Against Abstraction

Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.   Ezra Pound


While in Professor George David Clark‘s poetry workshop at Colgate University, we did the following exercise on abstraction: write a poem, re-read it and underline any abstractions you found, put it away for a day, do the same and underline more abstractions, then fix the lines and turn them in.  After turning in my work, Prof. Clark returned it to me with at least seven abstractions underlined I hadn’t picked up.  This has remained the most poignant lesson I’ve learned in creative writing, and one very applicable to the way I view the social and political world we currently live in.

Abstraction, in language, is a tool used only to simplify; an abstract term standing alone never has the power of complexity and intellectual probing that a concrete statement does.  It is one of the reasons the Modernist/Imagist movement exists, an exaggerated pendulum swing away from the language of the Romance era.  It is why Shakespeare’s language is so craftily engaging and alluring; the way in which one exact and precisely described image in his sonnet carries a myriad of varying meanings is genius bordering something greater than genius.  It is the power of WCW’s “red wheelbarrow,” or Maya Angelou’s caged bird.  How would we know what “freedom” means in Angelou’s poetry without “his wings are clipped and/ his feet are tied?”  

The conversation on abstraction might be a uniquely English one, as our modern version of the language has more vocabulary than any other known language.  A French-speaking friend once described how her favorite part of the French language is that, given how limited the vocabulary is, even everyday speech is often composed of metaphors and similes, that describing terms are usually turns of phrase created by amalgamations of other images and identifiers.  In English, for good or ill, we have an urge to give names to all things, names unique and unhinged from other names.  American English is especially prone to this vocab expansion, incorporating the influence of African American linguistic developments, the influence of Mexico’s Spanish and Canada’s French.  Indeed, a critical part of the American Revolution was a revolution of terms and diction; in order to firmly separate American identity from British identity, new words and identifiers were invented, and sometimes, without much attention to the logic of the language.

But now, abstraction is becoming a perhaps dangerous force in modern culture.  On the literary front, abstraction is the Achilles Heel of 95% of “performance poetry” being written and performed.  In submission to the passion and emotiveness of physical performance, performance poetry too often ignores the linguistic specificity that makes poetry a unique form of utterance from other forms.  A complaint transcribed into a performance of poetry is ignoring what Jane Hirschfield describes as “circling its content, call[ing] to it from afar, looks for the hidden, tangential approach, the truth that grows apparent.”  In pop culture, the advent of Twitter has forced us to rely on vague terms to portray complex ideas and thoughts; Instagram and the revolution of the hashtag is even worse.  We bind ourselves to terms like “happiness” or “love” or “content,” and engage with the fabricated belief that others using these terms are also feeling the same way, when in fact, a vast spectrum of possible feelings (all with their own specific language) separate those feelings.     

On a disclamatory note, my rejection of abstraction doesn’t carry over into the world of the visual arts.  Abstraction has become a mode of genuinely provocative modern painting and sculpture; dance is a fascinating encounter between that which is most concrete in our world (the human body), and an abstract narrative that that body is forming.  There is something to be said (and has been said in this blog before) for the power of ritual in and of itself.  But when language is used for its ritualistic effect, and without genuine intellect backing it, it becomes baseless and fraudulent.  

This is why abstraction is so dangerous in political debate.  Unfortunately, it seems to be used more often by politicians and policymakers today than it ever has been before (except, perhaps, through World War II, when radio and billboard propaganda was so prevalent).  This is, perhaps unlike my previous blog posts, not a quibble on word choice or on the relatively minor shiftings and movings of the literary world, but a genuine fear for a major social disaster.  We are in the midst of a terrifyingly important presidential election.  While they may all appear, in the moment, as equally divisive as this one, a quick comparison of the Republican representation in the last three elections to this year’s shows a stark difference: George W. Bush appears a hero of Islam compared to the rampant attacks of Trump, and Mitt Romney sounds like an Economic genius compared to the nonsensical mutterings of Ben Carson and Ted Cruz.  What is different about this election is that a radical-right has commandeered the entire Republican Party, and has implemented a fascinatingly abstraction-based formula for preying on the fears of many Americans, and capitalizing on the violent nature of too many Americans.  

