Thursday, March 28, 2024

Word Pictures

When it comes to the perverse use of language for political gain Orwell is the most oft-quoted author in English, perhaps a little over-quoted, as his observations do not necessarily encompass all aspects of the problem we face today.

One wonders what he would have made of "Trans women are women", an apparent statement of fact grounded in a rather obvious counter-factual.
Might he have said "calm down, it rather depends on the human social context" or was he a bit too invested in calling out these distortions? I'm sure the purity of it would have impressed him. 
Anyway, my own quotees would be these. First Joseph Conrad: "Words, as is well known, are the great enemies of reality."
And then Arthur Miller: "Words are undervalued as a means of expression. Pictures tend to trivialise experience." Not as contradictory to the above as it might at first seem.
Living in this society which relentlessly trivialises experience with images, it is hardly surprising that a certain amount of effort goes into turning language into a co-conspirator. 
In Academia and certain professions (though less so on the scientific side) there is a new form of false precision in ascendancy, taking the form of what we might call "word pictures". These are words that are loaded up with extra meaning before insertion into a sentence, such that hearing them delivers an almost visual experience. And although they have a bit extra inside them, their real purpose is to restrict what can happen outside their 'walls'. 
They make ignorance feel like knowledge, which is also handy in today's democratised discourse. 
I witnessed some high end deployment of this linguistic toolbox on X yesterday in the form of a "rapport" by Francesca Albanese at the UN. A lawyer by training and an antisemite by instinct, she can barely open her mouth without letting slip one of the pictorial buzzwords of her ideology: apartheid, genocide, colonialism, occupation etc. Have those bingo cards at the ready. 
The purpose of such words is to take us outside of language, outside of reality as Conrad might have it. 
There are some other little ironies worth noting. The term colonialism lends itself to an emotive over-simplification of a complex situation even in its original context, let alone the contemporary Middle East. 
And Albanese's partisan argot also represents a kind of clandestine translation from another set of formalised and aggressive grievances and chauvinisms, those of the Islamists, to another. 
It's as if the word pictures we are being saturated with are like a set of symbols which have been touched up to appear as if they belong to one faith tradition when in fact their origin is alien to it. Rather like the Mezquita in Cordoba: a mosque which is now dressed up as a Catholic cathedral.

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