UK paperback


Wherein I am advised to ‘get some’

Unspeak is reviewed (registration required) in this week’s Times Higher Educational Supplement. The writer, Raphael Salkie, says that the book “scythes nicely through some conceptual weeds, and the style is lively and engaging”, but: “Despite this, lots of it annoyed me.” Why so?

Poole tells us explicitly that he is not a linguist and that he has no expertise in analysing language. Well, why not get some? Many superb books about the language of politics have appeared in recent years, notably Normal Fairclough’s New Labour, New Language. Poole refers briefly to a tiny bit of this work, but he does not get the main point: mystification in language goes way beyond the vocabulary shenanigans that he unpacks in this book. It is also about grammatical choices, information packaging and text design. Amateurs regularly ignore these whole areas.

It would be tedious for me to recount every occasion on which Unspeak does in fact talk about “grammatical choices”, as well as the rhetorical shape of speeches or the structure of media interviews or the use of text graphics on television or typefaces on posters, which may for all I know count as “information packaging” and even “text design”. But then I have “no expertise in analysing language”, although this slightly misrepresents what I say in the book. I say that I am not a linguist, which is easy to check, and that I have no special expertise beyond whatever might inform my regular work as a literary critic. But evidently the only way to gain the appropriate “expertise” is the way Salkie himself gained it: the article reveals that he is “professor of language studies, Brighton university”. No doubt he is irritated by the constant intrusion of “amateurs” upon his field.

It may be ironic that a professor of “language studies” uses the term “amateur” as an insult, since he no doubt knows that for most of its life it meant someone who did something for love (Latin amo) rather than for money, and only acquired its dismissive sneer during the bureaucratic twentieth century. George Orwell, of course, was an “amateur” in the field of analysing political language, and even recommended that more of his regular work, book-reviewing, be done by “amateurs”:

Incidentally, it would be a good thing if more novel reviewing were done by amateurs. A man who is not a practised writer but has just read a book which has deeply impressed him is more likely to tell you what it is about than a competent but bored professional. That is why American reviews, for all their stupidity, are better than English ones; they are more amateurish, that is to say, more serious.

Of course, “amateurs” are not everywhere to be celebrated. I would not like to have root-canal surgery performed on me by an amateur dentist. Not everyone has a valid opinion on medicine. On the other hand, we are all language-users. Very many of the “amateurs” who have attended my talks on Unspeak think in careful and sophisticated ways about language, and their opinions are not to be dismissed simply because they haven’t had the right sort of academic training. My view, indeed, is that the analysis of language in politics is too important to be left to “professionals” who murmur among themselves in the diagrammatic glades of “discourse analysis” and other subdisciplines. Professor Salkie surely knows, to be blunt, that nowadays, “amateur” is most often the kneejerk insult of the salaryman who desires to protect his own turf.

But enough quibbling. I am willing to watch and learn from the expertise of a real professional:

Elsewhere, Poole astonishingly approves of the term “insurgents” to label Iraqis who combat violently the Anglo-American occupation of their country. This word obviously dehumanises people, especially when it is routinely contrasted with “the Iraqi armed forces” (while the insurgents are never “Iraqi”).

Salkie neglects to tell us whether he would prefer to call the insurgents “the terrorists” or “the resistance”, but he does make a factual claim: “the insurgents are never ‘Iraqi’.” Interesting. In fact, the exact phrase “Iraqi insurgents” appears regularly in reports from the Times, the New York Times, the Washington Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, and so on. If a professor of “language studies” can’t be bothered to check a patently false empirical claim that he makes in a journal of higher education, then perhaps there is room for “amateurs” after all.

  1. 1  Sohail  October 6, 2006, 11:39 am 

    Hello Steve

    As it happens, I am an “expert” in applied linguistics. I speak many languages, have letters to my name, have lectured around the world, and happen to know a lot of the top brass in the field. Now, while I think Salkie is perhaps justified in some of his concerns about your “Unspeak project”, he is mostly speaking out of his anal passage.

