Once again, I planned to write on other things, and I did. It’s just that I never finished those essays and ended up writing something else, which is this. Anyway, so I ended up focusing on what Deborah Cameron refers to as verbal hygiene in her book that carries that as its name, ‘Verbal Hygiene’. Now, we might also call that semiotic hygiene, if we want to avoid thinking only terms of language and expand that notion to other semiotic modes beside language.
I’ve mentioned her book in the past, but it was not picking up her book again that made me deal with this topic again. It was actually a couple of stories I read in the news. Right, to give this a bit of context, there were these news a couple of days ago of how a publisher has opted to publish new editions Agatha Christie’s books. Note how these are considered to be new editions, not just new print runs. What’s new about these editions then? Well, in short, they’ve been sanitized.
But, before I get on with this, I’ll let Cameron do the talking. The point here is that language matters or, as she (xix) puts it:
“Language is, notoriously, something which engenders strong feelings[.]”
In some cases you have some authority, like the Académie française, telling you what’s what, you pleb. We just can’t have people do whatever they please with language, now can we? In Finland, there’s the Institute for the Language of Finland, which doesn’t really function the same way, but, growing up, I do remember it being referred to as the language authority concerning Finnish.
It might just have been the education system, or some teachers, but, in my experience, in school people took Finnish very, very seriously. Oh, and did I hate that or what? It was dreadful. I felt that I already knew what’s what, having no trouble expressing myself in speech, but, according to the red pens, not so in writing. Nothing was worse to teachers than an Anglicism or a Sweticism, i.e., something that has its origins in English or Swedish. Language had to be pure.
The Finnish language board of the institute, consisting of a rotating lineup of people, mainly academics, commented this in the early 1990s, right before first grade. Anyway, the board had been queried by a teacher what to think of Sweticisms and the reply was published in 1992. In summary, the board acknowledges that dealing with Anglicisms and Sweticisms is not a yes or no matter, but rather becomes an issue only when it blurs the meaning:
“One should steer clear of foreign influences that blur the expression. Getting the message across is often prevented by slavish word for word translated expressions.”
Okay, fair enough, the members of the board have a point. But, following that, which is my translation of it, by the way, they add that instead of simply saying no in such cases, one should provide alternatives. Again, that makes sense, inasmuch as we are concerned with clarity, as emphasized by them. But they also add to that:
“One should also take linguistic pride, to learn to appreciate one’s own expressions.”
So, they are saying that not all influences are bad, but one should nonetheless resist them. I’m just not buying this, no matter if it is in the Finnish original, or my translation of it. If you ask me, language just doesn’t work this way. This is more about what’s considered ‘correct’, which the key thing about verbal hygiene, and less about understanding.
We have plenty of loanwords, which are isolates, yet we have little trouble understanding them. For example, people refer to a drone as a ‘drone’ in Finnish and people aren’t left puzzled. They provide examples, such as the near word for word translation of ‘vetää johtopäätös’ as ‘to draw a conclusion’, and indicate that such expressions should be replaced with existing Finnish expressions, such as ‘tehdä johtopäätös’, which could be translated as ‘to conclude from’. If someone uses the former expression, instead of the latter, I have no trouble understanding it. I get it.
Why aren’t people puzzled by such? Why is it not a problem? Well, because what matters is that something makes sense. Valentin Vološinov (85) explains this well in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’:
“[F]rom whichever aspect we consider it, expression-utterance is determined by the actual conditions of the given utterance—above all, by its immediate social situation.”
Or, to put that even more concisely, as he (79) puts it:
“The meaning of a word is determined entirely by its context.”
Simply put, the text, whatever it is that we are dealing with, be it spoken or written, or expressed in some other mode, let’s say dance, is all about the context. That’s exactly why we have little trouble understanding what a drone is, even when we have no knowledge of the meaning of that word (OED, s.v. “drone”, n.1), in any of its senses listed in dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, be that about insects, namely bees, people who are dull or otherwise idle, or the most likely candidate, robot planes in military jargon, most likely piggy backing on the dullness of it:
“A remotely piloted or autonomous unmanned aircraft, typically used for military reconnaissance or air strikes.”
Or, more broadly speaking (OED, s.v. “drone”, n.1):
“A remote-controlled or autonomous vehicle or robotic device which operates in an environment or setting too dangerous or difficult for a human operator to work in[.]”
