Ring the alarm! The sound of crisis: from ‘language games’ to… ‘politricks’

(…continuing from last month’s post)


To suggest that language may appear as a problem for a country that is teetering on the edge of financial, moral and political collapse, could be easily mistaken for virtually inviting a debt-ridden population to a dinner of ‘cake’ with Marie Antoinette (to whom the callous and ignorant remark of ‘let them eat cake’ is commonly attributed), or to the pained and patronizing tone of a deconstructionist academic (neither of which I admit to being) who cries over dislocations of grammatical categories in an inspired barrage of linguistic fecundity.

My concern with language in this article however is hardly aesthetic, in any culinary or abstractedly theoretical sense; rather, it is purely political and seeks to interpret the way in which politics is spoken about and spoken to, not as a set of ordinary linguistic devices used to express views in conversation, but as political triggers that denote and fire up schisms, chasms and spasms which are felt not just at the level of private or public discussions but also as a key players in the political sensorium, either in the form of media spectacle, parliamentary politics or as angered, disobedient responses from the commentariat; comprised of the noisiest authorities, tweetellectuals and the ‘lay’ public all engaged in crafting aperçus on all manners of subjects relating to The Crisis.

Popular themes that recur in this veritable mélange of warring wor(l)ds, images and sounds include the high-pitch fear-mongering over a failing economy, reverberating promises of a politically ineffectual and morally bankrupt government for a better tomorrow through more cuts and heavier taxation, blaring sirens from predatory lenders demanding that we fasten ourselves onto the vindictive straitjacket of more austerity, lurid images of poverty combined with tales of personal disaster and dereliction brought forward by economic decrepitude, nauseating repertoires of routine xenophobic violence by far-right groups, snapshots of police brutality, howls of indignation by righteous revolutionaries incandescent with rage, torrential leaking of confidential documents that reveal scandals, piercing commentaries by the ‘intellectuel du jour’, nauseating ruminations on fiscal themes by celebrity economists, aggressive IMF, ECB and World Bank pep talks on ‘work-shy’, ‘tax-evading Greeks’, malodorous connections of the political elite with mafia-run fiefdoms, creeping unholy alliances between the Church and far-right groups, twanging urban militias each fighting for their ‘cause’, low-bandwidth radios resisting kleptocracy and fighting the spectre of neoliberalism online, ticking electoral pendulums predicting the rise of the extremes in voting preferences, loud radio and TV phone-ins reproducing madness, prejudice and confusion, time-worn political parties reeking of the cheap incense of bygone glories, Neo-nazi sympathisers shouting racial abuse, teenage anarchists blowing up shopping malls and robbing banks to hear their cries and endure cops’ lashes behind bars, odoriferous ideologues retreating into their bug-infested tribal enclaves, heckling international media offering uncharitable jokes and condescending anecdotes, Quixotic dreamers bedazzled by their rosy self-delusions, immigrants and ethnic minorities hopelessly marooned to the margins, demagogues of the left burning effigies of the ruling class with demonic frenzy, defending moribund institutions that ooze decay and capitalise on hard-wired, historical traumas, agitators du moment in air-conditioned and sonically monitored studio flats typing throbbing manifestos for change, verbal assaults becoming the norm in televised panels, interviews, Skype conferences and Google+ hangouts, moping melancholy clouding passengers’ minds, enveloping fogs of burnt wood sweeping across the city as petrol becomes more expensive each day; what this cornucopia of sights, sounds, scents and other such forms of sensual perception serves to show is not a simulacrum of Dickensian bleakness but the ordinary, everyday repertoires of existential synaesthesia of a country in crisis.

What this confusing list of cheerlessness does not admit however is that the way in which the public experience of the crisis is mediated and rendered intelligible is through language; language is the favoured medium of exchange and reflection upon those events of a day spent in crisis. These being not mere linguistic tropes but real orchestrations of the current soundscape of politics in crisis-bound Greece, it is worth considering the role of language in producing and reproducing these. Part of the problem in the political culture of Greece is to be found in transforming our relationship with language so that we start occupying what Les Back (2007) calls ‘a listening post’ in society and every-day life. Using language as listeners is only part of the problem but it is a basic one, no matter how naïve and fanciful it may seem at first sight. R. Murray Schafer (1994) who coined the term ‘soundscape’ offers a few comments in his book, The Soundscape that might serve as very good advice on how to develop a vocabulary of engagement through listening and speaking; discussing, not debating. Given that ‘man echoes his soundscape in speech’ (p.40) and that ‘noise pollution’, like the socio-political fracas that I have described above, results ‘when man does not listen carefully’, ‘noises’ become ‘the sounds we have learned to ignore’ (p.4) and ‘linguistic accuracy’ ceases to be ‘merely a matter of lexicography’, especially as ‘we perceive only what we can name’ (p.34), but rather graduates to the function of ‘an instrument of the will’ (p.11).  What this cut-up of Schafer’s original quotes serves to illustrate is that society is accomplished through language and sounds via interaction; ideas are made in language and of language using it both as a resource and a medium that broadcasts distress and communicates anxiety about public issues at large. This a fairly obvious point especially to those familiar with the conversational sociology of Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sacks, but one that can help us understand language also as an acoustic phenomenon that dominates the socio-political space where interactions are made and unmade daily. The importance of this is to attune ourselves to the reality of sounding out politics as membership in a discourse community that shares linguistic codes, themselves married to cultural traits that resonate the way we hear, speak and do politics.

