microblogvember and the surprising joy of random words
Recently, I was listening to a podcast episode that was touching on deconstruction. It was chiefly concerned with the term as it’s used in religious contexts, but to do so, it was going back to its intellectual roots, with Jacques Derrida and Ferdinand de Saussure. As the host, Jared Byas, summarized the ideas of deconstruction:
we can’t ever escape language and the meaning of language depends on other parts of that language. Ugh! It’s so frustrating. In other words, all language is a metaphor, or it’s a symbol that stands in for other language. When I say “bike,” there’s a sense in which that’s a shorthand for that thing over there with the two wheels and the handlebar. The problem, of course, is that when I say that, that’s also words. So when I say “wheels,” we could say that’s a shorthand for the round thing with the spokes and the rubber on the outside. And then we can say, “spokes” that’s shorthand for, on and on, and on, right, you get the point.
This was a fun episode for me. I’d been passingly familiar with this concept since high school; there’s an entry in my journal in 2005 explaining that the reason I’ve been so bad at writing in my journal is because as I’d learned from Derrida:
words don’t mean anything… language is not an effective way to communicate because they cannot truly express ideas
I don’t know if I had deconstructionism right 17 years ago, but I think my basic interest in it then has survived and matured until now. I understand it better after this podcast episode, and I’m all the more interested in it.
Going back to the podcast episode I listened to, Jared is right that the fleeting, tenuous nature of language is frustrating! It’s even existentially challenging to think about how arbitrary and self-referential language is. However, one thing that I’ve learned in a lifetime of being interested in language is that being arbitrary and self-referential can also be a source of wonder and joy—and that’s what I’m trying to write about here.
Over the past few days, I’ve been participating in Microblogvember 2022 over on Micro.blog (here are my posts to prove it). The premise of the challenge is simple: Every day, the platform admins pick a random word, and Micro.blog users use that word as inspiration for a short (no more than 280-character) post. This has been a surprisingly joyful experience, in all the same ways that Derrida’s deconstruction of language can also be frustrating. Sure, we can only understand words in the context of other words, but the flipside of this is that one word leads to other words, which leads to memories, which lead to other memories. I have been happy to see just how evocative these single words have been as I’ve participated in the exercise.
I’ve gotten to remember academic easter eggs, think about diversity and inclusion in my family (there’s some subtext there that I couldn’t fit into 280 characters), remember dumb but fascinating fast food marketing, and even worry about surveillance.
Today’s challenge (which was released yesterday) was to write a post containing the word “admiration,” and this has been the most interesting one to respond to by far. In thinking about what I could possibly post related to this word, I thought about a French song. The problem, though, is that I couldn’t remember the name of the song, or even the author. I was pretty sure that the word « admiration » (which is the same word in French) appeared in the song, but I wasn’t even sure about that. All I could remember is that the song definitely used several words that end in « -tion »—for me, at least, it’s the most distinguishing feature of the song.
This led to a lot of frantic searching on DuckDuckGo to see if I could identify the song after all. Searches like « chanson avec mots qui terminent en -tion » (songs with words than end in -tion) didn’t really pan out. I thought there might be part of the lyrics about the singer pretending to be an American to impress girls, so I searched for things like « chanson avec un gars qui fait semblant d’être américain », but it turns out that those search terms weren’t very helpful either. I spent a lot of time racking my brain and working DuckDuckGo until I finally found it… thanks to one of the image results, of all things! The song I’d been thinking of was « Bidon », by Alain Souchon.
I don’t know that « Bidon » is one of my favorite songs (otherwise I might have remembered its name more easily). What I do love, though, is how a single word in a Microblogvember challenge evoked a song for me. Thinking about that song evoked a lot of memories, like hearing it on internet radio or hearing a joke interpretation of it one time on the Swiss radio show « Les dicodeurs ». I haven’t listened to that show for years (an hour a day is a big commitment, even for a podcast fan), but thinking of the show reminds me of the Swiss friend who recommended it to me, which reminds me of the Christmas Eve I spent with his family in 2008, which reminds me of the Lucky Luke album they gifted me, which reminds me of Franco-Belgian comics I want to buy, and wanting to go back to Switzerland, and wishing there were Swiss-caliber trains here in the U.S., and on, and on, and on. That felt like enough by itself for today’s challenge post.
So, sure, it can be low-key existentially terrifying to think about how tenuous and self-referential language is! At the same time, though, look at how much meaning, memory, and joy I’ve gotten out of a single word, randomly selected. There’s something valuable in all of this, too. With that in mind, here’s the song I spent a chunk of last night looking for and have had stuck in my head most of this morning:
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