The concern expressed by the Finnish language board in the early 1990s is just misguided. If you have trouble understanding something, you can always express the same thing in different words, because like the word, phrase, sentence, or, more broadly speaking utterance or expression, is determined by its context, in its entirety, as Vološinov (79, 85) points out.
Now, he adds a further distinction between meaning and theme, which for him (101) are tied to one another, the former being the about how we come implement the latter:
“The most accurate way of formulating the interrelationship between them and meaning is in the following terms. Theme is the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance; in essence, only theme means something definite. Meaning is the lower limit of linguistic significance. Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality—the possibility of having a meaning withing a concrete theme.”
I particularly like the way he (101) explains this as a matter of limits. There’s the upper limit, which is the actual, concrete limit that appears in any context. This is why, for him (79, 85) meaning (without invoking this distinction) is all about the context. Language appears in its actuality, concretely, when someone says or writes something. This is why the lower limit is nothing in itself, before it is actualized. That said, you do need the lower limit, because even the upper limit is, indeed, a limit. If you are not within some limits, it’s going to come across as nonsensical.
To put that in another way, the upper limit is about actual meaning, how something is understood. In contrast, the lower limit is about virtual meaning, how something could be understood in certain potential contexts that we envisage. There could, of course, be other potential contexts. We simply don’t envisage them. The point about that is that it stays open ended, instead of there being these stock contexts, a fixed number of them, that we have access to, at all times, and simply apply in actual contexts. That might not be how he (101) explains it, but it’s how I would put it.
Anyway, I think there are better, easier to grasp terms for those limits, so I’ll let him (101) continue:
“Investigation of the meaning of one or another linguistic element can proceed, in terms of our definition, in one of two directions: either in the direction of the upper limit, toward theme, in which case it would be investigation of the contextual meaning of a given word within the conditions of a concrete utterance; or investigation can aim toward the lower limit, the limit of meaning, in which case it would be investigation of the meaning of a word in the system of language or, in other words, investigation of a dictionary word.”
To simplify that, with terms that you may have come across, even if you haven’t studied linguistics, I’d call the upper limit of understanding the contextual meaning or the pragmatic meaning and the lower limit of understanding the textual meaning or the semantic meaning. What’s cool about this distinction, how he (101-102) is able to conceive this, how we make sense of the world, is that he is having his cake and eating it at the same time as, in actuality, it’s all about the context, there and then, but it is, at the same time, all tied to our prior experience of the world, so that it’s individual and collective at all times.
To exemplify this, how the upper limit is the actual or concrete limit of understanding and how the lower limit is the potential or abstract limit of understanding, he (102) warns us not to juxtapose them:
“[D]iscriminations as those between a word’s usual and occasional meanings, between its central and lateral meanings, between its denotation and connotation, etc. are fundamentally unsatisfactory.”
Why? Well, because if the lower limit, the semantic side of it, if you will, is all about potential, which is open ended, so that its certainly bounded, but we simply do not know them, for sure, and they keep shifting, inasmuch as they do, of course, we simply have an indefinite number of meanings that could be actualized. None of them are more central than others. I disagree with him on this a bit though. I’d say that some meanings are more usual or more central than others, not in themselves, but because they are actualized more often others, because contexts are more frequent than others. I think he agrees with me on that, considering that he (102) goes on to add that:
“The basic tendency underlying all such discriminations—the tendency to ascribe greater value to the central, usual aspect of meaning, presupposing that that aspect really does exist and is stable—is completely fallacious.”
Pay attention to how he (102) emphasizes that we cannot give primacy to any of the potential meanings, just because we are in the habit of thinking that they some meaning is the meaning, denotation, whereas other meanings are not, being merely connotations. He (102) also rejects for another reason:
“Moreover, it would leave theme unaccounted for, since theme, of course, can by no means be reduced to the status of the occasional or lateral meaning of words.”
I reckon here he (102) objects to any fixed understanding, because understanding is, for him, a matter of actualizing the virtual, which could be anything, really. In other words, you can’t hold on to an idea that some unexpected understanding is, in itself, wrong. It might be unlikely, sure, but even that depends on the context. That’s actually the problem expectations. We might think that something should be understood in a certain way, in a certain imagined context, but it might not be the case in the actual context that we find ourselves in.
