Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why The Sun is afraid of poetry

During my PhD research trip to Britain in 2005 I became addicted to The Sun. I would arrange to meet British friends and research contacts in pubs in the East End of London or in Hull; they would arrive to find me nursing a mug of Tetley's Ale and ogling the inner pages of Rupert Murdoch's notorious tabloid.

It sounded unconvincing then, and will probably sound unconvincing now, but the truth is that I didn't become an avid reader of The Sun because of the page three girls, or the celebrity tittle-tattle, or the reactionary right-wing politics. What fascinated me was the manner in which the paper's articles were constructed. The Sun's journalists - the term seems almost inappropriate - built their stories out of simple, active voice sentences linked together three at a time in paragraphs that had the terseness of bullet points. A story rarely consisted of more than half a dozen paragraphs. The vocabulary of the paper was determinedly concrete: abstract nouns and words of more than three syllables were hard to find. The paper's editorials seldom departed from the strict rules that governed the rest of its prose.

Critics of The Sun often talk about the way the paper 'argues' or 'makes the case' for right-wing politics and philistine, xenophobic attitudes. The fact is, though, that the paper almost never engages in argument. More baroque publications of the right - the Wall Street Journal, for example, or The Times - are filled with opinion pieces which advance, however tendentiously, detailed arguments in favour of tax breaks for the rich, wars in the Middle East, and other currently favoured policies of conservatives, but The Sun does not bother with such trifles. The paper offers assertion after assertion, and carefully selected fact after carefully selected fact, without bothering to attach them to arguments.

There is a logic to The Sun's procedures. To argue explicitly for a worldview is to make one's audience aware of the fact that there are alternatives to that view, and to suggest that argument is an appropriate response to ideological differences. The Sun prefers to immerse its readers in its worldview, and it accomplishes this feat with an efficiency that is almost spectacular.

In his last novel, George Orwell imagined an effort to 'reform' English by greatly reducing the language's vocabulary and eliminating ambiguity from its remaining words. The 'Newspeak' of Ninety Eighty-Four is distinguished by its precision and concreteness, and it is these qualities which make users of the language unable to think creatively, let alone subversively.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended not as a prophecy but as a satire of the postwar world, including the capitalist countries of the West. Orwell ridiculed US consumer culture, for example, in his descriptions of his heroine Julia's work at a ‘factory’ which mass-produced porn novels for the ‘proles’. The dreary austerity of post-war Britain was satirised in the Chestnut café, where characters drank watery gin and smoked tasteless cigarettes, and the increasingly remote leadership of the post-war Labour Party, with its tendency to take on the trappings and habits of the British bourgeoisie, was lampooned in Orwell’s description of the division between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ sections of the party of Ingsoc. It is a pity that it is only Orwell’s enemies on the left, namely the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties loyal to Moscow, which have been popularly identified as the targets of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

They may have failed to influence popular perceptions of Ninety Eighty-Four, but many Orwell scholars have identified Western journalists, as well as Stalinist propagandists, as one of the targets of Orwell's discussions of Newspeak. Orwell worked for many years in the newspaper business, and was employed by the BBC during World War Two. He knew how easily a few strokes of a subeditor's pen could change the emphasis, and sometimes even the whole meaning, of a news report. He had a horror of philistine editors, and of political censorship. All satire involves exaggeration, and Orwell's concept of Newspeak seems like an exaggerated but fundamentally truthful portrait of the methods of the bureaucrats of the word that the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four so often had to deal with.

It seemed to me in 2005 that The Sun , with its carefully circumscribed vocabulary and relentless concreteness, was working unwittingly towards the actualisation of Orwell's Newspeak. When I expressed this fear to friends, they tended to shrug their shoulders, and to ask me why I bothered to read the paper in the first place. Did they have a point? If Sun readers want to wallow in ignorance, isn't that their business? Why should the rest of us worry?

