The unnamable dead
July 12, 2011 23 comments
Watching the first season of The Walking Dead, I found myself incredulous, as I often am when watching zombie fiction, at the lack of any character who is like, “Oh em gee, ZOMBIES !” Why have so few people in zombie-based media ever heard of the word zombie? After all, characters in shows or films about vampires, werewolves, demons and the like are naturally au fait with the proper terminology for the monsters they face. “Hmmm! That is definitely a vampire! Let’s shoot him through the chest with a harpoon chained to the bumper of our pickup truck and then drag him out into the sunlight through the wall of his decrepit shack!” And yet in zombietainments, people get saddled with weird circumlocutions: walkers, the infected, et cetera. It’s like no one in a zombie film has ever seen a zombie film? When everything else, as in The Walking Dead, is so ultra-realistic, this phenomenon really pains me. But perhaps there are some good reasons! Any ideas?
Hari and the higher journalism
June 30, 2011 23 comments
So there has been some kind of kerfuffle over allegations that the journalist Johann Hari, when writing “interviews”, has made a habit of silently replacing what the interviewee actually said to him with quotations from the interviewee’s writing, or with quotations copied without attribution from other published interviews conducted by other interviewers?
Now, a tiresomely literal view of this matter might judge that writing that someone said something to you which they did not in fact say to you is not simply naive, or sloppy, or misguided, or the understandable result of a lack of proper “training”, or “normal practice”; it is just lying.
Far be it, though, from unspeak.net to be so hasty in joining in the no doubt politically motivated Hari-bashing by evil right-wingers! Let us not forget that there might always be a larger truth to which the writer owes his primary duty. In his marvellously unapologetic apology, Hari reveals what it is:
It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon.
Only sniffy pedants, surely, would insist on something so low-class as mere “reportorial accuracy” — ie, not lying. Like poetic truth, intellectual accuracy is so much nobler and more rarefied, isn’t it, readers?
Brains of Britain
May 9, 2011 12 comments
Surely there is something wrong if Alain de Botton gets on any list of Britain’s top five million intellectuals (let alone the “top 300″), and Prince Charles does not?
Such confusion arises, I expect, because intellectual as a noun for a person (dating from 1652) is now almost inescapably, in Quentin Skinner’s terminology, an “evaluative-descriptive” term. It might be that you hate the black-polo-neck-wearing, Macbook-toting and Baudrillard-reading clientèle at your local Starbucks, and so will say intellectuals with a sneer, to mean something like “useless stuffed-up gits”: as the OED’s helpful usage note puts it:
From the late 19th cent. often with mildly disparaging connotations of elitism and probably influenced by the use at that time of French intellectuel to denote any of the culturally minded supporters of Alfred Dreyfus.
Alternatively, however, it might be that you approve of public displays of intellection (perhaps you get off on performing them?), and so your use of the term intellectual will carry a quiet smile of praise or approval (as might do the terms philosopher or poet). In that case, however, you will be surprised to find not only the aforementioned Alain de Botton on the Observer’s list, but also “Melanie Phillips” and… Michael Gove?
The right way to avoid such horror is perhaps simply to try to keep in mind as neutral as possible a meaning of intellectuals, to mean “people who think and argue in public”, whatever your opinion is of the face-flattening bullshit they actually spew. Therefore, the most whelk-faced obstupefact (Michael Gove?) could properly be termed an intellectual if he were, in fact, a “public figure[s] leading our cultural discourse”, as the Observer has it — even if he were leading it into a bottomless dark septic tank of bilious unreason.
That exercise of mental will might make us comfortable with the inclusion of many people on this list, but there remains, oddly, a small but interesting class of people who are actually real thinkers but, as far as I can tell, have a vanishingly-small-to-nonexistent role in “public” or mass-media “debate” in the UK — say, Derek Parfit, or Christopher Ricks. In a way, they should not be on such a list at all, are even insulted by their inclusion. But if they are going to be listed, then why not others?
Which “intellectuals” do you think are missing from the list, readers?
Look at his head noddin’
May 2, 2011 20 comments
Happy belated May Day, “Loyalty Day”, and Osama Bin Laden Is Definitely Probably Dead This Time Day, readers! Mmmm, doesn’t it smell like justice in here?
OBAMA: [...] We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. [...] I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. [...] Justice has been done. [...] they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice. [...] one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
It is worth pausing to admire Obama’s masterful rhetorical conflation here of two different conceptions of justice. One sense of “justice”, of course, has to do with courts, legal process, fair trials, and the rest. This has to be the sense invoked in Obama’s reference to the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice. In this spatial metaphor, justice is a place: implicitly, a courtroom, or at least a cell with the promise of process. (Or even, in extremis, Guantánamo Bay, still not closed, where indefinite “detention” or imprisonment is Unspeakily palliated with the expectation of some kind of tribunal.) To bring someone to justice is to put them in a place where they will be answerable for their alleged crimes. To be answerable in this sense, it helps to be alive.
But it is quite another sense of “justice” — meaning a fair result, regardless of the means by which it was achieved — that is functioning in Obama’s next use of the word: the quasi-legal judgment that justice was done. On what sorts of occasion do we actually say that justice was done? Not, I suppose, at the conclusion of a trial (when it might be claimed, instead, that justice was served); rather, after some other event, away from any courtroom, that we perceive as rightful punishment (or reward) for the sins (or virtues) of the individual under consideration. (Compare poetic justice.) The claim that justice was done appeals, then, to a kind of Old Testament or Wild West notion of just deserts. What, after all, happened between the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice and the claim that justice was done? Well, Bin Laden was killed. He was not, after all, brought to justice. Instead, justice (in its familiar guise as American bombs and bullets) was brought to him.
