Marguerite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture examines the relation between language and state violence. In some ways it’s a companion piece to Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts, which analyzes a similar connection between performance and terror, also focussing on Argentina.
The New York Times has an online version of the book’s first chapter, whose title is likewise “A Lexicon of Terror”, and where we find her most sustained examination of the role of language under Argentina’s military regime of 1976 to 1983.
Since Orwell at least, we’ve been familiar with the concept that authoritarianism impacts language, bending it out of shape and introducing a whole series of figures and double meanings that violate common sense: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. Doublespeak. And in “Politics and the English Language”, for instance, Orwell insists upon linguistic clarity as a remedy to political obfuscation: in so far as “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.”
But as Feitlowitz observes, while the Argentine junta made use of language’s slipperiness precisely in the service of something like Orwellian doublespeak (e.g., in a distortion of human rights discourse, “We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right”), they were also quite self-conscious and wary about the sign’s inherently arbitrary relation to its referent. In the words of Admiral Emilio Massera, with which Feitlowitz opens her chapter, “Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason” (19).
So in that “the whole regime was intensely verbal,” as Feitlowitz contends, with its “constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews” such that “Argentinians lived in an echo chamber” (20), not only did the junta remake language, it also opened up the possibility that its own language could be turned against it. Indeed, this was (as Taylor argues) something that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo realized: that they could take the regime’s rhetoric about the centrality of the family and women’s role as nurturers and guardians, and turn it against the practices that separated mother from child through kidnap and torture.
There are two possible positions: one insists on clarity and common sense against the obfuscations and euphemisms of overweening power; the other thrives on the fact that even the most powerful cannot fully control their language (or anybody else’s).
The problem is that Feitlowitz never fully chooses either one of these possibilities. And as such, she constantly falls prey to the worst of all worlds. Consider her chapter’s conclusion:
The repression lives on in [. . .] aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people’s very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. [. . .] When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary [between inner self and the outside world] breaks down. [. . .]
We must pay attention to this dis-ease, we must document its signs. We must make an artifact of this Lexicon of Terror, so that it will no longer be a living language. (62)
Here is a denunciation of language’s aberration expressed in the most aberrant of language. Is it not, after all, a form of “doublespeak” to use such a richly figural, metaphoric mode of expression as to refer to language’s “scars,” its bruises, punctures, and wounds? And while we’re at it, why does this linguistic cure depend upon killing a “living language”?
How far, after all, are we from the Argentine junta’s own metaphorical analogies, condemned by Feitlowitz, to the “cleanliness and health” that they propose to bring to an Argentina purged of political aberration (33)? If Massera is wrong to appropriate what Feitlowitz terms “Neo-Nazi ‘germ theory'” when he declares that “we must cleanse the country of subversion” (33), is it not equally problematic to portray language itself as a body whose sickness is to be cured or as a life that is to be euthanized . . . especially when it is metaphorical aberration that is to be purged, linguistic excess to be eliminated?
In other words, Feitlowitz uses metaphor to argue for de-metaphorization.
We should either use metaphor or denounce it. And if it turns out that we cannot rid our language of figures, then perhaps there’s a limit to the political blame we can pin on figuration per se. All the more so when we’ve borrowed our most powerful figures from those we claim to be condemning.
(Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric” [JSTOR access required] has something to say about this, too.)