January 5, 2009

The Death of Meaning Pt. 3: Hyperbolic Destruction

"I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer" - Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., during a Chicago news conference in which embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced his appointment of Roland Burris to the senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.

Let's peruse this statement for just a moment: African-American Congressman Bobby Rush says not to "hang and lynch" fellow African-American Roland Burris. One is left to assume that all symbolism of this statement is absolutely deliberate, since no African-American (least of all an African-American politician) would ever make this statement "innocently" - i.e., without knowledge of the full implications of the statement.

As the living witnesses of slavery have faded away, lynching becomes the most visible symbol of the oppression of Africans (though certainly not limited to Africans) in the United States. Lynching is justifiably kept in front of the American populace as a symbol of white oppression. Unlike familiar "hate speech" terms (such as "nigger", "queer", and so on), lynching is an action, rather than a linguistic tool of oppression . . . and, as such, can not be subverted or "reclaimed" in the same way that the affected subcultures try to reclaim such linguistic tools. Irreducible, lynching stands beyond language as an act of simple evil.

"This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree." - Clarence Thomas, responding to a Senate Committee's investigation of sexual harassment charges against him during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Thomas's famous quote starts a little differently, since his is not a simple lynching, but rather a "high tech" lynching: adding the term "high tech" to lynching makes the language more metaphorical. Using the colloquialism "uppity blacks" adds to the metaphorical nature of his high tech lynching. But, right at the point where his rhetoric is the strongest, he reaches for the brass ring: "You will be lynched." By distilling the high tech out of lynching, he moves back from the metaphorical to the concrete. He tries to move back to the metaphorical again later in the sentence ("caricatured [. . .] rather than hung from a tree"), but the lynching is still there in its most concrete form.

To the degree that the social sphere operates in an "ethical" manner (i.e., in a manner codified as "ethical" - the code's actual efficacy can still be open for question), there are concrete markers of evil that will be cited. These markers are irreducible events that are horribly unique and "unthinkable" yet frequently (and paradoxically) cited as measuring sticks for the concept of everyday evil. More common even than lynching references are comparisons of political situations to the Holocaust and of repressive leaders to Hitler. Think, for a minute, how many situations have been compared to the Holocaust: just recently, Bosnia, Darfur, and Rwanda top the list. And how many leaders have been compared to Hitler? Mainstream Western popular thought has put up Slobodan Milošević, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, and even tin horn dictators like Ruholla Khomeini and Muammar al-Gaddafi as Hitler surrogates.

"Relating to the Nazi extermination, it exemplifies radical evil by pointing to that whose imitation or replication must be prevented at all costs - or, more precisely: that whose non-repetition provides the norm for judgement of all situations. Hence the 'exemplarity' of the crime, its negative exemplarity. But the normative function of the example persists: the Nazi extermination is radical Evil in that it provides for our time the unique, unrivalled - and in this sense transcendent, or unsayable - measure of Evil pure and simple. [. . .] As a result, the extermination and the Nazis are both declared unthinkable, unsayable, without conceivable precedent or posterity - since they define the absolute form of Evil - yet they are constantly invoked, compared, used to schematize every circumstance in which one wants to produce, among opinions, an effect of the awareness of Evil - since the only way to access Evil in general is under the historical condition of radical Evil." - Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, pp. 62-63

The establishment of radical Evil in this way creates a set that aspires to include all radical Evil. All elements of this set become, by definition, unthinkable and unsayable, like the radical Evil that serves as its model . . . and, as such, they also become irreducible and inaccessible. Anything thrust into this set becomes pure type and beyond scrutiny - which is exactly what those who use these classifications intend.

As what would have to be considered a radical Evil (in and of itself, separate of the set of radical evil as conceived above), lynching can be used to define a set of radical Evil in the manner described above. And, in the above quotes by Bobby Rush and Clarence Thomas, lynching is clearly deployed as a yardstick of Evil. In so doing, Rush and Thomas not only call the game, they set themselves up as judges and arbiters of truth, empowered by the (irreducible) symbols of Evil they utilize.

Obviously reading, listening, and speaking in a social sphere requires a level of sophistication from the actors involved. The majority of utterance is stacked to some degree, and communication doesn't necessarily take place on the surface level: for instance, when my dearly beloved decides she needs a drink from the fridge only after I have left the kitchen, it's doubtful that my death is immanent, no matter how much I claim that she "is killing me". It is here that these utterances (especially the Thomas quote) duck and dart around meaning. Again, Thomas moves between pure lynching and a mixed lynching metaphor. I insist that Thomas wants the lynching to be taken seriously, but (in a lawyerly manner) he leaves himself some wiggle room to claim the lynching as metaphor instead of event. Rush, on the other hand, is nowhere near as equivocal. In either case, the speaker clearly wants his lynching to be taken either seriously or not according to his own judgemental whim. The question becomes very simple: are there any bodies swinging from the trees here? The answer is, alas, no. We are left to assume that either Rush and Thomas are unreliable witnesses/judges, or that lynching as event has lost its singular meaning.

