Saturday, 18 June 2011

The World of the Words

For these past couple of days I have been watching Congressional debates on C-SPAN. Of course, with the somewhat trained eyes of a rhetoric student I see more than difficult words and long sentences, and as a result I confess that I am absolutely fascinated by what I see. Where some may just see two senators fighting to have their way with things I see armies and ideologies marching to meet each other on the battlefield. However, at the end of the day it is very seldom that I know what side I would take if I would have to make a choice, or whose voice I would support if I would participate in the proceedings.

I think one of the main reasons for this is what Kenneth Burke referred to as the magic of symbols.

Ideally we would be able to measure what the politician is saying against ‘objective reality’ in order to find out who is speaking the truth. Yet ‘objective reality’ remains elusive because all reality is interpreted in some way. The news is colored by the eyes of those who relay it, even if those eyes are our own. Yes, at one level it may be ‘objectively true’ that an act has taken place (Fred struck John across the face), but in order to react intelligently we have to know the meaning of the act that has taken place; we need to know the symbolic value of the act to determine what response is appropriate (Fred tried to wake up John. Fred accidentally struck John’s face while stretching. Fred was defending himself against John’s attack. Fred assaulted John. All possible meanings of the one physical act).

The meaning of an act is always interpreted according to a world-view or an ideology, which seeks to organize chaotic events into a meaningful system. Most of the discussion in Congress seemed to be directed not at the numbers and figures of a certain report but rather the significance and meaning they have. As such, it is not surprising that many policy-makers in their argument revisit history (or rewrite history) selecting events which they consider meaningful to the development of the current problem and therefore also logically foreshadow their chosen solution.

Here is a very simplified version:

Senator A: America was founded on the idea of individual liberty and a limited government. These ideals have made America the greatest nation in the world, with the world’s greatest economy. Yet, somehow we have forgotten that, and we have allowed government to infringe on liberty and choke the life out of our economy. We need to end the excessive regulations and cut the excessive spending of a government which has become a job-killing monster!

Senator B: As President Bush took office in 2000 this nation had a 3.6 trillion dollar surplus and a stable economy. By the time he left office this nation had a gigantic deficit and was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs every day. Why? Because of reckless tax-cuts and a reckless lack of oversight and regulation by the previous administration. The Obama administration was able to drag this country back from the edge of the abyss, where a Wild West unregulated financial sector almost drove this nation off the cliff. We cannot allow that to happen again. We need strong regulation and a strong government to ensure stability for our children and our grandchildren.

What is happening here? We have two narratives which arguably are both grounded in factual events, but they point out different heroes, culprits, and solutions. In a way they establish a value system during the first part which leads to the logical conclusion in the final part. They set up rules and then follow them. It sounds logical because it is in harmony with the logic implicit in the text, and not some ‘objective reality’. We here see a logic based on a ‘textual reality’, the reality or world created by words.

This is the magic of language, and although we create it we are also created by it. The texts above did not simply originate in a vacuum. They are distilled from the essenses and contrasts of thousands of years of competing ideologies.

In A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke sets forth the program of his “Motives-Triology”. Talking about A Symbolic of Motives he writes:

“And the Symbolic, studying the implicit equations which have so much to do with the shaping of our acts, should enable us to see our own lives as a kind of rough draft that lends itself at least somewhat to revision, as we may hope at least to temper the extreme rawness of our ambitions, once we become aware of the ways in which we are the victims of our own and one another’s magic” (442).

If nothing else, my observations of Congress in action have made me more aware of the magic of persuasion. Navigating the public debates seems less like a simple math equation and more like the linguistic challenge of learning and understanding different languages; each of them formed as separate attempts of describing and creating the world around us.