Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pompo's commentary

REMARKS ON FAMILIAR PHRASES (by Pompo)


1. “difficult times” - seeks a kind of consent (even from the victims) for a course of behaviour that the actor knows to be morally tainted. The phrase emerged from my subconscious while I was writing about Woodstock and then I realized I'd been hearing it all around me for some time.

Here's how you say it: in a reverent undertone, while gazing into the eye of the storm (as if you were rather to be admired for being in a tough position where you're going to piss someone about) ...

You feel very strongly that no-one should start having a go at you when they're not in the same position themselves. Just try it and see how YOU'd like it, you think. You feel strong and alone, like an eagle or something - cut off from the normals. But in fact though you might appear to be alone, there's no shortage of camaraderie. You draw close to those other people who understand you and have done or are doing the same thing - you meet with them in hotel bars. Together you talk, shaking your heads over it, about the difficult times, the people there's no saving, how you hate doing it, and eventually you both cheer up and head for the car-park.

There but for the grace of God, eh?

It won't be the first time and it won't be the last. New Saab?


At home, the kids see a bit more of you than usual, you lighten up, you're really a warm-hearted person.

2. “a sense of” “a real sense of” - I'm getting really irritated with this. I've used these phrases myself a hundred times, but now it's everywhere and I'm choking on it. One of the meanings is this:

"I know I'm not supposed to know that I can ever know anything and I am not naive but I intend to go on maundering on and I will talk about murkily sensing things as if I am a yearning energetic seeker with a high profile of scrupulous moral energy while at the same time making allusion to what we all know of course, that one can't ever really know anything, touch anything, see anything etc..."

This network of phrases originates in aesthetic criticism where you are talking about a thought that crosses your mind during your exposure to an artefact and you aren't willing to analyse where the thought comes from; is it from one of the five senses with which you (variously) examine the artefact, or is it a "sense" as a disembodied meaning, the way we talk e.g. of using a word in such-and-such a sense? You're not quite clear about it. You say with apparent objectivity e.g. "there's a sense [meaning?] in which everything that the people in the film say is contradicted by their actions" and then without being aware of the semantic slippage you speak of "a sense [sensation?] of profound melancholy" and in this way you find a means of mentioning a variety of floating and inchoate intuitions - very much to your own satisfaction at having as you believe "touched on" key features of the artefact in question. Aesthetic criticism is where it originated, but it doesn't have to stay there. You can apply this apparatus at will to any topic you may want to be seen to be responding to...

You could hear these "senses" flying back and forth on yesterday's Nightwaves (BBC Radio 3)during Philip Dodd's interview with Colin Thubron. The occasion for this was Thubron's latest travel book (about a 7,000 mile journey along the route of the Silk Road).

Dodd nattered on, patently uninspired with any thoughts about the places where Thubron had been, but keen to quote whatever had come to mind while reading the book (Dover Beach, the Return of the Native, etc) and profoundly absorbed in constructing his own cliché "sense" of the 65-year-old Thubron (Thubron's "image" I suppose) while also encouraging some wise reflections for his more elderly listeners. Every time Thubron responded he began by denying the relevance of Dodd's "sense", but always with unflappable politeness, once only reduced to an awed silence at the monster he was allowing to creep into existence. Quite why Thubron would not say that he was bored by the line of questioning I'm not sure - I think he must have instantly appreciated that this was going to make a great scene in his next book - but it was nerve-shredding radio; Dodd in his hole just carried on with the spade, madly trying to persuade Thubron to admit that his latest book is all about accepting his own death, wincingly joking "I'm not going to let you get away with this", and making increasingly outrageous apologies - himself, as it were, appalled at how badly the apologies were coming out - for continuing to lay stress on how near to the grave and how archaic ("the last Victorian") he was making Thubron out to be.

(Thubron's book as filtered through Dodd's well-worn literary tropes sounded extremely dull, but in the circumstances it's impossible to guess if that's a just impression.)

Anyhow you'll gather that Dodd's use of "there's a real sense of..." is a device for audibly representing the process of thinking, and that it's very difficult to present and to listen at the same time - which is also a problem that shows up in writing on the Internet where a genuinely two-way exchange of views is a remarkable thing. Perhaps there's something that prohibits it in the presence of an audience.

3. Deconstruct (popular use of)

"Philip Dodd and guests deconstruct the philosophy, morality and practicality of altruism."

"Deconstruct" has a sales-pitch: it promises important breakthroughs. No, I'll go further: it promises comprehensible important breakthroughs of the "clean sweep" variety. As a result of witnessing this deconstruction the scales will fall from your eyes, you will be enlightened, but this enlargement of your understanding will not make your world more complicated and difficult to speak about accurately - what dry, dreary task-work that kind of knowledge is! - , on the contrary it will be thrillingly simplifying, like flushing the toilet or plastering over a mural.

But the sales-pitch is in flat contradiction to what is actually delivered, the thing that in practice instantiates the term. It turns out to mean "chat about, uncommittedly". Nothing is actually pulled down - every topic has to be still intact by the end of the radio program otherwise you would soon run out of topics for radio programs. Deconstruction of whatever-it-is-this-week is only a ritual death, and back up the whatever-it-is bounces at the end, like a punchball, like St George in the mummer's play.

Simultaneously, it delivers another sales-pitch to the conservative, to those who worship traditional idols (like altruism), what you might call the "indignation" sales pitch - listen to the program to hear how they get it all wrong - to reassure yourself that they really have got it all wrong... That's another reason why St George is going to bounce back up; so indignation can be manipulated in the future.

Nearly everyone who responds at all responds in a certain degree to both sales-pitches at the same time, contradictory as that may sound. To fully enjoy the thrill, you must also fear. To truly appreciate the boldness of the deconstruction, you must also experience the hold that the cursed shibboleth still has over you.

We are talking about a self-sustaining field of discourse which is not capable of radical change from within because any dissenting motion immediately corrects itself by a counter-motion. The thrill that is offered is to enjoy as much motion as can be stirred up, but without consequences.

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