A Union Divided

 Posted by on August 20, 2013
Aug 202013
 

Most essays age quite badly. A few hardly age at all. The essay James Fallows wrote more than a decade and a half ago on American politics and the media belongs neither to those most nor to those few. It retains a sense of presence even as it echoes with the past. The witless, feckless, indulgent, aggrandizing media that he described are as they were, only more so. The politics, however, is different.

The press, Mr. Fallows wrote, “are interested mainly in pure politics,” which is to say with politics as a “cynical game” in which “ambitious politicians struggle for dominance” and “advantage” over “rivals.” For Mr. Fallows this is politics at its “meanest and narrowest.” The “real meaning” of politics, he insists, inheres not in these struggles between politicians and parties, but in “collective efforts to solve collective problems.”

I will not charge naivete. When the essay was written, one might still harbor an assumption of collectivity. That is no longer the case. Far from assuming collectivity, American politics now contests it. Rivalry is its crux and content. This does not mean that politics has truly become the cynical game for dominance and advantage that Mr. Fallows laments. It means that the cynical game is now neither a game nor cynical.

Though we frequently forget it, games are supposed to be inconsequential. And by cynical I assume Mr. Fallows means insincere. Contemporary politics is neither inconsequential nor insincere. Who determines the character of the American collective? Who counts in it? Who has power in it? Who decides? These are matters of intense consequence, and the rivals that contest them do so sincerely.

If American politics cannot pursue collective efforts to solve collective problems, this is only because that collective is itself the core political dispute. This is a union divided, and that division is the essence of its politics. This is why, in a curious way, today’s politics is what the political press still says it is: purely antagonistic competition.

The media was not prescient a decade and a half ago, because the pure rivalry they portrayed did not yet exist. And the media does not speak to the real substance of these times either. They fail not because they cover the rivalry as if it is all that matters; it is all that matters. They fail because they still believe the contest a mean and narrow cynical game. They fail because they cannot understand the real stakes. They fail because they mistake the trenchant for the frivolous.

Fact’s Future

 Posted by on August 7, 2013
Aug 072013
 

A fact is a factum, a thing done. It is something accomplished: a deed performed, a happening occurred, an event enacted. Unlike truths which are untouched by time, facts are stamped with the character of the past. As the past is unchangeable, so the facts are indisputably what they are. To dispute a fact is to wrench it from its pastness and hurl it before the future. The irony of every ostensible factual dispute is that the object in dispute is no longer a fact at all.

Ellipses

 Posted by on August 2, 2013
Aug 022013
 

I understand the complaint. It is a lazy leveling to substitute ellipses for commas, periods, question marks, and any number of other punctuation marks. The practice transforms potentially well denoted text into prattling, though often still intelligible, mumble. In other words, it transforms text into a representation of our actual, everyday speech.

The proliferated ellipsis is, in this way, comparable to the quotative like. She said introduces a representation of her words. She was like introduces a representation of the embodied performance of her words. More than merely quotative, like initiates a dramatic portrayal. Said does not and cannot accomplish this simulation. Goes is like’s only true rival for this effect.

The ellipsis does not precisely do for text what like does for the spoken word. Rather than vocally simulate actual spoken performance, it textually simulates imagined spoken performance. Directing the reader to enact, if only in his imagination, a verbal performance that exists as fiction, the proliferated ellipsis is more akin to stage direction than grammatical punctuation.

Even as a grammatical mark the ellipsis punctuates without puncturing. Like the period it leaves off, but unlike the period it does not conclude. The em dash leaves off as well, but it does so by interrupting and aborting. Ellipses, however, bridge and abridge by omission. Breaking off and connecting and continuing all at once, ellipses elide. The period is life’s steadily realized course, the em dash its untimely rupture, the ellipse inhalation’s animating pause.

All this the old three-dotters knew. The mark of Caen was and remains a mark of informal rapport. Bound off from the formality of the surroundings, their prose violated public writing’s customary formal register. It winked when it was supposed to bow, and it was delightful in this transgression. But what they did once by design to portray the lively flow of familiar repartee, we do now by flat indifference. We have lost the sense of transgression.

Never sure in English, formal and informal registers are today collapsing. The proliferated ellipsis is a symptom of this collapse. All contemporary speech, even formal speech, even writings intended for public consumption, settle into ramshackle informality. When rigged together with ellipses, we are prone to say, text seems more alive, more dynamic, more immediate. But what we mean is that it seems more authentic to quotidian reality.

If we should bemoan the debased condition of contemporary writing, and we should if only because it results from such insensible carelessness, then should we not also bemoan the debased speech that this writing aims to dramatize?