The Myth of Being Hurt and Deserving It

‘If someone tells you you’ve hurt them, or done them wrong, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.’

The essence of this tiny proverb is that, no matter the grievance, and no matter the provenance of that grievance, there is always a reason for its existence. Even if, to an observer it is the most unreasonable or trivial, piddly little thing to be upset about, there is always a reason. Especially spoken in the defence of the aggrieved, this statement calls for the taking of responsibility; a person cannot simply step away from the suffering he has caused, even if, to him, it is no suffering worth bothering about. This statement demands, on behalf of those who feel unjustly treated, that their concerns be taken seriously.

This does not mean, however, that all grievances are acknowledged as fully ‘the fault’ of the sufferer’s accused interlocutor. Just because there is a reason for a grievance, it does not therefore follow that causality is established. It is too easy, to my mind, to take this statement as an unchallengeable defence of the wronged, which leaves those who feel they’re been unjustly accused with plenty of ill content of their own. When certain quarters suggest that it is increasingly the case that younger generations believe that their feelings are more important than anything else, it plays into the hands of such parties to misinterpret a statement like this as a catch-all irrevocable justification of indignation and outcry. Yes, this statement speaks against such parties: ‘you cannot claim that the hurt of another does not exist and that you have no part in that hurt if you stand accused’. It does not, however implicate the accused necessarily in the wrongdoing: ‘you are guilty!’. As already highlighted above, there is always a reason for grievance, the grievance cannot be invalidated. At no point does this establish what that reason is, who should take responsibility for its causation, and what qualifies as a justification for that chain of causality.

The easy, naïve, and perhaps even intended use of the above proverb is to claim that every human has the inalienable right to feel unhappy when wronged and noone can diminish that right, or claim that there was no wrong done. This amounts to little more than ‘I am hurt and you must pay attention!’. This is not incorrect, but to stop at this point is to take the proverb literally to the point of reducing it to trite, which in turn divorces it from both its usefulness, and its emotional elegance. At the very least in terms of writing style, five of eight (don’t, get, decide, that, didn’t) of the words of the proverb’s punch line are ferociously spiky and barbed, a delivery which carries the weight of the demand the statement calls for. That demand, as mentioned above, is for responsibility, but this is no one-sided demand, this is no aimless petulant rage. Yes, the proverb has a tinge of anger to it, but that anger is not, to my mind, aimed only at those who claim to have done no wrong: It is aimed just as much at those who claim to be wronged. The call to responsibility here is for the wronged and the wrong-doer, for the hurt and the hurtful. Those who have a part in causing grievance are summoned to be accountable for their acts, to take unhappiness seriously, no matter the occasion. Those who claim to be hurt are equally called to take unhappiness seriously; you can’t claim someone has hurt you and not be willing to defend that claim and justify the consequences it may have on another person. Nor can you claim to be hurt and not be prepared to be responsible about that claim. If you’re going to declare yourself unhappy and demand to be taken seriously, it is your duty to take yourself seriously to begin with, to be prepared to explain, support, and substantiate, why exactly you feel this is a wrong which should be justified by the offending parties.

This proverbial witticism demands that grievances of any order be taken seriously by all concerned parties, which, for me, suggests that not only is the accused obliged to stand and justify her hand in the acts of wrongdoing, but the accuser also has the obligation to detail, in sincere and confident terms, the nature of the grievance itself. If someone claims to be hurt by me, it is not my place to decide that that is not the case, it is true. However, if I claim to be hurt by someone, it is an imperative that I, myself, am able to ratify that claim to some extent if I am to be taken seriously at all. In this way, my choice of title is aimed at both the one who says ‘you deserve what you got’, and also at the one who says ‘I am suffering and I deserve the right to suffer’ – the call to take responsibility for grievance belongs to them both.

