26 May 2010


I'm in a place with a television this week and I decided to turn on the news as I was eating breakfast. I was amused/disturbed to notice that Fox News (which was, in its defense, the only "news" network not running stories about cute puppies or things of a similar nature) was running non-stop advertisements for gold investment services in between its news stories about how the sky was falling. In between wondering whether or not gold was likely to be a particularly good investment, since its convertibility into local currency presupposes some demand for the commodity (a demand that is dampened and not heightened by economic instability), I was struck by something I had written about some time ago in the context of a discussion of Beowulf. What exactly is the value of gold? And why do dragons dwell on buried gold-hoards? There is something perverse about burying refined gold-work back in the earth from which it came. Gold should be seen in the sunlight, not placed back into the earth.

As the advertisement correctly observed, gold has always held some value. This value is not "conventional" in the way that the value of our currency is conventional, nor is it derived from its practical utility in industrial applications. In the alchemical symbolism, gold is the perfection of nature subsumed by the spiritual. In Beowulf, gold is a physical manifestation of the virtue of a people personified in their hero. When the people are no more, the burial of the gold calls dragons to its glitter. This image is one the most intriguing of the poem (which is partially a reflection upon gold) and rewards careful attention and reflection. The proper meaning of gold is almost entirely erased when it is viewed as a means to stabilize one's IRA against fluctuations in equity prices; and it is highly significant that in these situations the person purchasing the gold generally does not take physical possession of the gold but controls it through shares in a mutual fund or through an ETF. Yet even in this utterly etherealized form there is still something mysterious about the manner in which gold eludes mathematization, as fluctuations of gold prices are highly difficult to model for any practical financial purpose.

"there laid within it his lordly heirlooms
and heaped hoard of heavy gold."
Beowulf XXXII

15 May 2010


Political society of any kind requires that discourse be engaged in with pure intentions. The moment that the choice of words becomes subjugated to a preordained ideological outcome, political speech is no longer discourse. The purpose of political speech is to establish a course of action in harmony with the principles of society and the needs of the given circumstance. None of us can engage in political speech without preconceptions of some kind (preconceptions are what make us all "individuals"), but we can attempt to conform our speech to the truth of the matter under discussion and not conform speech to some extrinsic standard or conclusion provided in advance. Such action denigrates speech and makes real discourse impossible; it removes political speech even further from truth itself and pushes it deeper into the realm of opinion, feeling, and unreality.

These reflections are prompted by an article I saw today on an American news service that referred to persons illegally present in the US as "undocumented immigrants" instead of "illegal immigrants." I hadn't seen that phrase before so I attempted to ascertain its origin. As it turns out, certain persons had decided that the phrase "illegal immigrant" was too negatively charged and needed to be changed. Let us leave aside (for a moment) our views on the topic of illegal immigration, a topic of incredible complexity admits of no easy answers, and ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to try and modify discourse in this manner. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has a specific political meaning. Insofar as the people under question exist (politically) as immigrants, and insofar as the have not legally immigrated to this country, their being qua immigrant is qualified by its illegality. Contrary to the slew of bumper stickers that proclaim that "no person is illegal," the phrase "illegal immigrant" does not attempt to subject the fundamental personhood of anyone to a declaration of illegality. Rather, it simply states the (mutable) fact that the person's political existence as immigrant is illegal. This could be changed by amending immigration laws to allow such persons to legally immigrate, but as things stand now, the phrase "illegal immigrant" is objectively correct.

The phrase "undocumented immigrant" seems to suggest that the people in question merely are missing documentation. As such, it is a less precise description of what the political existence of these people actually are. While it is entirely true that they are undocumented, it is incomplete merely to say this. As a general rule we ought refer to things by their most important attribute to the matter at hand. The fact that these immigrants lack documentation is entirely predicated on the fact that they are not in the country legally. We aren't referring to people who came to the country legally and whose immigration papers were lost (a more accurate use of the phrase "undocumented immigrant").

Therefore, it seems clear to me that the appropriate phrase that ought to be used is "illegal immigrant" (again, note that we are making no judgments as to whether such immigration ought to be legal or illegal). To attempt to subordinate discourse towards a preconceived goal through altering the words that we use is horribly dangerous, even if employed towards good ends. It lowers the quality of our discourse and makes most of us less likely to think about what is actually being said. The corruption of discourse is the poison can undo any democracy, and I feel we are dangerously on the brink of this happening. The right calls politicians on the left variously "communists" and "nazis" (terms that are generally inaccurate) while the left calls politicians on the right "bigots" and "racists" (also terms that are generally inaccurate). The more that people believe these insults the less likely they are to listen to each other. And once no one is listening to anyone, democracy is no longer possible.

We should always insist on clarity and precision in our discourse, even when such clarity and precision work against the goal we wish to achieve.

05 May 2010

Beautiful changes

I've been thinking about the last lines from Richard Wilbur's marvelous poem "The Beautiful Changes" a lot recently. They are quoted below (I have probably misplaced the line breaks, for which I apologize):

"the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things' selves for a second finding,
to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to

There is the appearance of a Hegelian quality to the lines "wishing ever to sunder... for a second finding," but this image is dispelled by the suggestion that the sundering is not itself illusory but actually quite real, since it results in loss. We don't normally think of sundering and loss as "kind," but the poem suggests that the result (wonder) is worth the price, even though it is just "for a moment." Against the radical despair (indeed, despair beyond despair!) inherent in Hegelianism, we should find great comfort in the conclusion of the poem's second stanza:

"Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows."

Fewer phrases more hopeful than this have been placed into poetry.