More Words To Beware Of, and why they matter

by NORMAN SIMMS March 8, 2015

There are certain words and phrases that, as soon as I see them in print or on the computer screen, I stop and switch off.  They signal a conceptualization of reality that seems so discordant with mine, the one  I grew up with and learned in school and university, that I have attempted to meditate on and write about throughout more than half a century of active scholarship,  It is true, of course, that people use these terms because that is what they learned in class and what they see every day and everywhere when they communicate with each other, and they probably are not aware of anything unusual-certainly these terms do not make their stomachs turn, their toe curl up, or their ears ring with pain. 

I can remember one of the first of such new-fangled locutions that caught me short when I heard it already many years ago: image.  This was a fine word in itself, had a long and honourable history in philosophy, psychology and aesthetics where it meant a special kind of picture, one that was somehow at second or third remove from an object itself.  At that moment, sometime in the late 1950s I think, it had something to do with a deliberate falsity as created by advertising firms on Madison Avenue in order to sell things that people didn't know they needed or which they didn't need but were told they should have to enhance their lives in some sort of a way.  Then in a very short time, image started to be used about people, not least politicians, who created for themselves or paid others to manufacture on their behalf, an image of themselves that was not quite real.  It seemed to have something to do with other, more conventional words and concepts, such as reputation, fame and glamor and charisma, and it also started to draw into itself connotations that used to belong to ephemeral characteristics, such as sex appeal, honesty and strength of character.  Finally, as happens, image has come to mean anything, everything and therefore nothing at all, a mere appearance, an epiphenomenon, a je ne sais quoi.

That also started to happen increasingly in the 1960s.  New words were invented or old  words adopted and adapted in order to make it seem as though there were actually new things to discuss, new techniques to learn, or even new realities in which to experience life and oneself.  At first they were a bit jarring because all the old associations and meanings did not fit the new context in which these terms were used.  Then more and more people began to forget the old contexts, and to think of these new locutions as though they were the proper way to describe the ideas, events, persons and concepts that were being referred to.  However, since the words also continued to carry with them the old baggage of many generations of use and were to be found in the literature of the near and distant past and thus continued to have a certain currency amongst educated people, a chasm began to open between those with traditional knowledge and those without it, either with no education at all or with some modern version based on the social sciences or an array of recently concocted ideologies about the environment, spiritualism, digital technology, post-political politics, peace studies and God knows what else. 

Since then, that is, since the big division between traditionally literate individuals and those who only live in the moment and shape their lives on popular songs and videos, on instantaneous pleasures or aversions, perverse or otherwise, the by now wide stream of mushy verbiage that passes for conversation and narratives has pretty much overwhelmed the majority of the population-everywhere in the world, not just in western Europe and North America.  This has not been helped either by an influx of immigrants from East and Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe; it would have been wonderful-it still might be in a reformed educational system-if the languages, cultures, historical insights and artistic endeavours of all these people enhanced and added to our basic Judeo-Christian heritage. 

Unfortunately, in all too many cases, the newcomers have not been integrated into the knowledge systems of our civilization, absorbed its basic facts, values and ways of knowing reality and then gradually added to it.  To pass on the technological education, which was supposed to be value free, neutral and non-threatening the old curricula were either ditched altogether, dumbed down to the point of virtual non-existence or condensed into word-bytes and workbook formulae.  Everybody has lost out, except for a very few who somehow, usually thanks to the concern and attention of families and small communities, have gone through the system and, after three or four generations, risen up into positions of power and authority themselves, believing, as they have no other standards to go by, that they are sources of knowledge and wisdom. 

Though they are indeed "educated," intelligent in many ways, somewhat imaginative in others, they remain cut off from the past, and not even the very distant past, as one can see when such educationalists and community leaders attempt to frame logical statements, refer to historical events and persons, or draw lessons from the problems around them in order to solve them with justice and fairness.  It is then that the difference between the post-modernist, politically-correct and technologically-savvy show themselves at complete odds with the relics of the old way of learning and thinking, the dinosaurs who draw their strength from old books and codes of ethical practice, from charters, codes and principles that served humanity for thousands upon thousands of years.

Here is my latest of such words and phrases.  I am not sure exactly what they mean, but that is the point.  They have been cut loose from the need to have meaning and serve only to make the users feel good-and those of us who stand with jaws hung, eyes open in wonder and horror, and teeth grinding in rage, feel bad.

