9.23.2016 In Depth Look

In pondering what precisely writers do, how they attempt to accomplish that, and why and how their work is important, an initial pass from The Southeast Review of Media Culture & Politics about the passive voice, George Orwell–whose “Politics & the English Language” famously excoriated such usage while deploying it throughout the essay, followed by a little lighter fare, from Columbia Journalism Review, about potential clarity problems and more that arise from English’s famous ‘flexibility,’ after which scrappy scribe and stalwart citizens may move on to much thornier materials, in the form of a Bruno Latour argument in Critical Inquiry, rounding everything out with a quick look at the monumental magnificence of Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Lecture, in which he tells a tale that brings together the potential for mutuality with the necessities of poetry and storytelling in a world beset by politics and mayhem at every turn: “To report facts, to explore causes, to traduce complexity so as to reveal what underpins it: these represent just a few of the reasons that written language has such massive potential power for those who would move beyond intuition and belief to a realm of knowledge and understanding.  Yet we must admit that another function prevails at times in our linguistic endeavors: to obfuscate reality, to deflect attention, to use nature’s intricacies to deepen incomprehensibility and thereby leave the interpretation and determination of what is happening, as well as what might be necessary to bring about change in the arenas of policy and action, up to those whose ‘stakeholding’ interests are most palpable, easiest to ‘monetize,’ and so on and so forth.

CC BY-NC by Thomas Hawk
CC BY-NC by Thomas Hawk

In relation to the first purpose, passive voice construction normally is worse than useless.  It hides what the writer seeks to reveal; it evades what the narrative purports to pin down.

In the second case, however, no more perfect vehicle exists than passive voice for seeming to admit and describe and assess, without actually assigning responsibility, determining causation, or explaining how matters have reached particular passes.  As noted in the previous installment of the Happy Union Grammar Nerd, such attributes make passive usage ideal for attorneys, propagandists, politicos, diplomats—even criminals who have the necessary sophistication to care about how they express themselves.

Cornell University has an operation that calls itself the Neurosyntax Imaging Laboratory.  Other schools have projects that seek similar understanding with similar tools.  Passivity in speech, intone such authorities, is simply inevitable, likely irreversible, perhaps like genetic selection of lying or dissimulation.brain head mental psychology creativity inquiy
Furthermore, without a doubt speech is the basis for writing in similar fashion as listening is the foundation for reading.  The authors of the above study suggested that Orwell’s frequent passivity was in one way or another irremediable.  They even dragged the estimable E.B. White and his predecessor and collaborator, Mr. Strunk, into the depiction, quoting a line from the Elements of Style that uses passive voice while advising that avoiding its employment would enliven one’s prose.
However, one must recognize that such expert contentions are the consequence of one sort of research, but these brain-nerds are making conclusions about another field of enquiry.  While the underpinnings of writing are speech, and some neural circuitry serves both our voices and our scribblings, in no way are these two normal aspects of being powerfully human the same.

Only a few style-and-grammar prescriptions are likely to generate as great a scholarly and critical interest as that which “Politics and the English Language” has received.  Google estimates a total of just over two-and-a-half million resulting connections if a researcher enters the following slight variation on the title in the Internet giant’s ‘engine:’ ‘politics of the english language.’debate words talk discussion polemic conversation writing
Whatever the plethora of reasons that might engender that level of engagement, the fact is incontrovertible that people ‘check out this Orwell shit about, you know, ‘Politics and the English Language,’ or more generally ‘the politics of the English language.’’  And at least a small chunk of this huge sample—plausibly a majority of entries—nod to or note in some way the matter of passive voice, in passing as it were.
For whatever reason, then, a sizeable number of global citizens, who have interests that bridge ‘politics and the English language,’ find George Orwell’s pronouncements alluring enough to perform a Google look-up.  At the same time, Orwell himself writes in the text, which is a rushed and scattershot affair indeed, more like a schoolboy’s composition than a completely articulated scholarly or otherwise expert conceptualization, ‘Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.'”—SERMCAP
CC BY by joshp
        “Many words in English can be either nouns or verbs: think ‘contact,’ ‘boast,’ ‘police,’ ‘probe,’ etc.  Most of the time, it’s clear to readers whether you’re using it as a noun or a verb.  But sometimes it’s not clear, creating what language researchers call ‘the Ambicategoricality Problem.’  A reader who sees a word and assumes it’s a verb, only to discover later in the sentence that it’s a noun, may have to back up and start again.  And if you haven’t figured it out by then, that’s not a good thing.
‘Remove’ (as my initial example offers up) has been a noun meaning ‘a step or two from’ since at least the early 17th century, but readers overwhelmingly experience it as a verb.  It’s not ‘wrong’ to use a word like ‘remove’ in an unfamiliar role; the only ‘rule’ to prohibit someone from using the word as an unfamiliar part of speech is the golden ‘rule’ that written communication should be clear.

