We need to learn to speak again: Linguistification of society as foreplay to social change

18. II 2019

Tongue finger

One avoids a lie whenever one can get away with truth (Borislav Pekic)

Why does it appear impossible to dispute obvious lies and falsehoods with simple and self-evident truths? It’s been more than two years since lies were set free. They have flooded the public discourse, politics, media and everyday life. Lies and falsehoods are neither exonerated, nor are they getting flushed out. They continue to pile up on top of existing ones with no drainage mechanism in place. Their presence continues to agitate the public, but nothing seems to be on the horizon that would resolve the underlying tensions. The political entropy caused by this toxic ferment is gradually sucking out all the oxygen and beginning to intoxicate even its own creators.

There is something about the current political configuration that is conducive to this state of unresolved contradictions, which is embedded in our thinking and language. In capitalism, the significance of a concept is primarily measured in terms of its value in the marketplace. The market value system has penetrated all social relationships and governs our thinking and language as well. Under capitalist conditions, language functions as a commodity[1]. For example, we express an agreement by saying: I buy that, disagreement with: I don’t buy it. Winning an acceptance is articulated as selling (the President has to sell that idea to Congress).

As a consequence, any resistance to capitalist hegemony, either through critique or protest, is recognized as successful only it if sells well, and vice versa – fails if it sells poorly. In other words, language in capitalism is mute. Criticism of capitalism does not operate in the same medium as capitalism itself[2]. The two can never meet each other, and they cannot be allowed to. In that respect, capitalism is structured in a very Euclidean way. According to Boris Groys, society first must be altered by linguistification if it is to become subject to any meaningful critique[3] – before we contemplate any change, we need to learn how to speak; linguistification is a foreplay to any meaningful change.

Capitalism’s instinct for survival mobilizes any and all possible forces of defense, including its spontaneous mutation, in order to prevent its own transformation. The merger of politics and entertainment is one such mechanism at play. The logic behind this strange symbiosis is simple. Entertainment draws attention and boosts viewership and ratings — it takes attention away from the content and reinforces the message irrespective of its validity. This is the commodification of language at its purest.

How nonsense travels: Semantic excess and its transmission mechanisms

Current political protagonists have an unusual set of skills. They show up in various shapes and forms as a composite of entertainers, debate artists, and charismatic personalities with a penchant for scandal, something like a massively dumbed down version of sophists. They are, to paraphrase Boris Groys, entrepreneurs who offer the empty surfaces of coherently articulated speech to anyone who wishes to be concealed behind them. The real attraction of the linguistic commodities offered for sale by these characters is represented less by their logically valid surfaces than by the dark space behind those surfaces where customers can settle comfortably. The key transformation of political subjects into consumers has already taken place. Listeners are encouraged to appropriate the obscure core of populist speech in order to fill it with their own concerns[4]. In other words, speech that hides its paradoxical structure becomes a commodity that invites penetration into its paradoxical background or interior.

In the political environment where all social structures are suspended and things function like in professional wrestling, where only the loudest voices are heard, ratings are the ultimate metric. Everything is measured by its shock value. It doesn’t matter what kind of attention (good or bad) one gets, whatever cuts through the mix counts; the rest drowns out in the overall cacophony of semantic excess. And the more politics resemble a circus, the more people will tune in to see it. Everything else is of secondary importance. Viewers will dial in not to get a dose of sense or logic, but to be entertained, agitated or to activate any emotion that interrupts their boredom.

There is a concentrated effort to keep every public discourse trapped in the vortex of commodified language, where any new idea that could lead to a possibility of change receives a price tag and gets absorbed by the black background of the capitalist value system. The sole purpose of political talking heads, spokesmen and pundits – the political whirling dervishes – is to not allow this vortex of cognitive opacity to come to a halt and to stir each debate and discursive deviation towards its center. Media are caught in this play as unwitting accomplices. Like rats who carry the bubonic plague, they facilitate the transmission of the message; they cannot stop the dissemination of lies because they go wherever profits take them.

Disappearance by proliferation: Between logic and truth

Is truth necessary at all? Can’t logic replace it? Logic is something permanent, whereas truth changes. (Borislav Pekic)

There is nothing new in the political platform of the right wing populism — its still-born ideas are outdated, compromised, and were disqualified long ago — its only innovation is linguistic. The grand program is to exonerate lies and integrate them into the mainstream capitalist system. Flooding the public discourse with lies and falsehoods is multi-purpose.

Lies have had an uncomfortable and disadvantaged position in capitalism. Those who lie, steal — they are thieves. And although they respect property, thieves want to redistribute it, and redistribution is the biggest sin in capitalism. So, liars are assholes. However, this logic (unjustly) denies lies, and those who are good at using them, their chance at limitless profit making. And the new populist breed is here to correct this historical injustice (this is America!). Their mission is to show that lies, when set free, could take us to places we could only have dreamed of. Lies can become monetary forward contracts, a promise of revenue, and no longer a challenge to the interpretation of reality. By maintaining the capitalist paradigm, profit exonerates the encounter of lies with facts.

When seen in retrospect, 2016 was a cognitive coup d’état. The subsequent two years have been a process of transcription of society into the medium of language, a linguistic counterrevolution and not a political or social and economic movement – nothing has really been accomplished, nothing sustainable achieved, except an overall social and political destabilization.

So, before anything can change, the last two years have to be undone — we first need to learn how to speak again. Learning the right language is a foreplay that needs to come before any political action. The progressive agenda, if it is to be effective at this stage, has to be centered on the linguistic part.

To begin to learn how to speak again, and to grasp the inadequacy of the existing language (the only one we know at the moment), one has to start speaking about the unspeakable, about the topics where the commodified language of capitalism is mute. We need to escape into the blind alleys of capitalism where its systemic disorders, the five horsemen of the apocalypse, reside[5]: Stagnation, Redistribution, Plundering of the public domain, Technology and commodification of labor, and Corruption.

These are the topics that define the discourse of change. They address the central points of self-intoxication, the Achilles heels of capitalism. The five systemic disorders expose the inner contradictions, the paradoxicality of the system; they are the portals of change. Any political figure whose platform is defined by these topics deserves our attention. All others are impostors.

[1] Boris Groys, Das komunistische Postskriptum, Suhrkamp Verlag (2006)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?, Verso (2017)

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