I think we should worry, because The Sun is only an extreme example of a much wider tendency towards the instrumentalisation of language and the elimination of the complexity and nuance that makes good writing, and good thinking, possible. In a long article for The Atlantic in 2008, the technosceptic Nicholas Carr suggests that market forces and the internet are conspiring to change the way we read, the way we think, and even the way our brains are wired. Citing neurologists as well as literary critics, Carr argues that the internet is making us 'shallow' rather than 'deep' readers and thinkers, as we skip merrily from one online text to another. Attention spans are shrinking.

Carr rounds on Google as a symbol of all that is wrong with the way that capitalism is using the internet. He explains that Google sees information as a kind of commodity, 'a utilitarian resource that can be wired and processed with industrial efficiency'. Google operates as though the mind is a mechanical rather than a creative device, and consequently has no place for the 'fuzziness of contemplation'. For Google, ambiguity is not an 'opening for insight' but a 'bug to be fixed'. Like the architects of Newspeak, the executives of Google dream of making our language perfectly precise.

In Ninety Eighty-Four, Orwell opposes the half-forgotten richness of poetry to the grotesque precision of Newspeak. Winston Smith, the novel's rather uncertain hero, tries to retain a fragment of an old poem in his mind, as a sort of good luck charm, and wakes from a dream of rebellion and the open countryside with the mysterious name 'Shakespeare' on his lips. Today poetry, with its frequent refusal of explicit statement and its reliance on the complex chords of meaning that words can strike, seems particularly at odds with the instrumentalisation of language represented in different ways by The Sun and by Google. Good poetry cannot be skimmed on a screen, or condensed into a slogan or search word: it must be read 'deeply', or not at all.

Recently David Yelland, who had the dubious distinction of editing The Sun between 1998 and 2003, published an article in which he confessed to two scandalous weaknesses. Yelland revealed that he was a daily drunk during his tenure at The Sun. He often woke in the morning unable to remember the editorial he had written the night before, and he was once so drunk he turned up to a meeting with Rupert Murdoch wearing two shirts and two ties. Yelland explains his drunkeness by saying that he was unhappy with The Sun's politics, and with much of its content. Getting tanked was his way of coping with the xenophobia, the cheesey page three girls, and the relentless snooping on beleagured celebrities like Kate Moss.

Yelland's other confession is more surprising. During his darkest days at The Sun, he turned to poetry as well as the bottle for succour:

I know it sounds mad but I began to take huge comfort in poetry, my first love, and would often reach for one of the slim volumes I kept hidden at the back of my office. I felt a love of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Keats was not wholly compatible with being editor of The Sun.

Indeed I once hid a copy of
The Waste Land inside my own paper - had it been Playboy, no one would have batted an eyelid.

Yelland's memoir appeared in the Daily Mail, a tabloid which rivals The Sun for self-righteous philistinism, and so a few of his readers might have shaken their heads at his secret literary excursions. Winston Smith, though, would understand Yelland's attraction to poetry, as well as his furtiveness. For Smith and for Yelland, poetry offers, in its very recalcitrance, its very refusal to be controlled and directed by subeditors and propagandists, a subversive example. As TS Eliot wrote, in the opening section of The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.


Blogger Unknown said...

I have always found the Sun interesting. The composition of their articles have been most intriguing.

Keep posting!!

This is Nancy from Israeli Uncensored News

8:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nancy = spam.

The age of the machine is here!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

8:22 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

You want to dumb people down - and ultimately render them dumb - dumb down language. Especially vocabulary. Which is why I really dislike rap/hiphop-

5:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about conscious hip hop?

like king kapisi...

12:03 pm  
Blogger Poldy said...

" know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief..."
So true. And now Jesse Ryder has gone down with injury.

2:23 pm  
Blogger Poldy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:24 pm  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

I read a very interesting interview in Hatred of Capitalism (ed: Lotringer/Krauss; 2001) with Jack Smith. In Lotringer's own words:

"Jack Smith was the first to give me a sense of what being an artist is about. He immediately warned me against the French obsession with language. I can tell, he said, ‘that you somehow got hung up on the issue of language. Forget it. It’s thinking... If I could think of a thought that has never been thought of before, the language will fall into place in the most fantastic way, but the thought is what’s going to do it.’ For a semiotician, it was a rough lesson, but it worked."

