The Redefinition of “Reading”

I was going to title this “The Assault on ‘Reading.'” but that sounded to curmudgeonly. Here’s an example of what I mean by the redefinition of reading:

I go to a site online to read a brief article–a blog post. The site could be CNN or ESPN or a newspaper. I find my way to the piece. As I’m attempting to read it from top to bottom, as I have been taught, according to the old Gutenberg-print method, advertisements pop up in boxes, or maybe the piece is encased on all sides by advertisements, like an artifact packed in cotton. Anyway, these things distract my reading, at least according to the way I read. But maybe the common form of reading now is to be able to “read” (see, hear) many texts at once, or at least to place them in your reader’s field of vision.

What’s more common every day is the presences of videos, so going back to my example, above or below the article will be a small “screen” (box). I may have choice of clicking on an arrow–or I may not. The video might just start. Then, in another, smaller box elsewhere on my screen, another video will be cued and will probably start on its own. So before I start reading the article, I have to take note of and deal with one or two videos (and their noise).

The conservative in me–not politically conservative but, well, old fashioned–is tempted to say that the technological culture is doing away with conventional reading, which I’ll define simply as reading one thing at a time. The culture needs to hurry and harry us because it seeks attention, which–in theory–means more money coming in, for every distraction comes with another “opportunity” (temptation, baiting) to be confronted with a visual, textual, or aural pitch for a product or a service.

Obviously, the old way of reading is just that: a relic. At least online this is the case. I still read novels (printed on paper or “printed” on Kindle) the old way–more or less one word, phrase, clause, sentence, line, paragraph, page (etc.) at a time, although of course I have different speeds and techniques, including speed-reading ones (in the event I’m getting bored–but if I get too bored, I simply stop and go to another book).

I wonder what the effects of the new reading will have on people’s brains, their argument- or narrative-processing equipment, so to speak. What effect will the new reading have on logical analysis? On genre? That is, will a typical article/essay/piece/story become shorter and shorter, and more hastily slapped together to keep up with the speed of multiple virtual conveyor-belts?

At any rate, the new reading has to have multiple consequences related to Orwell’s classic essay, for Orwell focused in part on the extent to which we are lulled or distracted by bullshit. Orwell was over the top in concentrating on jargon, euphemism, and “long words,” but his overall point about being dulled, lulled, and distracted obtains.  I think online we’re meant not to think with some degree of patience and discernment about units of expression–an article, a line of argument, a narrative unit, , etc.

Wither “close reading”?  Wither concentration? (Wither words like “wither”?!) It all rather seems like a vast, ceaseless magic trick, with multiple levels of misdirection. Good luck to us.


Book on Orwell Goes Full Kindle

Not that you asked, but the book my co-blogger and I wrote, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the Age of Pseudocracy  is  available on Kindle now.


Image result for ostrom haltom

A New Book About Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

My colleague and co-blogger, Professor William Haltom, and I have published Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the Age of Pseudocracy with Routledge/Taylor & Francis in Routledge’s Series on Rhetoric and Composition. Now you will be prepared should someone ask you, “Do you know any recent books concering George Orwell’s famous essay about language and politics?” If you know any librarians who might want to order the book, we would not strenuously object to your mentioning it.  Here is a link to the book on Routledge’s site, followed by an image of the book’s cover, by which you may judge the book.

link to book


A Simpler Explanation for the Use of Jargon, Buzzwords, etc.

As we know, Orwell in ‘Politics and the English Language,” came down Puritanically hard on the use of jargon, “foreign phrases” (provincial much, George?), and academic-insider diction and vocabulary.  He virtually makes such usage a moral issue.

A simpler explanation, and one that fits our age of communication-deluge, is that how we learn language and, via language, how we learn to fit into families, schools, jobs, and so on, induce us to use “the latest words.”

I’ve seen this fitting-in phenomenon in academia frequently.  New terms will spread like a flu-bug during a large or small academic conference, and people reflexively start using them, not necessarily because of their efficacy but just because they are new and moving up the popular charts,  and people do not want to be perceived as being not fully current, not being part of the group that’s using this language.

It seems as if younger academics may be more susceptible to this anxious need to keep up on new lingo, but even if this is true, it doesn’t mean academics of every stage don’t do the same thing.  That said, there also seems to come a time in most academics’ careers when an opposing reflex kicks in: generally weary, and acutely weary of academia, many academics become hostile to new things and new words, and they become increasingly likely to dismiss the latter and align themselves epistemologically with the credo, “There’s nothing new under the sun!  Therefore, leave me alone!”

