Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Debasement of Language


For all the emphasis by system writers on words, their respect for the meaning of words is low.

This was seen in Tom Bissell’s 2003 Believer essay about the Underground Literary Alliance. The centerpiece of his argument was that all writers are outsiders. There are no distinctions among them. John Updike was an outsider. He maintained an office at The New Yorker, was published by conglomerates, lauded by monopoly media, heaped with lit-system awards. But, by Bissell’s reasoning, even he, John Updike, was an outsider.

Which is to leave the word “outsider” with no meaning.

No doubt this was Bissell’s intent. If everybody is an outsider, no one is. The Insider cliques resume their paid-for partying in good conscience.

Jonathan Lethem did a similar trick in an essay in Harpers when he defined the term plagiarism through convoluted language and thought into ridiculousness.

I’ve noticed the same phenomenon at work at HTML Giant. Mild statements by Christopher Higgs are referred to as “provocative.” His audience realizes there have to be provocative ideas and writings somewhere. Maybe this is it!

Creating mild disagreement isn’t provocative.

What results from the debasement of language is a soft Orwellianism, where the words and stances used mean their opposite.

And so, when Tom Bissell says “outsider,” he really means, “insider.”

When an essay by Christopher Higgs is called “provocative,” you can bet it’s the opposite of provocative writing, but instead remains within the acceptable bounds of his audience.

When the PEN organization releases a book celebrating dissident writing, all the contributors will be system-approved safe. (Including Updike!)

When a book comes out titled “Revolutionaries,” the contributors and their art will be so representative of today’s literary hipster status quo, there won’t be a smidgen of revolution about it.

And so on.

1 comment:

cs said...

It would be helpful if you'd provide links to some of these stories and postings you mention.