Monday, May 06, 2013

Reply in the affirmative to the efficacious use of technical language

Some thoughts thoughts for the brain on this

A metaphor is a means by which a perhaps complicated idea or set of ideas is compacted down into a single phrase or even word. Take the phrase “all the world is a stage”[1] from Jacques soliloquy in As You Like It. The world is not a stage, but people do act out their lives, as it were, in roles thrust upon them. Karl Marx, a Shakespeare aficionado, put it differently: men make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing. If metaphor is a way of transporting meaning all language is in a sense a metaphor.

Jargon[2] is a form of specific metaphor that applies to defined groups. Jargon is a way for members of such groups to communicate with speed and ease. The danger is quite obvious. Jargon can be esoteric. Esoteric language is exclusive[3].

There are two problems with trying to simplify or clarify language. First of all it makes communication more difficult. If you wanted to discuss, say, watermelons, conversation would grind to a halt if instead of saying watermelon you had to describe it[4]. The second problem is it skirts some very reactionary ideas.

One of which is language superiority. No one has ever said “my language is backward, inexpressive and difficult to learn”. English is the closest thing there is to a global lingua franca, not because it’s an innately superior language, but because it has been spread by the British and American empires. The other reactionary danger is it can serve to drive out refined thought from public life. Socialism is about helping raise the great mass of people up intellectually.

An example: in the early 40s George Orwell was a supporter of Basic English[5]. Most people don’t notice the shift between his celebrated essay, Politics and the English Language, a plea for simple English, and 1984, with its concept of Newspeak. Truncating language, removing all ambiguity, nuance and idiom, was shown as a means of control. Nothing as dramatic has occurred in history so far[6]. Nonetheless attempts to police language have always been reactionary, attempt to transcend it have so far foundered.

There is no clear solution for us, except to say language is a site of struggle. We must be critical at all times. Rather than ask is this jargon we should be asking does this word work? If we are discussing the implications of democratic centralism then we really ought to use the term, instead of inventing a one or a pleasant metaphor, which actually serves to confuse matters. Tom’s argument is actually an esoteric one. Unless you were present at the first national meeting of the IS or received a substantially accurate account of said meeting you are not part of the initiated. You don’t really have a means by which to judge the argument.

We should also be quite rigorous. We have all heard people make clumsy statements. We’ve all probably made clumsy statements. I once heard someone say “we need to be in touch with concrete people on the ground”, which made me think of SWP members swooping about the sky. Has anyone really said anything as lumpen as “comrades will launch a disciplined intervention into the campaign with our propaganda in order to recruit”?

[1] Happily plundered from the top of the Wikipedia article describing metaphors, follow it, if you like, with “and all men and women merely players”.
[2] Which I didn’t know until now derives from the Old French for birdsong.
[3] That said, there is no universal language, all metaphors are to some degree exclusive. You either understand them or you don’t
[4] Could you please pass me the pass me the large, round fruit with green, waxy skin, pink flesh and black seeds? How much is this large, round fruit with green, waxy skin, pink flesh and black seeds? Does the large, round fruit with green, waxy skin, pink flesh and black seeds taste alright to you?
[5] An English-based language devised by the linguist CK Ogden, consisting of 850 ‘essential’ words, to be used as a lingua franca and an aid to teaching English as a second language.
[6] Although it occurs something drastic might have happened to Korean after six decades of isolation in the North.

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