Confidential Correspondencences

Submitted by ludd on January 23, 2010

"You have certainly observed the curious fact that a given word which is perfectly clear when you hear it or use it in everyday language, and which does not give rise to any difficulty when it is engaged in the rapid movement of an ordinary sentence becomes magically embarrassing, introduces a strange resistance, frustrates any effort at definition as soon as you take it out of circulation to examine it separately and look for its meaning after taking away its instantaneous function.''

Paul Valery, from Variet V.

Paul Valery has summarized the critical approach to existing society, not with reference to specific institutions, but to the most fundamental expression of social being—language. We know that there is more to language than "words, words, words.'' What holds these words together is not just a given grammatical or syntactical structure, but an entire complex of social traditions that give meaning to the combinations of sounds we use in our daily life, the hidden order behind the "rapid movements of ordinary sentences.''

Valery's observations can be expressed more briefly and colloquially as "All words are loaded.'' Loaded in the sense that dice are loaded by an unscrupulous gambler who, much to his opponents' consternation, manages to win every time. In such circumstances, a casual onlooker would say that the loser's first and worst mistake was to allow the hustler to supply his own dice. And so it is with language. Since the categories and concepts on which we rely to make ourselves understood have been transmitted to us from birth, we become entangled in a tradition so all-pervasive that even our attempts to name and thus understand our situation tend to be accommodated to the ruling definitions which, as ever, are those of the ruling classes.

Imagine (or recall) a subordinate who comes into conflict with her boss, or a group of workers taking a grievance to their supervisor. By speaking for themselves, they become aware of the radical discrepancy between their interests and those of management. The everyday fog of polite banalities is beginning to lift. However, once the die is cast, it turns out—unexpectedly— to be loaded. The boss rises, perhaps with a supercilious smile on his face, and motions his interlocutor(s) to the door, saying, "It's obvious that we don't speak the same language.''

At this juncture, the most common reaction for the momentarily unruly employee(s) is to back off in the fear that nothing will be salvaged from this confrontation. "Well, that's not true, it's all a misunderstanding, really. . .'' and then the search for mutual comprehensibility begins. Regardless of the outcome, it will always favor the boss, simply because proclaiming his monopoly on definition has enabled him to regain effective control—over the use of his own loaded dice.

But what if our rebellious worker(s) had retorted, "Damn right we don't speak the same language, and a good thing too!''? The workers and students of Poland have shown us the radical consequences of such an attitude. Since 1956, the popular opposition to the successive Stalinist, neo-Stalinist, and military regimes in Poland has been directed as much against the ossified, constipated language of the ruling bureaucracy's propaganda as against material injustice. During the Polish Autumn of 1980, the intoxication of uninhibited dialogue led to an explosion of underground publications which not even military rule could suppress.

In company with rebels throughout history, the Polish insurgents grasped the intimate relation between the liberation of society from the state and the reclaiming of language from its bureaucratic proprietors. The demand for the abolition of the Communist Party's system of nomenklatura—where obtaining positions depends on official protection—is equally a fight against a broader structure of nomenclature: the power to arrogate exclusive control over social meanings and thereby deny (rewrite) the history across which words evolve in search of their hidden truths. Is it any wonder that literary and poetic experimentation flourish during periods of popular social upheaval? Whether ideas improve or degenerate, the meaning of words participates in the process.

All words, then, are not just loaded; they are live ammunition in a social war. The same words that buttress Power can be used to undermine it, but only if such concepts or keywords are examined for their multiple meanings. Each word must first be removed from its customary context, or borrowing Valery's phraseology, taken out of circulation and deprived of its instantaneous function. (Sabotage is a similar technique applied to objects or social relationships.) Without the magic cloak of daily routine to render its meaning invisible, the word begins to assert that embarrassing power to which Valery refers. How is it that we persist in allowing certain words to dominate our lives, even though we can't explain how they worked their way into our speech?

Certainly, the dictionary explains word origins, but only as components of static definitions, arranged numerically on an arbitrary scale of importance. Yet language is above all dynamic. The multitude of popular grammars, vocabularies, and speech patterns—abusively termed "slang'' by linguistic authorities— shows that for all the trends toward increasing uniformity of thought and expression, language preserves its playful qualities. In the end, we ourselves are the alchemists of the words we use.

