Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.
Ever since the acquisition of words provided me with a receptacle for memory, I have loved language. Its music, its power to evoke, its absurd variety delighted me as a child and my joy in it flourished into my adolescence and youth.
My love of language took me into teaching – English first, then, for the greater part of my career, Drama. As during my time in teaching time passed and experience accumulated, goals shifted, routes changed and strategies altered. But one constant remained at the heart of whatever version of whatever syllabus I followed. It was contained within a small but perfectly formed lecture that I would deliver, not particularly original in content but imparted with a messianic zeal undiminished by time and repetition.
In it I would urge my students to take every opportunity they could to broaden their vocabularies and to recognise in language the key to knowledge, understanding, independence of mind and, ultimately, a degree of real personal autonomy. A keypoint of the address was reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the mighty and potent weapon of Newspeak. I would ask them to examine their own speech forms – the unquestioning reliance that some may have had on deliberately vague, oblique or discursive vocabulary or on acquired slang forms whose terms of reference, however linguistically rich in their own way, were meaningless within the cultural territory that these middle class students occupied.
I would proselytise further about language as a universal resource whose capacity for articulating beauty and truth as we understand them need not be limited or constrained by social or cultural circumstances. I used as exemplars of this certain Gypsies I have known whose illiteracy, far from being an impediment to the development of language, actually provoked the need for an enhanced flexibility and richness of expression because of reliance on the purely oral form. I asked them to see that there need be no conflict of interests between their acquisition of linguistic skills and nominal subscription to a resolutely anti-intellectual culture. Indeed, such skills would provide an opportunity for agile movement across cultural territories. I would insist that the objective must be always to avoid being trapped within one register of language usage, unable to move with ease and grace from level to level.
I would conclude by telling them to read, to read anything and everything. To make it a habit; to regard every unfamiliar word, phrase, term and figure of speech as a challenge to understanding that must be met. Master language and ultimately you need never be manipulated, exploited, controlled, owned by anyone.
And they would listen politely, only glazing over if I ventured too far past the 10-minute mark. Occasionally, very occasionally, long after the event, the odd ex-student has made reference to the sermon and expressed gratitude for having been nudged towards a greater respect for language at just the right moment.
For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too far, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I have problems with language on the fly. Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa. Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – have me grinding my teeth down to stumps. This is not language in search of light; it’s language whose sole context is sound.
But what really brings down the red mist is the use of language as a means whereby to exclude all but the cognoscenti. When language becomes so abstruse, so convoluted, so comprehensively up its own arse, I know that I’m dealing with a man (almost invariably) who, were he not wielding a big fat pen, would be dealing with his sense of personal inadequacy by driving a very fast car very fast. These professional intellectuals – almost all of them inhabiting the territory of top shelf philosophy, arts theory or, God help us, linguistics – have no interest whatsoever either in language’s capacity to communicate complex concepts with absolute clarity or in its intrinsic beauty in utterance or on the page. The wielding of language is for them a kind of aristocratic sport by whose obscurantist rules and protocols they may celebrate their membership of an exclusive higher order of being.
Meanwhile, out in the bearpit a similar, if less refined game is being played. Consider the out-of-control IT jargoneer, the estate agent (realtor) describing a property and those drones who compose the letters that banks send you when you’re overdrawn. Each mangles and distorts language into something convoluted and grotesque, seeking to establish through it only the aggrandisement of his or her particular agency.
These are the true perpetrators of Word Crimes, not those whose earnest attempts to communicate are hampered because their command of classical grammar may be faulty and their non-colloquial vocabulary sparse. The latter struggles for meaning and truth; the former intends obfuscation and obscurity.
Now, how about this document. I stumbled across it whilst doing some Internet research and as I read it I searched in vain for irony. I present it as evidence for the prosecution, item 1. It comes from a PhD dissertation entitled Immersive Ideals/Critical Distances : A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms. Okay, I might be accused of emulating Hermann Goering and reaching for my revolver at the utterance of the word ‘culture’, but please – is this an authentic statement about an area of art theory and practice so arcane that it can’t communicate its specifics without the exclusive use of entirely specialist language – or is it simply check-this-out bollocks?
A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art and established a seemingly unrestricted area of prodigality which I identify as viractuality. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, the real co-exists with the virtual and the organic fuses with the computer-robotic. Consequently, I am interested in a new interlaced sense of artistic viractuality which couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. As such, viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here images of the flesh are undone by machinic viral disturbances they cannot contain. Here thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.
Thank you for your attention. Any questions?
A final reflection on language and meaning. In 1962 the late Harold Pinter made a statement about his perception of the real function of much the speech that we utter, ostensibly for the purposes of communication. It’s a difficult statement that requires careful reading and subsequent reflection. But there’s a world of difference between the narcissistic game playing of the writer just quoted and the elegant and painstaking proposition that is now seen as informing at the deepest level Pinter’s extraordinary work.
There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.
In conclusion, I must acknowledge that much of the above may be seen to achieve little more than to prove through example the author’s claims. If that is the case then I’ll just have to try harder to pursue Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical aim of trying to pare language back to the bone through the use of language. Now, for a brief while, I shall stop talking…
*An earlier version of this post appeared on the Patteran Pages in February 2007.