Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: December, 2009

The Sun, Tits and Tragedy

Doctored image of different headlines

The Sun is known for many things, but one of its now regular features which escapes immediate notice – understandable, really, behind the barrage of tits – is its use of the word ‘tragic’. Tragic is a word with a venerable tradition and a nigh-on infinite array of meanings. It spans the ancient days of sacrificial slaughter (‘tragos’ means ‘goat’ in Greek, and ‘aoidia’ means ‘song’ – hence a song sung whilst the animal was sacrificed) and the art-form that arose out of that ritual, giving us the likes of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, through its next high-point with Shakespeare all the way to the latest most rigorous attempt to get to grips with it as a concept: Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence. Along the way, ‘tragic’ can mean anything from ‘very sad’ to ‘the downfall of a great man thanks to an inherent fatal flaw’. It is a veritable cocktail of destiny, free will, suffering and obscure glory. It can also be a fairly humdrum affair: Hamlet was a prince, but the young working-class mother who dies prematurely of meningitis is no less deserving of the ‘accolade’, if one can be so perverse as to call it that.

What is novel about The Sun’s use of the word is that it becomes a personal attribute; ‘tragic’ is no longer an adjective ascribed to a certain situation, but something a person seems to be: ‘tragic Stephen Gately’, ‘tragic mum is knifed’, ‘eight tragic soldiers killed’, and so on. Now, what I certainly don’t want to suggest is that these people are not important enough to be associated with the high gravitas of tragedy. My problem with The Sun’s usage is that it is deeply ideological. By ascribing ‘tragic’ to an individual person rather than to the network of relations in which they are ensnared (causal, social, economic, political, familial, miltarial) it suggests that what happened was somehow destined and inevitable, it was ‘in their nature’. Whereas what is really tragic about many of these stories is that the people who suffer and die in them do so as a result of potentially avoidable systemic violence of which they are the victim. What is tragic about a British soldier being killed in Afghanistan is not something inherent in the soldier himself, but rather in the world economic and political system which has landed him there as an illegal occupier, paid him a shitty wage to be there, encouraged him that it is in his and our immediate interests to murder supposedly ‘evil’ enemies, and then – to top it all off – has got him massacred in the process. By attributing the tragic to the soldier himself, this larger narrative is kept nicely out of view.

The Sun is a wonderfully inventive and funny newspaper. If it wasn’t the ideological handmaid of murder, hatred and mass exploitation, I’d be able to laugh at its jokes that little bit more easily.

Finding a Voice

When I write privately – in a journal or a notebook – about personal thoughts and experiences, it is almost impossible to find a voice. What I mean by this is that I cannot find a style of writing adequate to the content of my private life. Most of the time, I use one of three languages: formal English in academic essays, colloquial English full of obscenities and idiomatic puns in conversations with friends, and (bad) French with my girlfriend. In other words, I – ‘I’, my identity – spans these three basic worlds, which means that when I come to write my ‘private’ thoughts (no thought is ever truly private – which is also part of the problem) I have to navigate between these three domains.

The difficulty is that no one discourse ever feels totally appropriate to the other two. Formal philosophical or theological jargon doesn’t seem to capture the nuance of, for example, a lover’s exchange, and nor does a filthy joke about one! There are two consequences of this, which are secretly one. Firstly, it means that my identity is not unified or integrated: ‘I’ is the particular interstitial gap generated by the mismatch of these three languages. Secondly, the historical epoch is such that an integrated identity is denied me. Life is so decompartmentalized that no one discourse seems capable of encompassing the totality. The first of these is history from the view of the subject; the second is history on the side of the object.

Perhaps the novel is still important for this reason: that it can provide symbolic resolutions of such real antagonism.

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