Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Never even not known

Just to clarify, I'm not saying Johann Hari is crazy.

Language is weird - weird and treacherous. It gives thought a medium and a structure, and yet it has its own properties - both formal regularities like verb forms, and arbitrary quirks like puns - which cut across whatever it is you're trying to say. (With the result, if you believe Freud, that what you want to say can leak through.) When I was much younger I worked as a psychiatric nurse, briefly. Looking back on the way the people I was caring for talked, one of the things I can hear is how language can betray the person using it; language is full of trap doors and dead ends. Language is a place where you can get lost.

A character in the Residents' Not Available uses what sound very much like schizophrenic speech patterns:

To show or do
Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even not known
Not even by many
To exist, to show

Or to be shown
Some questions never
Even known
Not even by many
To exist...

The character is plagued by these "never known questions" - questions he can't answer and can't ask anyone else, questions which have never been asked before. Questions like, for example:

How much marriage urges a windmill to paint infinity?

It's a tough one, you'll admit.

I'm not saying Johann Hari's crazy. I don't think he's a very good columnist (I could name six people who could do a better job without drawing breath, and without even naming myself); I like Nick's suggestion that he would have made quite a good Jon Ronson/Louis Theroux-type interviewer, drifting inscrutably between charmingly genuine naivety and calculating faux-naivete. (I mentioned Jon Ronson on alt.folklore.urban once, years ago, and he mailed me shortly afterwards. Hi, Jon!) But there's something strange about the way his mind works (Johann Hari's, not Jon Ronson's) - there's something strange about the places language takes him.

I'm not going to fisk his column from Saturday's Indie - it would take far too long. Besides, what can you say about weird, overworked constructions like "with one leap of faith" or "defuse the ticking-bomb of jihadism"? (Better a ticking-bomb than the exploding kind, I suppose.) "We are more likely to discuss Coke vs Pepsi than justice vs injustice" - possibly because there's room for discussion on the difference between Coke and Pepsi. "It took seventy years and fifty million deaths until nobody would kill or die for Bolshevism." Shame Stalin didn't step up his work-rate, it could all have been over in half the time.

Figurative language, in particular, does strange things when Hari gets hold of it.
We have all seen the Rumsfeld approach. Fill screens across the Muslim world with the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo and the Muslims-on-a-leash of Abu Ghraib.
"Muslims-on-a-leash"? But anyway...
The Galloway approach is just as dangerous: give them what they want. Meet Osama's immediate demands and hope they'll leave us alone. Both encourage the totalitarian ideology to spread faster, one by beating it with a bloody stick and the other by offering it a carrot.
The basic problem here is asymmetry: you can't just follow that 'bloody stick' with a carrot. It should be an Iraqi carrot, perhaps, or a Jerusalem carrot. An oily carrot, maybe. And does Osama bin Laden even like carrots? It doesn't really work.

Then there's the oestrogen:
No ideology can survive on terrorising half the population indefinitely. When it comes, the Islamic Reformation will be drenched in oestrogen.
That first sentence is deceptively tricky, incidentally. The message seems to be something like "Any community in which the dominant self-understanding of social norms is such as to mandate terrorising half the population cannot perpetuate itself unchanged indefinitely" - only with 'community', 'norms' and 'self-understanding' collapsed into a lump labelled 'ideology' and the possibility of change edited out.

But the oestrogen... My problems with the oestrogen begin with the disconcerting physicality of that 'drenched': an abstraction collides with a (physical) liquid substance and gets (physically) wet. It gets worse when you remember what oestrogen is: a hormone. Which means that it's carried in the blood. Which suggests that Hari's envisaging a Dantonesque heroic generation of Islamic feminists, cut down (literally) by some Islamic female Robespierre. Presumably that wasn't quite what he wanted to say. (Unless you believe Freud.)

All this and a carrot for Osama, not to mention a ticking-bomb and some Muslims-on-a-leash. Some images never even known, not even by many to exist...


Blogger broke said...

nice post - although, I hesitate to mention it, I've always rather liked JH.... I especially like the bit in your post about schizophrenic language,

20/7/05 12:09  
Anonymous Paul Davies said...

Johann Hari just always strikes me as the ultimate student journalist. He gets rather passionate about things, writes reasonably well, but in a very studenty kind of way...

I think there's a space for him, and there's plenty of other columnists I'd cull before JH, but that's not to say he's anything special. I get the feeling he's always worked a tad too hard.

20/7/05 15:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He certainly never lets the facts get in the way of a good polemic.

Chris W

20/7/05 15:38  

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