Even so, there is a curious interpolation of law-enforcement vocabulary in Obama’s description of the aftermath of the extra-judicial killing:
A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
Let us rapidly note that “They took care to avoid civilian casualties” is not the same as “no civilians were harmed”, but as ever it’s the caring that’s important, right? Stranger is the description of grabbing Bin Laden’s corpse: they took custody of his body. Custody (guarding, supervision, care) is normally something you take of a living person, perhaps a child or a person accused of crimes, having been granted that right by a court. To say that your soldiers took custody of a dead body seems quite a strained forensic framing, particularly if you’re just going to throw it in the sea afterwards.
Does Obama’s final invocation of justice for all (I imagine, as do you, Metallica playing at deafening volume in the background) carry a connotation of persistent threat (you cannot escape American “justice” anywhere in the world) as well as celebration?
A message from the pathfinders general
April 15, 2011 5 comments
Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and satiny-jowled mafflard David Cameron have allegedly collaborated to produce an article about the future of Libya, in which “they” admit that they do not have a mandate to “remove Qaddafi by force” but, um, because it’s unthinkable and unconscionable and impossible that he remain in power, they are going to continue bombing Libya until such time as he “go[es] and go[es] for good”, which is nothing like removing him by force, is it, readers?
More interesting, perhaps, than this shameless contradiction which gaily treats the citizens of the US, France and Britain, and let’s face it the rest of the world too, as meek-eared morons, is the inspiring metaphor of a pathway to peace:
Even as we continue our military operations today to protect civilians in Libya, we are determined to look to the future. We are convinced that better times lie ahead for the people of Libya, and a pathway can be forged to achieve just that. [...] There is a pathway to peace that promises new hope for the people of Libya [...]
Is a pathway to peace a bit like a stairway to heaven? It has more alliteration (like everyone’s favourite pipes of peace) and maybe involves fewer drugs. It makes, too, for an interesting comparison with the notorious roadmap in Israel/Palestine. Whereas a roadmap is an aerial view of the whole terrain, with lots of roads and other interesting features like concrete fences or rocket silos, a pathway is a single route. I’m really feeling it from a first-person perspective, like some morose arthouse videogame. A pathway is, of course, more reliable than a mere path (which might be a garden path up which some joker is leading you). It is authoritarian (because unidirectional) and yet smirks with a complacent pretence of friendliness (it is earthy and trodden rather than industrial and macadam’d). Nonetheless the message is clear: it’s our (path)way or the highway.
Maybe it’s because it’s the New Yorker
April 13, 2011 12 comments
An irate yet devastatingly accurate text arrives from unspeak.net’s indefatigable New Yorker correspondent:
Worst New Yorkerese sentence I’ve read in a while: the great John Lahr ending his review of a play Daniel Radcliffe is doing on Broadway with these words: “As they say in the part of London where I live, ‘Nice one, mate.’”
Unspeak.net’s INYC did not explain why this sentence was so bad, but if pushed I would guess that it is the cringe-inducing, horrifyingly misfiring claim to expertise, attributing to merely one (coyly unidentified!) area of the metropolis where the writer evinces such pride in residing a phrase that can be heard not only all over London but probably all over England, at the very least?
Thus declares the New Yorker writer: “I do not just live in London; I have listened with brilliant and scholarly attention to the characteristic expressions of congratulation that are peculiar and unique to each traditional subdivision of that great city. Be assured that I know that, in contrast to the part of London where I live, where everyone says ‘Nice one, mate’, in East Fenchurch the local gentlemen will instead say ‘Jolly good show, my dear fellow!’, while in Croydon-on-Thames the salt-of-the-earth chappies will recite a stanza of George Formby while soberly stabbing you in the face. I am thus not only a great theatre reviewer, but a folk linguist of rare and precious discrimination?”
What do they say in the nearest part of the closest metropolis to where you live, readers?
What to call the counter-revolution
April 8, 2011 7 comments
Once the protesters in Libya had become rebels, or rebel forces (a motley crew of loveable ingénus, royals and rogues — plus the odd Jedi, Wookiee, and Ewok — fighting the dark forces of an evil Empire), or rebel fighters (X-wings), an “intervention” (qv) was rendered more rhetorically palatable. (And the accidental bombing of rebel tanks — as though the tanks themselves had realized that they were on the wrong side — all the more “tragic”.) But then Malcolm Rifkind came on the radio last weekend saying that the rebels were no longer “rebels”: because Gaddafi’s government had lost all legitimacy, or so he argued, the “rebels” ought now to be described as insurgents. (Compare Iraq.) Meanwhile Gaddafi himself, in his delectably strange letter to Obama (or rather “Our dear son, Excellency, Baraka Hussein Abu oumama”), makes no mention of rebels but rather “Terror conducted by AlQaueda gangs that have been armed in some cities”. So I ask you, dear readers of unspeak.net: are the rebels still “rebels” or not?
War is peace
March 25, 2011 8 comments
If a teacher intervenes in a school playground fight, it is not normally so as to punch one of the children in the face.