* * *

This little statement appeared in the realm of my social media-sphere a few weeks ago from one or another of the innumerable ‘inspirational messages’ pages that exist in the wide web. Many like them appear continuously,  in fact, from all kinds of sources. This form, this kind of ‘soundbite’ informational nugget, has become more or less ubiquitous, what with the full acknowledgement of the force of ‘virulent’ media from all quarters (marketing departments can spend all four seasons of every year trying to make their product ads ‘go viral’ if that’s anything to go by). A small chunk of text which strikes the reader with the a sense of truth, or even if it doesn’t strike him with truth, it’ll strike him with defiance in its own certainty, sometimes accompanied by an image or gif – twitter, tumblr, imgur, these platforms epitomise this style of delivery. The power of this mode lies in its proverbial nature; it makes its statement in absolute terms, as if it has been true and will be true for all time and for all people, in short, it appeals to universalism. This type of proverbialised statement offers no explanation for itself, it declares its truth as self-evident, and it appeals to an unalterable (yet unknown) body of knowledge as its only necessary support; common sense (and there are plenty of scathing things to say about the idea of ‘common sense’).

However, I’m not writing now to explain how this type of language works in the most gritty details (if you want to read that, please try the wonderful book Mythologies published by Vintage, the most recent edition being in 2009. The original articles were written by Roland Barthes in French and he is a marvellous writer even in translation. The sections at the end of the book, Myth TodayMyth as Stolen Language, and Myth on the Right, detail what I discuss above). I am writing about this (apart from my own enjoyment of the process) rather, because I feel that statements of this type always contain an exposed sliver of truth amongst the assorted truisms. I think for these truths to stand, or at least to be properly engaged with, proverbial sayings of this type should be given some due scrutiny, attention, and be given some of the contextuality they lack in order to gain something more fruitful than an idle reblog or share. It is my experience that it is all too easy for a person to disseminate these proverbs, more often than not, because he feels the proverb has a resonance with something in himself. However, when challenged it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the statement itself because of its own rhetorical method, leading to the torrid comment-section arguments which spread despair far and wide across the online sphere. In order to go beyond this depressingly familiar routine, I’d like to take a more rigorous look at this type of speech.

Some readers may note that I have used the tag Deconstruction in this piece. While I do not pretend to be carrying out any true deconstruction here in the lineage of the post-structural thinkers and deconstructionists of 1970s Europe, I do consider my writing to be heavily influenced by such thought and thus, see fit to use the tag here.


Matt Taylor’s Shirt

I was asked by a friend to have a look at some stuff she wrote on her blog regarding the incident with the scientist and the shirt, so I did and I wrote a comment. However, that comment ended up being something of an essay in itself so I figured I’d post it up here too. The friend in question goes by Please enjoy.

I have actually avoided this discussion. I hadn’t known it was a thing – and that was mainly by design – I wished to steer clear of what I anticipated as an area I wanted little to do with. But I’ll say something now anyway.

I discussed views on gendered politics and suchlike with a housemate and coursemate of mine the other day so let me rehearse some of that conversation here. It is my belief that firstly any language which makes an attempt to be motivated, politically, ideologically, discursively, must bring with it an history of concepts; that is the conceptual order which that language gives rise to and is risen from. I believe that this extends beyond language too, to the field of discursive practices which leave traces of their conceptual field behind (for example, the received, produced, and embedded markers which can be interpreted in what shirt one wears in any given set of circumstances). I feel that two main points rise from this particular stance.

  1. Given that any utterance and any practice will mobilize and activate the always-already charged hierarchical structures of the conceptual order (which, in our particular historical moment, is generally taken to generate a degree of social inequality through hegemony), speech and action is impossible without making reference to that order and hence any discursive practice armours that order through its opposition. If, as is pertinent to this area, one takes for example feminism, it could be suggested with a degree of fairness that a part of what feminism is defined as is being against misogyny (though I do not necessarily believe that it should define itself as such, but that is separate). Taken in this light, the concept of feminism itself comes to be sustained through (and itself sustains) the existence of misogyny, for if feminism defines itself in part upon the opposition to misogyny then the two concepts are enmeshed in such a way that for one to exist perpetuates the other. This is a (very poorly illustrated and simplistic) demonstration of the trace in discourse. The simplest conclusion to escaping the bind of this kind of order is simply never to speak and never to act – to effectively cease to be a marker, an absolute death, an absolute absence. The other conclusion is to have a complete and absolute knowledge of every aspect of the finite system of representation; that is, to know everything from every possible perspective in every permutation of history and every discourse that that could generate. This is apotheosis, ascension, absolute presence, becoming God.
  2. Given that the above two are impossible as far as is forseeable, the best solution for my particular position is to take as much responsibility for my utterance and practice within the field of discourse as possible. That is to say, I feel it is an imperative for me to be aware of what parts of my own personal discourse are founded on paradox, or enact hierarchies, or subject, subjectify, and make abject other individuals within the field of discourse whether that is my intention or not. It is my responsibility to be aware and to know what it is I come to represent within a discursive field. That is not to say that I must in any way change or regulate myself, if I am content to enact a certain mode of practice then there is no way to suggest that that could be an absolute wrong within the same field. What is important is the knowing, the preparedness to be aware of the weight of one’s action and utterance in a field of discourse.

