Anarchism and the English Language


To complement our Contradictionary, we’ve added an exchange with Kristian Williams about anarchist writing to our reading library. Choosing Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” as his point of departure, Kristian takes contemporary anarchists to task for sloppy writing that leads to sloppy thinking. We respond with an assault on everything normative in language, calling for an anarchist writing that shakes readers free of the control mechanisms coded into English itself.

Anarchism and the English Language: Imposed PDF for Reproduction [56k]

9 thoughts on “Anarchism and the English Language

  1. “But if we stay within the bounds of language that is widely used in this society, we will only be able to reproduce consensus reality, not challenge it. How could we possibly challenge gender normativity in the same terms that maintain it? We have to invent new words, styles, and discourses that enable us to say new things while seducing others into the conversation.”

    I don’t think so. One can make challenging, new arguments (about gender or anything else) without inventing new words or redefining old ones. Usually inventing new terms makes it harder to develop new arguments because you end up just explaining a new lexicon (‘cisgender’ is a good example of this). Definitions are not arguments. Surely, the author of this can imagine an argument that challenges gender normativity that uses the words “man”, “woman”, etc. I think there is a Crimethinc poster that does this, actually. The term cisgender was only invented recently, and it has not beckoned in a new way of thinking – its invention is the result of thinking/arguments that already happened. (The fun thing about language is that nobody is in charge – whatever the intentions of its inventors ‘cisgender’ has become an argument-ending pejorative.)

    Additionally, the idea that language – actually, not even language in this case, just the lexicon – upholds gender normativity is an unfounded assertion. ‘Gender normativity’ exists in every attested human society (though the particulars vary widely), across a huge range of lexical diversity re: gender and gender roles. Language (or the lexicon) is not the problem. And even if it WAS the problem, conscious attempts to change language inevitably fail because language change arises from native learner errors, not political decisions by adults.

    Ah, actually this thing begs so many questions! The more I think about it, the more the concept ‘normative language’ strikes me a tautology. Isn’t language, by definition, normative – that is, a set of rules understood and followed by a (speech) community? Breaking with normative language would mean… not speaking language anymore (Wittgenstein’s discussion of “private language” etc etc).

    Anyway, thanks for writing this Kristian and unnamed Crimethinc writer. I am sympathetic to both of you, despite my quibbles. Learning how to think and to write is difficult in a culture that does not cultivate or value either one.

  2. One more quick thing – every known language has the same “control mechanisms”: syntax, grammar, inflectional morphology, phonetic rules, etc. These “control mechanisms” are what makes language… language. They are unavoidable. When you talk about breaking out of these “controls”, you mostly just talk about doing things to the lexicon, but the lexicon is not really “language”. If you experiment with challenging the sound rules of your native language, I think the results will be less satisfying (i.e. nobody will have any idea what you’re saying or writing). For example, palatize your word-initial consonants, add guttural stops into the middle of verbs, replace nasal stops with oral stops, and unround all your vowels… the result will still have ‘control mechanisms’ (which seem to be biologically mandated by our brains – even the pre-language “gibberish” of infants follows sound rules, albeit not those of their language community), but you won’t be beholden to those of English anymore (at least in a few respects). Unfortunately, you won’t be able to talk to anyone.

  3. Ah! One last thing!

    “But like any technology, language is not neutral; it incarnates the power relations of the society that produced it.”

    We can accurately reconstruct language change going back ~6000 years. It has functioned and changed in the same way for that entire time, despite ‘society’ changing immensely. Pick any language – from Proto-Polynesian to Modern English – and it will be made of the same ‘stuff’. It’s pretty cool! I don’t know what “neutral” means, but your hypothesis about society and language is simply not borne out by the data. I agree about technology not being “neutral” (then again, is anything “neutral”?), but technology and language are not comparable at all, thankfully.

  4. Dingus–

    It’s great to see that this exchange has inspired so much reflection on your part. It seems to me, from the general import of your comments, that you misunderstand the text to be demanding the creation of a “neutral” or non-normative language. We can agree that that is impossible. However, even if language is always biased and normative, we might still hypothesize that 1.) the language we speak now does not express the norms we would like it to, and 2.) anarchists ought always to challenge biases and norms, even our own biases and norms, and even if it is impossible to do away with them altogether. It might be in the challenging itself that we encounter the possibility of freedom.

    Also, I think you’re panning back a little too far. When you say that all language has been identical for 6000 years, you’re basically divesting yourself of any tools to make sense of simple examples like the difference between saying “terrorist” and “freedom fighter.” Differences like that one are incredibly determinant in conflicts on the field of communication; hence our oppressors prioritizing so many resources to the task of framing narratives in terms conducive to their aims.

    For example, consider the debates over “violence” that erupted during Occupy. For anarchist proponents of diversity of tactics, there were two possible approaches to that situation. The first was to assume that the words in play would make our points for us if we just spoke “clearly enough” with them; the second was to undertake to change the language people were using. The first approach could produce all sorts of incoherent (“smashing things isn’t violence”) or counterproductive (“Yes, we’re violent, we want violence!”) results. The latter, it seems to me, was more promising (“the question is not whether an action is violent, since that word is encoded with power differentials to such an extent that we are considered violent when we do things that are not seen as violent when the police do them… the question, rather, is how an action distributes power”).

  5. I think the examples (“violence”, “terrorist”/”freedom fighter”) you give are matters of political judgement, not lexical or language problems. Both ‘sides’ of those debates are following the same language rules; they just have competing political positions.

    Language change is incredibly anarchic. It is driven by native learner errors in speech communities, almost always uneducated (in the normative sense of the word) poor/working class/peasant speech communities. Published written texts, which are almost always from educated people, are inherently conservative (linguistically), even when they are poetically experimental or politically radical. If you record and transcribe the speech of most English speakers – or look at how they write – it’s pretty clear that the changes happening in English have nothing to do with the machinations or either the state/academy/etc or political radicals. Nobody is in charge!

    The issue here is a confusion about rhetoric, language, and meaning. I agree that rhetorical strategies are not neutral or disconnected from the content of arguments, but language is something more fundamental (conflicting rhetorical strategies and arguments share the same language rules).

  6. Going back to this because it’s not that old… Virginia Woolf says what I was trying to say much better than I ever could:

    “Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid word “incarnadine,” for example – who can use that without remembering “multitudinous seas”? In the old days, of course, when English was a new language, writers could invent new words and use them. Nowadays it is easy enough to invent new words – they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation – but we cannot use them because the English language is old. You cannot use a brand new word in an old language because of the very obvious yet always mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great poet knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas.” To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence. In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a whole new language; and that, though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.”

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