Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lanham and Orwell

Revising Prose (1979)I learned a great deal about voice from Richard Lanham, especially two of his books: Style: An Anti-Textbook and Revising Prose. In the latter, Lanham outlines a multi-step technique he refers to as the “Paramedic Method” or “PM.” Once I learned the technique, I never let go, reading my papers out loud, marking each stumble over an awkwardly constructed sentence, and then returning to those sentences, PM in hand, and taking them apart step by step. The practical technique aside, I have wondered for some time now about the influence of George Orwell on Lanham’s larger, more complex argument about the way we use language now and in a culture that values speed and the shiny surface of things.

The distaste Orwell expresses in “Politics and the English Language” for euphemism, the bedrock of
political language, echoes in Lanham’s argument that writing matters as a communal and humane practice. “In our time,” Orwell, writes, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” He then offers us a list of atrocities (imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs) that “can, indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” He gives concrete examples of the enormous schism between act and representation; between what we do and how we represent those actions to ourselves, individually and collectively:

Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Pacification, rectification, elimination—the verbs have been turned into nouns, Latinate nouns that communicate effectively, all the while neatly and hygienically buffering us from bombarded villages, trudging peasants, suffering prisoners.

Orwell was writing shortly after the World War II, yet Lanham in his work situates in the present that same schism between act and representation. Lanham, the brilliant rhetorician, draws our attention to the beauty of a consciously wrought style despite the fact that we live in an age for which the default definition of “rhetoric” has become verbose, pompous, insincere. We are tired of being lied to by politicians and advertisers. Our understandably paranoid defense is to reject lengthy and complex sentences. Lanham, however, does not advocate for short sentences. He advocates for balance and clarity. The PM is meant to help us see the idea we are trying to express in each sentence. Once we see the idea, we have another decision to make about how to cast it within the structure of a sentence. And it is in that very instance of seeing and then making a conscious ethical choice about how we use language, to obscure or to reveal, that Lanham returns to repeatedly—as does Orwell.

The speaker who relies on euphemistic platitudes has for Orwell “gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.” To insist that all sentences must be short (a dismayingly reductive misunderstanding of Hemingway’s style) leads to political debates that sound more like an off-, off-, off-Broadway reading of bumper stickers or sound bites. It is euphemism—albeit without the bombast and complexity. But both forms reduce us to machines, spouting language we don’t understand, and offers the scant comfort of conformity. Here is an example of that mechanistic sort of writing:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for children.

If we skim the sentence instead of actually reading it, we get a sense of complexity, effort, thought. If we slow down and actually read it, something shifts. Here, in highlights, is what Lanham has taught me to see:

Jones writes a touching article where he utilizes several techniques that have an impact on his audience and include persuasion, such as pathos, rhetorical questions, and ethos, to demonstrate the similarities between actual violence and aggressive television violence scenes are alarming signs these television programs are dangerous for teenagers.

This sentence actually expresses three ideas: 1) Jones writes a touching article; 2) He uses several techniques; and 3) These television programs are dangerous for teenagers. It would take time to
Style: An Anti-textbook (1974)develop each of these ideas, yet we live in a culture that moves at a frenetic pace. The ideas expressed raise logical questions: What is “touching” about the article? Does Jones have a particular connection to the material? Which “techniques” exactly? Who is his audience? Are them sympathetic to his argument or not? Why would those “techniques” be relevant to that particular audience? Which idea is most important to the writer? There are many more questions, and those questions will not be articulated, the answers left unexplored, for the same reason: they require time. The writer avoids taking a position. As discussed in the posting on Boal and Freire, the writer of that sample sentence has learned conformity.

 

 

 

Boal and Freire

In Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal takes on the task of stripping theatre to its roots, insisting that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” Theatre at its most elemental was the “dithyrambic song”—free, “created by and for the people.” The history of Western theatre reveals a careful, purposeful separation of that song from the landscape within which it was rooted. It was the privileged classes “who decided that some persons will go to the stage and only they will be able to act; the rest will remain seated, receptive, passive—these will be the spectators, the masses, the people.” Boal, the well-educated son of a baker and a home-maker, was born in Brazil, kidnapped and tortured in 1971 by the military regime that had come to power in 1964 with the help of the United States, and eventually exiled from his homeland for 15 years.  He was a dissident and a leftist, but I think of him as a teacher.

In 2005, about four years before his death, Boal was interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Hamlet and the baker's sonGonzalez of Democracy Now! Asked to explain how he developed the “theatre of the oppressed,” he talked about Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and the difference between art that mirrors the world, “our vices and virtues,” and art that transforms. “I would like to have a mirror with some magic properties in which we could—if we don’t like the image that we have in front of us to allow us to penetrate into that mirror and then transform our image and then come back with our image transformed. “ The act of transforming transforms the actor, he explained. The stage becomes a space within which the usual way of seeing can be suspended and another possibility essayed, tested—the original meaning of the verb to essay. So the theatrical space is akin to the classroom—or at least the classroom where assumptions can be questioned safely. And since the literary text and the dramatic text both develop from a particularly human context, they are both political—reflective of specific ideas about what and who are valuable, what and who are rendered “collateral.” Words are like trucks, Boal insisted to Goodman and Gonzalez: “You can put inside what you want.” Indeed, the stage is the space within which language, the euphemisms that so galled Orwell, can be thoughtfully unpacked.

Boal was a friend of Paulo Freire—and, by his own admission, Freire inspired by him. Theatre of the Oppressed consciously echoes Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Seeing a clear parallel between the stage and the classroom as a transformative space is easy. Much more difficult is the matter of creating and sustaining a space within which students are invited to think critically and question the common rendition of people and events in the world around them. Because no matter how much we insist on the complexity of audience, students generally write to the teacher. Freire insists that the classroom and the world are “coextensive”; that education presents us all with a stark choice since it can either serve to indoctrinate students, to teach them to conform, or to introduce “the practice of freedom,” the practice of thinking critically and creatively about the world. Boal’s actors present the play, addressing a specific theme. At the end of the play, when no solution seems available, the spectators are invited to become actors and provide alternatives, to think outside the theatrical (and social) box. Social conditions so often misrepresented as inevitable or insurmountable shift. Boal’s technique unmasks the tension between existing social conditions and the representation of those conditions, demonstrating palpably the power of acquiescence, of rendering ourselves inert, spectral before any authority—playwright or professor.

“What do you want me to write?” students often ask me. And I wonder whether perhaps human beings desire being dictated to, whether we find it oddly comforting. “Write what you think,” I respond, thinking of Boal. Some of them look back at me distrustfully. I can’t blame them. We don’t invite students to shift from spectators to actors often enough; and if their education does not help them rehearse safely “the practice of freedom,” of critical thinking, then how can they transform the world? Do we ask students to be passive in class, but to engage in community service? Do we ask them to ingest information passively, but gnash our teeth when they don’t show up at the voting booth? For Boal the idea of using “the theater as a rehearsal for [the] transformation of reality” did not become “his practice until the dictatorship was every time more severe on us and they started forbidding our plays, not allowing us to do our plays [,] to do nothing.” It was only “when we lost our theater, we lost everything,” that they found the transformative practice.