LANGUAGE, INSTITUTIONS, AND REALITY-MAKING POWER

There hasn’t been an election year in my adult life that hasn’t found a foothold in my consciousness and deeply influenced my moods and perception of the world—and while I’ve often been encouraged by friends, families and health care professionals alike to pry my eyes and ears away from every political development that unfolds on the municipal, national and international stages, my interest in these affairs is a compulsion that I can’t quite kick.

After several weeks of surliness and exasperation over the way that political discourse has been unfolding throughout the procession of this latest United States election season—compounded, I’m sure, by matters in my personal life that have taken hold of much of my cognitive energy—I found myself finally wanting to divest my attention from all of the “craziness” to focus on finding some inner peace. That desire subsided as quickly as it came, as I realized that I could not feel peaceful having developed a consciousness about our present and historical political realities that has made me sensitive to the seriousness of these matters and their salience.

It has been argued by more than one person that electoral politics, in particular, have a distant influence on most people at best, but I disagree with that. While a federal policy might not always immediately impact a suburban family in Maine or a Nevada, each linguistic expression and decision made in every hall of power has an echo-like impact that radiates outward and influences us all to a degree. This has only become truer as the salience of the digital realm has blended more fully with our waking, physical reality, carrying and amplifying messages into our consciousness at speeds once unimaginable.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how this transmission of messages—how this rapid transformation of ideas into institutional thinking and “shared reality”—ultimately impacts the way that we negotiate as individuals and collectives in the many spaces we occupy over the course of our lives. That gave me cause to consider, among many other things, the fictions of “neutrality” and “inevitability” that paralyze so many Americans into thinking that much of the violence, ineptitude, deception, and confusion that we bear witness to (either up close, for ourselves, or at a distance) are inevitable parts of life that either cannot be changed or—perhaps more, unfortunately—are the just desserts of our (or, more frequently, a “they” for which we have a convenient enmity) ways.

This week I wanted to ponder some of those institutional literacies and encourage you to break through what I will too-strongly describe here as a shared delusion of inevitability. I’m hoping that, in doing so, you will be better equipped to envision a more equitable, just and compassionate world.

The challenges are multifactorial and great—but overcoming them is far from impossible

As always with great love and respect,  

Reasserting Control Over Our Social Technologies

It sometimes feels that America is so deeply radicalized at the altar of corporatized humanity that we think of very reasonable, basic human rights (which our country has long helped to define through things like the Geneva Conventions) as “crazy” and “unachievable”. We cannot recognize just how extreme we’ve allowed our conditions to become… all while pointing the finger at various “adversary” nations throughout the world with which we often have more in common we do with than our allies.

I’m reminded of the Parable of the Frog, which is used by some clinicians to describe abusive relationships. Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. breaks it down:

“Abuse is often analogized to the parable of a frog placed in hot water. If you start at a comfortable temperature and slowly increase it, the frog will not budge. Obviously, if you dropped her into a pot of boiling water, she would immediately jump out.”

Many Americans are the frog in this analogy. While the rest of the world can see this from outside of the pot, few of us can recognize that we’re in hot water because we’ve come to understand these violent conditions as the acceptable default.

As temperatures rise to fatal levels, we recognize the perpetual and growing threat-level that permeates our daily existence as home.

Re-Evaluating Fictions Upon Which We Agree

I also can’t help but think of how crazy with rage it makes people to hear that this might be the case.

Any intimation that our relationship with our country’s ruling class—which largely sets the agenda for how most people will live their lives and even, in fact, much of what they believe (something that only upsets people to hear more, although if you asked them where they got a number of ideas or how they came to decide on the various conditions of their life, they wouldn’t have an answer except that anything that happened to them, it was only a result of their own doing)—is not on the up-and-up makes many Americans furious.

Any suggestion that we have things in common with our so-called adversaries similarly inspires outrage, even as people say things like: “Well, in North Korea, they kill people for trying to cross the border. Why shouldn’t we?”

Surely people feel clever and empowered when they say such things—but if the implication is that North Korea is a less civilized place than us that has a “better” solution than we do (and, yes, that’s certainly what people who say this are implying), then why do we consider them an adversary? If they let their vast swathes of poor die without healthcare, a habitat or a hot meal, why do we decry them as morally inferior when we can see many of the same conditions here at home and think of them as part of the normal course of everyday American life?

Where does our “moral leadership” in the world order become more than lip-service and cultural mythology—the story we’ve been told and replicate among ourselves to justify everything that, on balance, doesn’t look quite right? I think it’s a question worth probing.

