Archive for the 'language' Category

A journal of my infancy

July 10, 2007

An ancillary yet durable fear – my personality’s gallbladder, let’s call it – is that I will somehow forget the whole of the English language. To fixate on a single, temporarily-forgotten word whose connotation matches your thoughts as well as possible, or to describe that word, wringing your own entrails to divine its first letter or its number of syllables: these are ordinary experiences enough, but to forget the entirety of the only language you speak is nothing short of horror. To forget English would, for me, mean being reduced to my partial knowledge of German and French, plus a considerable amount of impotent gesturing; and because I love words, love to swaddle the most recondite members of our lexicon, the idea of having the English language, whose nuances I have worked so hard not simply to know but to render part of myself, snatched from me is enough to make me shudder, however unlikely it may be that the thought could come true.

Which is all as much to say that, yes, at this point I am shamefully monolingual and that I presently feel the weight of this dependency, this rigidity or this American middle class sine qua non, as something more akin to a pain than an itch. I feel not simply annoyed, but virtually disabled by the fact that I’ve somehow failed to grow fluent in another language in the 25 years of opportunity I’ve had; or as if that failure is itself somehow a stigma not on my facility with language (of which I’ve frankly never had cause to regard as anything but exceptional), but on my intellectual history, as if it were to prove that the arabesques into which I take such pleasure in shaping the English language belie not curiosity with the possibilities of language but an unshakable laziness with respect to content.

But let me be easy on myself, for I’m working hard to teach myself French, am taking advantage of as many resources as my embarrassment of the difficulty with which that language issues from me allows; but at the same time, I am motivated primarily by a spite the object of which is the torpid manner I’ve heretofore used in approaching language; a spite the object of which, in short, is myself. That an easy, forgiving attitude towards my past mistakes — even the objection, tempting because there’s an undeniable truth there, that dwelling on the mistakes of an unchangeable past is fruitless — becomes obviously counterproductive in light of my motivations.

But that the whole of this process has had a decisively negative tinge to it with respect to my own laziness or my past objections doesn’t adequately describe the principle frustration which I’ve confronted in a steadily increasing degree as I approach the end of the textbook: that is, how absolutely infantile my command over the language is. To simply not know a language is, in that respect, less frustrating than to know it partially; to use words in a way that feels like coughing up inflatable furniture is much worse than the resigned placidity of someone who can’t speak the language at all.

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t known for my facility with English; but to have to face again that unremembered time is a much more difficult feat than simply disciplining myself to study everyday.

Cindy Sheehan and the politics of depletion

May 31, 2007

I have come to some heartbreaking conclusions this Memorial Day Morning. These are not spur of the moment reflections, but things I have been meditating on for about a year now. The conclusions that I have slowly and very reluctantly come to are very heartbreaking to me.


The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing. His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think. I have tried every [sic] since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives.

– Cindy Sheehan, “Good Riddance Attention Whore”

A farewell without strategy – no “going out on top.” Instead, a farewell from the last moment in which it could be heard; a farewell which announces its speaker’s abjection in its timing and its content; a farewell from the thinnest slice of proper place, before its speaker sinks into the the marginality of the everyday. (It’s fitting that Sheehan’s farewell also contains the announcement that she will sell Camp Casey.) A farewell that announces, too, the speaker’s change of phase: from an engine that sets agendas and pulls others along the iron road of progress, the speaker of this farewell has been smelted into liquid, made subject by that process to consumption by other engines.

Notice the link here between liquid, meaning, and consumption: the “lifeblood drained out,” but “indeed […] for nothing” – consumed, let’s say, like gasoline by an idling car. Liquid is the baseline matter to be sublimated into meaning through consumption by a worthy engine, be that a just state or the correction of an erring one. A sacrifice can be made meaningful after the fact and if certain events happen, no matter what the circumstances of that sacrifice were.