    Frankly, a lot of academia is embarrassingly straightforward stuff dressed up in layers and layers of meaningless self-serving jargon. Basically as far as I’m concerned language analysis is the kind of stuff that any literate teenager can do. It requires no special expertise. The whole thing is pure myth. [I’d be happy to elaborate on this]

    And so this is why I actually applaud the kind of work you’re doing. It’s far more sophisticated (inmy view) than any of the dense high-brow nonsense that I have to endure when I’m reviewing publications for scholarly journals or engagin with dysfunctional academics.

    However, there are a few underlying issues with your work – not huge – but I notice from experience you’re extremely sensitive (and highly defensive) about people criticising (even minute aspects of) your work. As ever, I’d be happy to discuss this.

    But, in sum, I wouldn’t allow this academic moron to annoy you.


  2. 2  Steven  October 6, 2006, 12:03 pm 

    Sohail! Welcome back. As I have said many times, I don’t mind criticism as long as it doesn’t degenerate into pointless ad hominem shouting. Elaborate and discuss away.

  3. 3  Sohail  October 6, 2006, 1:40 pm 

    Well, let me begin by stating a few elementary truths about language. Language is an imprecise tool. There’s no such thing as a perfect correspondence between language and reality (often referred to as the correspondence theory of truth in social science literature). What we have at best are social constructions – or to put it simply linguistic conventions that we take to be true.

    Now of course these conventions do not emerge in some sort of neutral objective vacuum. Like any social phenomenon, they are a product of historical, ideological, and political forces.

    Granted this, language can never be neutral. At any given time or place, it represents very particular ways of understanding and explaining the world and in so doing reflects the interests of certain powerful and privileged groups and their relationship to marginalised sections of society.

    Now the problem I have with your “Unspeak project” is (as I see it) the assumption that language can somehow be analysed from some lofty neutral objectivist standpoint. That is to say that any instance of language usage can be straightforwardly demystified, distilled and restored to some sort of objectified standard. This is where I largely where my concern is. You see as I see it language can only at best be reconstituted in accordance with an alternative set of ideological assumptions.

    Take for instance the language usage of a racist. One cannot objectively assert that his or her language is distorted as if it were some sort of resolvable mathematical operation. One can only reasonably assert that it is not accordance with say perhaps the ideologial worldview of a libertarian socialist. What I’m saying is that charges of linguistic distortions only make sense when they’re done from a clearly defined ideological or political base.

    This is my problem with Unspeak. When you say it analyses “state-of-the-art rhetorical weaponry”, on what political and ideologial basis do you do claim to do this. To be quiet about (or gloss over) this, is to suggest that only you have some kind of exclusive insight into objective reality which eludes us all.

    So basically my suggestion is you clarify the political/ideological base from which you analyse language. Specifically, you explain why it is that you analyse language, whose language you are analysing, and moreover you give some sort of theoretical account of why people, institutions, powers-that-be, distort language and how it is that you go about demystifying it.

    Other than this, as I’ve said before, I think Unspeak is a fantastic project which the likes of Salkie would do well to learn from.


    PS The reason I couldn’t get into your website is because it was mysteriously blocked and when I could get in my words were coming out as gibberish more often than they tend to.. :-)

  4. 4  WIIIAI  October 6, 2006, 5:31 pm 


    I knew you were not a linguist but I am sorry to hear that you are an amateur. I had assumed that you received money for writing Unspeak.

  5. 5  bobw  October 6, 2006, 8:11 pm 

    I’m reminded that words are often used like weapons, and in fact Salkie’s clumsy attacks above summon up images of the villain in the dueling scene lunging wildly as the hero nimbly steps aside.

    The little bit about “insurgents” is just bluster. Insurgents means resisters of an occupation, by definition in this case Iraqis. And, to some people, insurgents is not a dehumanizing term, but an honorable one.

