I’ve been learning from some inspiring people recently, all of whom have made me think about language. Doreen Massey wrote a piece ‘Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary’ that opened with an encounter with a museum assistant with ‘Customer Liaison’ on her T-shirt.
Robert Janes has written about how museums need to become more orthogonal and mindful, thinking laterally or sideways from the norm.
John Wood who runs the Metadesigners project was talking about shifting paradigms by changing language, and a trial project applying these ideas in Dover. This Project is called Trimtab Dover, after Buckminster Fuller’s use of it as a metaphor. It’s the word for a very small addition to a rudder (or wing) that can make an ocean liner change direction. His epitaph on his headstone reads simply “Call me Trimtab”.
Then I was at a day called Imagine the Great Transition, part of the ArtsAdmin Two Degrees festival of art and climate change. One highlight of this was seeing the filmpoem by, and hearing talk, Inua Ellams. It made me feel the power of the word to speak, and respeak, the flourishing and the loss of nature. Or to put it more melodramatically, the power of the only known metaphor-using animal in the universe, using metaphor to describe the beauty and the dying of the only known planet in the universe to support biodiverse life.
The other highlight idea was from Juliet Michaelson of NEF, who suggested a more nuanced alternative to the binary of global and local. She talked about Subsidiarity, about reframing economics of production in a more distributed model: Individuals might grow their own food, streets may share cars, town centres might make or sell bikes, but some things like big ships only need to be produced in one place in the world. It’s about distributing activities to the smallest unit capable of dealing with them whereas big activities need central overview. My ears pricked up because this suggested a subtle alternative to the mantras of local actions, which seem just too small and ineffective, and to attitudes just a bit too wary of regulation and control. What is needed is more controlled collaborative organising, and more deep understanding of the meshes of exchange and production, in ways that meet human needs while underpinned by ecological principles.
As the discussion was about language and communication of new economics and climate change, Juliet was on the edge of an orthogonal leap, to explore the potential subsidiarity of words. Words can also be afforded a nuanced spectrum of meaning, ranging from particularly temporal and local meanings, expanding out to aeon-long and universal meanings. Within social and environmental justice movements talk about language often tries to pin down meanings into a kind of consensual esperanto. We argue about meanings until the cows come home, and leave for the fields again, because we expect to achieve a final definition.
The words with the most global resonance also have the biggest range of meanings and are the most liable to be twisted for rhetorical gain. When words become hijacked and misunderstood, we reject them and find alternative words. Sometimes a new word does fill a gap in understanding but it often just confuses the issue, and leaves useful words unreclaimed. Sometimes in rejecting the words (such as economics or capital), we fail to reclaim the territory they occupy (for more oikonomic or commons-based ways).
To reclaim these big central words, we need to contextualise them, to illustrate their meanings more visually, to link them to more concrete objects or places. It occurred to me that these big powerful words are like ocean liners, freighted with meaning, moving from port to port as a shared resource.
Although I’m talking here metaphorically about ocean liners, they do in themselves have great meaning in relation to environmental economics. They represent and enable globalisation of manufacture and mass consumption. They contribute massively to emissions and pollution. One has just broken up near Yemen, loaded with 1700 containers of consumer goods and 1500 metric tons of oil.
So when we talk about goods being ‘shipped’, instead of thinking of a neat package ready to deliver, we could also hold in mind where those goods have come from, the labour behind them, the risks of the shipping process and the future life of the object. Campaigning around words doesn’t mean fixing their meanings but freighting them with meaning, while pushing all the while for ecological ethics as a basis to meaning.
What would help? Thinking of subsidiarity of language, and thinking of some key ideas as trimtabs may help. Maybe also we could consider a Slow Language Movement (proposed but not followed up by Nick Laird). Let’s pick this up again. Let’s take our time to ensure we explore possible meanings (both/and meanings, not only single meanings) and have an ethical basis to them.