He (102) helps us to understand this by emphasizing that understanding is dialogic. In other words, words are always by other words, not the same words. As he (102) points out, we only match the words of other with the, supposedly, same words, when we are trying to learn a language, when are unable to understand. In his (102) words:
“Any genuine kind of understanding will be active and will constitute the germ of a response.”
To paraphrase, whatever we utter is bound to be countered with other words that will be uttered by someone else, in response to what we’ve uttered. That applies to everyone, at any given time, so whatever we utter is therefore based on whatever has been uttered before, in response to it, in anticipation of what someone else will utter in response to it. That’s language for you.
Back to Cameron (xix), who points out that while there aren’t that many language authorities who seek to regulate what’s what, we have a lot of people who are keen of doing that themselves, telling others what’s what:
“[T]here is no shortage of enthusiasts who take a proprietory interest in it, dedicating some portion of their leisure time to the collection of unusual linguistic specimens, tracking down of new or ‘misused’ expressions and the promotion of various language improvement schemes.”
If you ask me, that’s actually quite a nice way to put that, how it won’t take long for some language maven, as she (xix) calls such a person, to come out of the woodwork to start policing how other people express themselves. She (xx) provides some examples, but I’ll use one of my own. It was quite a long time ago that I witnessed people arguing over whether one should use – (hyphen), − (minus), – (en dash) or — (em dash) in a certain context, with a certain font, because while correct, it is rendered in a way that it looks like the incorrect one. Yeah, what can I say…
Now, verbal hygiene or, as I like to refer to it, sanitation, is, of course, not new. This happens all the time and Cameron’s book is full of good examples, some more obvious, others less so. We just don’t hear or read about it that much, because in most cases it doesn’t concern us personally.
We may only hear or read about such when the works of known authors are altered. The previous time I remember seeing this make the news was when new editions of Mark Twain’s books, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, were released in sanitized form, because they include the word ‘nigger’, a total of nine times in the former and a whopping 212 times (assuming I counted that right, including the singular and plural forms of it), and that makes a lot of people so uneasy that it’s no longer considered suitable as classroom reading in the US.
My own take is that it makes little sense for others to tamper with someone else’s text, without indicating that it has been tampered with. In academic texts you typically indicate modifications within [square brackets] and omissions or ellipses as … , so the reader knows that it’s been modified. It’s just a matter of transparency, so that you aren’t putting words into someone else’s mouth, making others think that the person said or wrote such. For example, I try to avoid using sexed language, if possible, and thus also alter the originals accordingly in that way. For example, instead of man, I’ll mark it as [human], if it is in reference people. Similarly, I’ll try to pluralize the text, so that it’d be [they] instead of a man or a woman, he or she, him or her, because even that’s a bit dated, because, well it is sexed, there’s no doubt about that. I won’t go as far as to not refer to a woman as she, her or herself, or to a man as he, him, himself, because in most cases they would prefer to be referred to as such. My preferred way of handling this is to use the word one, because it isn’t sexed and remains singular, as opposed to having to pluralize everything as that can be a bit confusing. There’s no easy solution this though. Using one all the time is pretty clunky.
When it comes to tampering with your own text, well, it’s not like anyone can stop you. It’s your text. You do as you please with it. No need to ask for anyone’s permission. If Agatha Christie or Mark Twain were still around and they held all the rights to their works (instead of having signed them away for good or the rights hadn’t been expired), they would be well within their rights to do anything they wish to with their own works. I certain think that they would be within their rights to do so, inasmuch as they’d be the rights holders. They could do whatever they please with their own works. If they chose to sanitize their own works, that’d be fine by me. If they opted to add something to them, again, fine by me. They could even add typos to the book or indicate each page with a random number and it would still be fine by me. They could do whatever they like with it and it would be fine by me. I’ve certainly altered my own essays, not because I believe that they are offensive, although I think that some may certainly find them to be offensive (as, similarly to, just mentioning the word ‘nigger’, to deal with the issue with its use, will surely be thought to be out of question for some), but because I am at liberty to do so, to do whatever I please with them. I only correct myself, as I don’t feel like changing the content (I’m still not sure what would be the best way to deal with concepts, how often should italicize them, to highlight them as concepts…), but I could anything with them, even delete them, like poof and it’s gone, and there’d be nothing that anyone could do to stop me. I think the only time I’ve deleted an entry was years ago when I managed to delete something by accident and had to bring it back. I like to think that I’m tech-savvy, that I definitely don’t make mistakes with computers, having grown up with them, but no, I’d be flattering myself if claimed that at this age. It may come to you as a surprise, but I don’t even own a smartphone. I guess I could say that I’ve owned one, like a very early one, but that’s a bit of a stretch. I don’t think the early ones count. I don’t think they were proper smart phones. Why don’t I own one? Well, because they aren’t what I want. I’m all about functionality, getting things done, whereas they are not. I want a phone to get a job done, without any hassle, without any tinkering, without messing up anything while I’m at it, whereas what they want to sell you is like the exact opposite of that. I want tools, so I buy tools. If I wanted toys, I’d buy toys. It’s that simple.