This of course is hardly new(s); Schafer (1994: 215) reminds us how ‘[i]n his model Republic, Plato quite explicitly limits the size of the ideal community to 5,040, the number that can conveniently be addressed by a single orator’, while Shakespeare’s memorable stanza from King Lear (Act 4, Scene 6) invites us to disown our ‘eyes to see how the world works’ and are advised to ‘look with [y]our ears’ instead. Such colourful allusions to broadening our sense of politics but also preparing our senses for politics too, is achieved through thinking not just with and/or in our minds but with the body too. This interpretation of the body as good to think with, trusting its sensory organs as much as we trust our intellectual apparatus is given proper theoretical weight in various sociologies of the body and embodiment, an example of which is to be found in David Oswell’s (2009) theoretical investment in the idea of politics as an experiment in and of language, transmitted by sounds the body situates and amplifies for us in the public realm. Oswell (2009: 12, 2) notes how we articulate our political demands through the powers of organised speech, insisting that ‘democracy is figured out through the modalities of speaking and listening within different parliaments or assemblies of mouths and ears’  and goes on to describe parliaments as ‘concrete assemblies of heard and spoken political expression’ mediated by and through language, his supposition being that ‘political expression and political articulation need to be understood in the context of the realpolitik of sound and sense’. Was this ‘realpolitik of sound and sense’, after all not just what Plato’s philosophical nemesis, Aristotle had in mind when he made the distinction between voice (φωνή) and speech (λόγος) to distinguish the noise of animals (represented by ‘voice’) from human speech as the articulation of reason by men within an organised political unit, namely the polis? (Aristotle, Politics).


However, theoretical, abstract and jumbled all this may sound, I believe that this very ‘realpolitik of sound and sense’ has deep roots in how we collectively manage and understand our polity through words and sounds; themselves acting as admittedly shifty but at the same time fairly indicative barometers of social attitudes, patterns, habits and trends that not only outline the contours of the current crisis, but also register historic tensions that bear the imprint of prolonged misunderstandings and misrepresentations in need of restoration and repair. What seems to be needed urgently, among many other things of course, is a communicational overhaul of sorts framed not just as ‘a struggle with language’, as Wittgenstein (1977: 11e) would have it, but a struggle in language too; and one which involves treating each other as ‘cultural colleagues’, to use Garfinkel’s (1967: 11) unforgettable phrase, in an effort to foster a strong communitas where associational public life can flourish if we act towards it by learning to listen well in the spirit of skilful co-operation; understood as a craft and as a vocation in order to make better social, cultural and political sense out of situations that dissuade us from doing so, crises being just an example and a good starting point for doing so.

This idea of mutual understanding and togetherness, achieved by investment to the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation, to quote the subtitle of Richard Sennett’s (2012) most recent book, belongs as much to him and Garfinkel (1967) as it does to us. This spirit of linguistic, cultural and political effort towards consensus (not compromise!), seems to be entirely lacking in Greece and this is not a modern politico-sensory impairment but rather one with a long historical trajectory since the country’s emergence as a modern nation at the tail end of the 19th century. Greece has traditionally been hostage to the ‘language games’ and the ‘polititricks’ of populism and irresponsible demagoguery, both operating as cultural trends and political practices that are reproduced in fragrant speechism and clownish gesturing that still remain all too prevalent in the country’s political oratoria, often resembling figures that could easily be lifted from the verses of Alexandrian poet C.P.Cavafy who in 1928 crafted a subtly ironic  libel for a fictional yet oh-so-real ‘Prince from Western Libya’ or H.A.Vaughan’s sonnet, ‘For certain demagogues’ (see Brathwaite, 1984: 31), penned in Barbados in the 1940s but hearing the same alarm bells that that rang so loudly in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ears ten years later when he described Jamaica’s labour party leader Alexander Bustamante as an ‘ex-rabble-raising demagogue, whose every word and gesture have an engaging histrionic phoneyness’ (see Gunst, 1995: 73).

Greece’s tripartite coalition government as well as its opposition bear a striking resemblance to such rhetorical flourishes of populism described by Cavafy, Vaughan and Leigh Fermor but such posing does little more than bring ‘a new elation’ to mere ‘fickle dust’, to borrow a clipped verse from Vaughan’s sonnet, and seem to require (as previously suggested) a radical breakdown of such ‘rhetorical habits’ as Paul Gilroy (2012) describes them. These ‘rhetorical habits’ however, are more than mere archetypal acts dramatised in predictably recurring plots, but point to enduring political conflicts, ideological biases and (worse of all) cultural loopholes that are used to evade responsibility and critical, rational argument thus reinforcing fanaticism rather than open dialogue; often taking the form of political witch-hunting which uses language as a political tool, not to articulate politics but to summon worshippers, exorcise witches, call people to prayer and attract consumers of voting preferences around suffocatingly close-knit party formations which self-righteously claim to have the monopoly of sense and entitlement to the truth. 