It follows that we need not respect the supposed finality of any definition. The decomposition of language in the grip of bureaucratic reason calls for irreverent new counter-practices, where influential keywords can be actively de-composed and recomposed according to imaginative whim. From such a perspective, words that have been particularly abused reveal surprising implications, especially when viewed in the light of older, seemingly outmoded definitions.

I have chosen to play with seven such words. Each has its own history. Far from being buzzwords, they are all relentlessly banal, integral threads in the texture of the processed world, and thus all the more diverting to unravel. In order of consideration they are: CORPORATION, OFFICE, CLERICAL, SECRETARY, MANAGER, PROFESSIONAL, CAREER.

Roman law is the source of the word "corporation,'' which came to mean an entity, formed for a specific purpose, that was considered to have a legal existence over and above the individuals who comprised it. Once rules and regulations became institutionalized, the individual became of less consequence than the structure that incorporated him into its functions. A corporate officer is judged according to his ability to personify the qualities associated with the company's mission, the better to pass himself off as a servant rather than a shaper of policy. If challenged on a specific arbitrary procedure, he will invariably seek refuge in the clich, "That's the way we do things here.''

This domination of concrete activity by a fictitious—lifeless— representation, which Karl Marx saw as characteristic of alienated labor, is hinted at in the root word of "corporation,'' corpus, with its evocation of inertia and death. Indeed, the deadly silence that pervades the corridors of power can only be compared to a morgue. And judging from organizational charts—those bizarre convolutions of boxes connected by solid or broken lines—the body has become somewhat swollen. In 18th century England, a fat stomach was jestingly called a "corporation.'' This comparison retains its accuracy, for corporations create nothing, they only feed off others and excrete the results.

Offices are the limbs of the corporate corpse. Originally, the word "office'' referred not to the physical backdrop for the performance of work, but to the particular array of tasks entrusted to an individual. Any kind of service carried out regularly for someone else was deemed an "office,'' and a certain amount of prestige accrued to anyone who discharged the duties of his office properly. That the scope of the term should eventually encompass the workplace is a testimony to the growing depersonalization and interchangeability of functions. Ultimately, the content of what one does pales in comparison to the necessity of blending it into the overall environment. Our office becomes. . .the office. While it may be impossible to take pride in one's job (jobbe, the Middle English word meaning "lump''), we are supposed to draw comfort from efficiently fitting into a smooth operation, and forget that the whole process reduces us to insensate lumps. Fortunately for our sense of black humor, another definition of "office'' is "toilet,'' and in fact some of the office worker's rare moments of privacy are spent in the privy offices. How much more healthful and conducive to contemplation are these cramped stalls than the assorted departments, sections, and units that empty tons of waste into an already saturated world!

Corporations yoke large numbers of people to their team by means of stiff clerical collars. Medieval clerks were scholars who usually toiled away at some level of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. With the gradual secularization of European society, the word came to include anyone who kept records and accounts for somebody else. Nowadays, we know that clerks don't have to be scholars, particularly when all it takes to carry out most jobs are a few motor functions. Through the irony of history, however, many so-called educated people, the clerks of an earlier era, have over the past several years joined the modern clerical orders. Although the work ethic has displaced the crucified Christ, the religious illusion maintains its essential continuity; clerks now sacrifice themselves for God & Co. The spell can only be broken by a revived anti-clerical movement to crush the infamy of wage labor.

Like "clerk,'' the evolution of the word "secretary'' illustrates the decline of a once-privileged social role into a subservient position. The key to its meaning lies in the first five letters—secret—implying an element of personal contact and service. In the world of Renaissance political intrigue, a secretary was usually an aide-de-camp to powerful men; although clearly subordinate to his nobly-born master, the secretary, in his capacities as scribe and guardian of the secrets, was still in a position to exercise influence. Even up to the nineteenth century, secretaries were their bosses' right-hand men.

Following the introduction of "scientific management'' techniques into the workplace and the resultant growth of centralized bureaucracies, women entered the labor force in large numbers and the position of secretary took on new meaning. Women's enforced submissiveness in the home was duplicated in the relationship of the female secretary to her male boss. Some degree of secrecy and confidence remained, as the secretary knew almost everything that had to do with her boss's job. Unlike her male predecessors, though, she exerted little real influence over the boss's decisions, and was deemed worthy of notice only to the extent of her ability to carry out—and preferably anticipate—her boss's wishes. She became indispensable only if she stayed in the same place all her life. These days, most secretaries keep secrets less for their bosses than from themselves. They can't talk about how much money they earn. Many still try to endow their jobs with a long-vanished aura of prestige, and are encouraged to see things through their boss's eyes.

