Don Draper: What you call love was invented by guys like me. To sell Nylons.
In certain circles, it’s fashionable to assert that “words are violence.” That is to say, certain language is used to perpetuate and reinforce existing (typically oppressive) social power structures, and this is a form of coercion on par with physical violence. For brevity, I’m going to lump everyone who espouses these beliefs together under the broad umbrella of postmodernism.
In other circles, it’s fashionable to ridicule postmodern ideas and the oft-ridiculous policies they inspire.
However, to the extent postmodern thought keys in on narrative, and particularly the role of symbolic abstraction in shaping individual and group identities, I’d argue there’s plenty of analytical utility to it.
Where people run into trouble is when they attempt to turn a methodology for analyzing signs and symbols into a belief system. Because this type of deconstruction is an inherently nihilistic activity. Ultimately, there’s no there there [Incidentally, this also applies to science. Science is a methodology, not a belief system. And belief systems are what separate the Jonas Salks of the world from the Josef Mengeles]. Or, as Venkatesh Rao put it (much more eloquently):
“Losing [all sense of objective meaning] is a total-perspective-vortex moment for the Sociopath: he comes face-to-face with the oldest and most fearsome god of all: the absent God. In that moment, the Sociopath viscerally experiences the vast inner emptiness that results from the sudden dissolution of all social realities. There’s just a pile of masks with no face beneath. Just quarks and stuff.“
But that’s a subject for another note. A full hearts note. This is a clear eyes note.
And in case you’re wondering, no, words are not equivalent to physical violence. That is nonsense.
What is not nonsense is the notion that if you can deftly manipulate the symbols people use to assign and create meaning in their lives, you can manipulate their thoughts and behavior. We have a name for this outside academia and the culture wars.
It’s called advertising.
Let’s unpack that Mad Men quote that led off this note. Don Draper is describing what academic types would call the “signified” and the “signifier.” The signified is the abstract concept, love. The signifier is the ad selling Nylons. The ad signals what love means—how love manifests itself in the world. How you should express it. How it should make you feel.
This relationship is the basis for language (human or otherwise). Heck, it’s the basis for conscious thought. It’s therefore the building block for both fiat news and fiat thought—the raw material our missionaries use to build their wolf traps.
Every missionary has his own version of the Don Draper quote.
Politician: What you call values were invented by guys like me. To win power.
Fancy Asset Manager: What you call ESG was invented by guys like me. To gather assets.
The Sell-Side: What you call a rotation trade was invented by guys like me. To earn commissions.
An important thing to remember here is that awareness of how missionaries manipulate signs and signifiers is NOT the same as saying there are no such things as facts. It is NOT the same as saying there is no point to believing in anything. It is NOT an invitation to nihilism.
It IS, however, the foundation for a clear-eyed view of your world.