So, in summary, I don’t mind if people edit their own texts or publish different editions of their texts. That’s all fine by me. What I do mind is people editing other people’s texts, without indicating what has been changed. That’s not fine by me. The only exceptions to that are errors, like typos. No biggie. That happens all the time. You’d be surprised how easy it is to have a typo within a quote. Then again, that’s not intentional. It’s not the same as altering someone else’s text in order to, supposedly, make it more palatable to others, without clearly indicating having done so. That’s intentional.
Why do I mind altering other people’s texts without clearly indicating what’s been changed? I guess I could say that it’s all about transparency, and to certain extent it is, but my beef with it has more to do with how that infantilizes the reader. What do I mean by that? Well, simply put, by sanitizing other people’s texts, just in case someone might be offended something in it, strips the reader the right to be offended by it. If you get offended by, let’s say, Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’ in his books, at least you get to be offended by it. Let’s assume that he was a racist (even though he was not). If we’d sanitize his works on those grounds, we’d be whitewashing. As a reader, you wouldn’t be given the chance to come to that conclusion. Reading the book, without it being sanitized by others, regardless of whether you know that he wasn’t a racist, the point of using that slur, so, so many times, is to convey how openly racist a lot of people were back then. If you replace it with a word that does not convey that open racism, nor how common it was, you end up missing the point. Reading it is like a slap in the face, but that’s exactly the point, to make sure you understand not only the problem, but also how big it is, how widespread it was in his lifetime.
I think it’s also worth noting that someone like Twain, writing mainly in the 1800s, didn’t think ahead, as no one did, as no one does, as no one ever will, as no one is clairvoyant. Just imagining someone like him, there and then, writing a book, thinking, hmmm, I wonder what will people think of it a hundred years later, is just absurd. It’s like should I write it like this, or like that, like what if this is going considered problematic a century later? Should I even write this book? Hmmm, maybe not, just to be on the safe side. I don’t know about you, but something tells me that he wrote the book, there and then, for people to read, there and then, and not a hundred years later.
I realize that you could, of course, counter that by simply pointing out that times have changed, so that the books language is out of touch with the times, right here, right now. I agree. It is. But that’s the deal. You should be reading it as having been written back then, depicting reality back then, and not now. If you think that it would be better to read something more contemporary, with the same message, I’d agree with you, inasmuch people are made to read books, like they are in schools.
I think you are focusing on the wrong thing if you want to sanitize books like ‘Huckleberry Finn’, in hopes of having them read in schools. I think it would be more productive to start from why certain books are part of the curriculum in the first place. To be clear, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be part of some curriculum, just because they are dated, being out of touch with the times, or so to speak, nor am I saying that they should be part of some curriculum, just because they are considered important, just because they are considered a must read or something.
If the why is to shock the reader, you also need to address who the reader is. Something tells me that in the US context, a classroom with a black majority probably doesn’t need to be told that the US was racist back in the day. They already know that because that’s also how it still is. But, if you have a classroom full of white students, they may actually learn something from it.
If it were up to me, which it isn’t, I wouldn’t make people read classics, just because they are considered to be classics. I think it’s just counterproductive. At least you’d think there’d be something more recent, yet equally, if not more fitting. I’d rather let people read whatever they want to read. I’ll explain why.
