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On Language


‘Brevity is the soul of e-mail,’ Nicholas Negroponte tells internauts in Being Digital. And
the billionaire George Soros for his part asserts, ‘I am capable of reducing the most
complex situation to its simplest expression! Technological acceleration initially brought
about a transference from writing to speech - from the letter and the book to the telephone
and the radio. Today it is the spoken word which is logically withering away before the
instantaneity of the real-time image. With the spread of illiteracy, the era of silent
microphones and the mute telephone opens before us. The instruments will not remain
unused on account of any technical failings, but for lack of sociability, because we shall
shortly have nothing to say to each other, or really the time to say it - and, above all, we
shall no longer know how to go about listening to or saying something, just as we already
no longer know how to write, in spite of the fax revolution which was allegedly going to
give letter-writing a new lease of life. After the brutal extinction of the host of dialects
spoken by tribes and families, and their replacement by the academic language of
expanding nations, a language now unlearned and supplanted by the global vocabulary of
e- mail, we may now envisage planetary life becoming progressively a story without
words, a silent cinema, an authorless novel, comics without speech-bubbles . . . But also,
in the generalized violence of acceleration, we can envisage suffering passing without
complaint; horrors going unbewailed, not that there would be anyone to hear the wailing;
and anxieties going without a prayer - and without even an analysis. As Caspar David
Friedrich sensed, ‘The peoples will no longer have a voice. They will no longer he
allowed to be aware of themselves, take pride in themselves.’ ‘Politics is a theatre often
played out on a scaffold,’ said (more or less) St Thomas More, who learned the lesson to
his cost. The screen has today replaced the scaffold where, according to the author of
Utopia, the political was killed in the past. In fact, the audiovisual dilemma has become
the most certain threat hanging over our old democracies, which are so aptly named
‘representative’. The foremost political art was eloquence, that democratic eloquence
which, in return, gathers to it the voice of the nation - the popular votes, the popular
suffrage. Our statesmen were men of the forum, the platform and the public meeting.
Their speeches might last three or four hours. They were lawyers, publicists, journalists,
writers, poets . . . One may ask oneself today this simple question: how would great
historic tribunes like Churchill or Clemenceau be made to look today on those television
programmes of the Spitting Image type which daily clutter the screens of the world’s
democracies with their gesticulating, inept political clones? And after being put through
the audiovisual mill in this way, would these statesmen still have enough charisma to
mobilize populations and, ultimately, save democracy from pure and simple
disappearance? One may legitimately doubt it. Once this question on the future of
political representation has been raised, one can better understand that the dream of most
of the major parties is to have members of parliament who are so ‘soft’, so much like
silent soap stars, that no grotesque puppet could be made of them, no stupid comment
attributed to them.
Virillio, The Information Bomb
"Ideology has shifted into language. ... For this reason one can discover a truth in the
determinate negation of the jargon, a truth which refuses to be formulated in positive