Dead Language

by Shihang

An excellent essay; I’m sure many of you will agree with Wolff’s position. Certain examples spring to mind in our context: “out of bound markers”, “regrets to inform you”, greetings like “good evening, ladies and gentlemen”, “of biblical proportions” etc.

A striking excerpt:

I often think that George Orwell would have been quite delighted by the phenomenon of the macro, had he lived long enough to see it. In his great essay, “Politics and the English Language,” written in 1946, Orwell, you will recall, talks about the corruption of political thought and language that is manifested in the mindless repetition of standardized phrases. He gives lots of examples, such as “a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind,” and “bloodstained tyranny,” and “achieve a radical transformation,” and “leaves much to be desired.” Had he written the essay only a few years later, he could have added “the free world,” and “communist dictatorship,” and perhaps “tax and spend liberal.” He would have enjoyed the idea of politicians – or their speech writers – programming these and other phrases into their computers as macros, so that they could be produced by a single keystroke or two with no thought whatsoever. We Kant scholars have some rather specialist cant phrases for which macros might be appropriate – my favorite is “conditions of the possibility of experience in general.” These reflections were prompted, several semesters ago, by an incident in a seminar I was teaching on ideological critique. The participants were a group of extremely intelligent and widely read graduate students – all impeccably radical. Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion. Things finally blew up when one member of the class, making a class presentation, referred in passing to “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.” The phrase rolled off his tongue as though the individual words were simply syllables of one great polysyllable – stuck together by some sort of syntactical glue. Everyone in the class was quite comfortable with the phrase. It seemed to me that they found it reassuring, rather in the way little children snuggle down in bed when they hear “Once upon a time.” All except a rather abrasive German student who interrupted to protest that she, for one, had nothing against classism. Indeed, she said, she regularly judged people according to their economic class, and thought it quite the right way to go about things. The class came to a dead halt, and no one knew what to say. None of the students had ever heard anyone question the appropriateness of the phrase “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia,” used as a term of opprobrium. It was as though, in the middle of a class preparing little Catholic boys and girls for First Communion, a smart-mouthed trouble maker had piped up and said, “I can take the Father and the Son, but you can keep the Holy Ghost.”

I pounced on the intervention – as the French have taught us to call it when a student says something in class – and did everything I could to make it the occasion for a searching examination of unacknowledged ideological presuppositions. That was, after all, the subject matter of the course. But it was a total flop. I simply couldn’t get the students to see how mind-numbingly banal, how drained of all genuine thought, that phrase had become. I could not even get them to attune their ears to the ugliness of it as language. Freud says somewhere, talking about the dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy, that if there is a single topic that it is not permitted to examine in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic. I have always found this a profound insight into what happens in the classroom as welL A classroom in which it is socially or pedagogically unacceptable to question the appropriateness of the phrase “racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia” is a classroom in which neither real teaching nor real learning can take place.”

I would also like to recommend Robert Paul Wolff’s blog for any aspiring academics out there, or any potential Kant scholars. His memoirs (published in instalments) are especially entertaining.