When I was in school, I learned to hate literature. Why did that happen? Well, because we were told to read certain books and then write some essay that included the, supposedly, right views about it. They were these Finnish must read books, Aleksis Kivi’s ‘Seitsemän veljestä’ (‘The Brothers Seven’), Väinö Linna’s ‘Tuntematon sotilas’ (‘The Unknown Soldier’) and Mike Waltari’s ‘Sinuhe egyptiläinen’ (‘The Egyptian’), of which only the last one was something I really enjoyed reading. In contrast, in the English class we had the privilege to read just about anything, so I read ‘Pyramids’ by Terry Pratchett (if my memory serves me right). I think the idea of giving us the opportunity choose the book had to do with the teacher considering it more important for us to read anything, to just read, than to read something specific, which we then may or may not have finished. Now, I’m not saying that ‘Pyramids’ is the best of the bunch, nor that I have anything against the first two books that I listed. What I am saying is that by allowing us to pick what we wanted to read made reading a pleasure, whereas being told to read something that you are supposed to read and to uncover something important in it totally killed it for me, even if I otherwise enjoyed the book, like I did with Waltari’s book.
I didn’t enjoy literature as an undergrad either. It was all very different. That was fine. I just had a poor attitude to literature, because I had learned to hate it. That’s on me. The books that we were pushed to read weren’t the problem. They were never the problem in school either. It was rather that we were told to read them, to appreciate them, and to have something to say about them, to uncover something important about them. The difference between the two was just that on university courses the expectations were higher than in school, which made it even worse, at least for someone like me who, for the most, didn’t enjoy reading, nor understood what I was supposed to uncover in the texts. Whatever I wrote, it just sucked. To be fair, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure that my essays did suck. I was clueless.
I only learned to enjoy literature when I was able to do it on my own terms. That had always worked for me. I still don’t read much literature, to be honest, but when I do, I do it because I enjoy doing it. It’s just me and the book. That’s it. No need to think of anything to say about it. It’s like letting the book work on me, not me on the book. That’s how I’d put it.
As I’m just me, some dude, writing essays, without much care … for anything, really, you’ll probably want someone else who can explain that. You are in luck as Gilles Deleuze (7) puts this so nicely in ‘Letter to a Harsh Critic’, as I’ve mentioned at least a couple of times in the past:
“[Y]ou either see it as a box with something inside and start looking for what it signifies[.]”
Indeed. I’d say this was how we were taught to read in school. You were always supposed to have something to say about the book you read and by that something I mean something smart, something supposedly meaningful. Then there’s the other way of reading a book, as he (7) goes on to add:
“[Y]ou see the book as a little non-signifying machine, and the only question is ‘Does it work, and how does it work?’ How does it work for you? If it doesn’t work, if nothing comes through, you try another book.”
Exactly. This is what I mean by it being a pleasure to read. If you enjoy the book, you’ll keep reading it. That’s how you know something is coming through. It works for you. If you don’t enjoy the book, you won’t keeping it and that’s you cue to read something else instead.
To be fair, I don’t think I can blame my teachers for making me hate literature, at least not all of them. It might actually be the case that I was taught the typical way, early on, and then later on had teachers who would have wanted me to read the other way. That’s entirely possible and then that’s on me. Then again, that’s the thing. I’d say that it takes very little for you to end up taking it for granted that you are supposed to read books in a way that you’ll uncover something profound in them, which then ruins the experience of it.
Plus, I’m pretty sure we had the opportunity to read some book or books that we got to choose. There’s that. I can’t ignore that. It’s rather that even though we had some say in that matter, for me, those good experiences were ruined by all the bad experiences, so I can’t even name the books that I got to choose, whereas I can name the books that I didn’t get to choose.
Right, so, to get back on track here, I’d say that the most important thing about reading is reading, not what you are reading. What you read is, of course, also important, it’s not at all important if you don’t read. So, if you are pushed to read ‘Huckleberry Finn’, for example, and you just couldn’t care less, because it just seems so dated, because it just doesn’t work for you, because nothing comes through, as Deleuze (8) puts it, and you’d rather read something more contemporary, I’d say it would make a lot of sense to let you read something more contemporary. That said, it should be the other way around either. If something contemporary doesn’t work for you, but, for some reason, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ works for you, then it makes little sense to let you read it, instead of whatever it is, something more contemporary, that you are supposed to read.
So, to address the topic of this essay, what it is that I wanted to focus on in this essay, this also applies to other semiotic modes. There was also this other news story not long ago. There was an art exhibit, which was deemed to be pornographic, because, apparently, there were, heaven forbid, some photos depicting boobs and even pubic hair.