  6. 6  Steven  October 7, 2006, 11:23 am 

    Sohail, but what you call my “assumption” is stated by me to be false. You will remember from the book’s introduction that I specifically disclaim any notion of a perfectly neutral or objective language:

    Now, all language does both of these things to some extent. Every word arrives at the ear cloaked in a mist of associations and implications; and every choice of a particular word represents a decision not to use another one. But Unspeak deliberately amplifies and exploits these properties of language for political motives.

    Now, you say:

    Take for instance the language usage of a racist. One cannot objectively assert that his or her language is distorted as if it were some sort of resolvable mathematical operation. One can only reasonably assert that it is not accordance with say perhaps the ideologial worldview of a libertarian socialist.

    But “pure” explicit racism is not the sort of thing I talk about in Unspeak, because in that case, you are correct: all one can say is: this does not fit with what I believe is right. What I am actually trying to do, if you remember the passage about, say, the Conservative campaign poster in Chapter Two (“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”), is to tease out the thinking behind (I guess we can’t get away from these kind of spatial metaphors) what people say who do not want to confess outright their racism. It is an attempt at a sort of translation – with which, of course, many readers at many points will disagree, and often do disagree on this blog, and that is the point, to get people to hold the political conversation in explicit terms. Instead of talking about men being “questioned by experts”, let us have an explicit discussion about the merits or otherwise of torture, if we agree that that is what is really meant. And so forth.

    As to my own ideological perspective: I would have thought that it was explicit enough in what I write, encompassing as it does, for example, abhorrence of torture, or of comforting ways to think about killing people, or of dishonesty in general.

    You suggest:

    Specifically, you explain why it is that you analyse language, whose language you are analysing, and moreover you give some sort of theoretical account of why people, institutions, powers-that-be, distort language and how it is that you go about demystifying it.

    Well, I think I do the first two in the book. The third, a theoretical account of “why”, is probably beyond me in the absence of the proper expertise. ;)

  7. 7  Sohail  October 7, 2006, 12:43 pm 

    Hello Steve

    A few points:

    (1) In honesty, I have not read your book. My comments are wholly confined to what you write in your excellent website. So the extra detail your supply is helpful. Perhaps you could incorporate a section on your website that briefly sums up what it is you do.

    (2) Regarding the point about racism, I’m merely using it for illustrative purposes. And the purpose seems to be well served since you seem to agree (at least more explicitly) that there is no such thing as a “right” answer. That is to say that most things tend only to be relatively right.

    (3) As to your ideological perspective, I don’t actually think it is very clear. I mean – yes – it’s somewhere on the “left” (whatever that means these days) and you clearly have some sense of solidarity with the oppressed and downtrodden. You’re concerend about climate issues. And there’s clearly a committment to some sort of social justice. But things of course can be much more nuanced than this especially if you’re in the business of dissecting fine linguistic distinctions.

    You see one of the problems I have is you may occassionally enter a discussion with a wholly different set of assumptions. Granted this, the ensuing exchanges can easily become meaningless because those very asuumptions have not been clearly stated. I mean to put it simply you can’t just expect that only “intelligent” people will always obviously get it. It’s as if you’re saying to those who don’t get it “Sod you, dim wits! Run along and get yourself an education if you want to understand what I’m on about! Of course I know you’re not saying that but that’s basically the effect.

    (4) As to a theoretical account of “why”, it needn’t be dense or prolix. Just state simply why you think people distort language. Orwell was certainly very clear about this and he was hardly given to pretentious discourse.


  8. 8  Steven  October 7, 2006, 2:11 pm 

    PS I rather enjoy your suggestion of “libertarian socialist”, but I don’t see the use of stating one’s views in such an abstract/absolutist way. It merely encourages someone else to come along and say: “Aha! You say you are a ‘libertarian socialist’, but other libertarian socialists believe this on this issue, whereas you believe that, so in fact you are really a kind of crypto-anarcho-syndicalist!”. Then it will tend to degenerate into tedious fights about over-generalised terminology fuelled by the narcissism of minor difference, a version of the scene in Life of Brian about the People’s Front of Judea, etc. Not to mention the fact that use of such vague labels as a stick with which to beat others can itself be a kind of Unspeak.