The ‘verbification’ of traditional nouns like ‘contact’ or ‘probe’ and the ‘nounification’ of traditional verbs like ‘medal’ and ‘fail’ are the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  But language evolves when people repurpose a ‘traditional’ word and give it another role.  It just may take time for it to catch on, if it ever does.  ‘Verbing’ and ‘nouning’ have been nouns since the mid-18th century, for example, the noun ‘verbification’ has existed since the late 18th, and ‘verb’ has been a verb since early in the 20th.  (The verb ‘noun’ hasn’t yet made it into the major dictionaries, nor has the noun ‘nounification.’)
Sometimes, using the verb instead of the noun makes prose tighter and gives it more impact.  ‘She said she would plan the trip’ is stronger than ‘she said she would provide a plan for the trip.’  The nuance is needed sometimes since ‘he said he would support the candidate’ is not quite the same as ‘he said he would provide support for the candidate.’  And sometimes, using the noun instead of the verb works, too.  ‘The builder’s development will provide affordable housing’ can be more accurate than ‘the builder will develop affordable housing.’
infrastructure scaffolding building architecture
The real danger comes when words that can be nouns or verbs appear too close to each other.  ‘The man who whistles tunes pianos’ could take readers a long time to figure out, because both ‘whistles’ and ‘tunes’ can be both nouns and verbs.  It’s particularly difficult because both are being used as verbs, and two unrelated verbs rarely appear together.  Worse, ‘whistles tunes’ is a ‘collocation,’ words that seem to go naturally together.”—Columbia Journalism Review
        “Wars.  So many wars.  Wars outside and wars inside.  Cultural wars, science wars, and wars against terrorism.  Wars against poverty and wars against the poor.  Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance.  My question is simple: Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins?  Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction?  More iconoclasm to iconoclasm?  What has become of the critical spirit?  Has it run out of steam?
Quite simply, my worry is that it might not be aiming at the right target.  To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time, military experts constantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingency plans, the size, direction, and technology of their projectiles, their smart bombs, their missiles; I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sorts of revisions.  It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academia, to prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets.  Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?  Would it not be rather terrible if we were still training young kids—yes, young recruits, young cadets—for wars that are no longer possible, fighting enemies long gone, conquering territories that no longer exist, leaving them ill-equipped in the face of threats we had not anticipated, for which we are so thoroughly unprepared?

To prove my point, I have, not exactly facts, but rather tiny cues, nagging doubts, disturbing telltale signs.  What has become of critique, I wonder, when an editorial in the New York Times contains the following quote?  ‘Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by man-made pollutants that require strict regulation.  Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that ‘the scientific debate is closing against us.’  His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.  ‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,’ he writes, ‘their views about global warming will change accordingly.  Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.’
Fancy that?  An artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a ‘brownlash,’ as Paul and Anne Ehrlich would say.

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases!  While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices?  And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.
CC BY-NC by polizeros
CC BY-NC by polizeros

Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?  Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said?  Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?  Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them?  Should we apologize for having been wrong all along?
Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts?  Nothing guarantees, after all, that we should be right all the time.  There is no sure ground even for criticism.  Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anywhere?  But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground is taken away from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against the things we cherish?”—Critical Inquiry
        “Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina.  Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way.  There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay.  Those who were with me knew how to make their way forward between the dense leaves of the forest, but to feel safer they marked their route by slashing with their machetes here and there in the bark of the great trees, leaving tracks which they would follow back when they had left me alone with my destiny.
Each of us made his way forward filled with this limitless solitude, with the green and white silence of trees and huge trailing plants and layers of soil laid down over centuries, among half-fallen tree trunks which suddenly appeared as fresh obstacles to bar our progress.  We were in a dazzling and secret world of nature which at the same time was a growing menace of cold, snow and persecution.  Everything became one: the solitude, the danger, the silence, and the urgency of my mission.

On either side of the trail I could observe in the wild desolation something which betrayed human activity.  There were piled up branches which had lasted out many winters, offerings made by hundreds who had journeyed there, crude burial mounds in memory of the fallen, so that the passer should think of those who had not been able to struggle on but had remained there under the snow for ever.  My comrades, too, hacked off with their machetes branches which brushed our heads and bent down over us from the colossal trees, from oaks whose last leaves were scattering before the winter storms.  And I too left a tribute at every mound, a visiting card of wood, a branch from the forest to deck one or other of the graves of these unknown travellers.

We continued till we came to a natural tunnel which perhaps had been bored through the imposing rocks by some mighty vanished river or created by some tremor of the earth when these heights had been formed, a channel that we entered where it had been carved out in the rock in granite.  After only a few steps our horses began to slip when they sought for a foothold in the uneven surfaces of the stone and their legs were bent, sparks flying from beneath their iron shoes – several times I expected to find myself thrown off and lying there on the rock.  My horse was bleeding from its muzzle and from its legs, but we persevered and continued on the long and difficult but magnificent path.Pixabay Image 693055
There was something awaiting us in the midst of this wild primeval forest.  Suddenly, as if in a strange vision, we came to a beautiful little meadow huddled among the rocks: clear water, green grass, wild flowers, the purling of brooks and the blue heaven above, a generous stream of light unimpeded by leaves.
There we stopped as if within a magic circle, as if guests within some hallowed place, and the ceremony I now took part in had still more the air of something sacred.  The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull.  I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead ox’s eye sockets.
But the unforgettable ceremony did not end there.  My country friends took off their hats and began a strange dance, hopping on one foot around the abandoned skull, moving in the ring of footprints left behind by the many others who had passed there before them.  Dimly I understood, there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of this world.”—Nobel Lecture