This engine of meaning has to therefore be cut off chronologically from its future and past: its engineering is imputed to the nature of the liquid itself, while the by-products of its sublimation are overlooked. After all, it is the sacrifice which contains meaning (as oil contains potential energy) waiting dormant for justice. Outrage at the meaninglessness of the sacrifice is discounted as a container for the same passive genius that sacrifice contains as it waits for accommodating inventions. Petroleum provides the picture as well of the versatility of this conception of meaning as being realized under any number of different circumstances. Just as oil can be made into plastics, lubricants, gasoline, fertilizers, and any number of other products, a sacrifice can be meaningful if it undergoes any of several different processes of shaping. Sacrifice takes the shape of a dam: it constrains some energies such that others (human settlement, to continue with this example) can develop. These latter developments are meaning.

Meaning comes from a skillful depletion, a drying up of the riverbed just enough to prevent disaster. Can we wonder, then, why the possibility of global warming is up for argument? Or why its detractors suggest that the alternative to absolute resource depletion is a life spent shivering in a dark cave, away from history, light, and all the meanings of modern life? If meaning through resource depletion depends on the excised end, it should be no wonder that the prospect of civilization’s end caused by environmental collapse is dismissed with so little thought – the end is so imbricated in this notion of meaning that it’s hardly seen.

Cindy Sheehan seems to know now that her sad conclusion was inevitable. “This is an end,” her farewell seems to say, “but it’s not the end.” Her life now exists almost purely of the salvageable remnant of her quest for meaning, of her depletion. Invisible, she has become liquid too; having no home base, she is subject to other flows and the systems that, like pipes, organize them. Maybe her hope is to seep from some unnoticed hole and dissipate asymptotally, figuring in direct proportion to her obscurity the notion of meaning that she has discovered through her years as an engine.

The big meltdown

April 28, 2007

Above all, gold is a tease; immaculate substance pleading for a form. Take the Spanish conquest of the Incas. On finding the intricately worked gold figures made by the Incas, the Spaniards melted them down into ingots. Hernándo Pizarro oversaw the big meltdown in Cajamarca in 1533. He had Indian smiths working on nine forges, and on many days they melted over six hundred pounds weight of gold. At the end of four months, they had melted eleven tons of golden vases, golden figures, golden jewelry, and golden furnishing ornaments. He then escorted the train of 225 llamas carrying the gold and silver to Lima. A load of baser gold arrived a few days later on the backs of sixty llamas. Imagine this on a movie screen; those dun-colored mountain slopes of the central Andes that stretch forever, cut across by a line of stately llamas not even knowing what they carried, other than its weight. In the Temple of the Sun in the Incan capital of Cuzco, the Spanish found a garden whose plants were made of gold and silver. This, too, they melted down.

Inevitably money – like color – makes one think of stories of transmutation of form into substance of substance into flows. The story of the Inca’s garden tells us more about money than many an economic treatise. Pizarro melts the garden down into ingots nice and square that fit into boxes in ships’ holds to go to Spain as bullion, the ur-form of money. The Indians want gold as the ultimate mimetic metal, flowing and ductile, with which they can imitate most anything. But the money boys want gold as that with which they can acquire most anything. Squared up as ingots or rounded as coins, their gold has done a good deal more than serve as a medium of exchange. It has made everything in the world exchangeable in what we now see as the big meltdown.

Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum

Or here is a metaphor for the polyvalence which Roland Barthes cites as the mark of great literature: ductility. Words, perhaps, are ore drawn through your retinas and shaped by your brain, in the same motion with which it rights the inverted, bifurcated image your eyes send to it, twisted into tiny dioramas and vistas. Yet this falls apart as soon as one tries to separate its auditors into the “money men” and the mimetic men, in that language is so closely tied with information. Let us melt a fact (which is inseparable from the method by whose use that fact was arrived at) into words and into benignity. Is even the poet culpable?

The Human Use of Martian Beings

April 26, 2007

In last Sunday’s issue of the New York Times, Michael Pollan published an article about how farm subsidies in the U.S. act as an economic incentive to eat poorly. It’s an interesting topic in and of itself, but the article, titled “You Are What You Grow,” contains the following line, which brought my attention to other matters:

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

The appeal to a researcher from Mars is a fascinating rhetorical strategy that is also not entirely novel; I’ve seen any number of Martian workers summoned up to criticize Earth culture. Yet I have to wonder what exactly Pollan hoped to gain by this device. He acknowledges the obvious contradiction of this state of affairs when he writes in the very next line that “such is the perversity of the farm bill.” So perhaps he doesn’t want to merely point out the “perversity” of these subsidies, but to point out that they are so intertwined in our system of governance and eating that few denizens of Earth are capable of seeing their absurdity.