But it can happen anywhere–job sites of every kind, political groups, social groups.  The right-wing servicer, Frank Luntz, developed dozens of slippery phrases, to a) lie in a most “Orwellian”way, b) heap scorn on “liberals” (a term he never had to define), and c) further fortify White-Right political identity.  Members of the group, new and old, lap up the new cream like kittens, not least of all because they like that feeling of being righteous and accepted.  Of course the same thing goes on in virtually every kind of group.  I do think it’s pretty clear that, in the U.S., the Republicans have been much better at this language-game than the flat-footed, befuddled Democrats, who haven’t exactly put effective roadblocks in the way of right-wing flim-flammers from Reagan to the current bloated, narcissistic loon, Our President, who is too lazy, and too rewarded for his laziness, to use new language.  He sticks with words like terrible, sad, tremendous, bad, and good.  Before the end of his term(s), he may just start grunting at his rallies and in his press conferences, and a large percentage of White folks will cheer each nuanced sound effect. Animal Farm, indeed.

In any event, counteracting both the keeping-up-with-the jargon mania and the curmudgeonly hostility any new words and terms can be difficult because to do so with the former requires checking the impulse to fit in immediately, and to do so with the latter means checking your own desire to stop learning.  In other words, discernment and self-discipline are crucial.

After all, in whatever specialized group one may think of, new language will arise, and much of it will be appropriate and useful–a reasonable acknowledgement (if I do say so myself) that is tough to find in Orwell’s essay.

Simple forms of such discernment come in the shape of questions: “Why am I using this new word/term, exactly?”  “Am I sure I know what it means?”  “Why are ‘they’ using this new word/term, exactly?” “Are people using this term more or less unthinkingly, out of reflex, habit, or an anxious need to fit it?”

Discernment in vocabulary and diction, in writing, speaking, and reading/consuming: a good aptitude to develop, and one distinct from Orwell’s clumsy eradication-policy vis a vis (foreign phrase!) “jargon.”

Main Points, Revisited, of Orwell’s Famous Essay

In a variety of venues, my co-blogger Wild Bill and I have been pointing out the degree to which George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has some problems and is often remembered (we argue) for the wrong reasons—namely, some points about such things as using foreign words and using the passive voice. We think it deserves to be remembered more for its major point, or premise, which is that political language, broadly defined, and other kinds of official language can harm people’s thinking, people’s capacity to analyze, and that this harm, in turn, can further make language more slippery.

We don’t imagine our critique of the weak parts of the essay will or could damage its stature, nor is that our aim. We do imagine that it is possible to line up the stature with what we think is really good and often missed about the essay.
That said, my purpose in this post is to summarize Orwell’s major points and put the minor ones in proper proportion, and I realize “major,” “minor,” and “proper proportion” are arguable.

Anyway, here goes:

Orwell’s main points, with some interpretation:

1. English is “in a bad way” because it’s been abused—sorry about the passive voice, George—by writers and speakers engaged in or affected by politics, which is by nature deceptive. (Orwell concentrates on writers, not speakers.)

2. I think what Orwell means by “the English language” is really public discourse in the form of political speeches, comments by punditry, political ads, and so on. That is, I’m not sure politics or anything but extinction can put “the English language” in its totality in a bad way. English exists and evolves, a protean phenomenon. People use it well or badly or just all right. It’s language in the public arena that’s in trouble—according to Orwell.

3. The misuses of English affect how people analyze writing and speech, how they interpret information, and how they make decision. That is, bad use of the language can lead to bad concrete effects such as terrible decisions and severely misinformed, badly duped citizens. The situation may become a spiral.

About those who use the language badly, often on purpose but sometimes just through bad habits, not malevolence:

1. Insincere people use it to deceive other people, to make bad things sound okay, and to delay doing the right thing. Orwell pins responsibility on insincerity. His version of “make bad things sound okay” is to make murder seem respectable (my paraphrase). A more current example is the description of torture as “enhanced techniques of interrogation.”
2. One main deception is to hide responsibility, according to Orwell. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, one in which the passive voice does indeed hide “the agent,” the one who made the mistake.
3. Sometimes the misuse springs more from laziness and carelessness than it does from insincerity. You know the degree to which we all, including journalists, pundits, those who work in governmental and corporate communication, politicians, academics, and “public intellectuals” (like academics who go on TV) get careless or lazy.
What does Orwell mean by this alleged misuse/abuse of English?

Specifically, he mentions things like clichés, dead metaphors (metaphors we’ve heard and seen a million times, such as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks), ready-made phrases (like the tired, hyperbolic phrase I just used, “a million times”).

As noted, he doesn’t like the passive voice, although he uses it quite a bit in the essay.

He doesn’t like foreign words/phrases because he thinks people use them to sound important or smart, to puff themselves up by puffing up their rhetoric.

He doesn’t like euphemisms (“enhanced techniques of interrogation”).

He doesn’t like specialized words—jargon.

