Where all this gossip gets us
Author, satirist and Styria columnist Egyd Gstättner: a conversation about language.
In your book “Karl Kraus lernt Dummdeutsch” [Karl Kraus learns daft German] you take language and its – as you say – “plague spots” to your heart. How did you come upon these “plague spots”?
Egyd Gstättner: Well it’s like an everyday thing: you leave the house, stumble and look down to see what’s actually in the way and why your foot is hurting now. You pick up words and turn them round like a Rubik’s cube in your hands. The common thread is today’s fashionable and expert language, which is moving ever further away from reality. Never before were there such pretty flowers of speech as today.
But that’s simply good old euphemistic expression, isn’t it?
Gstättner: Yes, but that has now become an understatement. Just hearing someone contemplating: “How do we communicate that?” merely means: How do we lie without anyone noticing? How can we manipulate society? The book is a mosaic that I have assembled into a representation of the world and conventions, of language. It’s funny, but sobering too, astonishing and depressing. It shows where all this gossip gets us.
How do you see the role played here by the media?
Gstättner: It shows here in the truest sense of the word “prescribed” how something must be observed. It’s also an attempt to create a new world: if I grasp something out of thin air and as it were, condense, create and name something that previously, if indeed existent, was at least not yet named. The media contribute to the development, extension and renovation of language. Language is, after all, their instrument; it is what is primarily and visibly sold. The fundamental objective is to provoke attention. So if language is just stale, as was the case in the media say twenty years ago, attention wanes, people can work out what’s coming in advance, what’s in there – and they needn’t buy anything anymore.
What was the situation twenty years ago, when media language was “stale” as you put it?
Gstättner: A phrase only becomes a phrase in the course of time, like an action becomes a ritual through repetition. It was never journalists’ task to be linguistically creative. The question was: which phrase is right for which reality? And ideally in a readily digestible form, so that the reader can swallow the information like in a conditioned reflex.
Gstättner: Editorial staff excel today in contrived flowers of speech, risking linguistic assertions on customers. It could be that there is a socio-political intent behind it – but of course no one says anything like that.
So what is the intention behind it?
Gstättner: A phraseology or terminology represents a status quo, a social system. The more one avails oneself of a particular area, the more that applies. For example, “hooligans” in sports journalism, “attack”, “defence”: When I was young, war and military matters were never mentioned directly – but using such terms has stabilised both as a socio-political factor. Today people don’t “fight till they drop” any more; instead, players “invest”. There I often ask myself: should I gaze in wonder or puke? People play “economically” – reflecting the turbo-capitalism dominating the world today. This is not by chance – it’s intentional. Because a system of rule is supported as a result. As indeed stated by my favourite philosopher Gorgias von Leontini with good reason: “Speech is a powerful master.” Indeed it is – and a sneaky one. Of course this unfolds unnoticed in the editorial world – but the newspaper is read by many, so the cycles reach ever further. In addition, Anglicisation is transported via the media. Who would speak today of a main evening programme in their own language? After all, “prime time” is much easier. All such things are instruments of rule.
A gloomy image. How do we move on now?
Gstättner: Through the propagation of “mono-opinion” we head towards a strictly authoritarian system. The culture of discussion is lost completely. The word “scrutinise” comes up ever more rarely. For example: “welcoming culture” – following its sudden emergence, you can’t scrutinise such terminology, because you’ll immediately be placed in a particular niche. People probably already knew that it would sink without trace as a consequence of its pointlessness, but it was so en vogue and so well intentioned that any contradiction almost had to indicate high treason. But this is nothing other than dictatorship, sometimes actually well intentioned, and its medium here is linguistic.
What options do we have left?
Gstättner: In principle, language is the original common property of everyone. Counting among its specialist groups are journalism, advertising vernacular and literature. The latter actually has nothing to do, but it has gained relevance and responsibility over the centuries. Literature is something exquisitely political, yet very oppositional. If it isn’t, then it sinks with the grand system it supports. It has no real power, but it uses the same tools and the same material: language. Of course, musicians express themselves by different means, even if they would often like to say the same things. And yet no one feels assaulted by a dissonant opera. Literature has language as its tool by chance – in other words, the most brutal of all is literature.
In your book there is also a column on “plague spots” - particularly “literacy”, in which you satirically cite a study according to which a person with deficient literacy “can no longer find their way completely in modern society”. And you write: “Dear young illiterate, by way of comfort: it’s just the same for me.” Do you really not want to be deprived of your pessimism, like you once said?
Gstättner: Indeed that’s changing … not for the better, the way I see it. Or let me put it this way: to me it all looks unsustainable. Perhaps it will find another form – today we’ve already got the term “Facebook author”; it’s all moving at breakneck speed. Young students are as interested and bright as ever, yet have scarcely ever read a book. This is already confirmed in language textbooks at school. In there you get straight to just four paragraphs from Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”, followed by questions about each paragraph. But at the book shop they don’t deal in paragraphs.
What does that mean for society?
Gstättner: The culture of discussion is gone. Literary feuds and scandals; it’s all disappeared. Essentially culture serves as PR in the papers, it’s a sales show. Even the culture page is, to a certain extent, a PR page – for a niche product too. The significance of literature is left to a few experts in a competition for literature prizes. They have now become more important than the works themselves. It’s one-zero logic, no need for further comment, have yourself “waved through”.
What role do social media play here?
Gstättner: They are not the root of all evil, but rather an attendant symptom. It’s simply gossip in a new format, in a new form – now it has become extremely sterile. And everything that’s easy to produce leads to inflation. Now, in just one day, you can take and post a thousand photos – then all you need is someone who actually takes a look.
So how can one find one’s way here as a reader or user?
Gstättner: You’re in the German-speaking party of unity as it were, so you can only become aware of the kind of machinery in which one is actually involved. So what to do? That’s a good question. And a sad finding. But ’twas ever thus – and seeing or recognising something doesn’t amount to the ability to escape it. You can have a precise diagnosis, yet be incurably ill nevertheless.
But you slam the diagnosis down hard on the table.
Gstättner: Yes. But it doesn’t make me happy personally.
What form might say the future role of literature take?
Gstättner: I could imagine that perhaps fewer, albeit better books might be produced. That you could also present a book story in the newspaper – and not the advert for it.
That would indeed be “native advertising”!
Gstättner: Yes. Perhaps.
Interview: Margot Hohl