Friday, August 24, 2007

The true hero, the true leader, is one who is at home in his body, his gut attuned to aspects of the situation that language cannot capture

An und für sich “This is more a comment than a question…”
The American Language by Adam August 23rd, 2007
The characteristically American stance toward language is to attempt to minimize language as much as possible. I came to this conclusion through a series of associations starting from a quote from Rousseau in Of Grammatology, to the effect that students must learn only one language so as to minimize confusion–having multiple words to get at the same concepts would introduce an undesirable fuzziness. My mind immediately connected this to the perennial debates about official languages, bilingual education, ebonics, etc., etc.–all attempts to efface a certain confusion or lack of unity.
Unity is what’s at stake here: one nation, one language, one common task, one set of core values. Who is the leader who can unite us? Who can put partisanship aside and really bring the American people together? Who can put an end to all the division and confusion, the mutually incompatible visions mapped out into the colors Red and Blue (two primary colors, may I note — colors not produced by mixture)?
What does partisanship mean here? The trendy word currently is partisan rancor, but the more enduring word is bickering — unnecessary, petty, ultimately meaningless speech, a kind of hairsplitting grounded not in a quest for truth, but in an active quest to divide and confuse. George W. Bush’s inept speech is supposed to be somehow “unpretentious” — and what is he not “pretending” that other people are? That words matter. That eloquence is any measure of truth.
Look at the trope of “latte-drinking liberals,” those “effete” figures who fill the world with their rude and imperious blogs. As Craig recently reminded us, coffee is central to classical liberal values of a free and open public square, and so the attack on the new culture of coffee shops is first of all an attack on those values — but also an attack on the baroque distinctions among coffee drinks, the more concentrated caffeine offset by a fine-tuned element of milk with or without froth. The proliferation of gibberish surrounding coffee echoes the ennervated gibberish that caffeine itself produces, an ultimately synthetic flurry of activity signifying nothing.
The properly American stance is that of a taciturn man of action. So we set aside partisan bickering in favor of common-sense solutions. We forsake our divisions in order to move forward on some common project. This is of course the “liberal” take on the shared theme — the “conservatives,” of course, take it in a different direction: we need to put aside the endless negotiations when we know that the only language our opponents truly “understand” is force, that is, no language at all.
One can see this contrast reflected in popular culture all the time. On the one hand, there is the John Wayne stance, the hero who takes decisive action with a minimum of words. Even the figure of Jack Bauer, who is so irrevocably chained to the cell phone, must conform himself to this image through the rather clumsy device of a hurried and impatient style of speaking — set in contrast to the sidekick figure Chloe, a neurotic woman who talks too much, always says the wrong thing, concerns herself overmuch with rules. Think of the pop culture figures who talk a lot: the mouthy black sidekick in an action movie, the neurotic Jew, the yammering gay man, the pallid bookworm, all constantly trying to talk themselves out of situations even as the hero has intuitively seized the decisive moment.
The proverbial “nerd,” overconcerned with books and knowledge, is always asthmatic, always afflicted by allergies — somehow never properly at home in the world, never able even to breathe properly, producing a torrent of speech as a compensation for his inability to take things in. His own body attacks him, alienating him from the realm of action, condemning him to the “bad infinite” of speech.
The true hero, the true leader, is one who is at home in his body, at home in the world, his gut attuned to aspects of the situation that language cannot capture. I once read a newspaper article claiming that what most bothers liberals about George W. Bush is his comfort in his own skin, his very bodiliness — leading to the familiar comparisons with a chimp, etc. While we artificially stimulate ourselves with our needlessly variegated types of coffee, Bush directly lives, directly enjoys living, somehow gets what he wants without even the intermediate step of wanting it. We liberals want him to evacuate his body and occupy the realm of speech — and by contrast, when the liberal John Kerry, ever the orator, ever the master of “nuance,” is pictured wind-surfing, the impression is one of a ridiculous imposture, almost as though his head had been sloppily pasted into the photo.
Immediacy, action, unity — force is the only language we Americans understand.
Posted by Adam Filed in politics 2 Responses to “The American Language”
Bryan Klausmeyer Says: August 23rd, 2007 at 3:34 pm
I mostly agree with this. However, I think that “force” (or “action,” etc.) should be clarified. For example: In Hollywood films, the quintessential American hero is never the aggressor, but instead always defending–defending his honor, his people, his customs, women, etc. (and the heroes are, obviously, almost always men.)
Think of the film “Witness.” If you haven’t seen it, Harrison Ford plays a Philadelphia cop who goes undercover as an Amish person to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder at a train station. In one telling scene, he and a group of Amish people are riding through a small town in horse and buggy when a group of teenage thugs start beating on one of the older Amish men. Harrison Ford grows upset, but the other Amish people say to him, “No, you mustn’t fight back, it isn’t our way,” to which he retorts, “But it’s MY way!” and then beats the kids up. Of course, what he obviously means is “It’s our way!”–the American way.
What makes Bush not fit into this heroic template, despite the fact that he’s laconic and “comfortable within his own skin,” is probably the most important aspect of the heroic figure: fighting must be in defense only. So it’s really now a question of what is considered defensive (and obfuscated by the fact that the former War Dept. calls itself the DoD…)
In regards to the “yammering,” nerdy character, I think what’s even more interesting is that they’re not always just weak or impotent figures, but often times villains–always giving long speeches on their diabolical plans or the ubiquitous “we’re not so different, you and I” soliloquy. So I think you could say that far from being these castrated liberal caricatures, their loquaciousness hints at something far more diabolical…
Adam Says: August 23rd, 2007 at 7:14 pm
The villain angle is interesting — the message being that the villain gets so caught up in explaining how brilliant their plot was that they end up undermining themselves.
I agree with you, of course, that Bush isn’t a real hero. For a lot of people, though, I feel like he really did seem to be, maybe up until Katrina — doing what it took to defend us. And now that it turns out to all be based on lies, he’s become one of the most hated presidents ever, though apparently that does nothing to constrain his actions.

No comments:

Post a Comment