Pragmatics for Pragmatists

by Suze Marsupial

‘Fucking melt’, ‘salt the slugs’, ‘absolutely bodied by the absolute boy’. The left internet at the peak of the election was alive with a raucous glee unprecedented in my adult life. Ironic and reckless and outrageously grotesque. The young left is hopeful and disgusting, argumentative yet strangely united. Full of rudeness, revenge and revolting energy. And in a tale as old as language, youth, and politics itself, the establishment response to this strange sea change has been partly expressed as word panic.

Why would you call someone a ‘melt’? Because it is hilarious. Because insulting those who condescend you is exhilarating. Because you are following a Stalinist tactic of linguistic dehumanisation of your opponent. Many answers have been proposed. Another one might be, ‘why does it matter?’. Only the latter is totally and unambiguously useless. Language is always important. Language is not just who we are, it is what gives us a fabric in which to be ourselves, and be with others, in conflict or in solidarity.

The rapid coining or popularising of politicised slang within the broad online movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn has inspired a reaction from liberal and centrist commentators, from establishment journalists and political mouthpieces has a noticeably different tone from other recent political language debates. Professionals whose livelihood is in large part the business of words and their manipulation profess themselves at a loss, not just regarding what these new words mean, but why anybody would use such slang in the first place.

Often the very same voices who have been lecturing the young and politically engaged for years on the merits of a rowdy and rude discourse (and beneficently protected this right by consistently championing access to youth controlled spaces for all the most intellectually bankrupt transphobes and racists) are suddenly excessively concerned about rudeness and its harms. Is this the Cartesian u-turn? Are we now at a point where the mainstream recognises that speech is a material act? At the very least words are being taken seriously again.

Language is Magic

Like so many phenomena thrown up by this election, none of this is precisely new. As the young and the left increasingly unite, the tide of confusion and obfuscation of online politics has pulled back a little, exposing many of the coalescing central tensions of the last decade of British politics. The bafflement at being ‘absolutely bodied’ emerges from a broader cultural crisis around the political status of speech. There is no single ripchord to pull to disentangle all analyses of power and language, in this essay or anywhere else. What follows is one possible lens on these phenomena, based on my own perspective and preoccupations. Let’s talk about language and magic.

Soon after the election, Guido Fawkes published a “guide to speaking like a Corbynista”. Packaged as humorous parody, the post was remarkably without satire. Mostly, it is a list of some recently popular leftist slang terms associated strongly with the movement to elect Corbyn, accompanied by fairly accurate functional definitions, and the names of some people famous for using them. The only apparent satirical editorialising is to the effect that leftists are all authoritarian, which is hardly groundbreaking stuff. But what if this is not a case of failing in its purpose as satire, but of having another function entirely. What if the Corbynista slang guide is not a failed attempt at humour, but a successful demystification exercise? Not a guide for talking like a Corbynista in jest, but for listening to them sincerely.

We all know in our bones that language is magic. That there may be no special linguistic forms that are distinguished as ‘spells’, but that every exchange of words with another human being -no matter how mundane- is an incantation. Language is humanity’s most accessible and powerful tool for plugging the ethereal into the material, and making the intangible manifest. Theoretical linguistics recognises this too, albeit in different, less metaphorical, terms. Grice writes that successful human communication relies on recognising each other as rational actors who approach communication with an expectation that we share compatible internal worlds. To speak is not only to exhale and inhale the sounds spat into the world, but to manipulate each others’ internal states, to put ideas into another mind and collaborate to create a unified situational perception. The academic study of this phenomenon is called Pragmatics, a domain that takes breath and flesh, thought and matter and insists that to understand language, they must be considered as one. I’m sure the irony is not lost on anyone that ‘pragmatic’ in its political senses is most often associated with an avowed anti-materiality.

Context in Pragmatics

At the heart of Pragmatics is context, not as an environment for speech, but an inextricable part of speaking. What counts as context is twofold: there is the shared environment in which speakers converse, but also their cognitive context in which lie the rules they share for communicating and assumptions about each others’ states of mind. Pragmatics is what allows for such basic sentences as ‘hand it over’ to have meaning, without specifying what ‘it’ is. Communication is governed by a series of maxims for precise, maximally informative conversation that ensure information exchange is of high quality and easy to understand. This is not a manifesto for how we should speak, but patterns that have been scientifically identified in how we already do.

