THR Web Features   /   January 10, 2024

Artisans of Words

Salvaging Language and Meaning in a Marketing Culture

Terence Sweeney

( THR illustration/Adobe Stock.)

On a morning train from Pittsburgh back to Philadelphia, I made my way to the dining car for breakfast. I settled on the “artisanal” breakfast sandwich—plastic wrapped and microwaved. Steamed in the plastic, it landed on my cardboard plate with a thud. Surprisingly enough, it was not terrible, but lacking any element of craft or contact with an artisan, it was the perfect example of the non-artisanal.

Living in a culture saturated with marketing, we are used to this manipulation of language. Claims that have no compelling connection to the meaning of words stream through our phones and computers. No one making, marketing, or buying the artisanal sandwich thinks it is artisanal; they do not even think calling it artisanal gestures in any way toward the reality of craftsmanship. Yet there is the word: artisanal.

Empty Words and Empty Thinking

The emptiness of words, and our shared resignation to meaning manipulation, is no small matter. In his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” The foolishness of our thoughts and language are caused by political and economic factors, to be sure, but they also exacerbate those factors “reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form.” The failure to think lends itself to unthinking language, and unthinking language, in turn, makes it harder to think.

The meaninglessness of our marketing discourse arises from and shapes the relative meaninglessness of our broader discourse. Surrounded by a culture that just says stuff with no particular interest in reality makes it hard to take a particular interest in reality. Our former president Donald Trump exemplifies this as the consummate marketing man. It is hard to ascertain the truth content of what he said. Think back on his saying he would make Mexico pay for a border wall. Did anyone believe that? Did Trump? Did it matter? The fact that the answer to all three is likely “no” indicates the kind of meaninglessness that threatens our linguistic world.

Again, this is no small matter because the linguistic world is the human world. For Aristotle “man is the political animal.” He does not doubt that other animals have forms of sociality, but nature made the human political because the human “alone of the animals is furnished with the capacity of speaking.” We do not just do, we discourse about what to do and what we have done—such is the foundation of political life. Our failure to commit to meaningful language shapes and is shaped by failures of our social and political life because language and politics are inseparable. As Socrates understood, to empty language is to empty politics. This was part of his objection to the Sophists. They were emptying language of meaning to gain power. What Aristotle learned from Plato, and through him, Socrates, is that we must work through what is commonly said to what is well said. The well said is well because it aims well for the real. Sophistry denies the aiming by denying the real. With no reality to aim for, language is reduced to utility, and utility without purpose is just manipulation of others for oneself.

Orwell saw something similar in his time. Addressing the vacuity of the words fascism and democracy, he wrote “the word fascism has no meaning except insofar as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Calling something a democracy is not very different except that “we are praising it.” Fascism is reduced to meaning not good and democracy good. In both cases, people fear that we “might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” Devoid of legible meaning, such words become tools to cudgel or flatter rather than to understand and communicate.

Against those who would seek to render language wholly manipulable, Socratic dialogues—and any real thinking—seek to define. To define is to be concerned with the limits of a word, with the sense of when I can use it rightly and wrongly. We aim for these limits to line up with the limits of the reality of the thing itself. None of this is easy. As Ludwig Wittgenstein taught, words have boundary cases, exceptions, and strange family resemblances. This complexity does not mean that words are free-floating. On the contrary, language is complicated because reality is.

Complexity should not make us give up on words or reality; it should help us see that both are contested. We argue over meaning because there is something to argue about and because we believe that arriving at some kind of meaning is possible. For instance, we can meaningfully argue about whether something is artisanal. But calling a sandwich sealed in plastic and put into a microwave for a pre-set time artisanal makes such a discussion meaningless because it renders the word—and the reality for which it aims—devoid of meaning. To admit meaninglessness, or to claim that meaning depends on what each person (or marketing firm) chooses, is to give up on the contest—intellectual and political—before it can even begin.

For Orwell, clarifying our language is the first step toward thinking clearly, and “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” The Aristotelian connection between language and politics means that you cannot corrupt one and leave the other intact. Just as the political is not the exclusive concern of politicians, “the fight against bad English is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” The work of salvaging language—of finding meaning in the words we use grounded in the reality we aim for—is the task of a whole society. To give up on it is to give up on each other.  

Restoring Language and Restoring the University

This hollowing out calls for a linguistic resistance. For Orwell, each of us can lend a hand to this resistance because each of us speaks and writes. Universities, however, surely have a unique collective responsibility on this front. Made up of thinkers and writers, they should be helping clarify language so that the contest of meanings can take place in society and so that reality can be disclosed. Universities should be offering the possibility of liberation from the illiberal arts of ad campaigns. Alas, too often they are not doing this.

