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Monday, November 10, 2003
Thinking more about this, I mentioned the Baudrillard thing about nuclear weapons being less physical things and more linguistic threats to someone this weekend and, surprisingly, they liked it. (Surprisingly because they're generally pretty anti-pomo and pro-hardheaded policy, which this doesn't strike me as being.) Which caused me to go back and maybe give the whole turning-point theory a little more attention than I did before.

I think I like pomo theory a lot more than most people, or, at least, I find myself frequently defending it to people whose skepticism I agree with most of the time. This is partially, no doubt, because I regard it more as entertainment and literature than serious worldview-changing philosophy, and keep in mind here the particular connotations I mean to evoke when I say "entertainment." But I think that I get very angry about bits of it not just because those bits are wrong and/or in being wrong they make me look wrong, but because there's such promise being squandered. The bits in question, of course, being the ostensibly political ones.

It all started off so well, and so interestingly, with Saussure. Say what you will about him now, he was concerned almost exclusively with linguistics, and within that, he made certain key and in-retrospect-obvious distinctions that were absolutely brilliant. The jump from there to literary theory is obvious and acceptable, literature being, of course, an established and widespread language game. The move from there to semiotics, or "interpreting" things that aren't high art, is questionable but would have been OK if it'd been kept small-scale and diversionary; for one thing, social phenomena aren't "texts" because they're not fixed, and for another the move from actual text to "texts" apparently set in motion an alienation effect wherein these other cultural products, despite being, in many cases, wholly fixed (TV shows, movies, popular magazine articles), were nevertheless viewed as far more alien and removed than we'd ever view a piece of literature, and such studies became far more hand-wavingly sociological and anthropological than strictly linguistic. Then again, I am someone who likes to read political messages in musical arrangements, so maybe I shouldn't be talking shit, but hopefully I'm making it clear that I'm imposing these messages most of the time, not that they're inherently there.

But then when the whole thing moved into politics (a major impetus, if my intro-theory teacher is to be believed, for pomo's widespread popularity in the 60's), it really fucked up, because instead of viewing it via two millenniums' worth of collected political knowledge, it interpreted politics always through the lens of literature. And this just doesn't work, because literature has a language all to itself that it most definitely doesn't share with politics. For all the complaining people do about pomo's relentless abstraction and its tendency to wedge everything into its narrow conception of the world, its circular logic, there was a clear way out, because politics is a case where language has demonstrable real-world effects. But it didn't take that.

Which makes no sense! After being so concerned with language games for so long, it failed to notice the biggest, most important language game in the world: politics. It's a game with a whole host of rules both spoken and unspoken, a rich tradition, institutionalized and effective intertextuality (amendments to earlier laws, precedents in legal judgments, etc., etc.), and a real use for the kind of rigorous, rational analysis this kind of theory could bring to it. It was a way out of both disciplines' limitations. But the connection remains unmade, by and large. And that's really too bad.