Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Struggles with Literacy

This is actually the title of the memoirs I am penning for my sister, who is a frequent reader of very bad books (i.e., penned by Dan Brown and Mary Higgins Clark). But it might also describe one of the developments of our contemporary media technologies, including Twitter and Facebook, but especially the political domain forged in these instruments, in which single phrases, excerpted from any larger context--by the force of the necessity of the medium, not out of mere mendacity--are "unlearning" us.

Example: EPA official Al Armendariz was forced to resign from his office after Republicans seized on a comment of his about how his employer should make examples out of polluters, in a fashion similar to that of the Romans crucifying threats to frighten others. If you look at comments on the Washington Post version of this story, you'll see at least one person complaining about those zealots in the EPA. But of course, Armendariz was not planning on actually crucifying anyone. Certainly he is aware that his powers do not extend this far. But I presume the Republicans were upset because of the reference to crucifixion and the insensitivity to the horrible deaths of many Christians and Jews. Or rather, of course, that is not really the case. The real issue is that this pubic servant is threatening corporations, and as we know thanks to Citizens United, they are people …

The issue is about language losing its capacity for subtlety, such that passages like the following would be impossible:
I live in the Jewish quarter or what was so called until our Hitlerian brethren made room. What a cleanup! That's seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated; that's real vacuum-cleaning! I admire that diligence, that methodical patience. When one has no character one has to apply a method.
This passage may be very offensive if you are Jewish or related to any of those who lost their lives or livelihoods to the Nazi purges. But it is also a passage from a work of literature, from Albert Camus' The Fall. The narrator, from this passage, clearly is not truly sympathetic to the Nazis and their deeds, although he says as much. And if he were, say, like the narrator of The Kindly Ones, he would still be the narrator of a fictional work, and therefore given wide latitude because of his status as a fictional character.

A less clever person may interject at this point, but isn't it clear that no such "unlearning" has taken place, Instead you are blurring the boundaries between different forms of speech: namely, literature, and public address. No, because my point is the less we are capable of appreciating the metaphorical uses of languages, even if for a cheap political gain, the more we have forced others to police their own speech, for the sake of avoiding confrontation. In so doing we also reinforce the sense that there is something to be avoided, and so allow witch hunts to continue, and so deny ourselves more sophisticated means of expression.

Optimistically, we might say that this is a good thing as it gives greater powers to the domain of literature. But the boundaries of that domain are falling. If we cannot appreciate or allow metaphorical language outside of literature, it is only a matter of time before we condemn it in literature, especially insofar as we become less and less capable of determining what literature is (because we are reading books by authors like Dan Brown and Mary Higgins Clark).

Metaphorical speech must be defended. First amendment rights, of actual people, must be defended not only by the law but by the institutions that employ these people. Therefore, like the Republicans, but for different reasons, I condemn the EPA leadership, that asked for Armendariz to step down.

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