Monday, May 9, 2011

A word I don't want to use anymore and the way in which I don't want to use it

Words mean a lot of things, depending on the social circumstances in which they're used. One of the really magical things about language is that it is such a complex, nuanced structure and yet we use it reflexively, without any thought. As we use these words and don't think about them, the complex system of meanings that they have can blend together in our minds--most of the time this is a wonderful thing, but there can often be a very negative side. I don't by any means suggest that language shapes thought in any kind of strongly deterministic sense, but tiny little subconscious cues from the language do tend to carry weight, especially with repetition--if we use a word in a positive sense in one context it can carry that sense over to another context where the use should be less positive, say.

When you begin to think about the words you use reflexively, you can sometimes spot ways that your thinking has been colonized by the needs of the dominant society. On a more prosaic, but probably concretely more important, level, you can also start to see ways that what you say might communicate different things than you intend, depending on who's listening and in what context. I've been thinking about this a lot recently, and thought it might be good to write about some of these words. This may or may not be a series. Should you be so inclined, let me know what you think--about this particular word, about other words, about this whole idea in general. So, the word:


If you're a fan of any kind of art that at whatever time or place has been considered "avant garde" you've come across this. People frequently use it to talk about, say, early electronic music--Delia Derbyshire or Wendy Carlos or Louis and Bebe Barron or whoever are "pioneers" of electronic music. When people say this, they mean that these artists did things that had never been done before--"went places," metaphorically, that no one had ever been before.

But that's not what a pioneer is. A pioneer is a colonist, a conqueror, a front liner in genocide. A pioneer claims to be the first to go where they go by virtue of redefining those who have already laid down the paths they bulldoze as insignificant, nonexistent in any meaningful sense. A pioneer "discovers" nothing, "invents" nothing; a pioneer is destructive, not creative.

Land is already there. Most of it has had human beings living on or near it for so long that, in terms that we can really feel, you might as well call it forever. Even that which hasn't is occupied--animals, plants, fungi, swarming bacteria, there's life everywhere*, and it's been exploring for a hell of a lot longer than we have--and without, I would venture to guess, this bizarre conceit that it's "discovering" anything.

*And even those places where there is no life--far enough below the Earth's surface, throughout most of the universe, whatever--those places exist, too, with their own perspectives, and have the right to be themselves.

Curiosity and even necessity need not partner with conquest. That we use the word "pioneering" to describe art that "pushes boundaries"--another deeply problematic formulation--reveals the extent to which we have been trained to view these things as inseparable. But the beautiful thing about art--and I use "art" just in the sense of any activity pursued for self-determined reasons--the beautiful thing about art is, or should be, that it's easy to be curious, easy to explore, without conquering anything.


BDR said...

Serendipitously, I posted this passage from Pynchon's Mason & Dixon yesterday:

Does Britannia, when it sleeps, dream? Is America her dream? -- in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of mankind, seen, -- serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true, -- Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied back in, back to the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments, -- winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

davidly said...

I like "forager". It's a nice counterpoint to the opposite end of the artistic spectrum: hack

Just got Church of Anthrax from the library. You like it?

Richard said...

Nicely done. I also think it's nice how the term "avant garde" sits there, in the middle of the post, waiting to be subjected to the same sort of analysis. (Though, to be sure, its problematic military overtones have already been addressed; your highlighting "pioneer" like this is different.)

Ethan said...

Hah BDR, I'd seen that at your place, but hadn't made the connection.

davidly, Church of Anthrax is one of my all-time favorite albums ever of all time ever. An absolute 5-star perfect album. People will tell you that it's not as good as the two of them together should be or that side B isn't as good as side A or that "The Soul of Patrick Lee" is a low point or that it's just a tossed-off triviality, but they're filthy liars. Nothing's like it; I spend a good deal of my life trying to find music that comes close to having the same feeling. Parts of the third disc of All Things Must Pass and "Just a Second (Starts Like That!)" from Faust IV are the only remotely close things I've found.

"Forager," huh. I'd have to think about it, but I think I might like it.

Richard, thanks. And hah, "avant garde." If it's possible to do things on purpose and by accident simultaneously, that's how I did that.

davidly said...

Church of Anthrax is one of my all-time favorite albums ever of all time ever.

I love that sentence; it duly expresses an extreme personal value while maintaining the right to inclusion (one of my). I'm diggin' it (foraging along with it) so far.

Ethan said...

Glad you like it!

It = both my sentence and the album.