The poetry of politics
The activities of university English departments used to be to hunker down and study the classics: to read and analyze literature. Modern English departments now engage in a wide variety of reading activities, including reading cultural text as if they were literature.
Cultural studies began in the 1960s in Britain, but gained influence in North America in the 1980s through the work of Stuart Hall, amongst others. In a nutshell, its goal is to analyze cultural texts in terms of dynamics of power, influence and oppression. A scholar in cultural studies will use the tools of reading poetry to read everything from advertising to film to social media to political speeches.
Let me give you a pertinent and recent example. There were numerous statements made by provincial government and corporate spokespersons after the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond disaster. The friction between industry (resource extraction and transport mostly) and a variety of community groups (including First Nations and environmental groups) over development has been contentious and lengthy in BC. The language and rhetoric around the issue is complex; it straddles both ideological rifts and historical (especially in terms of First Nations’ rights to land) layers of meaning.
Here is a portion of a speech made by Premier Christy Clark in Likely, BC a few days after the tailings spill: “This is a pristine resource for everybody, but for nobody more than you. And I know it’s just been a terrible, terrible heartache. … We are going to be with you, shoulder to shoulder, to do everything we can to return it to the real pristine beauty we all know this lake is for our province, because this is just such an incredible, incredible asset and so important to all of you.”
There are many aspects of this passage that could be addressed, but I will focus only a couple. “This” presumably refers to Quesnel Lake and the area downstream from the spill. The land, the water, the creatures that inhabit it are referred to as a “resource.” The word resource implies connections to resource-based economy and some sort of use. There are all sorts of implications to reducing a region or a territory to the status of a resource that goes unquestioned in this kind of rhetoric. Related to this is the word “asset” later in the speech. The language is straight from the boardroom and even further translates what is a rich and complicated ecosystem into a very narrow concept of how it relates to people.
One might argue repeated use of words “pristine” and “beauty” counters that concept, but the translation of land to an aesthetic object is just as narrow a vision as the business perspective; it is just another type of use. What both these language strategies promote is a distanced and manipulating relationship with the land in question. The land is to use, either by taking things from it or by finding some gratification in looking at it.
What is most striking about the passage is the language that it seems to avoid: environment, animals, fish, land—especially land (as in land claim) and any reference to the damage and pain done to the non-human.
This kind of language, used repeatedly by our leaders, teaches us something dangerous and unhealthy. Language changes the way we see the world and this language gives us very limited vision, a tunnel vision that will not serve us or the Earth very well.