In a manner of speaking, semantics won’t do

So while I was away I got a copy of the Winston Tong overview on LTM, In a Manner of Speaking, in the mail. Great collection from a very underrated artist — friendly guy as well, we’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails in the past based on reviews for the All Music Guide I’ve done. His most famous song, done as part of a Tuxedomoon album, provides the title of the compilation, and having been familiar for years with the Martin Gore cover as well as the Nouvelle Vague remake a couple of years back it was nice to finally hear the original — I can be awfully lazy sometimes when it comes to tracking down things! It’s also especially enjoyable to hear how all three versions are quite different from each other — Tuxedomoon’s spare, understatedly intense take is not Gore’s warm, tremulous take is not Nouvelle Vague’s bossa nova take etc.

But while I was also away something else came up covering semantics and speaking, namely a certain comment a few days back by one Senator Obama and the attendant fallout, which for now seems to have reached a concluding point with last night’s frustrating and infuriating debate. The amount of venting of pure rage at Charlie Gibson as moderator in particular still seems to be roiling, and a lot of it is due to the questions and how everything was pitched and aimed at the candidates — and it had to be a sign of the stars aligning when Jonah Goldberg’s comment about how the debate seemed to be little more than ‘Republican water-carrying’ almost perfectly echoed the sentiments unfolding on the respective ILX thread at the same time. To say that there are a lot of grumpy people this morning — as well as a few thrilled ones thinking McCain came out on top as a result, thus increasing the grumpiness — understates.

Getting into some sort of kvetch against mass media idiocy and the confusions and conflations of politics and policy right now — tempting as it is and being a continuation of past sentiments of mine over the years anyway — isn’t my goal in this post. Nor is it the fact that more than ever candidates are under surveillance with an even closer eye thanks to the Net (“citizen journalism” as a term annoys me for some reason; that might be a subject for a further post). Still, the whole ‘bitter’ fallout reminds me of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, a now justly-famed take on language and meaning covering ‘key words’ in terms of cultural study. I cannot claim to be an expert on Williams and will not try to pretend otherwise but a core value of the book lies in unpacking how language changes and takes on new contextual meanings with political resonance.

To my mind that’s been the chief value of the whole ‘bitter’ kerfluffle and all that comes from it — it’s been noted already that because Obama spoke to an invited audience he likely assumed a certain general agreement among his listeners, however unconsciously, and similarly there’s an unconscious sense of how words can be taken by such audiences — as a general rule, not in specifics, of course (otherwise this would not have been reported in the first place). This isn’t any great shakes to observe on my part, but contextual meaning of a word that becomes a keyword (or a keyword itself) mutates constantly and probably accelerates all the more quickly in this century, though a general rule still applies of there being a lowest-common-denominator take on things versus a slew of minority readings covering any amounts of nuance.

I’m not a politician and I’m not campaigning for votes on the broadest possible spectrum in a nation-state, ie actually at the nation-state level rather than something smaller. The pressures on how to address or respond to certain groups and their collective or individual questions, or to say what might be assumed they want to hear, are manifold pressures and they are not mine, they’re not most of anybody’s. Under a microscope, all three candidates have misspoken at best, betrayed some deep concerns at worst (that may sound unduly cynical but I think it’s best to assume that whatever your feelings on the three candidates, what you’re hoping for more than anything out of your preferred choice is not to be a stellar and world-changing figure but simply someone who can amelioriate idiocies of recent years — and a big reason why Obama captures the attention he does is precisely because he is not as obviously invested in those idiocies).

Still, being careful of one’s choice of words is all the more important now, even as this whole thing grinds on, and on. The votes in the end act as a voice in response to the candidates’ own words, and the last thing any of them want — and Obama especially knows it now — is a response where, to quote Tong’s stellar lyric again, silence becomes reprimand.

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