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Offense Taken


by Bruce Fleming

Two newspaper-headline-grabbing incidents from early 2011 involving words created storms of protest from the political left, which in the last few decades has emerged as more interested than the American right in policing public speech. One incident was criticism after the Tucson, Arizona, shootings of Jan. 8, 2011 (in which Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely injured) of Sarah Palin’s earlier use of gun language and cross-hair imagery to speak of politics. The other was Capt. O.P. Honors’s shipboard movie about sexual issues using terms and images the press called “lewd” that led to his removal, on Jan. 4, 2011, as skipper of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Screenshot of controversial crosshairs map on Sarah Palin's website (Source: Wikimedia/fair use).

The criticism in both cases was that the language or images used had so a close connection to reality that their use constituted a punishable, or at least reprehensible, action. Speaking of Congressional seats or Congress(wo)men as “targets,” as Palin did, and issuing her famous “Don’t retreat, RELOAD!” Tweet seemed to critics connected to the subsequent shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who had earlier warned that those who use images of crosshairs “have to realize that there are consequences to that action.” Palin, in many people’s estimation, then made things worse: she labeled the suggestion her language was in any way involved with the Tucson shootings a “blood libel,” a phrase used for the malicious fiction that Jews used the blood of Christian babies to make Passover matzos. Palin’s camp seemed to find ridiculous the idea that words could be causal: criticism of this later phrase was rejected as “obscene” by an aide.

News reports about Capt. Honors’s videos (made from 2005-2007 for shipboard use when he was the second-in-command) found offensive the fact that the word “fag” was used, as was the euphemism “f-bomb,” and that the word it replaces appeared on the screen. Further, there were scenes of people (undoubtedly real sailors, but for the purposes of these videos, actors) pretending to be same-sex pairs interested in staying in the shower longer than necessary for necessary for hygiene alone.

Capt. Honors, as a military officer, was prohibited from making a response to the criticism, but in an op-ed for the Washington Post (“Capt Honors and the crude videos the Navy needed,” Jan. 11, 2011), I argued that such theatrical and between-quotation-marks use of terms was not the same as using them as part of social interaction, and that the context of a movie offered a useful way of addressing hot topics that everyone was thinking about but were afraid to articulate.

In brief, the relationship between these words and the world was more complex than that implied by correctly noting that Honors or Palin said X or showed image Y. Proposing anal sex to someone, for example, is not the same as using the words “anal sex” in a classroom discussion as one topic of publicly unacceptable jokes—such as I did in my classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I’ve taught for more than two decades. I was “counseled” by our Division Director Marine Colonel for uttering these words and warned to avoid a “hostile working environment” Later I was told I could not explain the medical details of a sex-change operation in response to a student question as this had the same effect. (I had proposed that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who is clearly unhappy being a woman, might have fewer problems if she were a man: discuss.)

How do words relate to the world? What’s characterized the political left in recent decades is a general acceptance of the stance of linguistic  idealism: at its extreme, this view— formed by analogy with the philosophical position of idealism that holds our minds make the world rather than existing in it—means that words are the world.  This in turn has led to the insistence on what we call “political correctness,” associated with the political left, with its emphasis on what is said rather than what is thought or done. If words are the world, it’s of utmost importance to police them.

Sarah Palin, then Governor of Alaska, at Fort Richardson in August 2008. (Photo by Capt. Guy Hayes, Alaska National Guard Public Affairs; released into public domain by U.S. Army)

The right, by contrast, tends to see a distinction between what you say and what you do—words are just words. For the right, the world exists independently of our minds, and we, as individual actors, exist in the world. The greatest interest of Palin’s defense of her gun language is her denial of linguistic idealism—even if she doesn’t put it like that—in favor of an underlying view that professional philosophers would call “naïve realism.” This holds that people are agents that act with each other and an independent world using words. Why criticize words? They’re just words.

In Order of Things, Michel Foucault dates the modern age to the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The defining characteristic of this modern age for my purposes is its general acceptance of the primacy of the mind over that of the world, its common thread of idealism. At least this is true of the educated classes, which, as a result, separated from people who didn’t have the luxury of believing this idealistic dogma, but were stuck with the day to day grind of realism. So the left-right divide is merely one single, political, instantiation of a much larger phenomenon, a separation of sophisticated/educated from the rest that, ironically, mirrors that of the ancien régime that the Modern Age overthrew.

Linguistic idealism as an ideology of the educated classes took off with Romantic artists, usually seen as rebelling against the Industrial Revolution and all the upheavals that characterized their time: for this reason Romanticism was addicted to the myth of a golden pre-Industrial past, the Medieval world.  Romanticism is a rejection of the world as it had become. How could the Romantic artists, such as Baudelaire, be surprised when non-artists interested in making money through industrialization (his hated “bourgeoisie”) hated artists back? The artists of two centuries have found valorization in just how misunderstood they were. And the common-sense men of action, as they increasingly saw themselves in contrast, preened themselves on just how little they were like these effete artists.