And yet, this seems to be at cross-purposes with his very thesis that this is a peculiarly American problem. Why, then, wouldn’t a public health researcher from Europe, Asia, or Africa suffice for his purposes? It may be that an appeal to reason shared by Martian and human alike has the same function today as appeals to divine reason have had in times past (and, of course, in certain ignominious circles still). For an action – be it sodomy or subsidizing corn – to be offensive to a single person is apparently not enough; instead, that action must be discursively magnified in such a way that it offends against the rules of the universe.

John Berger, in his essay on Disney, claims that (and I’m sadly paraphrasing because I loaned this book out) Disney’s way of making animal cares perfectly congruent with human cares is the equivalent of saying, “There is no escape from this banality.” I have to wonder if the God who winces at butt sex and the Martian public health researcher (because alien cultures naturally have the same professions and needs as we do) who takes apart our Twinkies aren’t also forms of this same humanistic nihilism.

An inauspicious mixture of alcohol and memes

October 7, 2006

Anyone who has spent much time on a college campus – spent time of a Monday, especially – can perhaps corroborate when I suggest that an essential part of being drunk is the creation of stories from that experience. From the overhearing I’ve done, I think I can safely posit a three part structure to these stories. The storyteller begins by emphasizing the degree to which s/he was drunk, thus delimiting a space of unusual logic and possibility; the stereotype for this is, of course, “Oh my God, I was so drunk.” The second phase involves the storyteller finding him or herself in situation with no understanding of either the currently transpiring events or the events that lead to the present. This situation is resolved, in its way, through either a return to more conventional narrative (this might be something like, “So we left the bar then”) or through a failure of memory.

Drinking provides a framework for the presentation of a self through storytelling – a framework perhaps best paralleled in the phenomenon of internet personality tests. In both, one treads as forthrightly as possible through unknown territory – the questions of dubious relevance to anything, the alcohol-obscured situation – and emerges, surprised by a newly gleaned facet of one’s own subjectivity. Just as drunkenness gives the individual an excuse to answer the question of “What would I do if I suddenly came to my senses while dancing on a table in leopard-print underwear of unknown provenance,” the internet personality test gives one the chance to answer just which Care Bear he or she would be.

Ve-ry sagacious!

October 5, 2006

Even though I never choose a genre for songs I import into iTunes, some songs from other sources come pre-tagged with one. When they do, I like to see a song tagged as “unclassifiable.” It gives me a little laugh to imagine a whole team of musicologists racking their brains over what label to assign Animal Collective. Eventually, one member of the team throws up his hands and, sighing, says, “Unclassifiable.” He is met with relieved nods.

And overrated

October 1, 2006

Overstuffed RavioliWhat does it mean for a thing to be “overstuffed”? For this is a word that crosses not only ontological barriers (from stromboli to plush animals) but also barriers of class (compare these two examples).

But what is supposed as a limit over which this product is stuffed? Consumer expectations? Industry practice? Good taste?

I prefer to imagine that these products are stuffed beyond the limits of safety and that they may, at any time and with no warning, hemorrhage stuffing. The question, then, of why overstuffed products have recently come to the fore is easily answered: marketeers – always eager to provide a new experience for stimulation-weary consumers – have decided that the best way to add excitement to their product is to add the possibility of violent rupture. Not only does this engage with consumers’ desire for new, exciting experiences, it also forces – much to the marketeers’ glee – their wary eyes to stay always on the product in question. When you have to handle your pasta like a cartoon character handling nitroglycerin, it’s hard to think of anything else.

I’m just waiting to see “overstuffed” under “body type” on myspace.

Substitutions allowed

September 30, 2006

A helpful hint: news may become more palpable if, for every mention of “the war against terror,” you mentally substitute an imaginary “war against terroir.” Instead of having to dwell on the damage that warmongers are doing to U.S. coffers or the possibility of rather grotesque resource wars, you can imagine that America is on a global effort to mock and demoralize food snobs.