THEREFORE (finally xD):

I simply wish to say that whoever the dude is who wore the shirt shoulda known what he was doing. It is true that intention is almost entirely irrelevant to the discourse around the action itself, but had he been aware, I feel it would certainly be soothing to those who find it a reprehensible thing to know that he was in some position to take a form of responsibility.

As to the shirt itself (which I have not seen), I think that what is “appropriate” for here and there and wherever or whenever is a matter that is of course also governed by the strictures of an order which emerges out of an historical moment. But it must be remembered that the process is multidirectional. That is to say, it is the discursive field which surrounds the event, the utterances and actions of those who critique, discuss, argue over, and speak about the occurrence which generate the historical moment. They arise out of each other. Hence what we, as commentators, should be mindful of is what field our discourse generates and what conceptual order our utterances challenge, dismantle, or uphold, and how our practice of writing and the battles we pick embodies those particular values and representations we wish to embody. Which is why when Boris Johnson or anyone else is quoted (or paraphrased) as suggesting that the reaction to this event is hysteria, irrational anger, “it’s just a shirt” etc. etc. what is important is not really what discourses those arguments embody (since they’re clear as an autumn sky) but how those who wish to add critique choose to elucidate their own interpretations such that they do not continue to generate the same sentiments through oppositional discourses and instead begin to dissolve that hierarchical order itself.

For me personally, since I feel I often have no right to speak in such forums, I elect the path of expressing my gender politics (if indeed I have one and you wish to name it as such) through tacit action. If gender equality should go without saying and be a matter of course, then I will do it without saying it and make it so.

Of course, by saying all of this I undermine myself in this practice, but for better or worse it is said and it somehow felt appropriate to say it here. In many ways I’m simultaneously flogging a dead horse and resurrecting the ghosts of all the discourses I wished to leave behind by enacting this kind of practice in the first place. But then, I did say I was going to re-hearse an argument, and what could such a practice be but the return of those always already dead spectres of language in a funerary procession headed simultaneously to and from their own graves?

Tipp-Ex Sonate, or The Poem that Meant Nothing

So I thought I would attempt something fun today.

And by “something fun” I mean this:

I’ve actually not read the article apart from the poem itself since I imagine it’ll spoil me with versions of answers and really, having answers takes all the fun out of questions in the first place.

So, Tipp-Ex Sonate by Andre Letoit. I know nothing about the author, or about the history of the poem or those kind of contextual things that a student might normally receive in lectures. So how then to read the poem if I know nothing about it and it has nothing in it? Can I make something from nothing and if I can will it be anything more than all the hot air I can muster to fill the voids left by Letoit’s empty parentheses?

Well, how do I usually do this kind of thing with a regular poem? Let’s assume I’ve done my revision and I have an understanding of the period and the political, social, economic, philosophical, and theoretical concerns behind, over, around, in, under, on, and drowning the poem. I’m meant to link the words written in the poem and their various meanings to one or more or the above in either an allegory to some political, social etc. etc. motivation or a close textual reading which tends to demonstrates something about the poem itself usually but not always in the context of the period and its political, social blah blah blah etc.

I think it is fair to say that this is what is usually expected of an English student. I overwhelmingly prefer the second method and that’s partly because of my exposure to and belief in (Derrida’s breed of) Poststructuralism and partly because I was a lazy schoolkid and thought it much easier to make a convincing argument based on the poem itself than remembering legions of facts, dates, and historical contexts to go with every single line I read. Small wonder I didn’t end up being an historian (much as I think the study of history is a great thing).

