America’s Shit for Brains

Following the defeat of Nazism, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish philogist and professor of romance studies, published an astonishing analysis of the language of Nazism.  It remains the template for any future understanding of the role that language plays in reactionary and fascist times. “Language reveals all,” Klemperer writes. Language both reflects and creates our reality.

The most powerful influence during Nazism’s reign was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags, Klemperer argues. It was not achieved consciously. Instead, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures, imposed on them in a million different repetitions so that they were taken on board unconsciously.

 

Under the New Brutality, we may wonder what words, idioms, and syntactical structures—what Klemperer calls “tiny doses of arsenic”—we are swallowing. Which words have changed their values, which words have disappeared, and how has the way we speak and write changed, and to what detrimental effects?

Klemperer describes the language of the Third Reich as no longer drawing a distinction between spoken and written language. Everything was “oration … exhortation, invective.” Fanaticism became a virtue. We can see this same kind of blurring happening today, but the arena has changed from rallies and talk shows to—where else? —the Internet.  If the spoken and written languages are being blurred (Trump’s twitter is a clear example of how the written perfectly represents his oration: “Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests—that’s what I like to do!”), it’s worth wondering about the blurring of the written language and the image in the form of memes. Klemperer indeed noted, “The entire thrust of the language of the Third Reich was towards visualization.” The internet meme seems to accomplish this. Both the meme and the peculiar form of sly, ironic, vicious humour that animates it have become part of our new linguistic and visual reality.

Where Klemperer reflected that the Third Reich’s language was “impoverished and monotonous,” the language-images of the New Brutality are ambiguous and uncertain. They spill over from screen to street, from GIF to poster, from the anonymity and snark of online forums to the murderous, smirking bloodlust of white supremacist rallies and their patrons’ deadly attacks on minority groups. “Until recently,” reflects Jason Wilson, “it would have been hard to imagine the combination of street violence meeting Internet memes.” But this is 2017. He continues, “The alt-right have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponizing irony, and by using humour and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents.” Language—whether visual or written, and most especially the entwining of the two—is power.

 

Angela Nagle, a longtime commentator on the alt-right and online culture, similarly describes a terrifying future: “The emergence of the alt-right should warn us of a new imminent nightmare vision of what the coming years might hold—a public arena emptied of any civility, universalist ideas or openly competing political visions beyond a zero-sum tribal antagonism of identify groups, in which the boundaries of the acceptable thought will shrink further while the purged will amass in the fetid forums of the alt-right.”

– Nina Power, The Language of the New Brutality