Managers benefit from their secretaries' activity. So assiduously do they guard their puny shares of authority and so vigorously do they proclaim it, they should be reminded of ménage, a root word of "manager'' which means "housekeeping.'' In a sense, managers are housekeepers for capital: witness the anal- retentiveness of the typical manager who, like a housekeeper, is applauded for his "attention to detail.'' The active sense of the word "manager'' originates in the process of training horses for a show, which even today is still called a manège. "Management training'' is therefore a redundancy. The implications are there for all to see: taming, bridling, and controlling. A manager's success is gauged by how well he is able to put his troops through their intricately-choreographed paces.

If these human horses are to fulfill their potential as a team, they will each have to be professionals in their jobs. Often, the label of "professional'' gains quasi-mystical significance in the eyes of its disciples: "We have to approach the problem professionally,'' "My professional opinion is blah-blah-blah.'' How appropriate that such an article of faith should be. . .professed. Like their religious forebears who earnestly studied dogma, today's professionals must pass thorugh various stages of initiation—MBA's, systems analysis, management courses—before they can be professed in the corporate credo. Centuries ago, theology, law, and medicine were termed the "three professions,'' and the latter two fields continue to enjoy at least financial prestige. Theology, it is true, has fallen on bad days, but possibly computer programming, with its convoluted language, peculiar incantations, and the devotional fervor of its practitioners, might fill the gap.

Within the confines of their vocations, professionals follow an individual trajectory called a "career.'' Careers are described in the terminology of a footrace—goals are striven for, hurdles are encountered along the path, and newly-minted careerists note with satisfaction that they are "off and running'' or "on track'' towards the fulfillment of their ambition. But the word "career'' actually implies a race far removed from jogging. The root of "career'' is a word meaning "chariot,'' and its associations evoke a chariot careening down a steep path in full career. A rat race, perhaps? Indeed, most careers are headlong dashes into an uncertain future fraught with the perils of ulcers and heart disease. There are always new procedures to learn, new courses to take, new political configurations to adjust to, unexpected reversals—and through it all loom, tantalizingly out of reach, those ever-elusive "goals.'' For many, the promises of a career, with its connotations of movement and progress, are preferable to those of a job, with its overtones of inertia and lumpishness. However, at the end of a career, very often another meaning emerges—the fixed paths of celestial bodies, which when transplanted into human existence turn out to be ruts.

In his epic poem Altazor, the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro proclaimed: "All the languages are dead/Dead in the hands of the tragic neighbor/We must revive the languages/With wagons of giggles/With short-circuits in the sentences/And cataclysm in the grammar.'' His exhortation strikes a sympathetic note in all of us who are stuck in workplaces and forced to shoulder a burden of processed words. We have the power to breathe life into the endless procession of meaninglessness, artificial phrases, simply by unloading our wagons of giggles and shortcircuiting sentences at their weakest link—the individual word. We can employ the tactic of the deliberate Freudian slip; if a letter or two is altered in a word, numerous disturbing affinities appear. Corporation becomes coporation; anti-trust metamorphoses into anti-tryst. With the addition of a prefix, personnel becomes impersonnel, and the mere deletion of an "i'' reveals an ominous aspect of policies—polices. Homonyms are dangerous as well— whence come the strange sonic symbiosis between supervisor and snoopervisor? Or memorandum and memorondumb?

Anti-lexicons of de-composed keywords can be prepared and folded into the vest-pocket-sized Basic Secretarial Terms that clutters up so many desks. Against the ignorant mystification of manufactured speech and computer "languages,'' the technique of words in freedom must be practiced. Sound poems and abstract patterns of letters and words can be easily constructed and printed on word processing equipment and clandestinely distributed along with scandalous xero-graphic collages, with results undreamed of by the old Dadaists. Language can thereby start to regain its function not just as a means of communication, but as a means of revelation. Huidobro's demand for "a beautiful madness in the life of the word'' needs only the addition of a "l'' to the last "word'' to become an articulation of our desire for a new life, and of the intimate bond between our words and our world.

"And since we must live and not kill ourselves/As long as we live let us play/The simple game of words/Of the pure word and nothing more.''

-Vicente Huidobro from Altazor, Canto III

Christopher Winks