Tag Archives: philosophy

Deconstructing American Political Discourse: An Artificial Hegemony on Words

Today’s guest entry is by Daniel Saffert, a philosophy student & writer … & just by coincidence he is also my significant other. I trust you’ll enjoy his essay on modern political discourse. As a token of my appreciation to him for writing an entry for me to publish on my blog, I am sharing with you a link to his Tumblr, Entre les Néants, where you can find more of his work. I’m probably biased, but I love reading his short stories. — MLR

American politics has always been partial to its buzzwords and catchphrases. Vietnamization and “Star Wars” and the “moral majority” and so on. But during the 21st century the American public’s lexicon has been subjected to a veritable onslaught of new words and phrases for consideration. This is no doubt due in part to the continual spoon-feeding of the 24-hour news cycle and its army of political commentators—a deluge of sensations that is par for the course in the so-called Information Age we find ourselves in.

The preeminence of electronic media then as the public’s mode of conceiving the world has arguably made what one may call “reality” and what we watch on our televisions and computer screens almost indistinguishable. In fact, “real life” tends to imitate its hyperreal televised counterpart and sometimes even regard it as the arbiter of how one should act, feel, and of course speak. This is no less true of politics in the media. Like any other television programming, it influences our conception of our own lives as a reflective Other. The point at which this change in behavior and perception becomes problematic is not when we’re simply quoting Seinfeld at work or getting a Jennifer Anniston haircut, but when, in the case of the language of political discourse, language—a mode of being and conceiving—no longer belongs to us in any real sense.

To see how this alteration takes place, simply consider the meaning that the term “socialism” has taken on in the American political consciousness since the election of Barack Obama. Socialism, as a political and economic system, has been quite specifically defined by the more than hundred years of development it has experienced as an ideology. It is a huge system of thought. Ironically, it is now used as a generic pejorative by American conservatives for any vaguely progressive thought espoused by the Democratic Party. This repossession of the word for this new context does not simply stem from its continual dissemination into people’s minds by right-wing politicians and news media, however. The success of this new meaning is also predicated on the idea that the general public already believes it to be so, that the new meaning isn’t “new” at all, but rather already existed. In essence, a group of people in this example has come to believe that “socialism” is not merely a rhetorical device thrown around by conservative politicians, but a word they had always possessed in such a context but never used until it was revealed and reinforced in them by the media’s monopoly over the language of politics. This may seem like an exaggeration, a radical explanation of the development of public opinion, but wherever there is language there is also resignation to its rules, and in the case of such political language one finds the internalization of its “laws” to be quite authoritarian.

One is easily convinced of this authoritative grasp by simply examining the linguistic minefield encountered when one attempts to discuss any contemporary political issue. For every one, there are vague generalities that dominate so completely, that to speak outside of them is almost unheard of. One does not speak of criminal justice or the death penalty but “capital punishment.” You are not “pro-abortion”—you are “pro-choice.” Then, having chosen your rigid designators of belief, suddenly by some bizarre form of ideological calculus, your identity as being a liberal or conservative is determined, and you can proudly identify yourself as such when questioned about your political stance. In the polarized political climate we find ourselves in today, there is only the choosing of sides, and in the turbo boosted pace of modern American society, there is no time for elaboration—there are bumper stickers for that.

What this really means is that to even become a participant in political debate in America, you must submit yourself completely to its domination over discourse, which is a resignation to the paradoxical idea that you are voicing your opinions in your own words, that you are exercising control over language to express your own views—and at the same time speaking within a pre-fabricated conception of how one ought to speak, one in which the necessary and specific terms employed are nothing more than vague simulacra of meanings that only serve to obfuscate and conceal the hegemony that has been internalized by the speaker.

This continual interplay of revelation and concealment that allows for this domination over political discourse today is dialectical. The ongoing regurgitation by the media of the same simple buzzwords and generalities serves to reveal to the public what they are supposed to be thinking, or really have supposedly been thinking for a while. Once these ideas are internalized as being the state of reality, as the views of public consciousness, their inherent lack of real meaning (as a mere product of the hyperreal simulation of the modern media) is concealed and their legitimacy remains unquestionably accepted. It is interesting that there is so much debate about what is shown on television—particularly the news—when what is likely more important is what is not shown, what is not said, what is concealed. What has been left out of this language we internalize as our own? What Other is the mirror to a system of empty platitudes?

