If Adorno had an Ngram

I’ve never been good at speculating on what earlier thinkers would have said about later developments. This was driven home to me several years ago when someone who’d bought an audio book on the Enlightenment that I’d been recruited to record sent me a letter with a series of questions (one of the side benefits of making an audio book is that you reach a new audience; mine included long-distance truck drivers, commuters, and gym rats, a few of whom were nice enough to write). Among the questions was one that stumped me: “What would have happened if the Enlightenment had taken place in the 1980s rather than the 1780s?” All that I could think of was that Mozart, before dying of a drug overdose at the age of thirty-five, would probably have wound up fronting a Krautrock band (and writing some really interesting rock operas) and that Diderot would have been writing exactly the same works that he was writing in the 1770s and early 1780s and that his readers would be just as delighted and puzzled.

It should come as no surprise then that when, shortly after finishing last week’s post, I asked myself, “What would Adorno have done with an Ngram?,” I quickly answered, “He wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it, since his office didn’t have internet access” (and then I added, “I really need to stop talking to myself. It’s creepy.”)

What sparked the question was one of the passages from the chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment that I didn’t get around to discussing last week. It is concerned with what happens to language.

During the 1930s, Horkheimer wrote some unjustly neglected — and, as a result, untranslated — texts exploring the changing function of language in the authoritarian state (I discussed them briefly in an article in Social Research) and the opening chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment went on to offer a wildly speculative account of the transformation of language from a mimetic activity that sought to picture the world to a tool that referred to things. That discussion returns with a vengeance in the chapter on the culture industry, climaxing in a discussion of how the onward march of rationalization brings with it a puzzling reappearance of archaic elements:

If, before its rationalization, the word had set free not only longing but lies, in its rationalized form it has become a straightjacket more for longing than for lies. The blindness and muteness of the data to which positivism reduces the world passes over into language itself, which is limited to registering those data. Thus relationships themselves become impenetrable, taking on an impact, a power of adhesion and repulsion which makes them resemble their extreme antithesis, spells. They act once more like the practices of a kind of sorcery …. The name, to which magic most readily attaches, is today undergoing a chemical change. It is being transformed into arbitrary, manipulable designations, the power of which, although calculable, is for that reason as willful as that of archaic names. … Signification, the only function of the word admitted by semantics, is consummated in the sign. Its character as a sign is reinforced by the speed with which linguistic models are put into circulation from above. … If the German fascists launch a word like “intolerable” [Untragbar] over the loudspeakers one day, the whole nation is saying “intolerable” the next. … The blind and rapidly spreading repetition of designated words links advertising to the totalitarian slogan [Jephcott translation 133-135].

Sounding for all the world like the reactionary cranks that they are often taken to be, Horkheimer and Adorno go on to assure us that as late as the nineteenth century there was still a “bond between sedimented experience and language.” But this bond has now been broken. And, once again, the culture industry is there on the spot, ready to fill the gap.

Countless people use words and expressions which they have either ceased to understand at all or use only according to behavioral functions, just as trademarks adhere all the more compulsively to their objects the less their linguistic meaning is apprehended.

It would not be entirely crazy to suggest that the specter that was haunting Horkheimer and Adorno as they labored away on D’Este Drive was not that distant from the one that was haunting George Orwell as he scribbled away in the grip of the “unendurable winter” that settled over the island of Jura. For Orwell as for Adorno and Horkheimer what was happening to language mattered immensely (I doubt that there is a counter-factual historian equal of the task of imagining what might have happened if Orwell had sense enough to sell his damned farm and move into the other half of Adorno’s two-family on Kentor Avenue). For Newspeak to accomplish its task,

… what was required, above all for political purposes, were short clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind. … The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.

But what does any of this have to do with Ngrams?

Our stock image of Adorno suggests that he would have regarded them as further testimony to the Fall of the Word: rather than digging down into those sedimented layers of experience that the Word allegedly carries, the nGram simply counts and tallies. Plug “Ngram” and “Word” into a random Adorno aphorism generator and what would likely emerge would be something like: “The Ngram treats the Word like a dictator treats men: it is totalitarian.” But when words have been reduced to things, it may not be entirely misguided simply to count them. Adorno, after all, recognized that what was wrong with empirical approaches in the social sciences was not (as the warm-hearted humanists like to believe) that such means are incapable of grasping the rich complexity of human life. And it is worth recalling that Adorno’s “empirical” research — e.g., his study of “The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses,” his article on the Los Angeles Times astrology column, and “Schuld und Abwehr,” the “qualitative analysis” he contributed to Gruppenexperiment, the most ambitious (and most deceptively titled) of the postwar Institute’s studies — involved a considerable effort at plowing through texts and transcripts in an effort to find patterns that might help make sense of the material. The problem, in other words, is not that Ngrams fail to treat words with proper respect, but rather that they might not be up to the task of capturing just how bad things are. Not the least of the concerns of Dialectic of Enlightenment and, especially, Minima Moralia was that language was losing the capacity to comprehend the damage that has been done to it.

