Law in the Internet Society

Naming the Real

-- By DanaDelger - 28 Feb 2010

In 1763 William Trent, the British Commander of Fort Pitt, near what is now Pittsburgh, gifted the Delaware Indians who were besieging his fort with two blankets and a handkerchief, all neatly procured from the nearest smallpox hospital and meant, in Trent’s own words, to "Convey the Smallpox to the Indians", to bring the very war inside their bodies. It is impossible not to be struck by the Trojan nature of this betrayal; we have long feared the dagger concealed in a kiss. But there is something worse than this, a betrayal beyond the mere bait and switch. Imagine there was no word for “smallpox” and that none could be invented, that the Delaware were struck not only sick by dumb by their malady, that they could not describe their sickness as anything other than a gift. That would have been the ultimate victory for Trent; to force your enemies to bow to your language and to call your genocide only mercy, is to triumph completely.

This inarticulateness, the loss of language to describe our societal sickness, is not a historical imagining, but a present reality. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek opens his essay collection Welcome to the Desert of the Real with this story:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’

The reason the joke is funny and the reason that it is terrifying are precisely the same; the speaker presents (or perhaps even mistakes) his experience for truth because he doesn’t have the ability to express otherwise. The small meaning of the joke isn’t trifling (it has a lot to say about totalitarian society), but we should read it more broadly, and, more importantly, read it into our own society. Resistance to such a reading is natural; aren’t we free, where they weren’t? Do not our letters go uncensored? But that’s precisely the point. “We feel free”, Žižek says “because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” We are out of red ink, and we are out not knowing how to name our unfreedom means it doesn't feel like unfreedom. Even when we realize the blankets are laced with smallpox, our tongues can’t call it any thing other than a gift.

Žižek points us to the war on terror for one example of the missing red ink, the false terminology of this “war” comprising a nearly perfect dictionary of deception. The war on terror, itself an amazing term, has spawned a wide array of self-defining language: “axis of evil”, “PATRIOT Act” “homeland security” “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” These may seem minimal, but he who controls the language---the flow of the red ink--- controls the mind. How can we be opposed to homeland security? What a beautiful phrase. What wouldn’t a true patriot sacrifice, what price wouldn’t one pay for the safety of one’s loved ones? It’s meaningless to struggle against these terms; even if we sense that we’ve lost a freedom or many at their alters--- Žižek argues, correctly, I think, that the language loss means we may not notice at all--- if there are no words to describe what we are missing, than we can’t communicate that loss to others.

Consider here that these are not merely additions to language; they are language itself. Writing this essay, I would rather not use the words “the war on terror”, because I find that to be completely opposed to truth. I don’t want to use the words “Iraqi freedom” or “hearts and minds” either, but I have to. If I don’t say “war on terror”, I will be wasteful with my words; I will be inarticulate or obtuse. I don’t deny expression is possible; unlike the German worker, I can make a facsimile of red ink, but then writing in blood isn’t ever quite the same, is it? And more importantly, even if we talk around it, the language and its meaning has sunk down; it has become the very thing itself, although we might stretch to call it by another name. The object of discourse is discourse. It isn’t just in the extreme rhetoric of the war on terror that we can feel acutely our lack of words. We can see it everywhere. One pervasive loss is in our economic language. We call it the “American Dream”, the “Land of Opportunity,” though it is really oppression and despair. It’s too late though; their names are written.

Žižek writes that “[t]he ultimate and defining moment of the 20th century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality--- the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” The truth--the Real--- is awful; we want it and fear it with equal fervor. This is why we revel in our lack of red ink. If we don’t call things by their true names, we are doubly served, having neither to feel the pain of oppression, since we are spared this feeling by our inability to articulate it, nor to ever have to face the Real (since we don’t feel unfree, we need never rise up). Giving true names, assuming that we could, means that coming face to face with the terrible Real. But if we want to be free we must learn to write in red ink.

What do you really mean by learning to write in red ink? I understand that language has power, but the language that power speaks with has not really changed. Before the War on Terror, there was the War on Drugs and the War Against Global Communism. In the 1950s, you were either anti-communist or un-American. In 1980s, you were either anti-drug or a friend of armed thugs selling poison to children. A cute turn of phrase did not end the War Against Global Communism or turn down the intensity of our War on Drugs. Even if you could find one that did, is there really any less red ink available now?

-- StephenClarke - 30 Mar 2010



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r3 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:43:58 - IanSullivan
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