Losing to Language

Activity Being Procrastinated: nada. For once.
Music In My Head: Flightless Bird, American Mouth – Iron and Wine
Tea: green
Books Being Read: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë (yes, still: I haven’t had much time to read lately.)

Jack Layton died two days ago.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian politics, he was the leader of the New Democratic Party, which is currently the official opposition.  I like the NDP, and I really liked Mr. Layton’s politics.  It’s sad to see him go.  He would have been a great prime minister.  (While the evidence may appear contrary, the one thing we demand of our prime ministers is that they be alive.)

Mr. Layton was very well-spoken (and/or had madly-skilled speech writers), and the legacy of his death seems to be… words.  Lots of words.  He wrote a letter to the people of Canada a couple of days before he died.  It’s not the most creative or poetic thing, but it’s clear and leaves no doubt as to what he had in mind for the country.  (Perhaps he had madly-skilled editors, too?)

This letter has sparked many a debate.  One of the debates that has come up is the terminology used with cancer: is one a “survivor”; can one “lose” or “win” a “battle” with cancer?  Cool.  I love these discussions.  Of course, I’m not going to get into the debate because I don’t have cancer, have never wrangled with it myself, and therefore don’t really have any weight to throw around.  But the weight of the words is enough.  It will be interesting to see if a wanna-be prime minister can change a whole area of language. (It reminds me of one of the times p.c. terminology changed for disabled people, though.  It was… maybe the late ’80s?  Suddenly, no one was “disabled”: they were “challenged”.  Yet one person was overheard to say, “It’s not a ‘challenge’ for me to get up those stairs.  I just can’t do it, no matter how hard I try.  I am ‘disabled’.”  So when people started making fun of the term, using “vertically challenged”, etc. I thought it was one more triumph for the awesomeness of language.  Keep it specific to the individual, dude.  The moment is now.)

Of course, Mnemosyne always has it in for me.  Being brilliant and having the answer to all things language-related, when I first read Bell Hook’s Language of Power, I was struck dumb.  I didn’t know what to think.  She based the essay on Adrienne Rich’s The Burning of Paper instead of Children, particularly around the lines “this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you”.

The essay made me really upset.

Language has always been my tool – the only tool I wield with any dexterity.  When I’m in the presence of someone who speaks well, I don’t talk because I’m too busy trying to absorb their language.  It’s so freaking cool that this tool can be honed forever and never get to a point where it starts to break down.  I like learning other languages because it makes me feel stronger and more powerful.  It was devastating to discover that someone saw my language, my fortune, as just another part of the weapon.

But we are born into this world naked and crying, and it gets worse from there: I read Rich’s poem.

burn the texts said Artaud” – well, you know how I feel about book burnings: it’s equivalent to murder, but it’s not going to stop anything.

“A language is a map of our failures.” – seems cynical; why can’t she see the silver lining? Was it our language or our bodies that beat that out of her?

“The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language. “ – just kill me now.

Sometimes there’s a point where the tool gets too heavy to manipulate.  (I suppose that’s when it becomes a weapon.)  For a while, I can’t look at a simple word or phrase and not see all the facets: does everyone with cancer actually “fight a battle”?  Does being a “survivor” or a “victim” really imply that you could have done something differently?  Does being “disabled” mean you’re lazy in the face of a challenge?  Is an entire language corrupt just because a tyrant used it before you did?  Am I really using this tool as well as I think I do?

Any philosopher who looks at this blog will snort with laughter, I’m sure: you’re using language to discuss language?  Fret not, the irony has hit as hard as Rich’s poem did.

But irony is what sets humans apart from other animals.  Without irony, of course, a man’s death would have been nothing more than a man’s death.

One response to “Losing to Language

  1. Any philosopher who looks at this blog will snort with laughter, I’m sure: you’re using language to discuss language?

    Not sure that I’m a philosopher, but I love language, especially the ever dance-able English. And I think that a ‘real’ philosopher wouldn’t laugh at all, because they would be familiar with how the eastern philosophers struggle with the problems of language impeding understanding and exercising agendas. Have you read Chuang Tzu? Here’s his take on language:

    A fish-trap is for catching fish;
    once you’ve caught the fish you
    can forget the trap. A rabbit
    snare is for catching rabbits;
    once you’ve caught the rabbit
    you can forget about the snare.
    Words are for catching ideas;
    once you’ve caught the idea,
    you can forget about the words.
    Where can I find a person who
    knows how to forget about
    words so I can have a few
    words with him?

    Chuang Tzu. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1994. Translated with commentary by Victor H. Mair, p. 276).

    After looking at Heidegger’s Being and Time I realized that the problem with languages problems has been addressed as follows: In the West, tomes, in the East, Koans.


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