Saturday, July 11, 2009

Unseen Hand Club

An interesting post over at the Log today fills in a bit more of the ongoing tapestry of language-about-language -- specifically, how the commenting class uses linguistic features of political speech to shed light on True Motives and Meaning, whether or not the features in question bear any resemblance to reality (or to the speech of the politicians they're imputed to). Here's the lede:

For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor.

Aside from the gross misclassification of Margaret Carlson as an intellectual, I agree -- with one exception. This particular set of metaphors is anything but incoherent, as the evidence the Logsters have gathered in recent months makes abundantly clear. It's at the point where I'm tempted to ask whether there's a Society of the Unseen Hand for grumpy Washington Post columnists out there that we don't know about.

You probably had a different name for it in your shop,* but an Unseen Hand Club is a secret society that you join by getting a particular phrase ("It was as if an unseen hand had ...") into print, preferably in a really creative and incongruous way. I think we have an especially devious one on our hands here, but it starts with technical features of grammar. If you haven't already, check out the Log's work on George Will and the first-person pronoun:

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

... and Charles Krauthammer and verb voice:

"On religious tolerance, he gently referenced the Christians of Lebanon and Egypt, then lamented that the 'divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence' (note the use of the passive voice)."

Flatly fabricated and flatly wrong, respectively, but far from "incoherent." These are very well organized assertions about personal and political character, and they fit neatly into a consistent pattern. Look again at Will's lede -- "the president, who is inordinately fond ..." -- and the beginning of Krauthammer's second graf: "Not that Obama considers himself divine. (He sees himself as merely messianic, or, at worst, apostolic.)"

Now let's flip ahead a month:

Krauthammer, July 9: A fine feather in his cap. And our president likes his plumage.

Will, July 8: Seemingly confident that managing the competition of nations could be as orderly as managing competition among the three** members of Detroit's oligopoly, McNamara entered government seven months before the birth of the current president, who is the owner and, he is serenely sure, fixer of General Motors.

Incoherent metaphor? Hardly. I think we're seeing a carefully arranged meta-frame emerge -- the sort of metaphor by which a certain part of the population lives.*** And amid the serenity, the plumage and the inordinate fondness for certain pronouns, I'm half inclined to bet that Will and Krauthammer have their eye on membership in the Club of the Hand that Is Not Seen.


* Recollections and observations are welcome, particularly from you non-US readers.
** No, he can't count, either.
***
Brief off-topic rant: Please be sure to enjoy the entire Will column for a good sense of Will's shallowness and intellectual dishonesty. If he's that desperate for an example of naive behavioralism gone wrong, could we suggest the administration that thought the "democratic peace" was the sort of ironclad law that justifies imposing "democracy" at gunpoint? Thank you.

3 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I have an otherwise intelligent and perceptive friend who insists he likes to read Will because, although he's usually wrong, he's "honest".

I think maybe he's just less transparently dishonest than most of his ideological kin and thus - in comparison - appears honest, otherwise I have no idea what my friend could possibly mean.

11:31 AM, July 12, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

I think that in general, we're cued to read a shtick like Will's as honest. When people use long sentences, wheel out the data and make lots of arcane references to the past, it's easy to overlook the suspicion that they're just making it up as they go along.

12:30 PM, July 12, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

I wonder if Will belongs to a J.B.S. Haldane Club; the great biologist and atheist was fond of saying (when asked what one could deduce about the Creator from his creation): "An inordinate fondness for beetles -- and stars."

9:56 AM, July 16, 2009  

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