Saturated Language is Starving our Political Futures
When I first heard Scott Smith’s rallying call that we should take more of an active role in determining our futures, I was especially taken by the idea that for the last decade or so, we’ve been stuck in a holding pattern, where uncertainty about the future simply led societies to look backwards:
We’ve been looping, and looping in part because we weren’t sure what the future was going to be. Our parents had a kind of scripting for it. They knew where they were going, they knew what the promise was, but we don’t. So it becomes understandable and quite easy to reach back and take on board these old aesthetics and revive the old forecasts of the past, and catch ourselves in this constant looping state. Yet, one critical issue, this is not a Live Action Role Play [LARP]. It becomes dangerous to live out an imagined future in the present without really thinking about what comes beyond that. — Scott Smith
This recycling — or even regurgitating — of ideas had seemed, from my point of view, to be a fact of life. During the same period Scott is referring to here, fashion trends, especially, look to have been caught within themselves. Culture and politics have seemingly moved in an upward spiral: progressing, but always returning to similar, if not the same, ideas.
While the world is facing some of the biggest crises in its history, the young, creative minds of the Western world are busy regramming scans of The Face and writing think pieces on the cultural significance of Winona Ryder in Mermaids…Like virtual archaeologists, we are ploughing the sediment beneath us for remnants of a previous civilisation and then proudly wielding them for the entire world to see. — Nathalie Olah
As Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik contend, this behaviour is partly a function of the way we use language. Tenses help us structure experience, delineating what happened before from what’s happening now and what will happen next; subsequently, we can define the concepts and phenomena of today in the vocabulary of yesterday, or even tomorrow. In doing so, instead of articulating and generating a sense of progression about the state of things today, we simply bind ourselves to history and speculation, respectively.
Avanessian and Malik illustrate this with phrases like “every past was a future” and “every future will be a past”. Here, we can construct temporality while completely effacing the present, and this extends to pretty much anything you can prefix with “pre-” or “post-”. All we’re really doing when we use either of these is indexing our conception of something with a reference either to what we expect will follow it or what preceded it, while also trying to distance ourselves from whatever that was or is.
The rub, ultimately, is that the recycling of language leads to the recycling of culture. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but what happens when we run out of these references?
If we are post-contemporary, or post-postmodern, post-internet, or post-whatever — if we are now post-everything — it is because historically-given semantics don’t quite work anymore…The present is not just the realization of the speculative future (the “pre-”) but also a future of the past that we are already exceeding…we don’t quite have the bearings or the stability or the conventions that the past offers to us (the “post-”). — Suhail Malik
Taken to its logical conclusion, this suggests our ‘historically-given semantics’ no longer provide a foundation for novel thought. We expend our linguistic (and therefore cultural and political) currency by repackaging things from the past for the present (and future), and end up running out of supply. The saturation of our language is the very same thing that starves us of original thought.
Although Avanessian and Malik speak mainly in the abstract, we can see how this dearth of originality infects politics, too. Consider the 2017 UK General Election, in which the two main parties looked completely devoid of ideas, suffocating genuine, original discussion. Yet there were and are entire policy domains (such as climate, education and digital) that are ripe for experimentation. (We are also, of course, hampered by Brexit sucking up all government and media attention, creating an inane feedback loop.¹)
We are therefore in an age where, as Mike Davidson has outlined, our discourse is increasingly based on a form of newspeak and our inability to conceive of, and articulate, new ideas leads to a lack of political innovation. This is indicative of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, which outlines how metaphors structure our experience (as echoed by Andres Colmenares).
So, what must we do in response?
1. Understand the importance of language in constructing worldviews and enabling/limiting our collective and individual agency.
2. Expand our own perspectives, and so our vocabulary. Politics, culture and the arts are at their very best when inspired by diverse backgrounds and worldviews.
3. Embrace change and allow for risk-taking and experimentation by government:
The public become angry with politicians who contemplate higher taxes, are furious that public services are under such pressure and become incandescent if anyone suggests productivity-enhancing reforms that involve building projects near their homes or foreigners improving the dynamism of the economy. — FT
4. Take up the mantle of citizenship. We should believe in our ability to work with others to invent our collective futures.
- It goes without saying that there are of course lots of people across the country (and world) doing brilliant, innovative work, but often it seems this approach isn’t reflected in UK party politics.