February 13, 2016
The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear
Posted on Apr 23, 2012
By Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly
The Voice of Money Talking to Money
Never have so many labels come so readily to hand, not only on Fox News and MSNBC, but also on the Goodyear blimp and on the fence behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. The achievement has been duly celebrated by the promoters of “innovative delivery strategies” that broaden our horizons and brighten our lives with “quicker access to valued customers.”
Maybe I miss the “key performance indicators,” but I don’t know how a language meant to be disposable enriches anybody’s life. I can understand why words construed as product placement serve the interest of the corporation or the state, but they don’t “enhance” or “empower” people who would find in their freedoms of thought and expression a voice, and therefore a life, that they can somehow recognize as their own.
The regime change implicit in the ascendant rule of signs funds the art of saying nothing. Meaning evaporates, the historical perspective loses its depth of field, the vocabulary contracts. George Orwell made the point in 1946, in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” “The slovenliness of our language,” he said, “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
Square, Site wide
Advertising isn’t interested in political regeneration. The purpose is to nurture foolish thoughts, and the laziness of mind suckled at the silicone breasts of CBS and Disney counts as a consumer benefit. The postliterate sensibility is offended by anything that isn’t television, views with suspicion the compound sentence, the subordinate clause, words of more than three syllables. The home and studio audiences become accustomed to hearing voices swept clean of improvised literary devices, downsized into data points, degraded into industrial-waste product.
Ambiguity doesn’t sell the shoes. Neither does taking time to think, or allowing too long a pause between the subject and the predicate. In the synthetic America the Beautiful, everything good is easy, anything difficult is bad, and the customer is always right. The body politic divides into constituencies of one, separate states of wishful thinking receding from one another at the speed of light.
Every loss of language, whether among the northern Inuit or the natives of the Jersey Shore, the critic George Steiner writes down as “an impoverishment in the ecology of the human psyche” comparable to the depletion of species in California and Ecuador. The abundance of many languages (as many as 68 of them in Mexico), together with the richness of their lexical and grammatical encoding (the many uses of the subjunctive among certain tribes in Africa) stores, as do the trees in Amazonia, a “boundless wealth of possibility” that cannot be replaced by the machinery of the global market.
“The true catastrophe of Babel,” says Steiner, “is not the scattering of tongues. It is the reduction of human speech to a handful of planetary, ‘multinational’ tongues… Anglo-American standardized vocabularies” and grammar shaped by “military technocratic megalomania” and “the imperatives of commercial greed.”
Which is the voice of money talking to money, in the currency that Toni Morrison, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, denominates as “the language that drinks blood,” happy to “admire its own paralysis,” possessed of “no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of narcotic narcissism…dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing a shelter for despots.” Language designed to “sanction ignorance and preserve privilege,” prioritized to fit the needs of palsied bureaucracy, retrograde religion, or our own 2012 presidential election.
History’s Grim Data-Mining Operations
The vocabulary is limited but long abiding. The aristocracy of ancient Rome didn’t engage in dialog with slaves, a segment of the population classified by the Roman agriculturalist Marcus Terentius Varro as “speaking tools,” animate but otherwise equivalent to an iPhone app.
The sponsors of the Spanish Inquisition, among them Charles V, possibly in consultation with his horse, ran data-mining operations not unlike the ones conducted by Facebook. So did the content aggregators otherwise known as the NKVD in Soviet Russia, as the Gestapo in Nazi Germany. In South Africa during most of the twentieth century the policy of apartheid was dressed up in propaganda that novelist Breyten Breytenbach likens to the sound of a “wooden tongue clacking away in the wooden orifice in order to produce the wooden singsong praises to the big bang-bang and the fluttering flag.”
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