This week’s prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/781704537 inspired me to produce a fourth installment of my ongoing series of etymological-poetic musings on English prepositions, which could, at a stretch, be construed as some kind of exercise in prose poetry and also ties up with previous posts on political and linguistic themes.
Back and forth
Between them, ‘back’ and ‘forth’ and the various other prepositions, particles, compounds, suffixes, adjectives and nouns related to them (backwards, forwards, behind, in front of, front, from, frame, for, fore-, before, after, aft, pre-, per-, pro-, para-) cover a lot of ground.
The difference between that which lies before one and that which lies behind, between movement forwards and backwards, is not as clear-cut as it might seem and, historically, people often confuse and switch the two.
For example, which direction does time run in? The prevailing metaphor in modern English is that of moving forwards from the past through the present into the future. We have our futures before us and our past experiences lie behind us. But there are also vestiges of the opposite metaphor. The temporal prepositions ‘before’ and ‘after’ suggest that the past is in front of us, the future behind. Imagined spatially rather than temporally, this makes sense. We can have knowledge of the past, as if it stretched out before our eyes, whilst the future remains hidden, tucked out of sight behind us. Time moves forwards through us from the future into the past, while we move backwards through the flow of time.
Walter Benjamin’s famous image of the ‘Angel of History,’ inspired by a Paul Klee painting and conjured up shortly before Benjamin fled Nazi-occupied and collaborationist Vichy France and ended up committing suicide in Spain, suggests something of this gloomier pre-modern view of time. “The… face [of the Angel of History] is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment… to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.” –Walter Benjamin “On the Concept of History” http://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ThesesonHistory.html (English translation) http://www.mxks.de/files/phil/Benjamin.GeschichtsThesen.html “Über den Begriff der Geschichte” (Original German version)
I shall return to this idea later in this essay, but for now shall leave it hanging in the air.
A particularly intriguing branch of the family of English words related to ‘forward’ revolves around the word ‘frame’. Frame originated first as a verbal form (‘framian’) of the Old English preposition ‘fram’, which evolved into Modern English ‘from’. ‘Framian’ originally meant something similar to ‘forward’ as a verb today, in the sense of ‘advance, further or promote,’ but gradually narrowed in use to come to signify the preparation of materials for building, whence the nominal use (as in ‘timber frame’ ‘framework’ ‘picture frame’, and ultimately ‘mainframe’) was derived. By extension, the term is common in Renaissance English (as readers of Shakespeare and Donne will be aware) to refer to the physical material structure of the human body. It was also at this time that the range of connotations of the verb began to extend back into the mental sphere, coming to mean ‘plotting, planning, or devising’ in an intellectual sense, narrowing in use, once again, thanks to the popularity of hard-boiled detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s to refer more specifically to ‘plotting to ensure that an innocent party is accused of a crime.’
‘Framework’ has recently become a buzz-word in bureaucratic and business circles in relation to strategic planning. Its etymological connotations neatly combine the idea of solid preparation with that of forward movement through time into a rosier future.
The idea of progress, which Walter Benjamin implicitly critiques in the above quotation, has become the ideological touchstone of our age, perhaps even more so than in the late 19th century, to which our times bear more than a passing resemblance. By a happy etymological accident, the Latin-derived ‘pro-‘ prefix has come to combine a sense of favorability and forward-thrusting movement (implicit for example in ‘project’, explicit in ‘projectile’).
I have often argued in print and in public and private conversations that the Zeitgeist tends to dwell emotionally and rhetorically on that which it most lacks. Our current obsession with children and childhood (verging on hysteria, overprotection and a pandemic Peter Pan complex), for example, reflects the regrets of an ageing population, just as mawkish Victorian attitudes towards children reflected the challenge of a growing population with high rates of infant mortality, poverty and economic abuse. Likewise, our modern-day obsession with nature—including more intangible concepts such as ‘authenticity’—reflects the fact that most of our natural environment is now irrevocably degraded and lost and that moral stances of the past have been eroded by cynicism.
The chirpily positive attitude with which we are all encouraged nowadays to face the future (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent Smile or Die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World http://www.amazon.com/Smile-Die-Positive-Thinking-America/dp/1847081738 ) also clashes starkly with the reality of an increasingly socially reactionary and economically regressive world and growingly insurmountable demographic, economic and environmental challenges. The smiley face is mocking and ironic.
This prevailing spirit differs from the Utopian mindset of times gone by in so far as Utopians envisaged a quantum-leap or great leap forward into a largely unimaginable, often impossibly idealistic, but always undoubtedly far superior future realm, while we incline blithely to assume that a constant drip-drip of production of ever smarter apps will gradually lead to a better future, as surely as the value of our houses and the returns on our stock options will continue to rise.
Careful observation of discourse and changes in language use can help us to detect—like canaries in a mine—the ways in which everyday rhetoric works to deny reality (to put it in Freudian terms) or generate false consciousness (to put it in Marxian ones).
The fossilization of psychoanalysis and Marxism into their own perverse ideologies has not helped the cause of those of us who pursue the truth from the side of resistance to the status quo that has come metaphorically and somewhat demeaningly to be equated with ‘the left’. “Denial” is an unhelpful abstract term based on poor translation across various languages and a history of Prussian and scientific pomposity: ‘turning a blind eye’ might be a more apt turn of phrase. “False consciousness” likewise has a very negative, condescending and, ironically, alienating, feel to it: fantasy, ‘jam tomorrow’ or ‘pie-in-the-sky’ might be more useful down-to-earth alternatives. I am a strong advocate of ‘working-class language’ being used more to ‘frame’ ‘big ideas’.
The élite language of business, bureaucracy, politics and journalism merits a kind of very close analysis that goes far beyond the essentially snobbish backward-looking and prescriptivist armchair grammarian’s mockery with which it is usually critiqued, even in the supposedly ‘high-brow’ or ‘quality’ press.
The epidemic use, for example, of the term ‘going forward,’ where, not so long ago, ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’ would have sufficed, suggests that the people speaking (almost always people in an assumed position of power) have some control over the future and subtly implies that the future will invariably be better–change is always good; it is always ultimately for the good if someone moves (or steals) your cheese. However, such a shift in language also betrays a deep anxiety as to whether either of these assumptions are in fact the case. This is ‘false consciousness’, ‘fantasy’, ‘pie-in-the-sky’, a form of ‘magical thinking’ that evokes a world in which our will alone, armed with the right apps, can always overcome the inevitable onslaught of unpredictable events. It is a world of fairy stories and Marvel comics, bearing little resemblance to a real world beset by conflict and defeat.
‘Aspiration’ is another much-employed political term that points conveniently vaguely forwards towards a brighter future and economic betterment, whilst turning a stubborn blind eye to facts on the ground. It suggests the possibility of incrementally improving the lot of all—as if with a nice yoga-like series of in-breaths and out-breaths—but ignores the radical structural flaws of a prevailing social and economic system that can only be corrected by fundamental change. ‘Hope’ is the even more anemic, if more emotive, cousin-phrase preferred by incrementalists on the left.
We need to think forward, but also to think back, and, perhaps above all, to think about what these metaphors of backwards and forwards really mean and why. And ditch them, if necessary. We need to think in a truly historical fashion, as Walter Benjamin suggests with his haunting image of the Angel catapulted ‘back to the future’ or ‘forwards to the past’ by a blast, perhaps especially on this anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Benjamin did not live (perhaps did not wish to live) to see.
[Previous posts in this series on the etymology, poetry and politics of English prepositions can be consulted at