This last part—specific alleged abuses that Orwell doesn’t like—is where Wild Bill and I think Orwell’s case is weak. For example, writers and speakers can use the passive voice and still be clear and have sincere motives, and they can use it and still pinpoint responsibility. Also, sometimes specialized words are fine, as are foreign words. Sometimes you need a specialized word or term, such as voi dire, to be precise. Same goes for foreign words/terms, like schadenfreude. We get his larger point about puffing up rhetoric, but we think he makes too much of some examples. Sometimes even metaphors that have been around a long time work fine, such as trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

We have two more objections that are related to the point above and that we think amount to a more significant critique. Let’s put the first in the form of a rhetorical question. George, is it really the passive voice and foreign words that have made the language of politics, political advertising, political journalism, and political punditry & partisanship so awful?

A second objection: is lack of clarity or directness always the main problem? For instance, when a candidate says, “I want to create jobs,” he or she is being clear and pithy. The problem is that the statement is empty. Another problem is that when, for instance, Newt Gingrich, echoing Romney’s economic “plan,” says (I paraphrase), “Yeah, some teachers and fire-fighters are going to lose their jobs—tough break”– and roughly 50% of the citizenry metaphorically nods in agreement. Too many teaching and fire-fighting jobs—that really the big economic problem? Cuts there are really the solution?

But let’s not get hung up on the policy-stuff or on GOPers v. Dems.

The point is that Romney, Gingrich, Obama, and politicians from across the spectrum often speak/write directly and clearly and still deceive. Now, it may be that fuzzy, slippery language helped to soften up some of the citizens so that they’re less likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute—that doesn’t make sense.” We grant that Orwell may be right about that. But in the specific instance, an absence of clarity isn’t the problem.

What to do, as a writer, not to get on Orwell’s enemies-list:

Make yourself write clearly, but of course keep the rhetorical situation in mind: the purposes and audience of what you’re writing. For instance, Wild Bill may write something in a political science article that seems unclear to me but only because I’m not part of his intended audience. People in his line of work will read what I read and in no way think it’s unclear.

Work on eliminating bad habits. Be less lazy and careless as you write and especially as you revise. When you revise, be kind of tough on yourself–but not pathologically so. It’s possible to get so compulsive you can’t get your work done.

Keep in check any lurking desires to “sound” smarter or more important than you really are. If you’re using writing or speaking to deceive and you know the deception to be wrong (sometimes deception is not wrong), check yourself. Say, “All right, I’m being a bull-shitter here, it’s not right, and I’d better go back and get rid of the bullshit”

Sure, clichés, jargon, stock phrases, and euphemisms may come up in your writing and make it less clear, precise, and honest. If so, edit them out. But other types of words and phrases may cause more problems than these, so don’t treat Orwell’s examples as gospel, or a s formula. Think for yourself.

The Core of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Devotees — I make bold to use the plural — of this blog know that the pair of us routinely pore over George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”  We are critical of the essay.  As a result of our criticisms, we may obscure our admiration for Orwell’s thinking.  It behooves us, then, to reiterate the essay’s virtues from time to time.  This entry is one such time.

In my view, the following passage is the centerpiece of Orwell’s insights:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

I confess that every time I read these paragraphs, phrases and clauses leap from the screen — seldom from pages these days although from the pages in the collection Shooting an Elephant in 1976 when Professor Lance Bennett sent me Orwell’s way — as fronts of T-shirts.

My favorite sentence in the essay was initially and remains today “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  What a bounty that hucksters such as Dr. Frank Luntz should expose themselves as liars and cheats even as they ply the polity with soothing phrases and soulless palaver!  Dr. Luntz and other politicos wield calculated vagueness and crafted equivocation with frightening effectiveness, which makes them at once enemies of understanding, rationality, and democracy.  Their expedients win elections and shape policies at the expense of self-governance.  The dark arts of political grifting enrich the grifters even as they impoverish the polity.

Another T-shirt aphorism aligns with the foregoing maxim: “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”  To me these first two sentences mutually reinforce.  Because the insincere manipulator or audiences must avoid clarity in favor of euphemism and other “swindles and perversions” [Orwell], the con artist must assemble words and phrases into slogans, bumper stickers, and spot ads that withstand mindless repetition but not critical scrutiny.  Apostles of orthodoxy intricately arrange words and phrases — but not usually sentences and paragraphs lest  complicated, modulated expression induce thought and skepticism — into towers of babble that bear repetition much better than they weather reflection.  Orthodoxy and conformity, it follows, not only encourage but also depend on rote expression(s) that mask motives and hide sinister designs behind dextrous expression.  Insincerity is a great enemy of clarity because clarity of thought and expression threatens the insincere.

As insincerity begets strategic and tactical unclarity and as prosaic, hackneyed strategic and tactical words and phrases repeatedly hide motives and designs unbecoming to partisans, ideologues, and other scammers and shammers, political messages becloud minds.  “And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity,”  Orwell notes.  Orwell’s “model” of language and politics seems to me to be that propagandists enthrall followers and thereby make their followers far less even as they may make followers believe that followers are becoming far more, perhaps, even that followers are becoming part of leadership.



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