It is difficult to imagine not being a champion of free speech. To speak against this freedom is, in effect, to speak against democracy itself — and in this sense we might say that such an act constitutes freedom of speech’s limit. In the United States it is a keystone in the constitutional architecture, and it sits proudly in that crowning position, a sign of promise to those less fortunate, who inhabit other, less enlightened regimes. Religious bookburning, political censorship, blacklisting: these practices are quintessential to our understanding of repression and against such conservative close-mindedness, such fear of knowledge, it is hard not to position one’s liberal self in the other camp, that of those who foment for language’s unhindered circulation. We shout down our enemies: Let books be free. Let words be free. Let information be free.
But can speech, perhaps, be too free? Does the heroicism of these rallying cries mask another state of affairs?
The recent criticism surrounding trigger warnings, those seemingly innocuous inoculations — a phrase perched atop a blog or syllabus indicating content that might prove psychologically painful to some readers coping with trauma both personal and systemic — is a perfect example of the liberal tradition of free speech. For opponents of trigger warnings, the debate is less about mental illness than it is about an ideology that threatens to stifle liberty, freedom, and truth in the name of comfort. As one commenter to an article on the topic muses, “We can’t go around bubble-wrapping every sharp corner that exists in the world and it’s frightening that we are attempting to do so.”
For critics like the one quoted above, trigger warnings are the “sticks and stones” of millenials now grown up — a case of the continued, misplaced attention on each special snowflake’s sensitivities, a first step along the slippery slope of a culture that coddles, that puts the problems of the individual before the common good. The argument, familiar to those who have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is one that pits knowledge against repression. One might think, for example, of the hospital scene in that novel, in which John the Savage tries to speak truth and disrupt a group of children’s careful conditioning while his mother lies dying, watching TV, listening to propagandistic jingles, doped up on soma. Huxley and critics who follow his line of reasoning ask: What freedoms, what insights, are we willing to give up to achieve comfort, health, and happiness?
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The reason trigger warnings are so difficult to think about is that they jam our usual critical machineries of thought. Instead of positing a distinction between knowledge and repression, they reroute the dichotomy, form a new one that asks us to consider the relationship between language and care. In the commonplace paradigm, the cards are stacked by the rhetoric of the argument. Who could possibly choose the forces of repression over the pleasures of knowledge? But what happens when language and the ideas and images it communicates cause pain, not to authoritarian leaders, but to those who have already suffered? Here we are faced with much more of a conundrum. This cultural concern about the traumatic capacities of language in a hyper-mediated society suggests an emergent way of thinking about language, one which, when taken seriously, requires new modes of criticism, new ethics.
Two recent novels, Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange and Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, locate themselves within this alternative paradigm that links problems of communication with concerns about care, and for this reason, they provide useful but complex maps of this new paradigm. They do so by imagining language as a virus.
The language-as-virus trope is not so new: the most famous formulation can be found in the writings of William S. Burroughs, especially his 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded. There, language is a means of mind control, a function of political power infiltrating the private site of our thoughts and relations. In it he writes: “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk.” Rather than speaking through language, in this formulation language speaks through us.
As Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris explains in his introduction to the recently restored and republished Grove Press edition of the novel, Burroughs’ cut-up works are investigations that take the idea of a viral language as their starting point:
Burroughs’ text [is] both research into and a performance of the self-replicating virus of cultural communication that the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins called a ‘meme.’ From memorable tunes to seductive ideas, memes spread themselves about, influencing and infecting, copying and mutating, and exhibiting their own autonomous and insatiable lust for life.
The Ticket that Exploded, constructed in large part through the splicing together of found text — pulp science fiction, song lyrics, pornography, and other items culled from the archive of mass-media — performs inoculation by drawing attention to the materiality of language, estranging the reader from it and thus making communication, and its manipulative possibilities, conscious. For Burroughs, viruses are not merely communicated, they are figures for communication.
