Bot review

At Amazon.com, one of the customer reviews of Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is signed by Angelo. Angelo gives the edition only three stars out of five but calls it “Great” in his (or its) subject line and then completes the sentence this way:

as the price. Weight of the product fees good in my hand and it’s very nice looking. If your looking for value in a product this is it. will buy next time. my family need to change a new one , best service.

It could be a bot. On the other hand, it could be a sign that language in the Trump era is becoming a self-driving vehicle.

As language is changed in the Trump era

In 2015 I posted a note about the word “Jew” as differently understood by the Victorian Catholic poets Coventry Patmore and Gerard Manley Hopkins. At the time, I thought that the two poets’ correspondence about the word might help us understand the then topical issue of boycotting out of existence the country named Israel and the concept named Jew.

But as of 2017, those two-year-old thoughts of mine have gone anachronistic. Language, including the word Jew, no longer seems to work in all the ways it did two years ago. It has lost some functions and acquired others. So I’ve updated my note. WordPress has filed the revision in its original 2015 position and linked it to its original 2015 title, but the text you’ll reach is new when you click

A poet says “Jew” to another poet

Archaic preposition

A year after the Great War, life was still bringing forth cripples. In the New York Tribune for September 21, 1919, news of the routine event made page 12.

A century later, this article is still generically recognizable as a human-interest feature, but its language hasn’t aged well. In 1919 it tried in its generic way to communicate a sense of warm-heartedness, but as of 2017 the temperature of the heart is to be taken in a different range of the thermal spectrum. “Propaganda in behalf of one-legged boys”? “To hunt up and help all crippled boys and men”? Or

The cripples play every day at noon. Every morning and afternoon they work at bench trades, learning to be draughtsmen, jewellers and typewriter repairmen

? No, we don’t say such things now. They have become obsolete. The noun “cripple” has gone the way of the draftsman and the typewriter repairman and the typewriter. In their Bain News Service photograph the cripples themselves now seem little more than components of an abstract textural study comprising a wall of antique handmade bricks, a cluttered dirt surface, and, off to the side, half of a boy without a face. Two decades later, Walker Evans would redo the same formal presentation with another brick wall and a poster of black dancing girls and a stationary wagon with a team of mules.

That image from Alabama in 1936 is famous now. I don’t need to reproduce it here; you can find it in any history of photography. But this prior image?

Almost incidentally in the center are also a one-legged boy with a baseball catcher’s backward cap but no mask or glove, and another boy, a dwarf in little-boy shorts, playing batter. Citation counts in the history of photography will tell us that these human beings have meant less than Evans’s mules. They have spoken to history only the accidentally ironic words that the Bain News Service wrote on their image for them, with its adjective scratched in by Great War reflex and then scratched back out:

ARMY CRIPPLES AT BASEBALL

Those words and that strikethrough have defined the cripples ever since. It has reduced them to a textbook example of irony. And because their image has been transformed by words into something merely exemplary, it probably can’t accommodate the extra non-verbal value of (for instance) colorization. Their caption has reduced them and their name (“Cripples”) to allegorical abstractions. Speaking the dialect of caption, they now tell us only a moral tale in a dead language, archived only in black and white.

Whereas these words and this image from the lower left corner of the newspaper page . . .

She is an idol of nameless wordless life, the unendingly changing. All of her and her breathlessly capitalized Kitten’s Ear Crepe we can love, forever. Six years from now, she may take on, for a moment, the name of Daisy Buchanan. Trembling with anticipation, we read down the page to where she now waits below the fold, and deck her image with Photoshop gold and pink.

As to the cripples, their pre-Photoshop image has now faded almost to vanishing. It can mean little more to memory now than they now do.

But within the image the unfaded caption is still blackly clear — in fact clearer now than it was in 1919, when it was camouflaged by freshly photographed bricks. One day in 1919 a stylus scratched a caption so far through the picture of the bricks laid down in photosensitive emulsion that it reached the hard all-revealing glass of the emulsion’s backing and left there a passage for light to pass through. Passing through ever since, light has faithfully continued transmitting the cripples’ archaic name (“Cripples”) from its incised archive to us and our time. And the name grows darker year by year as the image of crippled bodies fades to white.

But “at baseball”? What can unfade that phrase?

Under at, the OED explains, in language left unchanged since its first edition a century ago:

In his novel, Jane Austen’s Mr. Palmer, exemplifying what Austen calls his Epicurism, is at billiards; on their glass plate the cripples are at baseball. The at phrases and their grammar ought to be equivalent, but they aren’t. I can easily visualize Mr. Palmer, but even with the cripples’ photograph right before me I can barely see them. Somehow, “at billiards” communicates more from the nineteenth century than “at baseball” communicates from the twentieth.

One reason may be that the photograph imposes physical limits on the scope of the words it contains. The cripples’ at is a word from the universe of 1919, only, as seen in an image representing a moment in 1919, only. As its surrounding photograph has become archaic, it has become archaic. Surrounded on all sides by change, it walls off a corpus of the unchanged. But in the invisible medium of the unillustrated, Mr. Palmer’s at lives on for at least a while longer. Unbounded by the borders that constrain image, the archive of imagination has made room within itself for one more old word, communicating one more new meaning.

 

Source of the newspaper: Library of Congress, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1919-09-21/ed-1/seq-12/. Photoshopped.

Source of the photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006004847/. Photoshopped.