  9. 9  Steven  October 7, 2006, 2:22 pm 

    Sohail, re your #7 (sorry about the disorder, my spam filter is acting up):

    Well, (1) and (4) are answered in the book. There is already some answer to (4) in the Introduction, which you can read an extract of here. Of course I could put the whole book on the website, but I’d quite like people to buy it. ;)

    As to (3), I’ve sort of answered that in my PS above. I prefer to let the nuance, if there is any, show on a per-topic basis rather than pedantically defining an entire abstract position first.

  10. 10  Sohail  October 7, 2006, 2:25 pm 

    Yes, I agree a lot of these terms tend to get deprived of ther meaning. Of course, I’m not suggesting that you adopt an ideoogical label nor am I suggesting that you’re a libertarian socialist.

    But I’m sure you’ll agree that if I have some fairly good idea (not necessarily absolute or perfect) of where you stand on some issue I can begin to appreciate why you might analyse an instance of Unspeak in the particular way you do or indeed why you select certain perceived aspects of linguistic disortion over others. Because there is without doubt some clear and conscious process of selection and analysis going on that it would be helpful if you clarified to make these exchanges more meaningful – not that they are necessarily meaningless.


  11. 11  Jon Elliott  October 7, 2006, 2:54 pm 

    “Amateur” or “Expert”? – It makes no difference to me.

    Given I left school with a Certificate of Attendance and little else then I it follows that I came late to education.

    Steven’s book, “Unspeak” has, however, made a considerable diffence, regardless of his “expert” or “amateur” accreditation, to the likes of me. It has provided a very rare “light-bulb” moment. It has enabled me to articulate thoughts and arguements that I had previously been unable to do.

    That is to say, I knew there was something wrong with a statement such as, “We can only protect liberty by making it relevant to the modern world”, but I could not articulate why. Now I can and that is a joy. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not the case that I can only imitate or repeat Steven’s arguements, it is the case that I can now recognise “Unspeak” and in doing so, begin to peel that oninon back.

    For the likes of me, late-commers to education, not being able to articulate an intuitive feeling that something is wrong with the text your are reading or the speech you are hearing, is frusting at best and can esculate to feelings of anger at worst.

    So, thanks for the “light-bulb monment” (an enlightenment), Steven and that is something that your “academic” critics, the like of which probably failed me in the first place, can’t dim or switch off. I wish you and the “Unspeak” project well.


  12. 12  Sohail  October 7, 2006, 3:29 pm 


    You write:

    “Of course I could put the whole book on the website, but I’d quite like people to buy it. ;)”

    Okay, so not you’re exactly a “corporate fascist” but you’re not a “libertarian socialist either” ;)


  13. 13  charlie  October 7, 2006, 6:15 pm 

    Maybe the Unspeak project is about using your nose a little more knowingly as a language sensor, not just when things absolutely stink, but when you get the slightest whiff of something fishy? If 7 out of 10 people rub their nose on first considering a proposition, it may well be hardwired.

  14. 14  bobw  October 8, 2006, 4:26 am 

    Libertarian/socialist is an oxymoron, since one believes in a central government and the other doesnt. However, it has nice overtones, suggesting both concern for others’ welfare, while insisting on one’s own individual freedom.
    Labels like these are just ways of starting a conversation anyway — the more challenging or paradoxical the better! Just try saying I’m for decency in government and fair taxes, and watch everyone head for the bar!

  15. 15  Alan McT  October 9, 2006, 9:34 pm 

    The ‘professional’ view is incredibly patronising. It basically says that what Bush or Blair say easily hoodwinks the general public cos they’re too stupid to know any better and only the ‘professionals’ with the right training can see through it and hand down the truth to us. Bollocks to that.