And so a question is put to Orwell, myself, the theoreticians and you all:

Does language always determine thought? If not, how might thought use the available language to express fresh ideas?

And, is this simply a prelude to identity politics, where varied experiences determine thought and we must be generous in interpreting how others use language.

5:34 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Anon #2 - I thought all hiphop/rap was flow-of-consiousness? "Unmediated"immediate?
King Kapisi -all I know about the Kapisi family is that they're gifted & great: havent listened to King Kapisi-

8:15 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

There is a very interesting book called "ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind" (Ivan Illich/Barry Saunders) that deals with some of these language issues.

Illich linked the idea of Newspeak with Orwell's time working at the BBC, where he was partly involved in translating things into Ogden's "Basic English":

For various reasons, however, Illich decided Newspeak could never really exist in reality. A more real problem for him was "uniquack" or "amoeba words" (a concept taken from linguist Uwe Porksen), terms with technical meanings which get used in popular discourse for their aura of authority but in ambiguous and manipulative ways. Examples include "sexuality", "information" and "identity". The most surprising ameoba word of all is "life", especially in the substantive sense of "a life". Illich saw this as a diabolical capitalist "reincarnation" of the Christian ethos of "I am the Life". Anyway, the argument is very interesting.

Nestor said: "Does language always determine thought? If not, how might thought use the available language to express fresh ideas?"

If one looks to orally-based cultures - where there are no "letters" therefore no "words" and therefore no "languages" - speaking becomes inseparable from thinking. As there are no books, the very metaphors of knowledge and memory are radically different. When one speaks, the thoughts are minted fresh, one goes to the beach of the mind and picks them up like driftwood. Or to use a Polynesian metaphor, one dives like a bird into the mind's waters unsure of exactly which fish one will catch. This seems to still be the approach with Maori whaikorero, combined with certain rhetorical formulas and proverbs.

Rap is quite different example of the oral approach in modern popular culture; of the ever-renewable resources of spoken language.

12:02 pm  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

I don't really agree, Mike, with your equating a lack of written letters and words with the lack of an idea of a language. Surely there are still others who don't possess language and an inability to orally communicate through language (ie. with children, others who don't speak the dialect) introduces notions of difference which is based on language, which I would guess would make an oral language need to incorporate some words to deal with the ability to speak and not speak.

And anyhow, the binary of oral and written communication is fairly well juxtaposed in Derrida, which leads me to prefer to use the term discourse to try and express communications that are somewhere between or around the oral and the written eg. tukutuku panels.

So, I think that it is not that the words of an oral language are somehow more fresh than those of a written language. I do think, however, that the term 'minted fresh' has me yearning for a mojito.

7:59 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

NKN - or Kea if I may be so familiar:
language is not necessarily sound/written marks/nor gestures. It can be colour displays (fireflys, cephalapods) or excrement (many other beings.)
Language is communication.
Us humans (any non-humans perusing this site, my apologies for the assumption etc.) *tend* to rely on the spoken & written side of language but-

when is the last time you really knew and reacted to a hostile fart?

10:10 pm  
Anonymous mike said...

Nestor, it's difficult to discuss these ideas because "language" can mean different things (which is why I put it in quote marks).

What Illich meant was "the idea of languages". Writing made possible an abstraction of the contours of spoken sounds, thus turning these into a kind of visual code. Only then did the concept of "a language" became possible. This is not quite the same as the everyday experience of different "ways of making ourselves understood" (which is how young children *probably* understand speaking).

He was also critical of the "language as communication" concept: that language is a means by which to communicate pieces of information. He traced the emergence of this metaphor to the growth of mass media (or mass communications). Communication theory was thus an example of what McLuchan called the "symbolic fallout" of technology, how we succesively rethink human behaviour in terms of our tools. Another recent example is the "multi-tasking" metaphor for human behaviour, originally a computer processing term. Unless they are kept in check, these metaphors become very insidious paths by which to dehumanise ourselves.

By the way, I wasn't trying to run down writing, just point out that while we might rightly fear the destruction of truthful language in the media, spoken language is one way people can always find their way back to reality.

