Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The most hurtful, thoughtless and brutal language around politics today might be that found in the world of political blogs (particularly in their comment boxes) and online discussion boards.

Today I made the mistake of reading msnbc's story on Cindy Sheehan's retirement from the Camp Casey project. Unsurprisingly, the story conflates the peace movement with the Democratic party, and blurs the boundaries between disenchantment with petty bickering among activists, revulsion at party politics, and a deeply pessimistic assessment of U.S. culture. One glance at Sheehan's blog shows that these distinctions are quite present in her thought.

Things get worse if you read the comments on the msn story. I only got through a few of them before realizing that I'd better stop.

Sheehan's retirement is not a disaster. Activists burn out.

The real, ongoing disaster is bigger, more multifaceted. The war in Iraq is made possible to a significant extent by the brutalization of language that characterizes discourse in the U.S., which is at its worst in many of those online discussions that give people the illusion that they're engaging in democratic exchange instead of one-upmanship, bullying and rallying of masses to say "yeah, dude!" in support of their opinions. The inability--or refusal--to make fine distinctions, the thoughtlessness of what's written and said, hurts all life in this culture. It's not just the gleefully vicious attacks and smug assessments the right-wing media and the so-called "liberal press" uses to destroy attempts to dismantle oppressive social structures; this linguistic sickness works from the inside as well, when activists (and other collaborators) don't speak or listen carefully to one another, and when they can't think of roles, methods and terminologies outside those established as signifying activism.

My question here: what can a poet do about this? I don't just mean by writing poems. In everyday life as well as in poetry, I try to care for language as the medium of thought and social life. It seems like that care should be applied to some portion of this problem. I know where the solutions cannot lie: this problem can't be solved on the comments boards themselves, in the style of the comments boards. You can't make a careful argument whose particulars are well-thought-out in an environment so saturated with the opposite. Parodic critique of the available modes of public discourse won't solve the problem either, if it adopts the forms of the latter without breaking them open and making something different happen. No solution to the violence of language is sufficient if it reproduces that violence with a different goal.

So I know what won't work. The positive side of the question is harder to answer. I'm sure the possibilities are many. They need to be extracted from a very tight place.


  • At May 29, 2007 at 5:29 PM, Blogger mark enslin said…

    Do you have an image of what "work" would mean?

  • At May 30, 2007 at 3:23 AM, Blogger andy gricevich said…

    1) I want people (with varied political stances, tentative or firm) to withdraw themselves from such discussions, to recognize that to engage in discourse on these terms reduces them to the terms. That a well-composed statement might, in those circumstances, have no defense against becoming a "might as well be dashed-off" statement.
    1a) Withdrawal never seems like the right idea. One thing I've thought of: a stock paragraph, so meticulously composed that the worst that could happen would be that it would be ignored, to be posted in the midst of various discussions for as long as the paragraph's life in meaningfulness allows... perhaps sneakily disruptive of frequent terms of discussion... the sneakiness would need to work in accordance with different rules than does the environment into which it's insterted... these rules might act the way a virus does in bonding with alien genetic material.

    2) As a poet, I do want to take this situation into explicit consideration, to write poems that respond to it. To make it a part of my writing practice. Poetry as a mode of thought that can get to places discursive (for example, blog-post) thought can't. Or doesn't.

    Really, I want the whole thing to stop, and the feeling of desperation this "morning" that led to this post had that ill-defined desire as its target. The sense of helpless horror, combined with a generalized indignation ("none of the long-time activists I know think about this in this shitty way"), needs a hard question like yours in order to get anywhere besides the state that preceded it. There are more answers than the two I just proposed, and I'll keep thinking toward them.


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