How do we become aware of the ways language affects and motivates us in matters of the social sphere: The rage that we feel when hearing the alt-right’s hateful speech, or the strong sense of righteousness and solidarity when we shout out a political slogan in protest, calling for justice?
Walter Benjamin argued the value of sharing interpersonal experiences in his short essay “The Storyteller” (first published in 1936): “The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.” Benjamin went on to voice his worry about the rise of newspapers taking over oral traditions: “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. [...] A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.” Since then, our communication has increased in complexity—from the development of informatics strategies used in Cold War propaganda, to advertisements and our current social media reality. We can no longer distinguish information from storytelling in everyday life. This affects our interpersonal view on the world, scientific facts, and economical or political decisions. Whether Benjamin would accept the interchangeability of stories or not, written and spoken language in tabloids, text messages, and on the internet continues to be blurred by this state of affairs. What’s more, stories are easily copy-pasted, shared, or re-tweeted.
Nina Power points out in her short essay, “The Language of the New Brutality” (2017, e-flux Journal #83), that every Trump tweet is indistinguishable from something he might equally well say aloud (“Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests—that’s what I like to do!”) She draws the connection to Victor Klemperer’s linguistic analysis on the language of Nazism (LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen [The Language of the Third Reich], 1957), quoting him: “Everything was oration, had to be address, exhortation, invective.” And further: “The most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.” Under Fascist regimes, authorities will immediately ask after a powerful speech “are you with us or not?” There is no choice to postpone the answer. Klemperer describes this as “the exercise of reason, of logical thought, something which Nazism views as the most deadly enemy of all.”
The internet was thought to be freeing individual expression by circumventing censorship from any authority. This expression is now not only limited to speech but also to our reactions; we can “like” it when Facebook friends share a petition for a humanitarian cause, or show “anger” in response to an article about the government’s inhuman acts of deportation. The speed of our reactions can make things “go viral” to the point where traditional mass media can no longer ignore it. The need for justice from the political left has been amplified after losing the election to a new liberal government yet again. To show our presence, we have to react quickly in solidarity, asking our friends: “are you with us or not?” Sometimes we quote Desmond Tutu, the anti-apartheid and social rights activist from South Africa: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Nina Power reminds us that “[u]nder the New Brutality, we may wonder what the words, idioms, and sentence structures of our own times might be, what ‘tiny doses of arsenic’ we are swallowing, which words have changed their values, which words have disappeared, how the way we speak and write is changing, and with what detrimental effects.” She continues, citing Klemperer: “[w]e can also describe the blurring of the distinction between written language and the image in the form of the meme. Klemperer indeed noted, ‘the entire thrust of the LTI was towards visualization.’ The internet meme, and a peculiar form of sly, ironic, vicious humor, have become part of our new linguistic and imagistic reality. […] Comedian Kathy Griffin recently had to plead for forgiveness after holding up a bloodied ‘beheaded’ Trump mask in a photograph. We cannot think clearly about what these images are doing because they are so tied up with the limits of seeing as such—what we desire to see, how we desire to desire, and what exists at the limit of both how and what we see: our ways of seeing are tinged with horror.”
The spring program at Louise Dany focuses on accepting the fact that there is an inseparable connection between the interpersonal experiences of text as such, and its surrounding political implications. Our focus will be on how we immediately experience text, rather than how we immediately understand it. If there is a way to “exercise” how texts trigger our emotions, we could perhaps be more reflectively equipped to suspend our response to them. Then, what used to be a provoked response could give way to many other possible experiences and actions.
Program March–May, 2018: Kim David Bots, Natasha Marie Llorens, Slow Reading Club (Bryana Fritz & Henry Andersen), Ronak Moshtaghi.