Words and the World


From The Berlin Review of Books:

Proposing anal sex to someone, for example, is not the same as using the words “anal sex” in a classroom discussion as one topic of publicly unacceptable jokes—such as I did in my classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I’ve taught for more than two decades. I was “counseled” by our Division Director Marine Colonel for uttering these words and warned to avoid a “hostile working environment” Later I was told I could not explain the medical details of a sex-change operation in response to a student question as this had the same effect. (I had proposed that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who is clearly unhappy being a woman, might have fewer problems if she were a man: discuss.)

How do words relate to the world? What’s characterized the political left in recent decades is a general acceptance of the stance of linguistic  idealism: at its extreme, this view— formed by analogy with the philosophical position of idealism that holds our minds make the world rather than existing in it—means that words are the world.  This in turn has led to the insistence on what we call “political correctness,” associated with the political left, with its emphasis on what is said rather than what is thought or done. If words are the world, it’s of utmost importance to police them.

The right, by contrast, tends to see a distinction between what you say and what you do—words are just words. For the right, the world exists independently of our minds, and we, as individual actors, exist in the world. The greatest interest of Palin’s defense of her gun language is her denial of linguistic idealism—even if she doesn’t put it like that—in favor of an underlying view that professional philosophers would call “naïve realism.” This holds that people are agents that act with each other and an independent world using words. Why criticize words? They’re just words.

In Order of Things, Michel Foucault dates the modern age to the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The defining characteristic of this modern age for my purposes is its general acceptance of the primacy of the mind over that of the world, its common thread of idealism. At least this is true of the educated classes, which, as a result, separated from people who didn’t have the luxury of believing this idealistic dogma, but were stuck with the day to day grind of realism. So the left-right divide is merely one single, political, instantiation of a much larger phenomenon, a separation of sophisticated/educated from the rest that, ironically, mirrors that of the ancien régime that the Modern Age overthrew.

Linguistic idealism as an ideology of the educated classes took off with Romantic artists, usually seen as rebelling against the Industrial Revolution and all the upheavals that characterized their time: for this reason Romanticism was addicted to the myth of a golden pre-Industrial past, the Medieval world.  Romanticism is a rejection of the world as it had become. How could the Romantic artists, such as Baudelaire, be surprised when non-artists interested in making money through industrialization (his hated “bourgeoisie”) hated artists back? The artists of two centuries have found valorization in just how misunderstood they were. And the common-sense men of action, as they increasingly saw themselves in contrast, preened themselves on just how little they were like these effete artists.

“Offense Taken”, Bruce Fleming, The Berlin Review of Books (via)