  16. 16  Sohail  October 10, 2006, 6:21 am 

    Yes, I totally agree. The “professionals” are very much like the Wizard of Oz projecting an image of awesome power from the behind a curtain until Toto (the dog) reveals him to be a pathetic and very ordinary old man.

    As I see it, the job of Unspeak ought to be (yes “ought” to be) to expose the machinations of power that are inscribed in everyday language usage.


  17. 17  Sohail  October 10, 2006, 5:50 pm 

    In other words, it’s about ripping away the curtains behind which the powerful pull their levers…

  18. 18  sw  October 10, 2006, 6:53 pm 

    Since I’m mentioning this to a room full of experts on Foucault, language and discourse, I’m sure you’ve all heard this lovely little anecdote about Derrida – indeed, I’m sure Sohail is alluding to it. From a Village Voice essay by Leland de la Durantaye:

    He [Derrida] gave lectures in support of political causes such as the anti-apartheid movement, the rights of Algerian immigrants, and the plight of Czech dissidents, and he gave other lectures simply because he was invited. A telling (if apocryphal) Kansas appearance: An audience member stood up and recounted the scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends finally meet the wizard, who is powerful and overwhelming until Toto pulls away the curtain to reveal a very small man. “Professor Derrida, are you like that?” the audience member asked. Derrida paused before replying, “You mean like the dog?”

  19. 19  Steven  October 10, 2006, 10:07 pm 

    I love the image of Derrida as an indomitable pooch. I suppose, though, that when he pulled aside the curtain, what was revealed was not a small wizard but another curtain, and another curtain behind that…

  20. 20  sw  October 10, 2006, 10:14 pm 


    I’m pretty sure that after several tail-wagging tugs at the curtain, the deconstructionist pug eventually revealed that which cannot be deconstructed or pulled aside: “Justice”.

    (cf Simon Critchley on Derrida.)

  21. 21  sw  October 10, 2006, 10:27 pm 

    BTW IANAL, and so I am not sure that I can comment on whether one can deconstruct “Justice”.

  22. 22  Steven  October 10, 2006, 10:41 pm 


    To be precise, rather than relying on a Simon Critchley, let us remember that what Derrida in fact wrote was:

    Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond law, is not deconstructible. No more than deconstruction itself, if such a thing exists.

    [“Force of Law”, 1992, emphasis added]

  23. 23  sw  October 11, 2006, 5:40 am 

    If it is not an excruciating faux pas to italicise a passage from Derrida – for ’emphasis’, no less – then it ought to be, considering the care with which Derrida chose to italicise his own writing. The stamp of your ’emphasis’ is such a glaring exogenous mark that it all but makes the quote your own, to suit your own purpose. Amusingly, that purpose seems to be to dispute my assertion of what Critchley says Derrida says – or, to disparage my (accurate) reference to Derrida by way of Critchley. I made an allusion to a series of allusions and quotations; I feel fairly confident that the spirit of Derrida smiles over me when I say that we do not have a final – or even “precise” – resolution simply by finding an aphoristic source to a series of subsequent readings, allusions and quotations. Your “precise” return to Derrida seems devoid of any responsibility to his playfulness or to his voice; so, how “precise” is that, then?

    As it happens, whilst I enjoy Critchley’s writing a great deal, it is exactly this problem of “justice” in Derrida that I have been worrying about, since it seems to me that if one thing is deconstructible, it would be justice; such is my understanding of Critchley and Derrida, and the debates they have about Habermas and Levinas, that I can’t even comprehend the one thing they take as a given, much less what they actually think is contested.

