Oh Henry, or, we’re all chameleons now

by Yule Heibel on March 23, 2004

So, tell me what you think: is truth and beauty somehow “out there,” already in form, or is it something created by you in your mind? Do you recognise it (think carefully — are you sure?) or do you make it up as you go along? Instead of either-or, is it perhaps both? If it is both, how does expression factor into the mix? What is expressed? The thing-in-form, already out there? Or the recognition of it? Or the process — mental, social, interactive — whereby the thing is being engendered? Hmmm? Personally, I think it’s both. There is a truth and a beauty out there which you have no idea existed until you see it and it smacks you upside the head, at which point you may or may not wish or be able to express it. And I feel pretty sure that you are constantly making it up as you go along, too, interactively, and very very unstable-y, in an interminable game that doesn’t end until you die, and that this, too, may or may not be expressed. Well, what I think is neither here nor there. I’m just interested in expression. And I’m interested in how expression channels and shapes us. Like, if I like talk like a Valley Girl, do I, like, start to become a Valley Girl? Or if I express myself like a Gangsta (and no, I won’t embarass myself by trying to fake that), how much of that identity do I assume? If I talk like the talking heads on tv, will I start to be like them? Will their language — the Valley Girl’s, the Gangsta’s, the prig’s — invade my personality and turn me into the “thing” I happen to be using? Of course it will. See Pygmalion. See My Fair Lady. While we manipulate language ourselves, we ourselves are also constantly being manipulated by language, which is a truth we ignore at our own peril. Inspired by the raging gag reflex I felt upon hearing George Bush mark the 1-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, here’s yet another seemingly unrelated long quote from my book, a kind of cut-and-paste cry in the wilderness that continues from this and this entry. You can read this obliquely and consider it in relation to the relentless shaping we experience today via media. In the quote that follows, I’m examining a 1947 article by a languages scholar who presents some interesting theses on the relationship between slang and what amounts to pornography on the one hand, and official prudery and relentless exhortation to achieve more on the other. As before, the initial blockquoted/ indented stuff is me, and the further-indented stuff is material I’m quoting:

The military state of Nazism usurped a masculinist expressivity for its own ends, which in the postwar period resulted in a distrust of (but perhaps also lingering fascination with) such displays. The well-known Romance languages scholar Werner Krauss analyzed this phenomenon in a 1947 article for Die Gegenwart. Quoting a passage from a short story used in a National Socialist school textbook, Krauss examines how and why this passage, full of animistic, vitalist argot, has more “authenticity” and appeal than the sterile, official flood of slogans of the Hitler regime. First, the passage from the short story about a fighter pilot:

When the pilot has a forced landing, he just plops down or loses it if he bangs up. …Emil guns the throttle and zooms off. A fighter gets on top of him, shoots for what he’s worth and blows him full of holes. When one of his [Emil’s] own fighters comes along, the Brit gets cold feet. He takes his backside out fast and hightails it to avoid getting snuffed. By now we’ve laid our eggs and go home. That’s when the right motor chokes up, gags, and finally croaks. [Werner Krauss, “�ber den Zustand unserer Sprache,” Die Gegenwart 2, nr.2/3 (1947), p.30; my translation. I noted in a footnote, p.168, that “The German reader will note the frequent, almost untranslatable references to bodily fluids and involuntary functions.” See PS at end for original.]

The story leads Krauss to examine its language and its connection to a base, lower-class existence exemplified by argot. He observes that one of the most peculiar effects of the story is the “not to be denied impression that here indeed something authentic is happening.” Despite the technical milieu, it gives “a correct picture of the real live language that millions of German privates spoke on a daily basis.” The representation of their “base” argot, in other words, is a form of realism that more pristine language cannot begin to approximate.
At the same time, this naturalist realism is not mere reproduction; it is a formal strategy that actually molds or shapes thoughts, events, actions.

Argot does not replace language for anyone. Certain expressive tendencies, however, which are strongly tied up in slang figures of speech, are transferred in creative speech acts to new situations. In this way, argot can become the frame for new language behaviour. Precisely because of the acuteness of its stylistic means, argot forces its world view on all those who speak it. As long as one spoke the language of the infantryman, he was bound to the infantryman’s faith. [Ibid.]

This form of language, in other words, has a compelling, and hence even dangerous quality to it.
In large part its compelling aspect is due to its reliance on “animistic” metaphor, its out and out devotion to “thinking” through the body — a strategy, however, that leaves the subject with too little critical distance.

In the rapt attention to the events of an occurence, reflexion stays thoroughly disengaged. Through the dense deployment of bodily related metaphors, the event moves into almost oppressive nearness. Shot off airplane parts become amputated limbs, weapons and men gag and choke and act like organisms charged with gigantic impulses. …In the animalistic [animistic] events, a general principle for explaining one’s own life experiences seems to intrude. Even the human being is after all nothing but the stage for these unceasingly recurring processes. …Unswerving identification of all life processes with one’s own body-experience may also be observed in other collective states that produce argot: here, the accumulation of animistic metaphors is a characteristic phenomenon. [Ibid.]

“Reflection” — the ability to distance oneself, to assess — is cancelled by this too-close, too bound-to-the-body representation: the discrete, separate image of man is here just as endangered as by the authoritarian make-over of enforced collectivization via propaganda. This time it is not the coercive force of denunciation and concentration camps, but that of “primal warmth” or “tribal belonging” (all-male), of regressing willingly to a pre-“I” state.
Krauss has here also described what happens to the base or bodily under the National Socialist regime, which was in all ways prudish and hostile to the liberal enjoyment of the body. The National Socialist regime practiced a grim idealization of the mother (the “original” body) and expected German men to be “hard as Krupp steel.” From Krauss’ observations it seems that under these conditions the bodily has nowhere to go but the obscene, to drift off into argot, slang, pornography. [From Reconstructing the Subject, pp.69-70.]

As I said, read obliquely. I just think it’s interesting to contrast these historical snippets with contemporary manipulations of / by / with language …and technology, as the latter is an extension of language. PS: This is the German original of the story that Krauss quotes; I’m including it for any German readers as it’s really quite something in the original. It was apparently used in a NS-approved school textbook:

Wenn der Flieger eine Notlandung baut, setzt er sich einfach hin oder rotzt die M�hle hin, wenn er dabei Bruch macht. …Emil schiebt die Pulle rein und zischt los. Ein J�ger setzt sich hinter ihn, schiesst aus allen Knopfl�chern und rotzt ihm den Laden voll. Als ein eigener J�ger kommt, saust dem Tommy der Frack. Er nimmt das Schw�nzchen hoch und geht t�rmen, um nicht abgeknipst zu werden. Wir haben inzwischen unsere Eier gelegt und fahren nach Hause. Da meckert der rechte Motor, dann kotzt und schliesslich verreckt er.

Reading this passage again, I realise how little my translation did its sly but vigorous obscenity justice.


Joel March 24, 2004 at 5:22 pm

Truth and Beauty are both out there and in our heads. We draw information from the world, use language to communicate. Fortunately our brains are enough alike that when we relay what we sense, it makes sense to others.

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Anonymous February 20, 2006 at 10:05 am

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