Burroughs’ virus expresses a paranoid, dystopic worldview concerned with consciousness and false-consciousness. By contrast, Graedon’s The Word Exchange and Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet treat language as a virus not merely to acknowledge that language is as much in control of us as we are in control of it, or that ideas spread through networks of communication at exponential rates, but to suggest that there is something lacking in the way people engage with language. Call it empathy, call it care, call it love — the problem of its absence requires an imagined epidemic to articulate the path to cure. These books challenge the commonplace distinction between the seductive ignorance-as-bliss and the democratic knowledge-as-power. Through figuring and taking seriously the potentially traumatic capacities of language, these novels confront a set of ethical dilemmas regarding who speaks, how, and at what cost.
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In ancient times, plague was understood to be a form of punishment, a way for the gods to comment upon social transgression. This is the case, for example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in which plague, the result of justice unmet, sets the tragic and twisted action of the play in motion. In Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange, when word flu spreads from media device to media device and human to human (the distinction between these is blurred), leaving death, confusion, and aphasia in its wake, it serves, for the reader, as a warning about contemporary media practices. And it is only through the recuperation of older forms of media and mediation — namely physical books and the process of writing them — that the characters find a way back to health.
The novel is a noir-of-ideas set in a near-future New York City in which iPhone-like devices called Memes are so ubiquitous that everyday tasks have become nearly impossible without them. Graedon’s Meme takes the smartphone to its logical extreme. It is a device so powerful that not only does it make a hectic, on-the-go lifestyle easier, it anticipates, even produces, the user’s desires — it orders food before the user knows she’s hungry, tells the cab where to take her before she’s decided where she wants to go. Ana, the novel’s protagonist, is a digital native of this technoscape, riding the wave of accelerated obsolescence with ease:
The changing world I’d come of age in — slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries — was a world I’d come to accept. If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss. How could we miss words? We were drowning in a sea of text.
Ana’s father Douglas Samuel Johnson, however, is far more critical of the death of print and the virtualization of communication. A lexicographer and Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, Douglas Johnson has devoted his life to the study and preservation of the English language, and he bemoans what he feels to be the detrimental effects of relying upon devices to do the thinking we should be learning to do on our own. The Meme, he argues again and again — and of course we can extend the argument to any of our real-world correlates — does not overthrow gatekeepers, making room for a culture of creative amateurs, nor does it free up time for deeper thinking. Instead, it addicts us to the present at the cost of a consciousness of the past, and it abets our integration into the world of consumer capitalism at the cost of culture.
In the terms of the novel, Douglas’ fears, although they at first seem birthed from Luddite paranoia, are correct, and Douglas emerges as the moral center of the novel. His arguments, reminiscent of those put forward in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (an avowed inspiration for the novel and which I’ve discussed elsewhere), suggest that the ways in which we engage with media affect who we are as human beings and that as we shift from a culture of the book to a culture of multi-tasking and multi-media, we risk losing something of what it means to be human. Douglas mysteriously disappears, and an adventure ensues involving jet-setting, urban spelunking, and gumshoeing by Ana and her sidekick Bart, a young lexicographer with a secret crush on Ana and a serious hard-on for Hegel. The narrative is ultimately not one of saving the father, but of being saved by him, finally coming around to his point of view regarding the redemptive qualities of the Guttenberg galaxy.
But why is smartphone-mediated communication traumatic for Graedon? Because it unmoors us from history, detaches us from community — we spend too much time recording our present and not enough time reflecting on the past, goes the novel’s implicit argument. And the world Graedon has created is punished by plague for this misstep. Although there is a strong dose of technological and national conservatism running through The Word Exchange, this is ultimately in the service of a critique of the complicity of the tech sector, with its seductive rhetoric of individual freedom, and capitalist ideology of growth, a particularly contemporary conundrum explored, for example, by Astra Taylor in The People’s Platform. The words that kill in The Word Exchange — foreign ones, strange Cyrillic neologisms that crop up in everyday speech due to the sinister machinations of greedy tech corporation Synchronic — do not do violence because they reactivate past trauma (as is the case with triggers) but because they dissociate us from a shared, human-driven history in the name of accumulating capital. The freedom-of-speech rhetoric surrounding the eponymous Word Exchange, like much net-based entrepreneurial rhetoric, turns out merely to mask the immaterial labor by which individuals participate in their transformation into cogs in a profit-producing machine.
