"In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles."
Guy Debord, Writer (1931-1994)
Our everyday environment is overflowing with messages, slogans, incitements, or affirmations. We find ourselves drowning in written messages in transport vehicles, on walls, on our screens, and sometimes on ourselves. From advertising to Newspeak, from a nudge to propaganda, our conscience and unconsciousness flirt or juggle with finely chosen words. This ocean of spectacular verbal injunctions invites us to behave or even to consume one way or another.
The spectacular refers to Guy Debord's essay "The Society of the Spectacle". Debord criticizes the alienation of consumer society, commodities, and their domination over the lives of individuals. He then proposes the concept of the spectacle, the ultimate stage of capitalism, an economic ideology, legitimizing the universality of a single vision of life that is imposed on all through audiovisual, bureaucratic, political, and economic manifestations.
The spectacle is essential to the maintenance of the reproduction of power and the alienation of individuals, which the author refers to as "the loss of the living of life." It is thus a propaganda device of capital over lives, but also a social relationship between people mediated by images. Whether it is information, propaganda, or even advertising, the spectacle is a socially dominant model of what life should be.
But then, how do we understand these words responsible for many ills and frustrations among subjects? What are they made of? How are they organized? This is what linguist Isabelle Morillon sets out to make us understand in her thesis entitled "Words and the Mind: Towards a Linguistic and Critical Study of Spectacular Language".
Why Read This Thesis
The subject of this thesis is part of our everyday lives. The exploration offered by the author allows us to discover the other side of spectacular language thus making us perhaps a little less naive to it.
In contrast to the possible stereotypes associated with this discipline, this research work invites us to adopt a linguist's point of view on our daily lives. The author's observations as well as her discussions are transposable to the reader's own experience, who can then confront his or her own experience with the proposed analyses.
This exploration of the topic is done with a style that is both elegant and informal captivating our interest from page to page. This thesis takes stock of various concepts such as Newspeak, doublespeak, and totalitarian language. The text is accessible and allows any reader to understand all the theories, comments, criticisms as well as the method of the author.
A Beer Sign
"It all started the day we read that the elevator was out of service. Well, not exactly, actually, because other messages had initially caught our eye. "Hungry?" one message read. Our favorite beer had been made unique. Yet we had bought several in order to "unleash our creativity" and "dare freedom" (sic!).
On the street, on the screens, on the pages of magazines, the formulas in big letters piled up, surrounded us, even on the shopping bag where our distinctly made beers rested. Was it as a linguist that we were struck with curiosity or as an ordinary speaker? Whatever the case, the question of written messages in the everyday environment became an obvious object of research. The banality of the phenomenon clashed with the richness of the questions it inspired.
Ready-made ideas, formatting of minds, conditionning, doublespeak... Key words were flying around, leaving us bewildered in front of this unknown object, which was so close and whose outines had to be drawn. Slogans? Figment? Newspeak? Is it not just advertising language? All objects are entitled to a second life.
If the link between language and free will was an object whose cycle had ended with the overthrow of dictatorships, then, in contemporary Western society, the "language that poeticizes and thinks for you" was from another age. Could it be given a second life in the present day, in the context of contemporary France? This is one of the questions we propose to address in this thesis entitled Words and Minds: a linguistic and critical study of spectacular language."
Discovering the Pot of Gold
Isabelle Morillon accumulates many results through her work and analysis. One of the most intriguing is related to the nature of everyday written messages. According to the author, these messages to which we are exposed are a simulacrum of speech. This notion of speech seems to express what makes the Newspeak, tongue-in-cheek, and written messages we are exposed to on a daily basis, a verbal language without words, that is, an anti-language.
The author then chooses the term spectacular language, which she defines as a simulacrum of language where the words are indeed there, but in the form of an assemblage with an extraordinary mode of dissemination. Newspeak, doublespeak, and the written messages of everyday life constituting this spectacular language, all correspond to a manifestation of the omnipresence of certain ideological forms and contents.
Isabelle Morillon, through her work, directly links contemporary Newspeak to past attempts at totalitarian language and concludes by reminding us "that the will to transform humanity has never ceased to nourish the ambitions of scholars, ambitions that are often, if not always, accompanied by the will to transform human language."
What about you then? How do you suffer spectacular language?
Thesis presented and defended on March 5, 2021. Work prepared at the University of Burgundy within the doctoral school Lettres, Communication, Langues, Arts (LECLA) : ED 592 (Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté) (Dijon).
Isabelle Morillon. Les mots et l’esprit : vers une étude linguistique et critique du langage spectaculaire. Linguistique. Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, 2021. Français.⟨NNT: 2021UBFCH003⟩. ⟨tel-03231994⟩
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