“It is too often forgotten that the gift of speech, so centrally employed, has been elaborated as much for the purpose of concealing thought by dissimulation and lying as for the purpose of elucidating or communicating thought” Wilfred Bion (1966)
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…” (George Orwell, from 1984)
“…there is a ‘symbolic’ violence embedded in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call our ‘house of being’ … this violence is not only at work in the obvious – and extensively studied – cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning.” Slavoj Žižek (2008)
“He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am looking for a man’.” Diogenes Laërtius (early third century AD)
Recently Barrelman and his colleagues have found ourselves being (apparently) consulted. There was a ‘Service Review’ in Athens and when its findings were announced, the thing that was proclaimed to follow was a ‘thirty day consultation period’. And when that was done, we were all unceremoniously turfed out of our barrels.
It all reminded us very strongly of the last time the elders of the city conducted a Service Review. On that occasion, it was to consider the possibility that Socrates, late of this parish, had been ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. Instead of a consultation, there was a trial – as you may have heard; and at the end of the trial there was a cordial invitation to come by for a cup of something strong.
Socrates could have done a runner at this point, but he elected to drink the hemlock and of course it terminally disagreed with him. In this way, the outcome of the review came to pass exactly as it had been planned and intended when the review was begun – which makes us Cynical types wonder, naturally enough, what on earth was the point of all that window dressing in the first place?
So when the local bigwigs announced a Review, last Spring, our thoughts turned to all those dreary preparations that would eventually turn out to be necessary: like rolling our barrels over to some shady olive grove; finding someone to look after the dogs; writing our wills; that kind of thing. But they were very clear with us that it was not about, you know, ‘jobs’ and such, or clearing undesirables out of the city – and the summer was long and hot and there was plenty to be getting on with, so we just kind of let them get on with it really.
Conceive, if you will, of our discombobulation, when the findings of the Review were announced and they were exactly what had been predicted. It was indeed all about ‘jobs’; and those wandering undesirables (Barrelman in particular, it must be said) were indeed, after all, to be shunted off into the suburbs.
So much for the legendary hospitality of the agora towards the maverick and the marginal!
But it did raise a dilemma: because there was this thing called a ‘thirty day consultation period’. What could they possibly mean by this? If we were being consulted, did this mean what it said on the tin? Or was it something a bit more like ‘insulted’? Or ‘assaulted’, even?
Well, the Cynical response seemed clear: we’d question the ‘findings’, whether or not anyone was interested.
And of course, no-one was.
At least, none of the city elders were interested. Plenty of people in the demos had some very strong feelings about it, being somewhat partial to the itinerant philosopher community and having come to rely upon us for a good old-fashioned harangue when times were tough (which was pretty much always, as the city elders tended to keep all the good stuff for themselves and the people could go hang…)
Still, it left a bit of a puzzle all the same: what was meant by ‘consultation’?
When in doubt about something like this, there’s worse moves to make than to go down to the library at the Metröon and look it up! And what we found is that ‘consultation’ derives from the word ‘consult’, meaning ‘seek information or advice from’ (someone who knows something). This in turn derives from the French verb ‘consulter’, from the Latin infinitive ‘consultare’; which in its turn derives from ‘consulere’, meaning ‘to take counsel’.
We also looked up ‘consultation’ and found that this is ‘the action/process of formally consulting/discussing’. Here is a definition that makes more sense if you are an Athenian elder – because if you take that definition and you stretch the word ‘formally’ just as far as it will go and then some; and if you then compress the term ‘consulting’ within that definition down to the smallest scrap or iota of meaning that you can manage; then you’re somewhere in range of what they meant when they said there’d be a ‘consultation’ period.
To put the matter succinctly: when you hear an ordinary human being, with a mind of their own and no tail, use the word ‘consult’, what’s going on is that someone doesn’t know something and is seeking counsel from someone who does (like consulting the oracle at Delphi, for example, a thing Barrelman once did, and never looked back…)
But when you hear the word ‘consultation’ being used, especially by officials of the Metropolitan City-State, what is meant is ‘the formal process of NOT seeking information or advice or enlightenment of any description from anyone at all …’.
To which one might add ‘… whilst nonetheless indulging in a piece of transparently cynical (with a small ‘c’) and spurious virtue-signalling to an imaginary constituency of people, presumably all born yesterday, who might be supposed to be capable of imagining or believing that a decision of such import had been taken with meaningful and dynamic and interactive reference to the views and experiences of those who knew something, from lived experience and expertise, about the processes being discussed’.
So look – Barrelman is not one for special pleading. I don’t want you thinking he’s got a personal beef and he’s just using his platform to vent it. Not that much of a platform, let’s face it. But Barrelman did feel at home in his barrel in the agora and he loved his interactions with the townsfolk and passers-by and as far as he is concerned the Metropolitan City-State and all its works can shove it where the sun don’t shine.
That’s the thing about a barrel – you can always just up and roll it to some other parking place.
But there’s two things stick in his craw. The first is that he has a hunch that the good people of Athens, if asked, would have had other ideas. It’s not comfortable or pleasant to see people being trampled upon in the service of ideologies to which they are not subscribed. But I don’t want to say too much more about that here – not least, because those people are very well able to say it themselves and probably say it better than Barrelman ever could.
No: the main thing to say here is this: there’s a violence done to language in this use of the word ‘consultation’. It’s a symbolic violence but it’s no less lethal for not being a contact sport. Lies and doublethink begin with expedience and end in totalitarianism. ‘Consultation’ is a phenomenon of epidemic proportions, reach and spread, in these post-truth times.
Language is an infinitely versatile but also unwieldy technology. Fiddle with its very basis and you mess most dangerously with minds and souls and systems. This is why Barrelman carries a lamp even in broad daylight – hard to spot an honest man about the place…
To borrow from a joke that’s even older than Barrelman: that ‘consultation’ was no bacon tree – that was an ‘am-bush’ …
Bion, W.R. (1966) ‘Catastrophic change.’ Bulletin of the British Psychoanalytical Society, 1966, N°5.
Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
Žižek, S. (2008) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile.
Dariusz Galasinski writes beautifully about corruptions and collapses of language and communication in mental healthcare systems, including difficulties in psychiatric/clinical consultations – see his blog at http://dariuszgalasinski.com/blog/?stc_status=success&stc_hash=04835e4cdee77914d0112b0a133fe20e
Diogenes Laërtius’ account of the life of Diogenes is at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Eminent_Philosophers/Book_VI#Diogenes