Flipping the Script: Toby D. Sanders on 'Radical Melioration'
By Toby D. Sanders
Special to UC
Radical Melioration: Stumblingblocks and Foolishness or the Art of Offense
A preamble to an important critical comment…
The important discussion around the word “b----” re-ignited by the watershed video by Lupe Fiasco last month is long overdue. The importance of such a discussion about the politics of art and the art of politics is grossly underappreciated. Language is life.
As powerful and all-encompassing a tool and art as language is, it is filled with lacunae: empty places, weaknesses. There are realities, actions, feelings, occurrences for which there are no names, no single words as handles, as markers of meaningfulness.
There is, for example, no adjectival form of the word "integrity" in the English language. As often as the noun is used to describe a quality of a person or institution, (most often a lacking), one would figure that the term “integruous, integrous, integreny”–(or the like)–would have long ago worked its way into our language as shorthand for having integrity. It certainly means something that it has not. These absences always mean something, marking some laziness of the tongue or imagination, or some political reality–marking something we do not want to say, admit, register as important or powerful.
There is a rhetorical practice among mostly oppressed minorities (or groups who feel oppressed) that involves the claiming of a word, meant assuredly as an insult or diminishment, as a badge of honor or pride or a “fealty of resistance,” an insult qua affirmation. There is no word for this practice. Even though it is everywhere around us; often, it is us: Philosopher, Cynic, Impressionist, Yankee, Nerd, Lutheran, Christian, Black. Yet, there is no word for it.
This practice of rhetorical script-flipping is a powerful tool. Some might even say it is a vital form of mythopoesis, that is, restructuring reality through language. It is profoundly under-examined intellectually and most often rather shallowly discussed as an aspect of culture-making or pop commentary. Rhetoric, the art and science of persuasion, is at the heart of the matter and the war is at this margin between those with the power, talent, access and privilege to define (and/or insult) and those who would be agents and not objects of this discourse. This practice is a way of asserting the power of objects to become agents. Makers, voices, free in a community of discourse. It is at the core of words, of language, of community itself.
In linguistics the term melioration is used to discuss the tendency of a word to become more approved or respectable by a population. Words like “nice,” “nerd,” and “impressionist” that originally had (a sometimes very) negative meanings take on more positive meanings over time, sometimes centuries, other times decades. This is certainly a related matter; but, it is not quite the heart of the power of the phenomenon mentioned above. Melioration is the polar opposite of pejoration (that is, the process by which words like “silly”, “villain”, “awful”, “fatal” “profane” and “Negro”, over time , take on very negative connotations and meanings.) This discussion, though deeply historical and often technical, is not just academic. C. S. Lewis talks about the way in which words associated with class distinctions have their fate (and the fates of their targets) determined by the brutal power dynamics of class. So the fate of words like “villain” and “pagan” and “urban” is determined more by who has power and who doesn’t as meaning and value is culturally, politically constructed.
America is an offense. We stand as a geography of insult reversal to those who would fix the fate of the outsiders and misfits, by definition we are a contrarian community of discourse, a landscape of alterity. At at the center of this figurative land and story is the figura of a slave woman who steals herself and writes her story. The African American community has liberated and defined itself and remade the vistas of political and personal possibilities through its creative and often transgressive discursive practices. Black offensiveness has been one of the great virtues of America.
One of the rhetorical bulwarks of this virtue has been this practice. I will call it here radical melioration. Taking words like “black,” “bad,” “niggah,” “motherf-cker,” “sh-t”, “wrong,” “thug life” and yes, even “b-tch” and giving them positive contextualized meanings has been a subversive staple of Black artistic and political culture, which arises from Black life. In some aspects this is an endowment from the blues tradition. Its power, in part, derives from the force of irony: the irony inherent in insult backfire.
This irony is an important tool, or resource in art. And art is still among the most important sites of language and therefore political transformation. This rhetorical and critical tradition is a preformative exaggeration of the tension(s) between the way we read and hear text(s) and what is called tradition. We must study, perform and map these tensions as irony(ies), as those serrated edges between fixed text and the dynamic lived contexts: we call margins. Radical melioration has been the among the most formidable tools of the completion of the great dream that is America. Our striving for the reconciliation between our broken practices and infinitely noble aspirations, our work to align our promises and pledges and creeds to our deeds, the dream of America is just this: Integrity. And because our sins are so great we must bear offense to achieve it.
Still, we must be careful with our tools. Sometimes, in shallow, banal, thoughtless artistic renderings we corrupt the power of transgression into mere offense. We call this type of art today minstrelsy. There is no depth in these forms, in their facile inversions. Here, the targets of insult often simply become caricatures of insult doing more harm than good, that is, if we think of radical melioration as a good–and we should.
We must be mindful of this history, this form of transgressive beauty, this subversive sublimity when we criticize an artist. Yes, great artists are fired by this type of criticism. It is often a fruit of their own artistic fruition. And yes, banal panderers are undone by it and their minstrelsy is exposed. Still, there is a suffocating effect that calls for a comforting and uncritical decency can have on people furtherest down. The response from those who would be the artists’ most thoughtful public, those whose double-status as poets (that is world-makers) and victims, affords them an authority (that is auth, the ancient root: ownership), a power to invalidate, must be careful with this power. Mindful.
Radical melioration flips the script: The first become last, the last first. Often our own level of offended-ness reveals important things about where we count ourselves–and again the artist has won something, has saved something, has served a prophetic role. In a just society we must always question whether or not we have become or inherited the crooked twig: a formidable and forgetful power that silences and strangles in service of our privilege(s). We must always question our own theories and beliefs about decency and order so that we do not succumb to a judgmental and corrosive cynicism--which ultimately threatens that very decency the most. The ironies and humor in art can help us here. This is one of the gifts of Black Folk to the world. After we have duly reckoned with these matters, this great gift...we can comment, boldly, critically, with a chastened certitude about the value of an utterance, about the voice of a soul flung up.Originally published here.
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