When we talk with one another, we are constantly negotiating common ground - the shared referential, linguistic, cognitive and cultural space in which speakers interact in conversation. Pragmatic analyses of human conversation can be expanded to consider political frames at a higher level of discourse. This is broad area, two strands of which are particularly useful here. Arroyo notes that political speech broadens its context, from the transient common ground created privately between two speakers, to include multifold audiences and the social, economic and other relations of power beyond those embodied only by the interlocutors themselves. This ground is also inherently asymmetrical, magnifying power discrepancies that exist between speakers as they take on their roles as political actors. In response to this reality, political discourse has developed a workable consensus for maximising discursive power: verbal aggression to enter into an opponent’s communicative space, combined with a studied respectability of language choices so as not to lose face in the eyes of a potential variety of onlookers.

Does that common Ground include me or is it just a Sound?

The linguistic tropes of the online left do not abide by this consensus. In these interactions, speakers normally comfortable that they know the rules of the game have been excluded. In Gricean terms, even an argument is a collaborative act and even insults require both parties to be evaluating words according to the same values and frames. Blithe, performative rudeness that draws its power from in-group slang does not seek to collaborate in this way. ‘Melt’ evicts the linguistic tastemakers of mainstream discourse from the common ground. No wonder the level of anxiety it has engendered is so high.

Not only does this political rudeness not act according to comfortable norms, it has also introduced into a much broader political sphere something that is not often associated with sincere political passion: irony. Irony is fragile and tense; inverting speaker intention and deliberately hitting the bullseye by missing the mark. Irony is human language at its most nimble and context-dependent extremes. To engage with irony is to engage with risk. If you do not share the background knowledge, frame of mind and conversational cues of the ironic speaker, you will not understand the purpose of their speech. To be denied that comprehension is - however briefly - to be fundamentally disempowered.

The Search for the True Name of the Corbynite Discourse

In this view, Guido’s guide takes on a different, almost ritualistic purpose. An attempt to find the True Name of the Corbynite discourse. A prosaic spell cast to bring the chaotic back into the mundane. If only the code can be cracked, traditional discursive forms might enter into this arena, and adapt to its flavours and rules. To coat this attempt, however thinly, in chortling parody is of course part of the ritual itself. As it seeks to name and control this political rudeness, it cannot name its own incomprehension, nor its own vulnerable sincerity in attempting to undo its own ignorance for fear of making it real. To admit to defeat at the hands of a resurgent political ideology is unfortunate; to admit defeat to an instrumentalised rudeness that has galvanised that resurgence is outright humiliation and an admission that it is more than the language of politics that is changing.

Asymmetries of Power and “Free Speech”

Considering speech from a Gricean perspective may also be a way to begin the break the tedious stalemate of freespeech debates against on whose terms almost all language politics is now forced to be evaluated. The asymmetries of power in the context of speech is a much more lucid framework for assessing rudeness vs abuse, name-calling vs slurs. It is the uneven power relations of the common ground of political communication, and the extent to which speakers construct them with reference to broader structural dynamics, that create real differences between ‘melt’ and ‘bitch’, between ‘slug’ as spoken to a politician, and ‘cockroach’ as said of millions of refugees. It is difficult to successfully argue this point in public, particularly when it is assumed that the left will always treat language for its own nefarious authoritarian purpose. It is noteworthy that the Corbynite slang is remarkably unproblematic in its derivation. Despite the irreverent laddishness of much of the current electoral left meme culture, these insults are neither gendered, racist, nor homophobic. What that might reveal about the power relations expressed in this new language has gone totally ignored.

These distinctions are not absolute, and the status of words change as the power behind them shifts; they are varied in the same moment depending on whose mouths they escape and their relative status as speakers in a world of strict and violent categories of worth. The argument is not that as long as you’re fighting the good fight and speaking truth to power you can always be righteous in saying what you like. Rather, it is important to have an accurate lens on power relations upheld and challenged by words as they stand currently, in order that the linguistic choices we make now and in the future are radical and useful. It is also vital for the left to clarify its understanding of the mechanisms of its own discourse, even and especially when it is informal, so that we can tease of the distinctions between bad faith policing of rudeness by power running scared, and linguistic habits that might create realities that are oppressive. In recognising speech truly as a material act, we can begin to take it seriously in a way the warped and useless frameworks of freespeech discourse does not allow. And continue to forge new uses of language that draw as much on anger, love and radical kindness as the motivations we value in physical actions.

Photo: Guillaume Brocker