Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

Semantic sorcery: Using words to bewitch, conjure and transfigure

For 21 years the writer Alan Moore has been a practicing magician. He says in this interview  that on his fortieth birthday, “rather than bore my friends by having anything as mundane as a mid-life crisis, I decided it might be more interesting to terrify them by going completely mad and declaring myself to be a magician”.

Moore believes there is some confusion as to what “magic” actually is. What magic really refers to, he argues, is the manipulation of symbols and language; that which is intangible, rather than the subversion of physical laws by supernatural force;  magic and art are expressions of the same capability to bewitch with words or images.

Art deals with ideas, and when it does so effectively, it  can bring about material change in the world by influencing the way people think. It has the ability to transform consciousness and to shape culture.

This is a magnificent power indeed and, like all magic, can be used for good or ill.

Semantic Sorcery

For Alan Moore, amongst other things, this ill has resulted in the bland homogeneity of modern urban culture: identical high streets, with the same brands, the same iconography everywhere. He has also explored the relationship between language, power and totalitarianism in his novel V for Vendetta.

This is a theme examined most notably by the late George Orwell: the politically powerful manipulating language to conjure a false reality and to confuse common sense. You don’t have to live in Orwell’s dystopian “Airstrip One” and its topsy-turvy verbal universe of “doublethink”, “2+2=5 and “thoughtcrime” to know that language is misused to suit those with political agendas. In my first year of university, during the era of “New Labour” and “Spin” one of our professors told us that the boundaries of political space are not fixed, they are  malleable and configured by rhetoric: what we understand to be “left and right”, the difference between “socialist and conservative”, etc, can all be manipulated by those with the power to disseminate information and to set the policy agenda.

He also told us to question everything he said too.

Of course one does not need to descend into misanthrope and sanity-corroding cynicism to employ critical reasoning in a PR-glossed world.

We just need to be more aware when semantic sorcery is afoot, especially when issues become heavily politicised and a particular narrative becomes dominant. (More on this in a forthcoming eBook).

Transfiguration

A good example of this is the case of Liebeck v McDonalds in the United States in 1994.

For most people this would not sound familiar at first, but you may remember it as the story of the woman who sued McDonalds after she burned herself with a cup of their hot coffee whilst driving.

At the time, various ideologues and those with political scores to settle used this case as a way to push for “tort reform” in the US. It became an enormously politicised issue that received massive media coverage worldwide. Much of it erroneous.

The New York Times recently did a report on how it is one of the most misrepresented cases in American legal history. At the time, many mainstream news outlets relayed the story it in a flippant manner, as that of a greedy, irresponsible woman driving with coffee between her legs and using it as an opportunity to make some money off McDonalds.

What many people do not realise is the woman in question, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck, was not driving at all, but had, in fact, been sat in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car which was stationary in the parking lot of a McDonalds. They had just ordered some coffee from the drive-thru and had pulled over, so that she could add some sugar and milk to her drink.

She had placed the coffee in between her legs (the car didn’t have cup holders), pulled the lid of the cup off towards herself and accidentally spilled the liquid on her lap.

She had suffered severe third degree burns in her pelvic region, requiring skin grafts and subsequently received over two years of medical treatment.  The public were also unaware of the careful deliberation of the jury who had heard the case – they too were mischaracterised as a “rogue jury”.

Perhaps, after looking into the trial, you may still side with McDonalds, but at least you would have done so after examining all the facts. The sensationalised version of events, however, appealed to people’s sense of scorn for what they perceive to be laziness, avarice and “undeserved riches.” To many foreigners, the absurdity of America’s entitled “compensation culture”.

It became a joke meme, always the same false story repeated over and over: woman driving with coffee between her legs, spills it, then gets rich by suing McDonalds.

Through the use of dishonest language and misleading stereotypes, a mischievous spell was cast: everyone’s prejudices were flattered, the complexities of the case overlooked and victims were transfigured into villains.

Superpowers

At this point you may think that the concept of magic is superfluous to understanding the relationship between language and power. It is easily explained without it. Indeed you may be right. It is not entirely necessary. Dispense with it if you will.

But it may be helpful to remember that magic’s appeal, as a notion, is that it enables us to transcend corporeal and environmental constraints; to bend reality to the human will.

Athena

When it is used in literature and visual art it allows people to read the minds of others; to fly; to be invisible; to travel back in time.  To make things other than what they are.

Similar fictional narratives play out in the real world. Ideological and political wordplay creates the illusion of “truth” where there is none.

This is why it is a useful metaphor for understanding just how powerful language is or any other art form we may use to reimagine our existence.

Language and art are the mediums through which we alter reality.

The closest that any mere mortal can get to a magical superpower.

Image – Candice Holdsworth

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