Before I got on the train back to Philly, I was at the University of Pittsburgh, where the billboards informed me that “Progress Happens Here.” Here? Not elsewhere? Progress toward what and from what? When I got off my train from Pittsburgh, I walked past a glowing sign marketing Drexel University. It blared out “Inspired by Change” and “Ambition Can’t Wait.” Inspired by change? All change? Metabolic change? Change from midday to early afternoon? Curiously, the latter claim about ambition is obviously true. Ambition is not an agent; it is capable neither of waiting nor of not waiting. That said, the ambitious might be able to wait and perhaps should. Drexel sounds like Macbeth at the threshold of slaying King Duncan: “If it were done… then ’twere well it were done quickly.” But Macbeth’s ambition should have waited. If the Macbeth teaches us anything, not all change is inspiring, not all progress is toward the good, and ambition can and should wait.  As I stared at these signs, I realized how silly it is to take them seriously. They do not, and are not meant, to mean. The problem is not what they are expressing; it is that they are not expressing anything. Universities risk becoming as real as the artisanal sandwiches on an Amtrak train.

If universities recruit people to enroll by using meaningless claims, why would students take seriously the supposedly meaningful claims they hear on campus and in classrooms? Endlessly marketed to, our students are trained to market themselves. Faced by the unreality of our broader culture, they present their “real” selves in an unreal, because designed, way—beginning with the college application essay.

We should perhaps not be surprised that students are eager to use ChatGPT to write their papers. Orwell, faced by meaningless language, described a sense of watching someone speak with “the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.” Clichés, stale metaphors, and repeating what everyone else already says is a great way of avoiding thinking. Surrounded by unthinking language, students select the least thinking option for writing. All of which suggests that the use of AI arises from the artificiality of our culture’s intelligence. The temptation to avoid thinking for oneself and with others is the temptation to avoid real speaking and writing. We can shirk such thinking and speaking by letting readymade phrases take the place of making our own phrases. ChatGPT is just a more advanced way of offering prefabricated writing and so a more advanced way of avoiding thinking.

What to do? What Orwell and Socrates insisted on. Universities and schools need to lead the way toward a culture of linguistic meaning. They can start by ending their contracts with marketing firms and reducing their marketing programs. If slogans are necessary, universities’ mottos should do the job. If the institution is not living up to that motto, it should change or be honest and change the motto. “Producing employees for large corporations” is at least a sincere motto and, as Orwell writes, “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Better yet, return to the great and original mission of the university: Center education in the classroom; cultivate good teaching; expand core liberal arts requirements. There is so much good already happening in college classrooms. Surrounded by a lot of collegiate insincerity, professors should (and often do) aim to help students find the real and express that through real words spoken sincerely. Universities should support them rather than the admen.  

The basic guide for all this remains Socrates. His question remains the ideal one: “What do you mean by that?” Students should wrestle with the meaning of words, concepts, and ideas. What arises from that struggle is the real itself, or what we used to call the Truth. I see my students do this every day. So many come in with readymade answers that usually mean that a word is meaningless. What is the good, I ask. Most answer “everyone has their own definition of the good.” But when I encourage them to think about it (with the company of Plato, Augustine, or Arendt), they start moving beyond the readymade. There might, they discover, be something shared, universal, and meaningful to what the good is. At the very least, they can contest what the good is because they find that the word can mean something about reality and so is worth arguing about. Indeed, if teachers encourage students to take words seriously—and to write with the aim of articulating truth—they might break the attraction of artificial writing. But they might also help students become better people and thus better citizens. The kind of people who will not need AI to think for them.

Artisans of the Word

Being reminded that language has been corrupted points us to the good that is corrupted. It can renew in us the urgency of thinking well and finding the right word for reality. Thought can restore language, and language can restore thought. Walking by a farm-to-table vending machine in the train station reminded me that we identify falsehood and so recall truth. Seeing a billboard for Adidas telling me the “Impossibility is Nothing” (what?) reminds us that renewal is not impossible. Teaching at a university that claims to “Ignite Change” does give me hope that we can change some things for the better—but only by deploying language well.

As Orwell wrote, and Socrates well knew, “one cannot change all this in one moment, but one can at least change one’s habits.” The work of writers, educators, and of universities is to help people change those habits. To help people develop the craft of finding the right word is to aid them in the craft of thinking well. To develop these, dare we say, in an artisanal way is ultimately to live out the art of living well together.