    But, all that having been said, you’ve chosen “to be precise”, so let’s just look at how “precise” you are. The glissando of italics removes all hesitation from that suspicious “if”, tossing its uncertainty overboard, and, for the sake of your argument, weakens the phrases before it and after it with a tremulous doubt. Italicising the whole phrase, holding it up in a privileged position of reference, cross-hatches “Justice in itself” and its relation to deconstruction; but this is very misleading on your part. If “Justice in itself” exists, then, per Derrida, it is not deconstructible; if it does not exist, it does not exist, and – so is not deconstructible, insofar as it is annihilated. If the only binary is between existence and nonexistence, if there is neither coeval nor a priori, no opponent or opposition or Other, no reflection in which it can be seen or which mediates it, if it really is a pure either/or, then it remains not deconstructible. Derrida here is not so much doubting the deconstruction of “justice” as he is whether or not it exists in itself. And what holds “justice” in the question of existence and nonexistence also holds deconstruction itself there; the repetition of “if it exists” is not only cheekily provocative; Derrida is, so to speak, putting his deconstruction eggs into the one basket of justice. I might re-phrase that: “if it exists” functions here as a type of mirror, an echo, not so much questioning whether or not the one or other is, but suggesting that these are two conceits – deconstruction and justice – of which we can ask this question, in this way. Let us be “precise” and return to our previously pleasant image of curtains and pups. For you to have pointed to this paragraph only means that once those curtains are lifted, there is either the nondeconstructible centre, that is, Justice – or nothing. No more curtains. Just a void.

    I have no idea whether or not any of this is true or meaningful; I actually think it is not true, but meaningful. However, I have recently been embarrassed to discover that the on-line company, to whom I paid a large amount of money for my philosophy PhD, was actually running a scam. I got no refund, and my doctorate from Kayman Island University turns out to be worthless. Or so they tell me at these fancy “real” universities. I have reported Kayman Island University to the authorities, but they tell me I shall have to look elsewhere for justice. If such a thing exists.

    So, whereas you responded to my playful gesture by pedantically pointing to a paragraph in a book, I shall end by gesturing towards another passage from Derrida, one that proves nothing, but still says so much:

    “What is taking place at this moment, the disquieting experience we are having, is perhaps just the silent unfolding of that strange violence that has since forever insinuated itself into the origin of the most innocent experiences of friendship or justice.”

    From “The Politics of Friendship”. No emphasis added.

  24. 24  Steven  October 11, 2006, 8:10 am 

    If it is pedantic of me to wish to cite directly a philosopher to whom opinions are being attributed, I am happy to be pedantic. Of course you are quite right:

    Present existence or essence has never been the condition, object, or the chose of justice.

    [Spectres of Marx, 1994; emphasis in French]

    Which is why the idea that it will be the one thing behind the curtain seems improbable. The idea however that if there is not justice, there must just be void, also seems improbable, if one accepts the existence nonetheless of many other things that might remain to be deconstructed.

  25. 25  Sohail  October 11, 2006, 12:02 pm 

    Steven and SW

    With all due respect, this really is turning into a risible academic-style contest driven by the usual narcissism of small differences. And what’s with all this religious deference to Derrrida? Who on earth really cares what Jack might have said or approved of! I mean what should ultimately matter is what he had to say of value and then to build on that. That’s what free thinking people do – not Derrida according to St Steven!


  26. 26  Steven  October 11, 2006, 2:10 pm 

    Is it also characteristic of “free-thinking people” that they jump into conversations merely to shout that the conversations are “risible”?

    I do like the phrase “with all due respect”, which, with the emphasis on “with all respect that is actually due“, amusingly often means “with no respect at all”.

  27. 27  Sohail  October 11, 2006, 10:19 pm 


    Let me try posting this again – mysterious filters are blocking this.

    On the first point about free-thinking people: why indeed not? And what do you mean by shouting?

    As for the second point: there’s a name for this kind of usage in English; it’s called a figure of speech. The usage is well established and perfectly clear. I use it as a kind of “polite” warning just before I’m about to kick someone in the proverbial nuts. ;)


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