If these ideas reveal anything at all, they perhaps have again shown the tendency for language to be both our greatest asset and also our worst enemy. There must be some kind of consensus for language to function communicatively at all; and at the same time, this commonality of meaning cannot be such that language is rigid and oppressive. It is unfortunately and indisputably true that even in writing this article, I no doubt have acquiesced to and have thus been influenced by the framework of American political discourse as it exists now, as there is nothing outside of it. As is so often the case, we are forced to work within the “system” to deconstruct it. The abundance of information that we experience daily, however truncated and concealed, is not going away any time soon. If we are to attempt to overcome its influence as a source of linguistic oppression, it must be used to proliferate ideas, meanings, and conceptions that continually subvert the vacuous theater of empty phrases we have been given. If we are to be bound by the same language, let it be one that we have chosen, an eternal friend and enemy that belongs to all of us and none of us.

Daniel Saffert


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Language & Knowledge

The following post is actually a blog entry I wrote in 2008 — when my interest in philosophy was strong & my love for language budding. It does contain a few edits to suit my present stylistic tastes, but content-wise, judge it as written by a non-linguist. Please do listen to the videos — what I write is a commentary. Re-reading this blog entry makes me really look forward to tackling Wittgenstein’s  Philosophical Investigations (next on my docket). Anyway, enjoy! — MLR

Here are two of my most favorite lectures by the English philosopher, Alan Watts, set to video:

Who is it that Knows There is No Ego?

For purposes of description, we must break the world down into some sort of units. This is the basis of Calculus. How do you measure a curve? Well, you treat it as a set of points; … although it isn’t a set of points. There is no such thing as a point.

The tendency of language is to compartmentalize the Universe as a way to understand and interpret — much like a Rorschach Blot. However, the Universe, as Watts claims, is an organism to which we are all a part of. And much like the question “Where does your neck end and your head begin?” it is only through general, but largely arbitrary, agreement of terms and definitions that we can work out any concrete, entirely separate entities.

And while this is admittedly beneficial as far as communication and social interaction are concerned, it has its detriments when language takes us too far into separating ourselves from the Universe. We are in tune with the world, and to think of ourselves as separate from this organism in effect eradicates the significance of of a holistic Universe in the first place — and don’t we assume that the Universe is in fact the sum of all “things”?

Language is a tool; language is use. But to equate what we put into language, or understand with language, with reality is a mistake.

To Speak the Truth

We populate the world with ghosts which arise out of the structure of our language and thus, therefore, are the structure of our thinking.

To comprehend the world through language, which is our natural tendency (our only tendency), is to make unexamined assumptions. The language itself constrains our worldviews; our ways of interpreting and understanding and acting. Inevitably, we cannot fathom our Universe by way of a system of describing it that essentially constrains it.

We cannot understand the world though language, but Alan Watts says that because this is our sole mechanism for doing so, we will never grasp the truth that rests at the heart of all things. He also addresses the false assumption built into our language that things are made of “stuff” that must be “formed” — this assumption calling into necessity a creator or a “former.” Reminding anyone of Plato?

When we try to perceive the Universe we are fundamentally looking into ourselves as the Universe. But we cannot look at ourselves and language cannot interpret itself through language. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a mathematical theorem, tells us rational thought can never penetrate to the final ultimate truth.

Alan Watts

Since writing this I’ve obviously learned a fair amount about language & linguistics. Unfortunately, I haven’t continued to pursue philosophy nearly as much, though like I said, I’m picking up Wittgenstein ASAP. Anyway, when I talk about language constraining our worldview, I mean it gives us a finite set of ways for which have a natural proclivity to describe reality. I really, really don’t mean to conflate this with linguistic determinism à la Sapir/Whorf at all. I’m currently reading a book called From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language by Jerome Feldman. I find that it quite nicely relates to this idea of the constraints of language & thinking. When I finish it I’ll probably be ready to write a blog about it, so watch out for that.

Megan L. Risdal


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