Donald Trump is the most obvious representation of this abstraction-infused campaign.  The greatest danger of a figure like Trump is not the things he says, but the lack of anything actually being said.  He is an empty palette onto which his supporters can paint all their personal feelings of fear, distrust, anger, and hope.  Two different people can leave a speech like this believing wholeheartedly that Trump actually made two entirely different statements, when in fact he made neither at all.  “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal? I beat China all the time. All the time” (link).  While this hopefully would be a straightforward statement, it is, in fact, not.  What this statement contains is the (deliberate) possibility to be misread in any number of ways.  This statement could be interpreted as a declaration of military war on China (language of victories, language of serious trouble, language of beating China).  Perhaps more clearly, this statement tries to say that the U.S is having difficulty in trade deals, which isn’t factually correct, nor is it corroborated by any provided evidence.  Finally, again, with no corroboration, Trump claims that he “beats” China.  We don’t know what he means by “beats.”  How does he beat them?  Politically, violently, economically, financially?  Morally?  But Trump doesn’t want us to know the answers to these questions.  He doesn’t want to qualify or contextualize any of his statements.  If, from that single statement, his supporters are going to step away believing that he is going to declare war on China and beat everyone, as well as beating everyone in all trade deals, as well as make America Great Again (whatever that means), then he’s done far better than providing data and qualitative evidence of his actions.  

In the political arena, while Trump stands out as the most boisterous and contentious swinger of ludicrously abstract language, other politicians fare little better.  Bernie Sanders uses specific information (while not always up to date, he is quoting actual sources) when describing the problems facing the U.S (income inequality, healthcare, veteran’s rights), but in the language of his resolutions to these issues, he relies, in most public statements, doggedly abstract.  When asked about Healthcare, Bernie uses statistics to describe what’s wrong with the U.S Healthcare system, and then describes “hav[ing] the courage to take on the insurance companies, and the medical equipment suppliers.”  Having the courage is an abstract statement that can be read as litigation, perhaps investigation, perhaps regulation, but none of these terms are actually being used in the concrete.  Hillary Clinton, similarly, speaks of Healthcare in the following way: “Obama succeeded in doing was to build on the health care system we have, get us to 90 percent coverage. We have to get the other 10 percent of the way to 100.”  She runs that percentage a few times in the health care debate, but never describes a plan or cost or solution to “getting” that other 10% (full transcript of this debate can be found here).

What may differ between the language of Trump and the language of the Democrats, is that solutions and details do exist in their plans, much of which can be found on their websites (for Trump, Bernie, and for Clinton).  However, in public discourse, the language of specifics just doesn’t make for good television.  Unfortunately, the focus in political theater has shifted from education and information to demagoguery and flair.  The Media feeds this (most of you have heard me rant about Huffington Post’s ridiculously melodramatic headlines that are akin to WWI war propaganda), and we as the populace to little to stop this.  It appears to be a more pleasurable sensation to hear someone talking about how wronged we are, rather than talking about solutions to those wrongs.  Overwhelmingly, Sanders’s statements (I cannot speak for Clintons, because I have heard and read fewer) rely on listing the woes and shortcomings of the U.S government.  Far less time is used to describe Sanders-specific solutions to these problems.

Unfortunately, the specifics of politics and law are boring and usually incredibly difficult to comprehend.  We rely on media to boil down these 1000 page legal documents to only what is absolutely need-to-know, but our media has begun to fail in adequately presenting us with this data.  Sanders and Trump are the same in one key aspect: the language of Revolution.  A movement away from what was, and towards something new, something different.  What we, as voters, and as (perhaps unwillingly) active participants in this country’s political field, must demand in this revolution is a dedication to specificity, a war on abstraction, and a clear feed of data and fact-based information flowing more directly from D.C to as many people as possible.  Abstraction is for the wicked.  Concreteness is my demand.  Specificity is my agenda.
















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