In its defense of a Western, Enlightenment tradition of thinking and communicating, the novel’s conclusions are not dissimilar from Huxley’s described earlier. But here, the attainment of knowledge, and in particular the knowledge of reflection and hindsight that the printed book affords, is not in spite of the well-being of others, but is figured simultaneously as a practice of healing and an act of love. When Ana’s father asks her to compose a history of the receding word flu, it is a project of reflection in the name of public health and of the health of language. He explains:
By recording the events of these past weeks, you could at least help begin what will need to be a collective process of reflection on all we’ve lost and how we got to this point. But also where we might go from here. By telling the story. Breathing life back into what have become dead letters. I think it has to be done. And I think you’re the person to do it.
In fact, the novel suggests that writing and reading are not just vehicles for collective healing, but also for a much more proximal form of care. When Bart falls dangerously ill of the word flu, it is the intimacy of Ana’s reading and writing to him that enables the possibility for new life and a shared future. And it is in giving Ana his private journals so that she can use them to compose her public history that Bart is finally able to express his love, two texts becoming one in tandem with two lives. The reliance on one form of technologically mediated connection, underwritten by capitalistic greed, is inoculated at the end of the novel by another kind of communicative union, romantic love. The romance narrative and the framing conceit — that the novel the reader holds in their hands is the result of an editorial project conducted by Ana at the behest of her father — fold in on one another. And to read Graedon’s novel is to join in that union, to find respite from the world of new devices and new media, to reclaim one’s humanity, and to bask in the pleasures and cures of narrative.
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For Graedon, treating language as a virus makes it possible to think through the ways language use itself has been prioritized over communication, means overtaking ends and trampling over humans in the process. The solution to the problem of traumatically antisocial language use is reflection, and through it the narrativizing of that trauma, the embedding of it in a unified language, culture, and coupledom. Here, love is the language virus’ antivirus. Like the viral, it is communicative and communicable. But while the word flu spreads via smartphones and leaves one unable to speak, connects one with a global public only in order to extricate them from it, the novel is love’s natural habitat, and through it one finds access to a community from which no immunity is required.
Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, by contrast, is virulently anti-reflective, seeking not a past of good media and healthy language, but rather the possibility for constructing “a new code, new lettering, a way to pass on messages that would bypass the toxic alphabet, the chemically foul speech we now used.”
The Flame Alphabet is set in a nondescript suburb in upstate New York at the time of a mysterious and furiously escalating language virus, spread first by Jewish children. While it leaves the young unharmed, it affects adults through a slow, painful physical and linguistic disintegration, repeatedly described in discomfortingly acute detail throughout the novel. Sam, eager father of a truculent teen, husband in a passionless marriage, is our guide through this chaotic Babel. He relays to us his struggle to keep his family healthy, his abandonment of and subsequent attempts to reconcile with daughter and wife, and his search for a cure in the research lab at the ominous Forsythe complex, where he takes part in a series of lethal experiments. As in Graedon’s novel, here again we see the trappings of the contagion plot: the finger pointing towards cause, the frantic struggle of containment, the lawlessness of mass hysteria, the interdictions of medical authority. But despite the apocalyptic circumstances within which the narrative unfolds, what comes to the fore is a story about a family on the brink of fracture. At the same time as it is a novel about disaster on a macro-scale, The Flame Alphabet is also a meditation on smallwork (“the techniques to keep you alive”), on the aging of bodies, the failure of intimacy, the difficulty of faith.
Language use takes its place among other practices such as the laboratory test, the quarantine, and the search for a scapegoat as one of the ways in which humans attempt to wrest meaning from the grip of confusion and uncertainty. But the side effect of these practices is alienation. In The Flame Alphabet language, and the knowledge it purports to produce and communicate, is pitted against intimacy.
