1303 words

The people whom it is easiest for me to love are people who love words. When I am in company, I live for conversation. When I am alone, I read. When I am not reading, not working, when I am not “consuming” media or running errands, my mind is at play. My play is word play.

Perhaps it is yours as well, dear reader. There’s selection bias here. Readers of words like these, impractical superfluous words, are a different population than readers of memoranda, court orders, and instruction manuals. If you are reading these words, you probably read novels. Have you noticed how in novels, at a level of generality that ridiculously broad, the protagonists, the good guys, the heroines and heroes, are disproportionately bookish? We love the word, we readers and writers, and through the word we recognize one another, we love one another. We construct our selves, our souls, from words we mouth incorporeally, and our conversations are sex, incorporeally. Arguments if we like it rough.

The word is a sign, its nature, taught Saussure, arbitrary and differential. So too is human love. It is often arbitrary, whom we love, a matter of chance and circumstance and accidents of birth. Love is differential. The set of those to whom we give our hearts tacitly defines a complement, those to whom we do not.

We, you and I, readers and writers, we lovers of the word and so lovers of each other, fancy ourselves cosmopolitan. We read from many cultures, perhaps in many languages. Yet reading itself is its own insularity. Culture is an insularity. To the theater-goer, the kind of person unlikely to come to a play is visible only as refracted through the words of a playwright, who is likely to be the kind of person likely to come to a play. On television, in the new social media cliché, God herself is “the writers”. Those of us who love to read and write may read and write as widely as we wish. We read only writers, and if our writing is broadcast into “democratic media” we become exhibitionists to rather than lovers of those outside our circle.

As children many of us were bullied. We did well at school. As adults, most of us like most of everyone lead precarious lives. But those who do not, those who do well, are drawn disproportionately from our ranks.

We constitute a tribe of insular cosmopolitans, incestuous exhibitionists. And from the outside it might seem like we are running things. It is hard not to read what I’m writing as a dog-whistle for Jews, but I think that’s backwards. Jews are a metonym for us, not the other way around. If you know what a metonym is, you are probably one of us. No need to wear a yarmulke, or have Ashkenazi roots. Few of us do.

We people of the word, people of the book, seem to run things not because we have some unified plot to rule. Argument is our sex, we mostly do like it rough. Those who rule are drawn from our ranks because it turns out magic is real and spells are formed of words and symbols. Whether in science, business, or social affairs, a facility with words and symbols imparts capacity to predict, coordinate, organize, and inspire. Most of us do not succeed, in the way our social hierarchies define success, because the word is its own distraction. Reading and writing and praying our selves into existence all day long divert one from the bottom line. But at our margins there are those who are distractible from distraction, within whom the word and practical affairs and ambition do not crowd one another out. These people do very well. We are simultaneously a class of losers and leaders, and that is our reputation, well enough deserved.

But the effect of all of this is we are perceived by others as a ruling class, a ruling caste. On average, we are, but only in the way that the average person in a room that includes Jeff Bezos is a billionaire. It is an irony that the accusations of betrayal that beset us are often framed in terms of cosmopolitanism, when our failures are of insularity. We ourselves are mostly losers, but we set ourselves apart and on the same side of a great divide with the industrialists and mandarins who do in fact organize and coordinate and reap disproportionately the benefits of an increasingly enclosed world. We do this not out of malice, or prejudice, but gentle affinity. People who love words love people who love words. We find one another, and relegate to everyone else the role of anthropological subject, to be examined at a safe distance from behind a page. The putative (much overrated) accuracy of our “social science” is a very far cry from love. Our journalists interview and our novelists invent, with results (of whose “empathy” our reviewers gush) that cannot help but be projection, tinged with grievance and condescension.

We have, amongst ourselves, a “What’s The Matter With Kansas” problem. We love ourselves too much, too indiscriminately. Most of us share material interests more with the lumpenproletariat than we do with the sliver of us that reaps outsize gains. But we share the same academy with the TED celebrities. We join them on panels, at forums, in casual conversations. Our journals and nonprofits, our “activism” and “organizing”, are funded by and often led by them. We read Barack Obama’s new memoir. He is plainly one of us, thoughtful, self-critical, erudite, eloquent. To read is to love. If we are “on the left” we may denounce these beautiful winners, but our loyalties are divided. We bask in reflected honor, we enjoy a warmth, emotional and sometimes material, from an institutional and social closeness that participation in the conversation can bring. They are of us and we take pride sometimes even in the achievements of people whom our politics would argue are crushing us.

