The author Daniel Schwindt, who edits the website Solidarity Hall, recently released a book entitled Letters to My Generation. Written as a series of letters to an anonymous millenial reader, the book is fundamentally a raft of searing critiques of American culture over the last century. The book is incisive and highly accessible.
A particularly pithy chapter of the book, entitled “The Verbal Universe” puts a contemporary spin on Soren Kierkegaard’s critique in Two Ages: A Literary Review. In it, Kierkegaard spoke of the newspaper saturated media landscape creating an abstraction known as “the public”, by which real thought becomes subordinate to abstract crowings that, precisely because they are anonymous, assume a kind of objectivity. In such an atmosphere, the validity of individual thought is weighed against the objectivity of the thoughts of this abstract, faceless public.
In “The Verbal Universe”, Schwindt talks about a media environment in which what matters more to the individual viewer is not the local issue that you can provide a concrete solution for, but the seemingly global problem at which the viewer can only helplessly stare. Reality ends up being turned on its head, says Schwindt, and the viewer:
ends up ignoring the area of his activity where he could have maximized his impact, focusing instead with utmost intensity on those things which concern him least
What is more, the viewers helplessness is exacerbated precisely at the level of his response, since the Verbal Universe produces the vocabulary by which such responses are considered valuable
Keywords, slogans, catchphrases, and clichés: these are the tools of the verbal universe. They are its power and you can use them to recognize its work. Its language consists of vague, common words, usually almost meaningless in themselves but in the verbal universe loaded with meanings. Think of “love,” “hate,” “democracy,” “education,” “sexuality,” “patriotism,” “freedom,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and so on. Even the word “American” has the power to convey massive amounts of emotion, even if, in actual context, it means something else, or nothing at all. These are the central tools utilized by the verbal universe to offer each person the ability to communicate without communicating and to think without knowing. And almost always the thinking and the speaking is about events which have nothing to do with the person.