As an example, take the word “impactful” (… please).

A few years ago. I started noticing that “impacted” (almost always in the passive voice) had become the verb of choice in student papers. Every possible relationship — from “cause” to “influence” to “suggestion” to “implication” — between A and B had become “A was impacted by B” (e.g., “The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima has definitely impacted the way people think about technology”). I’d circle the word, put a question mark in the margin, say something to the class, and try not to sound too much like a curmudgeon (having reached the point where I am eligible for a curmudgeon card, it’s important to know when to play it and when to hold it). For the most part, I was content to write off my visceral reaction to the word as having something to do with my having had some terrible experiences with the extraction of impacted wisdom teeth (one of them somehow wound up in my sinus cavity — I still have the x-ray). 

Then, a few months ago, I received a memorandum from somewhere up the administrative food chain praising the faculty for its production of “impactful research.” Curious about the sudden appearance of this peculiar little bigram (I lead a sheltered life; this was the first time I’d seen this formulation), I made an Ngram:

I took some solace that things were not quite as bad as I feared: these percentages are not that different from what I’m used to seeing when I go searching for early nineteenth century pejoratives for “the Enlightenment” (fear not, fans of odd words for “the Enlightenment,” more of them will be arriving soon). Then I made the mistake of looking at the examples.

To pick one at random, consider Yvonne Farrell, Impactful Presentations: Best Practice Skills (2008), which bills itself as “A practical book, packed with insights and invaluable tips. It covers preparing and structuring presentations to engaging [sic] your audience through your personal delivery skills and professional use of visual aids.” It is easy to play the outraged defender of the English language, but what can be said about a book whose title includes not only the awful “impactful” in its title, but also the clichéd phrase “best practice” (believe me, you don’t want to see what the Ngram for “best practices” looks like — if my retirement account was doing half as well, I’d have moved into a château in Nice by now). And what about that blurb, which — in a slip that released a geyser of Schadenfreude — fumbles the infinitive? All in all, this strikes is one impactful performance, for sure.

But back to Adorno: words like “impactful” are the sort of things that deserve Ngrams — because they aren’t really words, but rather things masquerading as words. They have no meaning beyond the void they create by choking out all the other possible words that might have been used had the author taken a moment to pause, to weigh, to ponder, to taste, and then to commit. “Impactful” could be described as a sort of myriophyllum spicatum of words except that the Eurasian milfoil — while wreaking havoc on ponds — is mildly attractive. In contrast, “impactful” is simply ugly — a big, slimy slug of a word. I’ve seen lots of impactful presentations: there was a time when every job candidate for a position in one of my departments showed up with a PowerPoint presentation (whether they needed it or not) that, because the crummy projector we had could only project the images on the screen from too low an angle, wound up looking like the opening crawl of Star Wars. Fortunately, once I was able to banish what John Williams cribbed from Erich Wolfgang Korngold from my head and listen to what the candidates were saying, it turned out that some of these accidentally impactful presentations managed to be insightful, thoughtful, perplexing but provocative, etc.

Orwell’s first rule for avoiding slovenly writing was “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Given the odds we are up against, remedies like this probably aren’t worth much: the forces that drove an otherwise sensible administrator to speak of “impactful research” rather than any of the other, more precise, alternatives have more to do with the dog eat dog world in which “neo-liberal universities” (if I am permitted to violate Orwell’s rule and use a figure of speech that I am growing accustomed to seeing on my screen) now fight it out than with a lack of finesse in producing decent English sentences on the part of the memo’s author. Ours is a world where, as Horkheimer explained, the concern for truth is increasingly being replaced by a concern for success. A world in which things smash into each other and the things that make the biggest bang garner the biggest bucks is a world where “impactful” fits right in.

We need to make Ngram for things like “impactful” for some the same reason that we need to keep track of the spread of myriophyllyum spicatum. And it would be good if we could find something that will eat it, before it eats us.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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