivable, and unacceptable transgression and my belief is that she should be removed from consideration for the office of Vice President for her dangerous, unethical and unamerican display of irresponsibility.

This is a fascinating and important piece of writing – read the whole thing here

via wood s lot

F’ing Violence

Steve Pinker on the relationship between swearing and violence:

My new book, The Stuff of Thought, has a chapter on swearing. In my next book I will discuss historic declines in violence. To my surprise, the two topics may be connected. In all languages, taboo words refer to emotionally fraught concepts: the supernatural, disease, bodily secretions, sexual depravity, and social outcasts. But the particular curses vary. In traditional Catholic societies, swearing is religious: the standard profanity in Québecois French: is Accursed tabernacle! With the sexual revolution, the F-word is no longer such a big deal, but with our increased sensitivity to racism, the N-word can end a career. Centuries ago in England religious swearing gave way to our familiar sexual and scatological four-letter words. As the historian Geoffrey Hughes has noted, “The days when the dandelion could be called the pissabed, a heron could be called a shitecrow and the windhover could be called the windfucker have passed away with the exuberant phallic advertisement of the codpiece.” What does this have to do with violence? Contrary to the popular belief that we are living in horrifically violent times, rates of homicide in the West have plummeted ten- to a hundredfold over the centuries. The sociologist Norbert Elias noted that this pacification process, correlated with other changes in everyday manners. Starting in the Late Middle Ages, people stopped blowing their noses onto the dining room table, urinating onto curtains, defecating in public, and giving their eight-year-olds advice about prostitution. Taboos on speaking about excretion and sexuality were part of this development. Ellis lumps these trends into a “civilizing process,” in which the formation of states and complex social networks forced people to exercise their superego (today we would say their prefrontal cortex) to inhibit their first impulses. If this idea is right, it’s another example of how the walls between the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are obsolete: Medieval history, word usage, and brain function are all connected.


From an essay by Adrian Michael Kelly:

A national literature cannot be administered and is no longer germane to the fiction that we call Canada.  A national literature, or an aggregate of works that emerge from the very marrow of a language and culture, depends for its vitality upon sociological and mythological homogeneity.  The Celtic Renaissance which the younger Yeats wanted could not have taken root in a polyglot and ethnically diverse Ireland. Whatever else Canada may be, it is certainly polyglot and multi-form, an agglutination (“mosaic” implies pattern and harmony) of ethnic constituencies few of which maintain organic connections with the others.  Why should the poetry of Bliss Carmen (or Dionne Brand or Michael Crummey for that matter) lodge in the heart of a Serbo-Canadian in Vancouver or a German-speaking Mennonite in southern Manitoba?  Should it find a sounding in “common Canadian values?”  What are they exactly?  Those sanctified by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?  (Who among us can recite a line of that?) 

Holocaust Witness

After his “liberation” from the death camp at Auschwitz, Italian scientist Primo Levi wrote extensively about his experiences there.  From an essay on the central problems writing Holocaust memoir, “Primo Levi and the Language of Witness“, by Michael Tager:

Like many Holocaust survivors writing about their experiences, Primo Levi expresses both the urge to bear witness, and doubt about whether he can use language to communicate his experience adequately.(1) To enhance his memory, he began making notes while still in Auschwitz, even though he could not keep them because any writing by a prisoner was considered espionage. Recalling his life just after his return to Italy, Levi compares himself to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who waylaid guests on the way to the wedding feast to tell them of his misfortunes, because Levi behaved similarly, telling his story to everyone and anyone who would listen. Indeed, his last two books about Auschwitz, published thirty-five and forty years after his release, take the same verse from The Ancient Mariner as their epigraph:

Since then, at a uncertain hour, That agony returns, And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns.

Near the end of his life, his memory of his year in Auschwitz remained “much sharper and more detailed than anything before or since,”(2) and he could not bear to let remembered details fade away. Part of his compulsion to write about Auschwitz reflected an attempt to cope psychologically with the injury done to him, to somehow “become a man again … neither a martyr, nor debased, nor a saint.”(3) V

But upon his release in 1945 he sensed that “nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain with us forever,”(4) and his repeated return to this subject matter supports his later conclusion that his injury “cannot be healed”(5) by the passage of time. Levi’s own suicide in 1987 more than forty years after his liberation perhaps shows the ongoing nature of the psychic wound inflicted upon him.(6) Surveying videotaped interviews of concentration camp survivors, Lawrence Langer argues that using words like “liberation” in connection with the Holocaust can be misleading because they “entice us into a kind of verbal enchantment that too easily dispels the miasma of the death camp ordeal and its residual malodors.”(7)

