Black Friday

Black Friday, should anyone be unfamiliar with the term, is the Friday that ends the week of US Thanksgiving (the last Thursday in November). It is the day when retail outlets, which make up a major proportion of the national economy in many countries around the world, start to turn a profit (i.e. go into the black) for the first time during the year. If black Friday turns red, dire consequences may ensue.

In Ancient Egypt, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti attempted to institute a new official proto-monotheistic religion, based on exclusive worship of the disc of the sun. They closed down the old shrines and temples to the many gods of Egypt and the cycles of festivals that clustered around these religious sites were discontinued, along with the old priests’ lucrative trade in charms, prayers and amulets. The result was economic meltdown, famine and plague, coups, counter-revolution and an eventual return to the old regime.

Opinion is still divided as to the benefits of Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution. Few nowadays doubt the economic efficacy of consumer-fuelled festivals such as Christmas. In fact, as Black Friday would seem to attest, this (at once spiritual and material celebration) has become the very hinge of the world economic system: the annual rite that tips us back from the red into the black; a practically natural phenomenon, as reliable as the rising and falling of the Nile.

Christmas, of course, was not originally a Christian holy day, but a focus of various pagan celebrations of the coming of the Winter solstice, and with it the end of the dark days of winter and the beginning of the slow ascent towards spring and the regeneration of the earth. The Early Church cleverly incorporated such festivals into its liturgical cycles and even the most radical of modern protestant sects do not outlaw celebration of Christmas, be it in the form of reflection on the deeper meaning of the birth of Christ or that of an occasion for almsgiving and the exchange of gifts and goodwill.

Gifting has become a (perhaps the) central feature of Christmas. This is fully in keeping with the importance that anthropologists attribute to gifts as a way of crafting social and economic cohesion. Gifts, however small, incur a cost (a sort of sacrifice) that ripples back through and stimulates the economy; they also twitch social and family networks (however threadbare they may have become in the course of the year) momentarily back to life. Scrooges are rightly reviled.

Such rituals that consolidate economic prosperity and social cohesion were common in the past. The fisherman’s Black Friday came on Good Friday; that of the farmer at Harvest Festival. Greed may not be good; but consumption, even of the conspicuous kind, may, on certain occasions, help to lubricate the economy and elevate the human spirit. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of the earth; especially when a discount is involved…

Nevertheless, the precarious balance between sustainability and ruin on which the Western capitalist economy perches itself each year on Black Friday should be a serious cause for concern. Our economic prosperity and our very future depend on a single month out of twelve and on ever-dwindling good-will. As the economic advent calendar ticks down ever more tightly at end of each year, surely this does not augur well. Spiritual and material goodwill need to be distributed more generously throughout the rest of the year as well.


(Our) Words of the Year

A festive end-of-year tradition seems to have emerged over the past decade or so, whereby dictionaries and other linguistically-prestigious institutions announce a “word of the year,” in the same way that Time magazine nominates a “person of the year”.

The words chosen are usually those that have gained a certain traction through the influence of social and traditional media and many of them go on to acquire a certain linguistic legitimacy through resilience over time. “Selfie,” “subprime,” “unfriend” and “WMDs” are clearly terms, for good or ill, that are here to stay, at least for a while.

Interestingly, the words selected by Oxford Dictionaries, an organization that strives to be objective and non-judgmental, as befits an august lexicographical institution, often also appear on Lake Superior State University’s annual list of words and phrases that should be banished from public discourse

Linguistic novelties attract enthusiasm and opprobrium in equal measure and that is exactly the way things should be in the eminently democratic forum of English language use.

In keeping with this principle, this blog aims to chart and reflect rather than resist linguistic change.

I must admit, however, to a particular aversion to the growing overuse of the possessive pronoun.

I understand that the reasoning behind this trend is an attempt to personalize otherwise impersonal experiences, thereby indicating a desire to ‘put people first’ and avoid alienating abstractions and bureaucratic impositions. This is a goal I wholeheartedly applaud, especially in academic writing. Michael Billig has written an excellent book criticizing this ‘unpeopling’ of scholarly discourse, especially in the social sciences, whose aim, surely, should be precisely that of ‘putting people first’. In this book, Billig convincingly argues in favor of everyday language as opposed to jargon, verbs with subjects rather than abstract nouns, and anecdotes as an alternative to dubious theoretical or experimental generalizations. I totally agree.

The extended use of the possessive pronoun is, however, a tendency that works in the opposite direction. Rather than depersonalizing situations, such as unemployment and globalization, which should rightly be viewed in terms of the subjective experience of individuals, overuse of possessive pronouns unduly personalizes situations that are in fact universal, impersonal or oppressive and thus undermines attempts to oppose them. The resulting tone is often self-centered, overweeningly paternalistic or downright creepy.

This tendency pervades the whole of contemporary society and is certainly not restricted to the English language; it ranges from the most banal to the most sublime and tragic experiences.

People now say “I am having my lunch” (“I am having lunch”) or “I am taking my shower”, (I am taking a shower), emphasizing the personal experience rather than the universal necessity of these activities and adumbrating a certain creeping (and creepy) possessiveness and privatization with regard to basic human needs. Women in Brazil frequently refer to the nightly soap-opera as “minha novela” (my soap opera), ironically staking out a personalized space by reference to a medium of popular entertainment that is notoriously manipulative.

Newsreaders routinely announce “Here are your headlines” (“Here are the headlines”) and politicians claim to be “your government” (the government). Newspapers, especially those of a more popular bent, entitle their business and finance sections “Your money,” despite the fact that most of their readers have no access to or influence over the arcane self-serving financial transactions of the super-rich that drive the supposedly free-flow of capital.

I particularly object, however, to the unctuous use of possessive pronouns to refer to the relationship between victims and anonymous victimizers or impersonal misfortunes. “Her attacker has been arrested,” rather than “the attacker” or, if one needs to be explicit, “the man who attacked her;” “Coping with your cancer”, (coping with cancer); “after his bypass-surgery” (after bypass-surgery). I see no reason to personalize the relation to such misfortunes, which serves only to euphemistically belittle the impersonal nature of an act of crime or a serious disease and thus further entangle a victim’s subjectivity with a radically external source of suffering. Furthermore, it subtly suggests that adversity is, if not something for which the victim is partially responsible, at the very least something that should be accepted passively as part of the victim’s identity rather than raged against, regretted or bemoaned; still less countered in solidarity with fellow human beings who have similar experiences and concerns.

Possessive pronouns should not be banished but scaled back. The only things that truly belong to us are our body parts… and it is as horrifying that doctors refer to a soon-to-be-amputated leg as “the leg” as that social-workers now refer to anonymous criminals as “your attacker”.

Historically, human beings have tended to expand the extensive but not unlimited control they have over their own bodies, through language, further into the outside world, often with disastrous results. First women, children and slaves; then land, property and territory, then abstract notions such as gods, nations, professions, kings and governments, news and novelas; now murderers, abusers, fatal diseases and medical procedures are corralled into a jealously guarded personal menagerie, managed by the linguistic home economics of possessive pronouns.

It is high time that these pernicious possessive pronouns—this homely yet ultimately hubristic and harmful discourse—beat a swift retreat. Humble “a” and “the” will always do the job in a more progressive way. Ecology has taught us that ‘our world’ is not ours; psychoanalysis that ‘my mind’ is not entirely mine.

Let’s try to start learning from that.