According to the Romantic poets, words make the world; poets make words; ergo poets make the world.  Shelley, in his “Defense of Poetry,” held that the language in the “youth of the world” is “vitally metaphorical”; now, however, that we are no longer in this youthful phase of the pre-historic past, language is “dead.”  That, according to Shelley, is why we need poets, who “create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized”; poets thus remake not only language but the world and thus are the “unacknowledged legislators” of that world. “Poetry . . . makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” This insistence that we need language to (re-)create the world was a primary tenet of the Russian Formalist movement almost a century later, as it is to virtually all post-Romantic theory, even today: according to Victor Shklovsky, the movement’s most skilled polemicist, “art makes the stone stony.” Without art, there would be no perception of the world; the world is made of art. It’s hardly coincidental that this doctrine comes from artists. Do butchers believe the world is made of slabs of animal flesh, which they produce? Perhaps, but they produce meat, not words, so no one is aware of this belief.

The notion of artists that they are essential to the very existence of the world for non-artists is, of course, ludicrous. To believe it, you have to accept the premise of linguistic idealism, that words create the world, or at least that without artists, the world ceases to exist, or to be perceived (Shklovsky held just this). Most people think the world gets along just fine without artists. This fact is the source of the split between “high” and “low” arts after Modernism. “High” arts after Romanticism emphasize medium rather than the message. And for this reason most people have abandoned them in favor of popular music and People magazine.

Modernism is learned, esoteric art: hardly anybody reads Joyce’s Ulysses outside of a college class and few people “get” academic cubism without the critical apparatus. Modernist painting departs from the realization that a painting is a flat surface with square corners and then realized that anything the artist did was art: art is its own end. The average footsore tourist hates the result, as well they might: Modernist art is something done, rather than something to be seen. Many will have encountered holiday-makers who take the time to stroll through the contemporary art museum in the metropolis, only to dismiss its contents with the flip assertion that “my dog/three-year-old could do that.” The educated classes roll their eyes at this: what philistinism!

But the tourists have a point. What they say isn’t correct, of course: the dog may be capable of swishing the canvas with a paint-laden tail, but it wouldn’t put the result in a museum, and this is the definition of contemporary art: art relates to other art. Contemporary art gets its point not from something the uninitiated can see about its relation to a common world—the foundation of the popularity of nineteenth-century  representative arts—but by the historical trail of references to other artworks it drags behind it. The artwork is a relational thing, not something to be perceived head-on. This is sometimes called the “dematerialization of the work of art”: art is gesture, not thing.

As twentieth century painting became abstract, about shapes and forms that expressed the artist’s sensibility, so too twentieth century literary criticism insisted that books were about books, not a world of breathing people. In literary theory there was first  Jacques Derrida (“there is nothing outside the text”) and then Foucault, with his insistence, echoing Nietzsche, that there was no such thing as objective use of language, and that any consideration by a more powerful entity of a less powerful one was an act of domination.

Foucault, in books such as Madness and Civilization, famously set the stage for the conviction of virtually all recent academics in the humanities and social sciences, popularized by Edward Said’s influential Orientalism, that any consideration by the rich West of the relatively penurious and formerly colonized East (or indeed, by extension, any non-Western country) was intrinsically an act of domination.  Words were themselves oppressive; objective consideration was impossible.  What was presented as the enlightened attempt to cure madness in the early nineteenth century was in fact malign, founded on an act of domination: the rounding up of formerly free “village idiots” and incarcerating them under the label of “the insane.” Naming controls, held Foucault. Note, once again, that this is a theory of writers, not soldiers. Soldiers might sooner accept Mao’s “power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

According to the educated, therefore, who generalized the dogmas of Romantic poetry, language makes the world, is the world. This is the class-based linguistic idealism of our day. But it is the reason that the educated go ballistic at the use of words they don’t approve of. And it’s the reason why Palin (see below) rails so shrilly against the educated and powerful, and seems to think that she can speak of “blood libel” without anyone taking offense.

The left-right political split is an instantiation of the split between idealism and realism, that has coalesced into a contrast—a false, absolute, contrast, as I insist— between thought and action. The left insists that individuals are part of a more complex fabric, the right that individuals are the foreground and the primary actors.  Words don’t kill people, Palin might say, people do—and the gun lobby’s insistence that it’s not guns either that do so, but rather people, is yet another working-out of this world-view.

