Newsletter #6: On Distortion

On Distortion

“The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activities by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or by way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”

—Pierre Bourdieu

The danger of objectivist intellectualism in anthropology and its kin fields (such as linguistics, where research paths tend to diverge depending on whether the linguist happens to be analyzing her own mother tongue or a foreign language) is analogous in many ways to the danger of explanation in reporting. The difference is that journalists do not seem to be aware of any danger. Many journalists do not seem to realize they are performing a decoding operation at all. They do not believe they are explaining. “We report, you decide.” (Decide what?)

At the risk of stating the obvious, to explain is not just to tell a story but to choose one story among many, and the act of choosing only appears dispassionate. This describes the situation of the observer in any field. As an anthropologist risks theoretical distortion through (his belief in) his own absence from the observed system, so the journalist risks distortion through a similar remove. For the journalist, there is an additional demand and attendant danger: to be interesting.

A brief case study from the news desk of The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2018:

“The clashes along Gaza’s border have caused misery on both sides: At least 170 Palestinians have been killed, and thousands of acres of Israeli farmland have been torched.”

I’d like to think about how a sentence like this gets written, approved, and published in the American paper of record. The operative word seems to be misery. It is the “misery” of the living that betrays the dead: misery observed by a Times journalist, who also happened elsewhere to observe the misery of beleaguered farmers and other property-holders, and who decided to report these observations together, one after the other, using the shared experience of misery as thematic scaffold. If it is the obligation of the journalist to report not just fairly but truly about events unknown to the reader, misery is the point of failure. It may be a fair description of events, but it is not a true one.

First, know that reporters understand themselves to be eyewitnesses. We'll discuss how that came to be in a moment. For now, just accept it as axiomatic. At a glance, misery itself might seem to lie beyond the purview of the eye. The experience of misery is subjective: we can report only on claims of misery, and on certain visible signs, but not the interior world of the subject’s suffering. But there are journalistic needs that supersede the narrowly objective. To inform the reader, for one. To interest the reader, for another. The above sentence does both to a fault. Misery’s explanatory value lies in the word’s ability to bridge two classes of objects—Palestinian lives and Israeli farmland—together in parataxis, which is to say in interesting explanation, the Allen wrench, as it were, of the writer as eyewitness.

Death and parataxis

Grammatical parataxis is the more restrictive sense of the term. It occurs when two syntactic objects are placed side by side without any connective tissue. We were hungry. We drove into town. An unspoken connection—a third sentence—emerges between them like a phantom finger: We decided to go find some food.

The competent writer can use parataxis to produce not just such banal inferences as this but also interesting and dramatic...vibrations, let's call them: subtext and connotation that would not hold a reader’s interest as explicit text. Forgive the shopworn example, but:

For Sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

The meaning behind the juxtaposition is left as an exercise for the reader, but it is there, a kind of indirect explanation.

There is no parataxis of this restrictive sort in the Times sentence. In fact, rewritten paratactically, the sentence become decidedly more ambiguous: “The clashes along Gaza’s border have caused misery on both side. At least 170 Palestinians have been killed. Thousands of acres of Israeli farmland have been torched.” An inclined reader might see in the full stop separating these final sentences something guileful, even witty, something like the line of Anatole French’s (which my grandfather, who would have turned 99 this month, liked to quote): “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.” That reading, which already requires an elastic sense of play, becomes impossible to maintain in the original.

Imagistic or conceptual parataxis is broader, however—so broad, you could call it one of the primary tools of the "creative" writer. You know what I mean:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Like poets and modernists, journalists are not immune to the charms of parataxis. As narrative descriptions go, they’re as concise as you get, and all newspapermen fetishize concision. (How often will I have to hear that such and such a novelist has great economy of style because he--usually he--cut his teeth at the Goodwriting Gazette?) More important, parataxis is a way for the writer to evoke drama and meaning while obeying the demand that journalists operate, like the anthropologist, from outside: “excluded from the real play of social activities,” in Bourdieu's phrase. The fantasy of mere description with which the reporter/eyewitness justifies his peculiar mode of fairness precludes the incorporation of ideas into the text that would position him within the described event. What replaces ideas, then, are images that aim to produce a floating frankfurter of idea between them.