The question however remains; what is to be done? On a quasi-aesthetic/cultural level, Schafer (1994: 153) would go as far as to suggest that what we need is to develop a ‘sonological competence’ as a way of navigating ourselves out of this distressingly echoic labyrinth of miscommunication and socio-political disjuncture and my contention is that his proposition is immensely useful, if interpreted as an argument against the sensory deprivation of the body politic (especially) when it is hit by crises such as the one experienced in Greece, as I type and as you read. Can we then suggest that by becoming ‘sonologically competent’, we also educate ourselves politically into acquiring a new kind of literacy which leaves no social interaction or political interrogation ‘suspended in hyphens, testifying to the disconnectedness of our thoughts’? The phrase belongs to Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret M. Lock (1987: 10), whose work gives a nod of approval to developing a ‘precise vocabulary with which to deal with [the] mind-body-society’ triptych and this passionate plea of theirs for a more mindful understanding of ‘the body’ is in reality no different from the rallying cry of this article being no other than an invitation to listen intently to how politics is orchestrated in language and sound and that crises can be perceived and felt as audible warfare involving an intense artillery exchange that can mutilate or heal depending on the camp we plead allegiance to.

What I have tried to demonstrate is that we can use sociology in times of crisis in an effort to make sense of how things sound; appreciating that language is simultaneously a political and performative act. Trusting the noises language makes matters immensely in trying to tell a story of who we are and what we do or as Csordas (1994: 11) notes in reference to Paul Ricoeur’s (1991) musings on the tension between ‘language’ and experience’, ‘text and action’; ‘language is a modality of being of being-in-the-world-, such that language not only represents or refers but “discloses” our being-in-the-world’. Language is hardly ‘immediately available’ and much less a frivolous enterprise; like Sidewalk’s author, Mitchell Duneier (1999: 339) we have to ‘strive […] to get things right’ as ‘[t]he meanings of a culture are embodied, in part, in its language, which cannot be grasped by an outsider without attention to the choice and order of the words and sentences’.

Against this soundscape of communicational and associational deprivation as registered in the squeaking frequencies of ‘language games’ and ‘politricks’ and as is democratically represented in Greece by virtually all parties involved -from the political mainstream and the dominant media to the opposition, the marginal outsiders, the blogosphere and the ‘public’ itself, – sociology and sociologists may have the capacity to reverse the script and flip the disc on which our political needle seems stuck by allowing the opportunity to ‘defamiliarise the familiar’, destroy our myths and encourage us to re-interpret our life in crisis in ways that can remind us of what it means to be human. In addition to that, sociology can suggest strategies for escaping our current political insulation and point instead to a re-vitalisation of a civic ethic which makes itself heard in the public sphere, not as an instrument of shopworn and devalued rhetorical gambits but conducting instead a symphony of accommodation between civic consciousness and economic performance, in ways that allow for associational solutions to political predicaments while attempting to envision what might happen if we jump headlong into resolving the tension between democratic government and capitalist economy. Thus, making room for the emergence of a new public sphere that might transform the current fragmentary political landscape into the ‘real utopia’ of associational democracy as envisioned by Erik Olin Wright, Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers in their multi-volume ‘real utopias project’.

Whether the sociological imagination is powerful enough to do that of course is a different matter and one that is continually open to debate. What remains unquestionable for the remainder of the ‘Sociologists of crisis’ series however, is my intention to demonstrate John Brewer’s conviction that ‘sociologists don’t debate quibbles. We are tackling the financial crisis head-on’. In that spirit, each post will from now on host conversations with current sociologists whose research and thinking contributes vitally to challenging, upsetting and disrupting irresponsible sloganeering with imaginative responses on issues that are continually if not nauseatingly discussed in the public realm about ‘The Crisis’. These conversations/interviews mark their debut next month with Prof. Gerard Delanty’s thoughts on the idea of Europe.


Back, L. (2007) The Art of Listening. London: Berg

Brathwaite, E.K. (1984) History of the Voice. London: New Beacon Books

C.P. Cavafy (1984) Collected Poems. London: Hogarth Press

Csordas, T. (1994) Embodiment and experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Duneier, M. (1999) Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Gilroy, P. (2012) My Britain is fuck all’ zombie multiculturalism and the race politics of citizenship. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 19:4, 380-397

Gunst, L. (1995) Bon Fi Dead. London: Canongate.

Hughes, N.S. and Lock, M.M (1987) The Mindful Body: A prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterl, New Series, Vol. 1, No.1 (Mar. 1987) pp. 6-41

Oswell, D. (2009) Yet to Come? Globality and the Sound of an Infant Politics. Radical Politics Today 1(1) pp. 1-18

Sennett, R. (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. London: Yale University Press

Schafer, R.M. (1994) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books

Wittgenstein, L. (1977) Culture and Value. Oxford: Blackwell

Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.


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