Linguistic idealism leaves me cold. It’s a self-aggrandizing dogma of wordsmiths, which is to say professional thinkers, rather than non-intellectuals, people who work with their hands. Elsewhere [1] I have argued that this focus on a world of texts taught as if they composed an objective manifold like the physical world has destroyed the literature classroom too. We’ve substituted the professor for the literature, with his or her narrow view that got him or her the position and then tenure. And most professors are less interesting than the novels that have become the raw material for their own act of domination in the classroom. Students have noticed, especially the men, who have abandoned it in droves. Besides, critics are less interesting than writers; yet Gerald Graff suggested famously that literature professors “teach the conflicts” rather than the works—which is to say, the critical tail produced by professors quarreling about the work, rather than the work itself.

Politics, according to Foucault, is really most fundamentally textual, words. The dominant theme in twentieth century philosophy was, similarly, its medium: language, taking its impetus from first the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus with his (later abandoned) “picture theory of meaning” and then later from his notion, expressed in the Philosophical Investigations, that meaning was found in use.  Whichever tack we took, the assumption was that if we could just understand language, we’d understand the fundamental issues. It isn’t true, of course: however we say language “means” it’s going to go on doing that, as it has for millennia. If it’s this fundamental, we don’t have to figure it out.

Wittgenstein’s legacy, therefore, was less his specific doctrines than the conviction he articulated that words exist at the intersection with the world. This was true both in his early insistence that words somehow show their meaning –which left a problem for the many words and propositions for which this was not the case, a problem he solved by calling them “meaningless”—and also in his later notion that words were actions that constituted the world of the mind. Intention, for example, isn’t an internal thing but a social one, expressed in words, which are at the social nexus—there is no such thing, according to Wittgenstein, as private languages; mental states are their linguistic expressions. Mental and physical fuse for Wittgenstein, as they do for the parallel twentieth century school of phenomenology: Heidegger, for example, insisted that we live in motion, what he called “thrownness”—rather than sit on the sidelines and think about it. For the whole twentieth century of academic philosophy, words reach out and fuse with the world—albeit in a variety of ways.

John Searle at Berkeley, December 2005 (Photo by Matthew Breindel, released under the GNU Free Documentation License; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One thinker who inherited this legacy of Wittgenstein, a man who focuses most clearly on the place where words and actions fuse and hence expresses the linguistic idealism of our day in an interesting way, is John Searle. Thus his thought is susceptible to the same problem that beset the early Wittgenstein: what he’s focusing on is quite a small subset of language, and even there it’s not so clearly the case as he thinks. In his early work Speech Acts, Searle, following J.L. Austin, focuses on cases of what he calls “illocutionary acts,” words become actions of which the strongest example are things the “I do” that, in  his view, gets you married or the “I will” that binds you to an oath. (In fact, it’s not the words alone that do this: you could say these words but in so odd a way the judge would stop the proceedings.)

Searle’s most recent application of his underlying this interest, based on the claim that institutions are created by minds through words, is Making the Social World. Words create the world: linguistic idealism rather than a realism that holds that words mirror, express, or at least exist in the world rather than being identical, or are just things people say. Gentler but related theorists like George Lakoff point out that we become prisoners of our own metaphors (Metaphors We Live By) and that they can control us: Lakoff sees himself as elucidating psychological discoveries about the mind and how it functions to create the categories that determine our world.

Postmodernism, now all but dead, expresses this linguistic idealism with a vengeance. Postmodernism held sway during the last few decades of the twentieth century and is the end of the Romantic emphasis on medium rather than content, the notion that outside of words there is nothing. Postmodernism is characterized by a fin de (vingtième) siècle weariness: all has been said, all done; we are merely adding footnotes to footnotes. Pastiche, as in the works of Walter Benjamin, was held to be the most profound artistic expression; doing literature in the voices of others (espoused by the Russian theorist Bahktin and exemplified in the ingenious fables of postmodernism’s patron saint,  Jorge Luis Borges) was all we had left. Some of the postmodernists, to be sure, give the sense they’d like to be direct and fresh again, but can’t forget what they know: so academics tried unsuccessfully to blow up the walls of their ivory tower through the Marxist “cultural studies” of the 80s and 90s, focusing on Barbie and Princess Di instead of Tolstoy and King Lear.  Yet making Barbie academic just brought Barbie inside the ivory tower and displaced the things already there, classics of art and literature (written, it was pointed out as if this were the deal-breaker, by dead white males); the meat changed but the smothering sauce of academic jargon, the lingua franca of the educated classes, made it all taste the same as before.

There’s no way out of postmodernism in words because it uses words to guard the exits. Still, though we have to cut the Gordian knot to get out, we can exit. This may be easier to do nowadays because the financial bases of the world that allowed a dogma of outsider Romantic poets to spread among the educated classes in general (much as abstract art is the language of the Upper East Side in the twentieth century) have been so shaken by the crash of 2008. Waking up after the party holding our heads, we may be able to accept the possibility of an alternative.