Here is the finger of parataxis the Times reporter probably (let us be generous) intended to conjure:

This conflict may be particular and complicated, but misery is universal.

Here, of course, is the floating finger that appears:

The loss of Palestinian lives is equivalent to the destruction of Israeli property.

There’s the rub—the untruthfulness at the heart of fairness. You can’t control what phantom finger (or fingers!) emerge paratactically between your objects. Moreover, by withholding explicit political ideas from your writing, your phantom finger will be formed in part by whatever dominant ideology is already in operation around it. I suppose my argument, then, is that sentences like the above are produced less by blind adherence to a neutral stance between two extremes (what armchair critics call “bothsidesism”) than by the requirement that reporters formulate a position about an event from outside the event, while also adhering to the broader demand of all writing: that it interest the reader. The event must present itself dramatically; at the same time, the reporter must depict the event from a sealed capsule, a depiction produced not during the event but afterward, following the reporter’s “re-admission to and subsequent residence inside bourgeois life.”

Among the doges

That’s Edward Said on George Orwell, by the way. Orwell did as much as any writer to develop the mode of reporting on display here. And Said is one of the writers-on-writers I’m returning to more and more these days, his wisdom seeming more inexhaustible the more my own work threatens to explain and decode. (There is a lot about decoding, directly and indirectly, in Reflections on Exile: & Other Literary & Cultural Essays.) Said’s “Tourism among the Dogs” locates Orwell’s writing life within “an affirmation of unexamined bourgeois values” disguised by his adventurism and inconstant turns of empathy for the downtrodden.

Incidentally, how droll to see the causes to which Orwell is today made to stand for and against, most often through the standard online reduction that turns the bouillon of a decades-long, self-contradicting career into the viscous gravy of meme. “You know Orwell was a socialist, right?” quips the rose-profiled pious to the MAGA chud who has tweeted out one of the three or four extant pixellated BrainyQuotes from Animal Farm or 1984. In fact, Orwell was ignorant of Marx, Marxism, and socialist traditions. As Said notes, notwithstanding his tourism among Spanish anti-fascists, he consistently dismissed English radicals as “the pansy left” and misled his readers as a bad-faith bum whose rich auntie was always a phone call away. His tour among the down and outs has since been done better by Pulp.

What Orwell gave us was the comfortable adventurer, a radical moderate who, as Said writes, citing Deutscher, later turns to “an ideology of the middle-brow ‘our way of life’ variety, which in the United States at least has been dressed up as ‘neo-conservativism.’ ” From Orwell comes the space capsule, journalism’s response to Malinowski’s field tent. Pretending to exist above the fray, it is neo-conservative at its core.

In the last paragraph of “Tourism among the Dogs,” Said leaps boldly. The reporter does not just distort events. In his plain style, reporting “without unnecessary adornment the views of a decent man,” he creates the very events he purports to document—creates them as events. How else to explain the invented "event" of the Central American migrant caravan, the sort of easily dangled far-right bait irresistible to reporters who surely believe themselves born cynics? The plain reportorial style pioneered by Orwell “coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics—along with its strengths and weaknesses—of contemporary Western journalism.”


It is the eyewitness who must report on the destruction of Israeli farmland or a caravan of migrants but not on the complex realities that produced those dramatic events. Said is right to ask: “But are such events events only when they are shown through the eyes of the decent reporter? … Is there to be no remarking on the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?”

The world as a function of comfortable concern is likewise the anthropologist’s ambit when he reduces “all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations”—a hermeneutics of other people. Both journalist and anthropologist end up withholding their ideas, and by extension their “place in the system,” hoarding them jealously from the reader even as the floating fingers of ideology appear, inevitable haunting sausage-specters conjured by the incantations of style and rhetoric—by writing itself. A kind of wretchedness there. Wretchedness, the sentiment from which both miser and misery derive.

Letter archive.

xo,
Ben