Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Signifiers


Matthew Schmitz

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

This is how we now talk in public.

It’s become one of the indispensable words of our time, a catch-all for any celebrity misstep or media mishap that could be seen as having sexist, racist, or hegemonic implications. In recent months, we’ve learned that love and loyalty, dresses and shirts, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are all problematic. Having found its way into rap lyrics and government reports, it’s now become a rallying cry for conservatives complaining about bad language on television. The word has broad, bipartisan, and seemingly irresistible appeal.

But there’s something problematic about problematic. By allowing its users to identify huge evils lurking behind every error, the word makes the slightest offense an occasion for outrage. An act need not be intentionally cruel to be problematic; it need not cause any direct harm at all. The only thing that’s required is for it to reflect certain unexamined assumptions with which we disagree. Thus, every human blunder is made the occasion for a full-blown culture war.

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