Here, there are actually three axes to the devaluation of utterance: not only is the speaker called into question and the symbol devalued, but the event described has been robbed of its unique character and posited as type. It has been filed away, listed as irreducible, and its irreducibility protects it from examination. The event, unexamined, remains misunderstood by its faulty (hyperbolic and incorrect) definition. So, Burris's exploitation by Blagojevich is misunderstood, as is the exact manner in which a legitimate inquiry into allegations against Thomas got turned into a partisan political circus. Both are unfortunate situations, but neither are lynchings (no bodies!), so we are left without any real concept of exactly what these events are.

Some would say that I am taking this language too seriously; I would say that these exchanges demonstrate a lack of commitment to meaning, if not truth. Burris's entanglement in an unfortunate political situation is in no way a lynching, and Rush is an idiot for using the word. Neither is Thomas's high-tech lynching a lynching proper, and as a Supreme Court Justice, he should have a very clear concept of the power of language. As surely as the commentator who would compare Hussein to Hitler, Rush and Thomas contribute to the death of meaning.


leigh said...

I disagree with you on this one, not that you're taking language too seriously (language is serious business and serious play), but regarding your concern over hyperbolic claims of evil as precipitating the death of meaning. Maybe it's just personal taste, but I've always enjoyed hyperbolic discourse. I see all of this as vital play and agonistic wrestling (not that I agree with the men that you critique here), within which dramatic moves are welcome but not sufficient--of course careful analysis is also crucial. But as someone who spends large quatities of time in social and professional settings where supposedly dispassionate rational discourse and disembodied cerebral accounts are the defining currency, a little hyperbole and discursive drama and chaos keep things interesting, as long as you understand the rules of the game.

Bill Zink said...

Well, it's not that I have a problem with hyperbole per se (the title "Hyperbolic Destruction" is itself hyperbolic - and a goof on Weasel Walter/Flying Luttenbachers album titles - as is the title of this very blog, "The Death of Everything"). Rather, it is the hyperbolic acceleration of some events into linguistically determined categories of evil that is problematic.

You can go to your favorite beach after a particularly nasty fish kill and say "What a holocaust" without raising an eyebrow. "Holocaust" is a word that has a life separate of the event which animates it in our current imagination (see Alex Chilton's "Holocaust": "You're a wasted face / You're a sad-eyed lie / You're a holocaust"). If, however, you went to the beach and said "This looks like the Holocaust", that comment would at least be moderately in bad taste since you are clearly associating the fish kill with the Nazi extermination (THE Holocaust). Still, that would not necessarily be destructive to meaning unless you seriously want to measure the fish kill against the Nazi extermination.

Did Bobby Rush really believe that people were going to lynch Roland Burris? Of course not. BUT HE CLEARLY IS TRYING TO CLASSIFY THE TREATMENT OF BURRIS AS LYNCHING ON A SCALE OF EVIL. Perhaps this is not specifically hyperbolic, but it is clearly a misuse of language under any name. It is doubly problematic that both Rush and Burris are black and, as members of the subculture most visibly victimized by institutionalized lynching, de facto authorities on the evil of lynching.

There is no "agonistic wrestling" going on here, there is no gamesmanship over meaning . . . quite the opposite, in fact: Rush is trying to end the game by throwing down his trump card, lynching. And, as "authority", he has the right (in the eyes of society) to throw it. Whenever a "trump card" is thrown in this manner (i.e., when language is used to create the irreducible), meaning is gone.

On the flipside, I think it's clear that I approve of the Thomas term "high-tech lynching", which is certainly hyperbolic . . . but, since it is not lynching simple, then it leaves itself open for investigation in a way that simple lynching does not. Too bad he equivocates it back to actual lynching later in the quote.

And, as far as the play of language, speech without commitment is a waste of oxygen. That doesn't eliminate hyperbole, just stupid, reckless language. Hunter Thompson has a special room in hell for what he hath wrought.

Bill Zink said...

By the way, Leigh, I don't mean to casually dismiss the value of colorful (up to and including hyperbolic) language. When your life starts sounding like an episode of Masterpiece Theater, a little verbal pyrotechnics to ridicufy the situation should be welcome.