I think Cameron makes a good point when she (121) notes that this is not about what, that what’s what, but about who gets to define what’s what. I believe Friedrich Nietzsche would agree. It’s typically the case that people in high places get to define what’s what and this also applies to language. As he (132) points out, you have editors and copy editors who typically dictate this for you or, well, you don’t get published. Now the tables have turned, at least somewhat, so that this practice of verbal hygiene or, more broadly speaking, semiotic hygiene, is not, merely, a matter of a bunch of old racist and sexist men in offices defining what passes and what does not. Now it’s the anti-racists and anti-sexists who utilize the very same structure of gatekeeping that they used to oppose, probably not because they wanted it to end up that way, but because that’s a very efficient way of achieving your goals, compelling people to act in a certain way, as she (132) points out.
Now, her (132) take is that such movements are clearly political, which differentiates them from the old guard who keep insisting that there’s nothing racist, nor sexist, or the like, just neutral and universal language. I agree. However, I think that the way things work, as it’s all about the money, the intentions may have been good, but it has been appropriated to serve corporate interests. So, for example, instead of getting brand new books, with brand new content, we get some sanitized old classics. The publishers get to sell whatever they already have instead of having to support something which may or may work for their interests. If someone challenges this practice, the continued use of some books, let’s say questionable classics, the publisher can ensure the public that, having consulted language experts, everything is a-ok.
Oh, that’s not even a hot take. It’s even worse, when you check out what the people involved have to say about the publishers. Zoe Dubno points out in her opinion piece, ‘Publishers are cynically using ‘sensitivity readers’ to protect their bottom lines’, that appeared on the ‘The Guardian’ earlier this month, that, as indicated in her article title, it’s a racket. Her previous article, ‘The rise of the ‘sensitivity reader’, published a couple of years ago in ‘The Spectator’, also covers this issue and I think her depiction of it as the introduction of “fiction’s new moral gatekeepers”, as well as “a seductively cheap way to cancel-proof your book” is exactly what it is.
Now, that may seem like she is blaming the people involved, the sensitivity readers, but that’s not what she is after. She doesn’t want to sensationalize this. In the earlier article, she points out that some of this is actually beneficial for the writer. It’s basically getting a second opinion. It can help you to iron out all kinds of wrinkles, ranging from all kinds goofs that, I’d say, ruin the immersion, to issues where the writer might be saying something genuinely insensitive, like how it is a really, really bad idea to have a black character who turns into a monkey. I think those are what a good editor should point out to you.
The thing is, however, like I pointed out, that it’s a racket. That’s the point about it being seductive and cheap, a way to make sure something that’s deemed toxic is detoxified. It’s about making sure that the publisher doesn’t look like it’s sitting on thousands of pages of questionable intellectual property, or IP, as it’s commonly referred to as these days, and making a profit from it, even though, that’s exactly what it is doing.
I think this it is helpful to put this another way. There’s two ways of going about this. Think of the sensitivity reader as an editor, someone who looks after you, going through going through your work, sentence by sentence, to make sure that you are doing your best and, for sure, aren’t saying something really, really stupid, because you didn’t think it through. That sounds good to me. That can’t be cheap. Like I’d pay good money for a good editor. As it is the publisher who handles that, you’d at least think that they are people who get paid well. Now, the thing is that it’s not the case. The sensitivity reader is someone who competes with others for the same job, being paid so little that it’s a rip-off. As she points out in her earlier article, these people are what I’d call ‘contractors’. They get paid next to nothing and there’s no sense of security that comes with being an ‘employee’. You’d think that people who are ‘contractors’ would get paid a lot, being experts at something, like mercenaries of the corporate world, you know, ‘consultants’, but that’s the exact opposite of how it all works in the so called ‘gig economy’, as she points out. You earn very little for what you do and if you don’t like it, there’s always someone else to replace you.
What does this mean for an author then? Well, as she points out in her more recent text, it helps to deflect criticism. If someone finds it questionable, it’s now not on you, but whoever was paid to check your work. It then has that stamp of approval, as she puts it.