So upon seeing Letoit’s poem my close reading senses immediately revolt at the idea of a poem which can only be read by reference to its author, history, politics, etc. since it purports to have nothing in it itself. But then that in itself is an interesting reading. Letoit’s poem as pure allegory, a poem which completely fails to have meaning ‘in itself’ except through appeals to some ‘external’ knowledge. So Letoit’s poem presents itself as unreadable without study. It is a poem which literally fails to exist without context. It recedes into its parentheses and becomes bracketed blanks with punctuation. Since parentheses are usually digressions or qualifying remarks which are grammatically independent from the rest of the sentence, a poem composed entirely of qualifying remarks which serve to qualify nothing and are nothing can only mean nothing whether quoted, questioned or exclaimed. As such the poem comments upon the method of reading itself, either decrying or celebrating (depending on your interpretation of nothingness and your own stance as reader on the matter) reading as purely referential, as allegorical.

Or at least that’s what one might conclude if one believed that there really is ‘nothing’ in Letoit’s poem. But Letoit’s poem is not entitled “empty sonate”, it is called Tipp-Ex Sonate and as such refers not to a poem which contains nothing, but a poem which is full, and full to bursting with erasure, with things deleted, with things obscured. To anyone who doesn’t know, Tipp-Ex is a brand of correction fluid. Tipp-Ex produce white-out fluid pens and white-out tape amongst other things. Thus, it only makes sense to understand this poem not as a poem consisting of blank spaces, but a poem consisting of hidden words, of obliterated meanings.

The poem then illustrates a systematic destruction of meaning. Let’s recall that parentheses constitute qualifiers or digression grammatically independent from the main sentence. The poem therefore consists of parenthesised qualifiers, all of them masked by the hand of the author, who Tipp-Exes them himself. It is unknown what the invisible qualifiers refer to or where they digress from. The author hides these too by omission. From this perspective the poem suggests that the influence of the author is a completely destructive presence in poetry. It can be read as an attack on intentional reading, an illustration that any appeal made to the author’s intention in the reading of a poem obscures and drowns out the potential of that poem, masks over the myriad other meanings that could be drawn from the text of the poetry itself.

However, to read the poem in terms of the author’s deleting hand doesn’t quite sit right with me, especially given that my reading just illustrated that reading in reference to an author at all is itself a practice which desiccates the poem of its meaning potential. So what else to read it in terms of. Well, what is left behind after the erasure of the the poem’s words? An absence. And if you happen to be a follower of Derrida, then you know that as far as Derrida is concerned absence is the form of language and meaning itself as we know it. For Derrida, any attempt to trace language to a solid meaning, an ‘origin’ will always lead the reader down endless chains of supplementary, differing and deferred meanings. Thus he finds that language itself is not composed of words with direct links to originary roots, but of signifiers filled with absences, or endless digressions which only lead to more digressions. And I won’t explain more Derrida here because Derrida is too big to explain here. And because explaining Derrida is impossible if you believe Derrida (which, for the most part, I do, but I might try it anyway at a later date). So the poem thus enacts a complete Derridean poststructuralist system of meaning. Its meaning itself consists of absences and erasure, of parentheses and digression. Of course the paradox is that if one makes absence meaning, then the poem bursts with meaning and can no longer be absent meaning, and you get a lovely logic loop, or what Derrida might call an aporia, which illustrates the present/absent oscillation in the search for meaning in language itself.

So yes, those are a few of the things I might have said and answers I might have given in more detail had I actually been given that as an exam question and studied for it etc. etc. And that’s without suggesting that the poem might be a reference to the politics of say, Guantanamo bay, where histories are erased and rewritten into confessions born from torture or any other torture chamber for that matter (I suspect Letoit is South African and I’m sure the Apartheid regime had a few of torture chambers). Or that the poem might be a critique of art and poetry in general which provokes the reader “is this poetry, is this art?” and I’m sure plenty who read the poem are provoked by it, one way or another. Or that the poem could be a critique of academics and their institutions, flatout mocking them in the first place for trying to extract anything at all from what could happily be (and probably is by plenty) considered an utter nonsense piece of fake poetry.

So yeah, those things. So in conclusion there’s plenty to say about a poem which has nothing in it. Even if we’re talking about ‘nothing’. Or maybe ‘nothing’ just means more than it’s generally given credit for.

Anyway. I hope you enjoyed reading and had as much fun as I did writing this one.

Later everyone!