 

 

Language note: the possessiveness of the pronoun “our”

The Department of Asian Studies at my university is now circulating a petition which reads, in part:

In response to and strong condemnation of recent expressions of hate directed at Muslim and Jewish communities in Hawaii, we endorse the following statement:

Over the past weeks the Manoa Mosque has been the target of multiple hate messages via social media, email, and voicemail. Individual Muslims have been harassed in public, including children. Also, Temple Emanu-El was targeted with a bomb threat against its Jewish pre-school.

We stand together with our Muslim and Jewish communities and any individuals who are subjected to harassment based on religion, immigration status, national origin, race, gender, LGBTQ+ status or disability. No one should go through this experience alone.

That’s how compassion expresses itself in current academic language: categorically, sorting its intended beneficiaries by administrative identifiers: “religion, immigration status, national origin. . . .” And along with the compassionate categories, as a logically required complement, there are also anti-compassionate categories: for instance, “the US” in a recent contribution from my department titled “The Homes of Zionism: Circuits of White Supremacy between the US and Israel.” There, the Marxist term “the US” functions in the same way as the Republican term “Democrat Party”: as an ugly, unidiomatic locution meant to make its subject sound ugly and alien. But that’s the way my department talks, and the attitude toward Jews represented by conflating Israel with the Klan is what a consensus lexicon sounds like.

Considered that way, as the lingua franca of everybody who matters, it has an important thing in common with the compassion-categories of the petition: it is the vocabulary of a collective mind named “we.” If we were to try thanking that “we” for its compassion for the Jewish community, we might acknowledge the significance of the generous impulse by pointing out that Israel too is a Jewish community — in fact, a Jewish community created expressly to protect against the social consequences of hate. But of course, that time, our gratitude wouldn’t be wanted. It would not only be rejected; it would be misunderstood, uncomprehended, estranged from meaning.

Grammar would have accomplished the alienation. In the instant of its being heard, the possessive pronoun “our” in the petitioners’ phrase “our Jewish community” controls and limits admission to the meaningfulness of the term “Jewish community.” By modifying “Jewish community” to “our Jewish community,” it changes the reference of both “community” and “our” from terms that include to terms that exclude. Modified in that possessive way, the term “our Jewish community” instructs its speakers to think of Jews as theirs to possess — pets, say, who belong where the human community says they belong and nowhere else.


*

A footnote to the note: William Safire’s The New Language of Politics: A Dictionary of Catchwords, Slogans, and Political Usage (rev. ed., 1972) traces the history of the term “Democrat Party” back to Thomas E. Dewey in the 1940s. During the same era, cartoons in Socialist Camp periodicals like Ogonyok routinely identified villains as American by depicting them wearing the U. S. Army’s “U.S.” lapel badge. The artistic fascination with that un-Cyrillic squiggle lives on in North Korea, even when the artists get it backward:

Port: meta-roint

Yesterday I posted a comment praising one of my textless photographs for raising what the pork-offal commenter called incredible roints and sopid arguments. “Sopid,” I assume, is call-center English for “solid,” and “roints” is “points” with an anti-Bayesian Greek rho substituted for the Latin p.

Today that comment attracts a meta-comment, viz.:

F*ckin’ awesome issues here. I’m very glad to look your post.
Thanks so much and i’m taking a look ahead to contact you.
Will you kindly drop me a mail?

Like many other spam comments, this one is hosted by an internet provider in Buffalo, New York, a port on the Great Lakes. Buffalo is what’s called post-industrial, and without the economic activity generated by enterprises like its spamhost, it and its city dialect might now be as extinct as Cavafy’s Alexandria. But with every new click on a comment spam, the old port traffics again, and lives and evolves. Hear its former idiom “looking forward” change under the influence of trade between call-center India and hedge-fund America into “taking a look ahead.”

In 1845, about half a century after New England began industrializing, Henry David Thoreau sat down by a landlocked little lake in New England and wrote, “I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good port and a good foundation. No Neva marshes to be filled, though you must every where build on piles of your own driving.” In 2016, the port of post-industrial Buffalo sinks piles into the deposits of its former physical language and opens itself to a new commerce with the ethereal. There, unmeaning words flow nonstop from click to click, lapping at piers to which nothing is moored.

Eighty-two words and an untranslated song

From a portrait painted by her father in 1872, Jeanne-Rachel Pissarro (1865-1874) looks out at us sidelong, lips pursed and mouth off center. The mouth is in the light, but the big staring eyes have been cast into shadow. Only they have been painted with a fine brush to show detail. They are the center of the image’s illuminating force. They show us a glimpse of a life on the verge. In this image, everything else — the layered clothes, the shadow-casting hat, the bouquet of colored shadows — is subordinate to the eyes. The layers of thick cloth in which the child is wrapped serve as an integument. It will ward off, but (its muted, fading colors warn and promise) only for now. Only for the time being, while the body is still warm-clad and the flowers are still alive.

*

The two figures in my subject line sum up the entire corpus of an extinct language, Crimean Gothic. It has been on record ever since it was compiled in the mid-sixteenth century by Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592), a Flemish diplomat stationed in Constantinople. His Turkish Letters remain a valuable historical resource, and from the Levant he introduced the lilac and the tulip to Europe. They bloom now outside the library, but of the history of Crimean Gothic the words are no longer spoken and the song is no longer sung.

*

When the invention of the glass negative in 1854 made it easy to create photographs in multiple copies, a new kind of history book entered the corpus: the photo album, rapidly filling with mass-produced carte de visite images like this one.

It can be read as a document in the history of nineteenth-century sentimentality — a silent little counterpart of, say, a Schubert lied or a Dickens novella. The little girl’s poignant expression mimes the poignancy of her plea, which is poignant in its turn because it is in words that can’t be heard. On her behalf, because she is mute, it asks you to give her an image to keep her company in the dark when her book closes.