June 23, 2004

Writing about writing about writing about writing about a film about Bush

When I originally read Hitchens' Unfairenheit 9/11, gosh, it must have been all of 12 hours ago, I was struck by the choice of words in one paragraph, words which smell as sweet as a very good blue cheese that has just spent a week long vacation in a warm sock. But I must confess that I didn't notice anything patently illogical. Shame on me!

Now Mark comes along and reads the same paragraph (see here). The odious vapor of insult hits him, but his logical senses are not overwhelmed. With bloodhound acuteness he sniffs right through that heady verbiage and smells, hmm, what is that? No, nothing ungrammatical, the spelling is just fine, and even the punctuation is pristine. But something does not belong. He's off! Unstoppable, he tracks Hitchens' intentions through a forest of semantic weed and trope, and finds in a clearing kilomeanings from anywhere... two hopelessly confused interpretations running round in circles.

The runaway interpretations belong to the following sentences:
  • To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.
  • To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.
And these sentences might have been intended to convey that:
  • This film is worse than dishonest and demagogic.
  • This film is worse than crap.
But Libermanic decomposition, turned up to 11, so watch out, reveals:
  • If calling this film dishonest and demagogic would make "dishonest and demagogic" respectable, then the film must add respectability to words used to describe it, so presumably the film itself is respectable.
  • If calling this film a piece of crap would make the use of "a piece of crap" ubiquitous, then this film is not significantly  more crappy than all the other things that would be described as "a piece of crap" afterwards. Given that many of these things that in this hypothetical future would be called pieces of crap are actually pretty darn non-crappy, it follows that the film is not crap.

Mark's analysis is pretty convincing. Yet there is, I think, a way out of this mess. Let's look at the full paragraph in all its gory.

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental. To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness. It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of "dissenting" bravery.

One way to think about what is going on is in terms of an imagined, implicit question. So ask yourselves this: what is the implicit question which the above paragraph answers?

I suggest the implicit question is a meta-question about Hitchens' own writing, namely: how should Hitchens describe Fahrenheit 9/11 at this point in the article? Hitchens, in the first three sentences of the paragraph, is not talking in general about how people should describe the movie or what descriptors for it would be accurate. If accuracy alone were the issue, Hitchens would not go on to talk about one description being too obvious, since obviousness does not suggest inaccuracy at all. No, he is talking about the words he should choose there and then. He answers the implicit question as if revealing his own authorial thought processes. The first three sentences of the paragraph tell us what the answer is not, and the last two tell us what it is. Yes, in case you wondered, he considered describing the film as dishonest, demagogic, a piece of crap and an exercise in facile crowd pleasing but he rejected those word choices (for which we, the audience, are duly grateful) in favor of sinsister, morally frivolous, and so on.

But the above implicit question analysis sets Mark's logic in a new light. If the the paragraph in question is a meta-commentary on Hitchens writing process, then what is the discourse he refers to in the second sentence? Why, it is none other than Hitchens' own discourse, the article Unfairenheit 9/11. So then the risk being run is not that discourse in general would never rise above the excremental. No, the risk is that Hitchens' article would consist of nothing but gutterworthy invective. (Heaven forbid!) There is then, contra Mark, no implication that terming Fahrenheit 9/11 a piece of crap would lead to anything other than Fahrenheit 9/11 being described in excremental terms, because the discourse in question is only about Fahrenheit 9/11.

Let us turn now to the trickier first sentence of the paragraph. The worry Hitchens presents to us is that describing the film as dishonest and demagogic would make these terms appear respectable terms to use in the context of the remainder of the article. Now, this doesn't sound like a disaster to me. But that may be because I am not Hitchens, a master stylist,  wordsman and Oxford graduate. In fact, he graduated from Balliol, a college that long, long ago rejected my application to study there as an undergraduate after a positively absurd interview, so I have reason to believe he knows something I don't.  I used Google to find out just how smart with words Hitchens is. The results are astounding. He's off the scale. At least by his own ambitious reckoning. For example, in this interview he describes the title of a book of his as involving a triple entendre. Can you imagine the genius it would take to put three different meanings into a single title? Yes, it's true that Eats, Shoots and Leaves has two meanings, but neither of them have anything to do with the subject matter of the book. And Hitchens has written 20 books. With more than 20 titles.  Can you even conceptualize just how many meanings that might add up to in total? Well, I worked it out, and it's a lot. Hitchens is obviously someone who cares about word choice. More than me. More than Mark. But I digress.

The point Hitchens is making with the first sentence of the paragraph is a subtle one, so subtle that I wonder whether some daft editor made it more subtle than Hitchens intended it to be. But it is just about possible to discern what the point is. It is that Hitchens thinks that describing the film as dishonest and demagogic would be a rhetorical dead-end for his article. He believes this because, in his view, within the context of an article that details the true nature of the film, the terms dishonest and demagogic would appear quite mild and commonplace, or, as Hitchens puts it, they would be promote[d] [...] to the level of respectability. And as Hitchens makes clear in the final two sentences of the paragraph, he thinks that to give the reader any less than the Full Monty of an evaluation of the film at that point would be wrong. For if you have read the article, you will realize that, title aside (Holy hieroglyphics, Batman - Unfairenheit 9/11 is a triple entendre!!!) when we get to the paragraph under discussion, Hitchens has not yet told us what he thinks of the film. In fact, what he has said up to that point suggests that in some way Moore's film might be a positive contribution, a new and much needed voice for Democratic thinking. What Hitchens' has done is use the classic device of setting his target up for a fall. And what is needed is a heavy fall onto spikes, to be followed by a herd of elephants trampling the victim into unrecognizable squishy ucky stuff. The terms dishonest and demagogic are not those spikes. And that is what Hitchens is trying to tell us with the first sentence of the paragraph. Quite why he chose to tell us that, I cannot say. But it certainly confused the hell out of my main man Mark, about whose writing I am writing.

Mark thought that Hitchens was writing about a film about Bush, but, if I'm right, then in the crucial paragraph Hitchens was writing about the process of writing about a film about Bush. Which would mean that in this piece I have been writing about writing about writing about writing about a film about Bush, and am now in an infinite recursion of writing about writing about writing about.... Maybe we should all be writing about Bush instead. Nahh! Not on your Language Log!

Posted by David Beaver at June 23, 2004 04:09 AM