Misgivings accompany Levi’s continuing drive to remember and discuss: could he convincingly recount what happened? In Auschwitz, he had dreams in which he would tell his story and people would turn away, refusing to listen of believe him. He admits that words like “hunger,” “fear,” “pain,” “cold,” fail to convey the intensity of those feelings at Auschwitz, and that only a “new, harsh language” could describe them.8 Words developed in normal life did not seem applicable to Auschwitz; Langer describes how one survivor, who when first trying to tell others what had happened to her family in the camp, “remembers thinking that |My family were killed’ was totally inadequate, because |killed,’ she says, was a word used for |ordinary’ forms of dying.”(9) Neither did the word “gassed” seem satisfactory to communicate the enormity of the event, and she was driven toward silence despite her desire to speak. So much of what happened was incredible, and not comparable to anything Levi previously experienced or imagined, that he states simply in one passage, “no one can boast of understanding the Germans”(10) (SA 126). Entry into the death camp began with a journey of many days in a sealed boxcar that deposited him in an unknown location, leaving him spatially disoriented. His shock deepened upon arrival as he was further stripped of control over his destiny and even his basic bodily functions. Intense and unpredictable violence undermined his sense of connection between the present and the past and future. The problem of intelligibly describing such a profoundly disorienting experience, and finding language to bear witness to events he found incredible, and that many people did want to listen to, informs much of Levi’s work. In his survey of Holocaust literature, Alvin Rosenfeld finds this a common dilemma. He notes that camp inmates witnessed cruelty, deprivation, and terror on a scale that “so far surpassed anything previously known as to make writing about it a next-to-impossible task,” and that “all memoirists have known this sense of radical self-estrangement, which handicaps any thinking and writing about the Holocaust, but which their books themselves are written to break.”(11)

Because the overwhelming majority of Jews sent to Auschwitz perished, Levi also questions whether his exceptional status as a survivor qualifies him to discuss the true nature of the concentration camp. In his first memoir he uses the metaphor of “the drowned and the saved” to describe the prisoners, of whom the drowned “form the backbone of the camp … continually renewed and always identical” (SA, 82), whereas the paths to salvation were very few, difficult and improbable. In Levi’s own case an unlikely combination of factors helped him survive: he arrived relatively late in January of 1944, his knowledge of chemistry and German secured him a job inside a laboratory for several months, and a prisoner in another labor camp for non-Jewish Italian workers befriended him and smuggled him an extra ration of food every day for six months.

Do read the rest here

via wood s lot

Collected Poems of Primo Levi

The Survivor

Once more he sees his companions’ faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Gray with cement dust,
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Chewing a non-existant turnip.
‘Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.’
America’s Black Holocaust Museum, the popular but financially struggling institution on Milwaukee’s north side, is closing Thursday because it can’t afford to keep its remaining staff.

The museum’s directors appealed to the public Tuesday for money and volunteer support to help the museum reopen. The museum also is negotiating with its creditors and city officials for assistance.

“We are working with our lenders to make sure that we don’t lose the building,” said Reggie Jackson, the museum’s board chairman. “We are in a position we hoped we’d never have to be in, but we believe this temporary closing will help us to get our financial house in order and get into a better position when we do reopen.”

Andrea Rowe Richards, speaking for the city’s Department of City Development, said:

“We’re hopeful that the community will step forward to work with all of us to retain this nationally significant museum.”

The 20-year-old museum was started in the basement of James Cameron, who survived a lynching in 1930 in Indiana. Cameron made it a lifelong mission to teach others about the historical struggles of blacks in America, from slavery to the present.

His museum is the first to commemorate and memorialize victims of lynching.

From the Globe and Mail:

Quebec is no more a racist society than other jurisdictions in the Western world, but it faces problems integrating immigrants which it will need to tackle immediately, says a report on the reasonable accommodation of the province’s minorities.

The report by sociologist Gérard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor says there is no chaos in Quebec but rather a serious problem of perception. The academics insist that both the francophone and immigrant communities must come together in a moral contract where both have a responsibility in ensuring social harmony.

Jacob Levy on reasonable accomodation, also at The Globe:

Identity questions in Quebec are more sensitive than in other provinces, for two separate reasons. One is the language question. The other is the Quiet Revolution, and ongoing tensions between secular and Catholic Quebeckers about the place of religion in the public sphere.

“Multiculturalism” in particular is a dirty word in Quebec, because it’s associated with Trudeau-era views that seemed to reduce French Quebec (and First Nations, too) to the status of just another cultural group like any recent immigrant group. So there’s also a hostility to anything called multiculturalism, but that’s about words, not policies.

The commission report basically sidesteps questions of language. It says, rightly, that French isn’t endangered in Quebec anymore, that whatever happens with immigrant accommodation and religious accommodation is going to happen against the background of a French public language and public culture. But it also stresses, rightly, that questions of bilingualism and the status of the English minority in the province are quite distinct questions from those of immigrant communities and religious minorities. I think it accepts as a background assumption that French will receive its special status and special protection in Quebec.