I was Literally not Going to Write This Post Today

If I read/hear the word “literally” used to draw emphasis to a phenomenon, my head is literally going to explode.

Alright, you have probably heard the trite use of the word “literally” endorsed from celebrities and rock stars, to journalists and media moguls; but I think it is time to stand up and reconsider the use of the word literally as a way to emphasis and clarify our reliance on clichés and metaphors.

I wasn’t going to write a post about this topic. In fact, I have been jotting down a list of chapter ideas for a non-fiction book regarding the use of popularly accepted idioms such as “like,” “really,” and so forth in order to, perhaps, start a new blog. I firmly think that these words betray something unique about our experience in this world as it is right now. I think it betrays what Jean-François Lyotard first named the “Postmodern Condition” in which all of our experiences are kept at a relative distance form ourselves—obviously I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but you get the point.

In an earlier post, I analyzed the use of the word “like” as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as “really” and “seriously” to bring that simulated experience (the “like”) closer to us.

Here is an example from my post:

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

It comes down to our basic social function in this world: communicating our experiences and lives to another human being. But if we cannot grasp the fundamental description of life experiences that happen to our own person, then we will find a way to make up for that, let’s call it, gap in proximity or happening.

My point of focus today is the word “literally,” and I think it fulfills three social functions:

  1. It acknowledges the trite overuse—and universal knowledge of this overuse—of a cliché and amends its overuse by attempting to make the cliché a real occurrence.
  2. It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
  3. It makes the experience closer, more alive, more Real, more True.

Okay, I literally just went to The Atlantic Monthly‘s website and scanned four articles for the word “literally”. I found one use of it in the comment section (yes, it aids my point). So, let’s dissect his or her’s little sentence with and without the word “literally”

“So the point is, you literally *cannot* escape at this point”
“So the point is, you *cannot* escape at this point”

The commenter is discussing Google, Facebook and Technologies hold on our lives. Yes, yes, it’s horrible—he types across a wi-fi network. The author’s point is that we cannot escape from technology. So, why is he or she using the word literally? The sentence functions perfectly without it, right? Well, kind of.

TechThe author is using an absolute idea. To his or her absolutist point: you cannot escape technology. Well, but, you probably can. There is no way for this author to account for all cases of occurrences where someone attempted to escape the Internet’s grasp and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, no one has that knowledge. It’s impossible to know. In our postcolonial era, claiming that you have absolute knowledge is a logical fallacy, and this author is aware of that fallacy. So, what the author does is place the word “literally” in front of the fallacy in order to emphasize the absolutism of the word “*cannot*”. The irony is that the use of the word “literally” implies that the author cannot prove this fact, so without the word “literally” the sentence becomes closer to a type of Truth.

Here is my final argument: it is not that the sentence needs the word “literally” to emphasize the absolutism; rather, it is that the reader needs the word “literally” to verify and communicate something unique to our time and space. As far as I’m concerned that intangible thing that the reader needs is capitalized Truth. And Truth over the Internet is very, very, really, super-hard to come by because it is unverifiable. Truth over the Internet is intangible. It is the very thing that we are seeking when we type “How do I…” on Google, but then scan three sources before believing the top result.

Sure, this could be simple cynicism and mistrust of knowledge, but I am not about to write off the social predominance of the word “literally” by news media corporations, pundits, documentary film makers, learned individuals, and average Americans. It cannot be that simple.

So, I ask you to aid me in my quest for Truth, and let’s reconsider our use of the word “literally” before we speak or write. Hmmmm, I didn’t even discuss the use of metaphor vs. literally, but that’s for a different post.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

(Edited: To add to my point, I found this a few minutes ago by one of my favorite writers, Derek Thompson: “That other websites don’t do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation”. Sheesh. “Literally” is literally everywhere!)

The Sublime Object of Ideology, by Slavoj Žižek

The Sublime Object of Ideology (The Essential Zizek)The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Žižek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot write to the impact that Slavoj Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology has had upon Lacanian Psychoanalyis or Marxist Criticism. I cannot even lie enough to tell you, dear reader, that I understood the majority of this text. But I do know that of what I understood, I thoroughly enjoyed and gathered not only a new perception of the world, but the terminology with which to envision it.