I think she makes good points in both of her texts, noting how silly it is to outsource one’s responsibility like this. From a more philosophical viewpoint, I think she explains this well when she points out that there’s this obsession with verisimilitude. If you ask me, the charm of fiction is that it is as if were real, but it isn’t. That’s immersion for you. If you want it to be reality, why are you reading a book? Why not experience things, instead of reading a book about someone experiencing things, if you are so afraid that the you aren’t getting the real deal?
It’s not one of her examples, but let’s take someone like Marcel Proust. ‘In Search of Lost Time’ the protagonist is a heterosexual, yet Proust was known to be a homosexual. He deals with a lot of homosexuality, but we could flaw him for not knowing a thing about heterosexuality, just because that wasn’t his thing. Do I flaw him for that? No. I couldn’t care less.
If you ask me, I think that Deleuze explain this issue of verisimilitude well in ‘Letter to a Harsh Critic’. He (11) first acknowledges the criticism:
“[W]hen you say I’m someone who’s always just tagged along behind, taking it easy, capitalizing upon other people’s experiements, on gays, drug users, alcoholics, masochists, lunatics, and so on, vaguely savoring their transports and poisings without ever taking any risks.”
If you look at his works, and those of his close friend, Félix Guattari, he indeed deals with a lot of ways of experiencing the world, without ever having been experienced such. To my knowledge, he was not gay, a drug user, an alcoholic, a masochist, nor a lunatic. But that’s the deal, he doesn’t even believe in such or, rather, he thinks that treating people as such, as being a homosexual, a drug user, an alcoholic, a masochist, a lunatic, or the like, as having this and/or that identity, is exactly the problem, as he (11) goes on to add:
“But what do you know about me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth.”
Which he (11) then specifices:
“We have to counter people who think ‘I’m this, I’m that,’ and who do so, moreover, in psychoanalytic terms (relating everything to their childhood or fate), by thinking in strange, fluid, unusual terms: I don’t know what I am—I’d have to investigage and experiement with so many things in a non-narcissistic, non-oedipal way—no gay can ever definitely say ‘I’m gay’.”
In other words, let people, including yourself, be the way they are, here and now. Don’t put them into little boxes. It’s that simple. He (11) then summarizes this:
“It’s not a question of being this or that sort of human, but of becoming inhuman, of a universal animal becoming—not seeing yourself as some dumb animal, but unraveling your body’s human organization, exploring this or that zone of bodily intensity, with everyone discovering their own particular zones, and the groups, populations, species that inhabit them.”
He (11-12) gives us some examples:
“Who’s to say I can’t talk about medicine unless I’m a doctor, if I talk about it like a dog? What’s to stop me talking about drugs without being an addict, if I talk about them like a little bird? And why shouldn’t I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I’m qualified to talk like that?”
To make sense of that, and the other passages, the problem is that we are, in fact, in the habit of thinking about things in terms of identities, essentializing who we are, so that, only a drug user can not about drugs (as if no one else, but a drug user knows about drugs), or that only an alcoholic knows about alcohol (as if no one else, but an alcoholic knows about alcohol), and so on and so forth. He (12) summarizes his rejection of such a view:
“Why does your particular version of ‘reality’ have to come into it? You’re a pretty unimaginative realist.”
And if that doesn’t work for you, he (12) states that:
“My favorite sentence in Anti-Oedipus is: ‘No, we’ve never seen a schizophrenic.’”
So, yeah, that’s the problem of verisimilitude. We might also call that mimesis. This or that label, it’s not that important. The gist of this issue is that we’d be far happier in our lives if we stopped thinking in terms of identities.
Anyway, to end this essay, what I particularly like about Dubno’s take on the issue is the matter of responsibility or, rather, integrity. I think the best way to put it is that it feels really cheap to make someone, yes make, give your work their stamp of approval, paying them as little as possible, just because that’s possible, just because there’s always someone else who’ll do it if that person won’t do it.
- Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
- Deleuze, G. ( 1995). Letter to a Harsh Critic. In G. Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972–1990 (M. Joughin, Trans.) (pp. 4–12). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- Dubno, Z. (2021). The rise of the ‘sensitivity reader’. London, United Kingdom: The Spectator. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-rise-of-the-sensitivity-reader/
- Dubno, Z. (2023). Publishers are cynically using ‘sensitivity readers’ to protect their bottom lines. London, United Kingdom: The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/commentisfree/2023/mar/09/roald-dahl-censorship-sensitivity-readers-books
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