It is fashionable, and correctly so, to talk about systemic or structural or institutional racism. Addressing villainous personal bigotry is the easy part. Social problems are, tautologically, social problems, embedded in patterns and practices of behavior, many of which might seem innocuous or even virtuous in isolation.

That people who love words love people who love words seems innocuous or even virtuous. But it is time, I think, to talk about love as systemic or structural or institutional. The social fissure, between people who become coded as “educated professionals” (whatever jobs we do or don’t have) and the great majority who don’t, may derive “naturally” from accidents of affinity. There is no study we can undertake, no book we can write, that will remedy it. But there are institutions that might. We could alter the landscape of material and social life so that we mix more, so that we are not as able or likely to segregate ourselves among ourselves, geographically, occupationally, digitally. Even those of us with overdeveloped insular cortices remain capable of affection beyond ourselves. We look upon ourselves, upon one another, as the civilized people. (We cosmopolitan liberals might resist putting it that way, we’d not want to imply that the people we condescend to are uncivilized.) But when the civilized self-segregate, should they be surprised that among the population they have fled emerges barbarism? We need to love more openly, more promiscuously, more forgivingly. We will fail if we treat this as a matter of personal virtue or obligation. Love is a material and institutional project. Love is downstream from politics.

We have done our part, without intention or malice, to create this world we so lament. It is time for us to do our part to undo it.

May 2021 be a better year for us all.


4 Responses to “1303 words”

  1. Carol writes:

    I was amused by this profligate outpouring of words! But! I agree. I am so exasperated by “intellectuals” and “thought leaders” who think and speak. We don’t ask those we think and speak about what they really think, want, feel. We assume we know better and isolate in “think tanks” and think our thinky thoughts, and alienate those for whom we have the utmost condescending love. Out to the streets, folks. Listen to the inarticulate longing for justice, and try to figure out how get there with them, not for them

  2. Kien writes:

    Maybe you should take a closer look at the peoples of China, Korea, Japan & Vietnam. You’ll find that (almost!) everyone love to read.

  3. No Thanks writes:

    Who created this systemic/structural/institutional critique? Not just lovers of words, apparently, but lovers of polysyllabic Latin and Greek. Some of this can be attributed to French-language origins of the critique, but transposed to America you also find that words from the Latin and Greek sides of our language are favored by those reaching for academic pomp and authority as they “accidentally” alienate everyone without a thesaurus. We need more lovers of words who are like Hemingway and Churchill, who stripped their vocabularies to let meaning burn through.
    Anatol Rapoport wrote that “preoccupation with large-scale affairs dulls empathy”. We may improve our understanding of love by studying these systemic/structural/institutional concerns but few have achieved love by subjecting it to that kind of scrutiny. Stories from those who have found love seems to emphasize forgiveness rather than a world of no justice no peace. There is injustice and there must be struggle. But it does the language a disservice to redefine “love” to emphasizing some dialectic.
    It’s a conceit of word lovers to think they can change the world by redefining words and controlling the terms of discourse. Thus the hand-wringing when the cosmetics come off in the privacy of the voting booth.

  4. No Thanks writes:

    This essay is still bothering me, partly because I am so much a fan of your thought in other respects.
    The whole piece seems like a word game, even as it warns against the same. Whatever the etymology of “love”, it’s clear that it has a broad range of meanings and thus context matters a great deal. As a piece of wordplay you can do interesting things with the ambiguity between making love, loving a partner, loving a child, loving humanity, loving your job, loving music, or sports, or the outdoors or whatever. Making those ambiguities into the foundation of a polemic is another story. There is a thread of clarity in there about the dangers of what I’d call “affiliation”. But, by punning on the word “love” and a touch of dialectic materialism you conclude that “love is downstream from politics” which sounds like the internet has convinced you to plumb your sewer lateral into your water line.
    I agree that polarization is a huge problem, and one way that people on either side signal their affiliations is with larger or smaller vocabulary. As I remember it, the pressure in school was always to maximize vocabulary. Only as an adult did I see that the best communicators used small vocabularies well. I’d guess that before its use for social signalling, large vocabulary was a byproduct of written communication. The spoken word is largely a carrier for tone of voice and body language.