Before remarking that Žižek’s writing is “____” or that Žižek’s interpretation of the Lacanian “____” is “_____,” let me state why I read this book, and why someone should read this book. I’ll begin with the latter: I cannot imagine a reason for someone to read this book. Unless, said person is interested in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Marxism, Stalinism, a general critique of the Postmodern, etc. But, these are highly individualized and specialized reasons. I read this for one of those reasons: I knew this was a seminal work, and I like Žižek’s writing. I find him quite entertaining, and I appreciate what many criticize about Žižek: namely, his blend of good ol’ Socialist humor adjacent to Marxist/Lacanian theory.

But, on with the show. For a number of years now, quite before I even knew of Žižek, I have been approaching individuals with this notion: there is no such thing as choice. Now, I don’t go saying this willy-nilly to everyone; no. Gosh, no! I only reserve it for those who I wish to engage in a bit of an intellectual battle with, i.e. someone who can, perhaps, change my mind or, better yet, harden my thought. You can work this notion from the consumerist angle of limited selection, or the lovely Leninist paraphrase, “freedom, but for whom and for what!” or any others to fit your sparring partner. But what you really want them to realize is that even what they say to me has been determined. Even me saying “there is no choice” is determined by a mix of my experiences, memory, journeys, gender, class, race, language, nationalism, heredity, and so on, and so on. But, I am totally okay with that.

You see, they (my straw men) fight to hold on to this banal notion of “individuality” being made up of “choices”—I had coffee this morning because I decided to; not because of my environment, my internal make up, my bank account, my access to coffee, the development of coffee as a commodity, etc. And when you present the absurd aphorism that “there is no choice,” the first response is fear. Go ahead, try it on the first person you meet. I’ll wait…

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

IF, a big IF, you can get past this initial fear of the loss of morality, freedom, ability, talent—not to mention the Protestant virtue of the individual—etc., then you must counter their fear. They must know that in the absence of choice, or “free will” for you old school philosophers, we still retain our individuality. There is no one like you. And there is no one like me. (Even an imitation is just that: an imitation of the thing. Even if I am an imitation, I am still this original imitation that is occurring now. God save Postmodernism). Even the hypothetical identical-twin-sci-fi-crap renders individuality a truism. Because no one can occupy your space or your time. Even if they did, the slightest deviance (say, a misplaced hair or an unbuttoned shirt collar) would alter any similarities. (And even those things would not be “choices”).

So, to make the theory of “choice,” one simply must isolate an incident. Then—and this is important, which is why I used an em-dash—the incident, once severed from any prior beginnings or futile continuation, is immediately rendered moral. AND: “There are no moral phenomenon at all, but only moral interpretations of phenomena.” (Agreed, I wouldn’t acquiesce to someone who quotes Nietzsche either.) So, let’s try this:

“the subject must freely choose the community to which he already belongs, independent of his choice–he must choose what is already given to him“. Furthermore, “The point is that he is never actually in a position to choose: he is always treated as if he had already chosen“. Finally, “we must stress that there is nothing ‘totalitarian’ about it. The subject who thinks he can avoid this paradox and really have a free choice is a psychotic subject”. (Žižek 186, original italics)

I feel quite vindicated in my initial philosophical challenge. And the thing is that there are a handful of other chapters and sub-chapters that made total sense to me! Totally. Like: pieces of “How Did Marx invent the Symptom?,” “the subject presumed to…” on page 210, or “Positing the presuppositions” on page 244. (The rest of the text consisting of Lacanian hieroglyphics that I hope to someday render in to perfect psychoanalytic crop circles that eventually reveal, revive and revel in the Real, the Symptom, the Imaginary, and das Ding all in one foul grand gesture in which the proletariat will finally come to total consciousness, amass in the nearest city and stare blankly, longingly at the sky waiting for Lacan to appear in some great 1960s Télévision set floating overhead. Perhaps I’ve said too much… Oder: Vielleicht, ich habe zu viel gesagt).

I think the difficulty of this text lies in the thickness of it; no, no, not the page number; um, the density; yeah, that’s it: density. So, I’ll keep it on my shelf for inefficient perusal; the proverbial “wait a second, I gotta find this quote!”. I can discuss a mere five pages of this text for hours; or, for that matter, write an annoyingly long book review on one sub-chapter. But I only write this stuff for me. And, luckily, you, dear reader, have no choice.

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