This is not at all to suggest that America is a bad place. There is no such thing as a “bad place”—only time, people and institutions go wrong.

But it’s worth remembering that institutions do not simply exist on their own. They are, essentially, social technologies created by the mutual belief and acceptance of people. To that end, our relationships with these institutions do not have to be abusive in all the ways that they demonstrably are if we examine the patterns and outcomes rather than the mythology.

But for that relational dynamic to change, we must first reconcile the truth and understand that it is our right—and in many ways our ethical duty—to do better.

As we think about our cultural mythology, I think it is a worthy pursuit for us to consider what it is that makes our country “great”. I would argue that is not simply that we tell ourselves that things are good, and instead our capacity to affect change in our institutions.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s Language and Symbolic Power, the theorist describes the “reality-making powers” of words and institutions.

Our so-called “ruling class” is deeply aware of these powers and how to use them to advance their condition—but what makes America “different” (in theory) is that everyday citizens have access to some of that power, too, at least collectively. How we use those powers—and indeed whether or not we’re aware of them—is another matter entirely, and I hope you’ll consider that as you make decisions about our nation’s path forward in the coming election (and in the ways that you choose to organize your own communities and negotiations with the institutions you occupy).

If voting is a form of praxis that appeals to you—and I personally think it is one of many ways you can get involved to exert your share of power over our sociopolitical technologies toward the material and spritual conditions of many, many people—then I invite my American subscribers to learn more about voter registration so that they may do so if they have not already. Please click the button below to access a non-partisan website that can help guide you through the process.
 
VOTER REGISTRATION RESOURCES

Recommended Reading

From the Harvard University Press:

“This volume brings together Pierre Bourdieu’s highly original writings on language and on the relations among language, power, and politics. Bourdieu develops a forceful critique of traditional approaches to language, including the linguistic theories of Saussure and Chomsky and the theory of speech-acts elaborated by Austin and others. He argues that language should be viewed not only as a means of communication but also as a medium of power through which individuals pursue their own interests and display their practical competence.

Drawing on the concepts that are part of his distinctive theoretical approach, Bourdieu maintains that linguistic utterances or expressions can be understood as the product of the relation between a “linguistic market” and a “linguistic habitus.” When individuals use language in particular ways, they deploy their accumulated linguistic resources and implicitly adapt their words to the demands of the social field or market that is their audience. Hence every linguistic interaction, however personal or insignificant it may seem, bears the traces of the social structure that it both expresses and helps to reproduce.

Bourdieu’s account sheds fresh light on the ways in which linguistic usage varies according to considerations such as class and gender. It also opens up a new approach to the ways in which language is used in the domain of politics. For politics is, among other things, the arena in which words are deeds and the symbolic character of power is at stake.”
PURCHASE THE BOOK HERE
Doctor Heather Cox Richardson is a United States historian and Professor of History at Boston College. She has written extensively about various moments in United States history, including the lead up to the violent incident at Wounded Knee, the rise and fall of American Reconstruction, and a volume on the history of the United States Republican Party. She presently pens a daily newsletter made available via Facebook and Substack titled Letters From An American, which provides daily analysis on key news stories unfolding within the American government.

The newsletter, accessibly written and thoughtful in its exploration of American life at this moment, is one of my favorites I’ve encountered. I hope you find it as informative and engaging ss I regularly do.

Read and Subscribe to Letters From An American here.
I’ve been reading Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness as a part of my broader study of the institutional and community literacies that impact our everyday lives. I’ve found her work in this volume especially interesting because she explores not only the way that surveillance culture permeates much of our external lives (and always has to varying degrees), but also the myriad ways it creates a foothold in our minds, inspiring us (this is a generous use of that word) to surveil ourselves and one another—and even to opt-in to spaces of observation and security theatre in exchange for the “conveniences” of modern life. In fact, I was surprised to find that my description of various institutions as “social technologies” actually predates the doctoral rationale I wrote on the topic by some time—Browne and other scholars got to it first. I was scooped before I ever knew it.

Browne’s work is of particular interest to me because it situates the discussion of surveillance studies within a black feminist sociological context, which I feel is important. As I’ve written on my own website, black feminism often invisions the world through a lens that is well beyond the “neutral” default, allowing us to examine the various factors of our lives from an “outsider” point of view that brings—in the case of surveillance study—the myriad intrusions that take place throughout our beings in a stunningly revealing light.

Purchase The Text Here.
That’s all this week, folks. Thanks for reading. If you like what you’ve read, please share this issue by using the social media buttons below, forwarding it to your friends, or consider making a donation to support my work.
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