By imagining language as a virus, Marcus draws attention to the way in which everyday modes of communication can distance us from others rather than bringing us closer together. “Hello was the perfect word,” Sam reflects upon the mundane greeting, “It began and ended all contact, delivering us into private chambers from which we could enjoy other people in textbook abstraction, without the burden of intimacy.” The problem with language here is precisely its captivity to tradition, which leads to ossified, imperfect forms of engagement. And it is this distancing effect which makes possible violences both communal — one might think of the atmosphere of anti-Semitism that pervades the novel, the sinister medical experiments that require the siphoning of life from children to inoculate the adults, reminiscent of a Nazi biopolitics of health and purity — and domestic — there’s a chilling moment in which Sam, after having sex with a stranger, speaks to her, knowing full well that it will hurt her, simply to experiment, to see what happens.
The antidote to this virus of language, so it would seem, is to discover a new form of communication, one that would serve as a true vehicle for intimacy rather than an imperfect placeholder for knowledge. And so love provides a parallel for contagion in The Flame Alphabet, as it does in The Word Exchange. But for Marcus, love is a much more fraught emotion, one which, while it gropes its way out of narcissism and towards union, often fails. This is the case in the following harrowing scene, a description of Sam’s final sexual encounter with his wife, before she inadvertently dies by the writing of his own hand:
It would seem that, through touch, through kissing, we might have gouged a worm-size channel through which crucial information could pass, sublingual messages, the kind of pre-verbal intimacy that should flow with thunderous force between the bodies of people so bonded. We should have been able to bypass a mere inability to exchange language. Everywhere people must have been exploring the alternatives; otherwise they’d be sentenced to solitude. But that night Claire and I showed a mutual failure of the imagination. Without speech we were unskilled mimes locked into alien vernaculars, missing every connection, growing slowly angry that the other person could not decode our thoughts.
Is there no cure, then, for the virus of language, which these two novels diagnose at the center of American culture, and which the case of the trigger warning gestures towards, however obliquely? Not content to take the position of hindsight, of a complex problem solved and resolved as is the case in The Word Exchange, towards the end of the The Flame Alphabet Sam turns to his future readers (that’s us!) to comment facetiously, “Perhaps you live in a time when someone else’s harm is not bound up with your pursuit of words and you traffic easily with the acoustical weapon, the clustered scripts. Congratulations, if so. I remember those days, too. It is my true wish that you enjoy yourself.” But the pleasure Marcus wishes on the reader is a fraught one, and Marcus’ commentary beneath this comment is clear: we do not yet live in that time, we do not yet have a cure.
If The Flame Alphabet is a novel that subverts common understandings of freedom of speech, it is because such a freedom is not just the freedom to make sounds at one another, but to define what constitutes truth in the face of alternatives and ambiguities. The function of plague in Marcus’ novel is that it disrupts norms of communication, revealing the ways in which speech is complicit with violence. Sam’s situation at the end of the novel pithily allegorizes this situation, for to work with language at all Sam must hunt and siphon off the life of children (euphemistically referred to as “child’s play”). The conceit is that the novel itself, as an object we can hold, sell, market, read, was made possible only at the expense of young lives — power trumps vulnerability, tradition trumps novelty.
Both The Flame Alphabet and The Word Exchange then, express an anxiety regarding our desire for a perfect mode of communication, one that stills the pangs of uncertainty and confusion, which connects us to others in networks of care rather than through acts of accidental violence. Where Graedon’s novel optimistically turns towards disappearing media and media practices as a solution to the problem, Marcus’ novel suggests we are doomed to the polysemy of language and the all-too-rigid forms of emotional engagement it so often affords. Within the freedom-of-speech paradigm we’re so comfortable with, any limits placed on speech are a threat to the ideals of liberty, truth, and freedom. But by shifting the metaphors through which we understand language from a heroic to a therapeutic mode, these novels work through emergent ethical conundrums. What’s left is the smallwork, done with sticks and with stones, which despite their continued capacity to hurt, are also the materials from which spaces of care might arise in a time of viruses.
Jesse Miller is a PhD candidate in the English department at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and a reviews editor at Full Stop.