Hybridity.  This obviously comes from a botanical discourse about the mixed heredity of different plants.  It seems to include grafting on branches from one tree to another and then genetic engineering.  At first it seemed to appear in books about the evils of colonialism, Orientalism and American hegemonism (which, by the way, seems to be different than the old-fashioned term hegemony), wherein indigenous people got mixed up with the privileged folk left in the metropolis either because slaves were brought from their own peaceful and endemic lands to the corrupt and decadent nations to serve their greedy needs or because impoverished, disempowered communities were forced by circumstances to uproot themselves and live as wage-slaves and subordinates to the robber barons and bloated capitalist classes.  The new creoles or mixed races, however, instead of becoming degenerate and constitutionally criminal, become noble victims and have earned the right to lord it over their former masters, their very status as disadvantaged entitles them to compensation in every department of life.

Practice.  An old Marxist term praxis, meaning the practical, materialist, gritty stuff of life now has gained aesthetic value, and every painter, sculptor, happening-maker or celebrity artiste has her or his own practice.  Whereas doctors and dentists, who learned theory through books and lectures, then applied their skills in real cases with actual patients, the new practitioners of art only have to declare themselves artists and to find consumers for whatever it is they wish to do or display, often with the conceptual statement more importance than any object or performance put into practice for the moment.  In defiance of the old joke about the visitor to Manhattan searching for Carnegie Hall and asking a native how to get there, the digital cohorts don't even need to practice, practice, practice!

Privilege.  This is one of the latest terms to be yanked out of the ordinary lexicon of English speech, where it is used to mean an advantage, a favourable position or a special right earned or granted. When it started to be used just a few years ago, it was meant to be taken as a mark of an unfair advantage granted to one group of people over another by some feature such as wealth, race or place of origin.  But very soon, in the same process outlined in our introduction, the word started to turn in on itself, lose all sense of context, and become a powerful nonsense word to slam one's political opponents: in other words, simply enunciating the word was proof of its veracity, a kind of magical charm to ward off enemies.  By the virtue of feeling disadvantaged and thus gaining status as a victim of all socially-constructed values, the speaker lacks privilege and therefore becomes morally, socially and spiritually entitled to everything they have been denied or deem to be their due.  Thus we find school boards and publishers removing all reference to adjectives, nouns and verbs that offend-such as writing on a blackboard, smelling crispy bacon and studying parts of mathematics-because it grants to some children privilege over others. 

Project. To send something forth forcefully, such as an object or an idea: to set out a programme or plan of things to come.  Nowadays, alas, project means the thing or the plan or the idea proposed, but not merely as a new way of saying what always could be put into words by the more normal usages of language, but now as something which is vague, indeterminate, and nefarious.  Thus we find artists describing their practice as conceiving of new projects which form the sum of their intentions as well as of their achievements.  There are some post-modernist scholars, however, who try to give an historical sense to the term, as when they talk about the Enlightenment as a project, suggesting that this Aufklärung or Lumière was not a process of casting the light of reason on to the dark, superstitious mysteries of nature and the mind: instead it was an oppressive closing off of irrational inspirations and solipsistic babble. More disturbing, however, was a book recently announced as having the project of discussing Genesis in the Bible and that the project of Genesis was to... Well, does it matter what such an idiotic statement means to say?  In fact, within one paragraph the offending word appears four times: if once, it might pass unnoticed as just a bit of modern jargon; if twice, with a different significance, as a sign of confused thinking; of three times, with an unclear meaning, an indicator of a deliberate attempt to bamboozle the reader; but if four times, where it is unclear if any meaning is intended at all, it probably is time to call in the guys in white suits to cart away the writer.

Subaltern. A British military term for a junior officer who stands beneath the higher ups. Now it seems to mean anyone who is in a subordinate position, usually the suppressed, colonized races who are forced to grovel before those with privilege and so-called normality.  It may have started as a way of discussing women in relation to men or blacks to whites, but it now means all victims who are ipso facto morally superior to the top echelons of society. In fact, anyone who is hurt, offended or "dissed" by another is a subaltern and therefore the entitled person who is always to be judged right in all legal, economic and political decisions.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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