The alternative involves action, rather than talk. Not action as an absolute contrast, but as part of a symbiotic whole with talk: we use words to articulate actions, and actions to carry out words. Unfortunately, nowadays when the right wants to criticise the linguistic idealism of the left, it goes too far. Blind action is opposed by the right to the too-great involution of the dogma of linguistic idealism of the left. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended her boss, George W. Bush, famously inept with words, as being a “man of action.” What he did wasn’t important, the important thing was that he was acting. Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, who generally disapprove of ‘liberals’ (in the peculiar American sense of the word),  love a speech by Theodore Roosevelt usually called “The Man in the Arena” that contains this much-quoted passage: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” Words are nothing, action is all.

As an English professor at a military institution, I insist that we can use thought to justify action, that brain and brawn must work together. And that is my position here: that words are not identical with actions in the world, but rather exist in varying distances from it, and that we cannot privilege either words or actions but must be successful in interweaving the two. There are many possible connections of words to world, a whole panoply of relations exploited by art—tellingly, ignored by both the left and the right wing, in their maddeningly absolutist stance, a black/white either/or vision of words either being the world, or being nothing compared to action. The whole realm of metaphoric language, of art and fiction, lies in this middle area that has been turned into a No Man’s Land between the trenches of left and right that ravage it daily. Sarah Palin’s utterances as well as the Capt Honors videos are far less literal than they have been held to be—as indeed most language is. Lighten up, I say to both sides. Art has a purpose, a place in the world that is not merely that of rejecting it—though this is the way it’s typically been perceived since the Romantics.

As I’ve argued in Art and Argument: What Words Can Do and What They Can’t, art is based on literal truth (the sky is up and people eat with knives and forks in both novels and the world). So too metaphoric or poetic language has a literal component: if we speak of a Congressional seat being a “target” we mean we aim (metaphor) at “hitting” (both). But this also means that metaphors have other qualities we don’t mean to emphasize, and that can later be emphasized (targets = guns). And metaphor is all around us: “all around us,” for example, is yet another. Thus there are many degrees of language use between the stonily literal and the purely incendiary. We have to be supple in negotiating between them, something the polarization of the current world into the left and right has made extremely difficult. Both left and right wing are famously intolerant of art, as it fails to advance either agenda. The critics of Palin’s gun language and Honors’s movies are left-wing critics, apparently holding that words make the world, and so need to be rigorously controlled: metaphoric or figurative language that can be understood in a way that someone can find offensive must be eliminated.

Palin is right – if we can attribute such a view to her – that linguistic idealism the dominant ideology of the ruling class, that it’s taken as an unquestioned dogma. What’s unfortunate about Palin, however, is that she couches her criticism the only way she logically can, having aligned herself with the naïve realists rather than with the linguistic idealists: as an attack on groups of people, rather than on their words or ideas. This is what makes her recent screed America by Heart: Reflections on Faith, Family, and Flag so full of bile. Nobody but she and her supporters qualifies as person at all, much less a patriotic American, and what characterizes her supporters is lack of power. The “meaning of America” has been forgotten “by the people who make the big laws, run the big corporations, write for the big newspapers and make the big movies.” These, of course are the educated elite, the “inside the Beltway” types Palin heaps scorn on. To this are contrasted “real people,” the Americans who “grow our food, teach our children, run our small businesses, help out the less fortunate, and fight our wars.”

Of course, the problem of the “government is the problem” right wing that campaigns against “inside the Beltway politicos” is that these are just the people the right wing hopes to become. Once they’ve assumed power, presumably, they’ll hand power back to the powerless (which sounds contradictory) and the state will wither away. It didn’t work for Marx, and it won’t work for Palin.

Reject the dogma, by all means. Please. But don’t do it by attacking the people who hold it. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Palin has presumably heard that one before.

Sarah Palin: America by Heart : Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag
Harper, New York 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-0062010964
Hardcover, 304 pages, US$25.99

John Searle: Making the Social World. The Structure of Human Civilization
Oxford University Press, New York 2010.
ISBN-13: 978-0195396171
Hardcover, 224 pages, US$24.95

Bruce Fleming is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, having previously held teaching positions at Vanderbilt University, the University of Freiburg, and the National University of Rwanda. His most recent books are Running is Life: Transcending the Crisis of Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America 2010) and Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Fairfax, Virginia: Potomac Books). In addition to his scholarly work, he has contributed opinion pieces to the New York Times, Wahington Post, Baltimore Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books. 

 [1] See Bruce Fleming, What Literary Studies Could Be, And What It Is. Lanham (Maryland): University Press of America 2008.



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