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The words make the man and the world

One of my plans for 2015 is to read more books. Last year felt like a series of challenges – from family moving to the country from the Philippines, to my spouse switching job, to moving out of our apartment of three years – pressed on me and the only books I ended up reading were a few Orhan Pamuk novels, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, Will Self’s Umbrella and a handful of others like H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. As with albums, I feel that infrequent consumption – although common due to myriad distraction – is a missed opportunity to keep learning.

So I kicked off the year by finishing David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of The System, which I thought was uneven but of enormous sentimental value (more so as I moved toward the end, with its mentions of Chicago). But its Wittgensteinian style nudged me to return to a subject I devoted plenty of time to in college but have neglected in the past 5 years. I moved on to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, a 19th century philosophy tract that I downloaded as a PDF and read entirely on my iPhone 6 Plus.

‘Words, words, words’
We live in a time in which the humanities are under siege. Subjects such as English, art, and music are perceived by the American education system as well as the corporations that reinforce it as at best recreational options for the so inclined and at worst as catastrophic distractions from an imaginary shortage of STEM graduates. It’s important, though, to realize that today’s colleges are by and large not even run by intellectuals, so anyone interested in the humanities shouldn’t feel bad if nagged about why they even study something as “irrelevant” (the classic question “so what are you going to do with that?” says more about the asker’s limited imagination than the respondent’s wisdom in life choices) as centuries-old literature or philosophy.

So: why study any of this, or why even read, as I have committed myself to doing more of in 2015? Why major in English? Why do anything that isn’t knee-deep in business speak or algorithms?

Start with words. Studying language with any seriousness is humbling. The student realizes how the meanings and societal controls imposed by seemingly simple arrangements of words on a page literally change our lives. Think about these examples:

  1. Only two of the New Testament evangelists (Luke and Matthew) assert that Jesus was born of a virgin. For this belief, they lean upon Isaiah 7:14, but the author of Isaiah uses the Hebrew word ‘alma,’ which means ‘young woman,’ not necessarily ‘virgin.’ Imagine the millennia of sexual anxiety and control – abstinence education, obsession with monogamy, etc. – tied up in this issue of the Hebrew-to-Greek translation of a single word modifying Jesus’ mother.
  2. America is the only industrialized, developed country without a healthcare system committed to universal coverage. Why? Partly because of delusional belief in the self-made man, but also because of the idea that “universal coverage” is the same as “single-payer,” which isn’t the case. Moreover, the phrase “single-payer” is ominous and productive of meanings and images – someone fitting the bill for millions of “undeserving” fellow humans – that would not necessarily play out in practice.
  3. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out that across multiple languages, the words equivalent of “good” and “bad” have associations with the aristocratic and plebian classes, respectively. The Latin “malus” (bad), like the Greek “melas” (“black”; you know the latter from “melancholy,” literally “black-bile”) are bound up with the idea of dark-skinned men who predated the latter settlers of the Italian peninsula. “Bonus,” in contrast, is related to “warrior,” and associated with the chivalrous nobility. In other cultures, “bad” takes a backseat to “evil” as a foil to “good,” allowing users to shed the baggage of “bad” and instead institute a moral system that does not depend on class.

It’s as if words are really all we have. In addition to the above trio, just think of how the creators of words like “good” and “evil,” and of their opposition to each other (as Nietzsche notes), can with linguistic mechanisms alone simplify the entire field of interpretation and enable everything from church groups denouncing the “evil” of Satan to heads of state declaring that is all a matter of “us vs. them.”

Ultimately, knowing how words are implemented to serve political and sociological ends is enormously liberating, at least for me as an informal (I’m no longer in school) student of the field. There’s a certain vitality in knowing that nothing has to be the way it is and that it is the product of decisions and what people have decided to utter aloud and put in writing.

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