Keri, perhaps farts are part of the "universal language of music", along with burps, clapping, stomping, clicking the fingers. Farts are unique however in having that smellorama dimension and they can even be set alight.

9:15 am  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

I've always been reluctant to read Illich, mostly because of the connections to the Tolstoy character of Ivan Ilyich. But now that I am learning Russian perhaps I can address my Tolstoy concerns and thus consider Ivan Illich as a separate entity.

And so that is my promise. I will read this 'ABC...', Mr Mike, and, a year to the day I will come back to this exact site and give you an updated comment.

6:28 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

Thanks mike for the Illich title headsup- one I will definitely get hold of & read-

7:33 pm  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

But not Hatred of Capitalism! Keri H., did I not sell it with enough gusto. Or was it too much gusto?

4:00 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Nestor - I had taken down the proffered title - and didnt acknowledge that you had given it - sorry!

Tukutuku work -and Pictish carvings - semaseiography!

Only learnt that word today - and I dont think tukutuku panels solus are semaseiographic *but* ever since I was told at Takitimu that "You can read this house", I've been intrigued by the idea that whole means rather more than the sum of it's parts-

so, thank you Nestor - your suggested title is on the list of books to obtain (it's gonna be a busy busy year-)

5:59 pm  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

I was just being priggish. There are plenty of pdf versions of the book available online in semi-pirated versions, but the old anarchist bookshop in the left bank sold me a copy of it for a paltry $18, though Unity has it for about twice that.

And since both mike and I have offered you a title, why not use up the credit by offering something back?

It wasn't so much the dues I wanted but for people to read the book - it is a primer of sorts, a collection stradling the history of Semiotext(e), the publishers, who mixed modern euro philosophy with American art theory/experience.

7:05 pm  
Anonymous Keri h said...

The only thing I can offer - and I assume a lot of readers here already know it, but just in case some dont- is A.W.A.D. = a free, daily, word delight-

10:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I look at the universe, I see two things:

1) The corruption of entropy making war on all things;
2) The beauty of orderly systems not yet fully corrupted.

It is evident the universe is dying; it ultimately resolves to a state of maximum entropy, in which nothing can ever happen again, a state of dead time, dead space, dead matter: all utterly meaningless, incapable of containing any order or meaning.

One question logically follows, however: if that is the inevitable end of the universe, how could the universe have ever existed in any other state?

A reasonable supposition is that something stronger than entropy has been at work. Another way of describing such a thing is the word “incorruptible”.

Now, the concept of the incorruptible is an intriguing one indeed. The incorruptible is necessarily inexhaustible; it cannot wear out. It is maximum orderliness, for there is no entropy at all in it, and thus it must contain infinite meaning, infinite information. It thus must be maximum sentience, maximum consciousness, maximum intelligence. If there were anything worthy of being called God, it would be the Incorruptible. There can be nothing greater.

Thus, true religion, the real thing, may simply be called the quest of the Incorruptible. If a man finds the Incorruptible, he has found something of greater value than all else that may be desired, for all things human are subject to entropy:

All human love decays into hatred;
All human pleasures decay into emptiness;
All human peace decays into war;
All human interests decay into boredom;
All human morals decay into hypocrisy;
All human knowledge decays into forgetfulness;
All things human decay into vanity.

The human race is imprisoned by entropy, and we have no power to escape. We cannot save ourselves from the bondage of corruption. If there is any hope at all, it is not in human power, but in the Incorruptible.

The remarkable thing, therefore, is not that we should find corruption in the course of human affairs, but that we should ever find anything else, for incorruption is alien, not only to our planet, but also to our universe. The mark of incorruption seen in people such as George Washington, which sign was once known as the Divine spark, is perhaps the greatest evidence that there is a God.

10:31 pm  
Anonymous Nestor K Notabilis said...

Nestor says: I think Nancy from post #1 has made leaps, and perhaps even bounds, in coming up with this second and most recent comment. (see above anon comment). Thought climaxing thiswise is, I hope, the fate for all who inhabit the land of Pontius Pilate.

5:05 am  

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