On Monday, Franz Schuh will be discussing the limits of linguistic diversity in the Vienna City Hall library. The “Wiener Zeitung” met the writer to discuss the relationship between language and politics.
“Vienna Newspaper”: In 2017, “profil” described you as a “lateral thinker” and took this as a compliment. Today the term has a different, negative connotation.
Franz Schuh: Even then, I thought “lateral thinker” was a swear word. I don’t call myself a thinker either. These are terms like the old-fashioned “artist.” It is not without good reason that it is also used to describe pop singers. Someone who makes something like art would hardly call himself an artist unless he had this inner calling and this religious demiurge, like Hermann Nitsch had. In the art and philosophy industries, most have become something of a technician, albeit within the framework of an inexhaustible tradition. Only when you are an exceptional phenomenon like Ludwig Wittgenstein can you – apparently – reinvent thinking. Even the term philosopher is a shameless exaggeration for what is claimed by that name.
So why such labels?
Journalists are forced to assemble their phrases and find words that do not deserve attention but only receive it through the staging in the article. And then you invent triumphant terms that can always be turned into their opposite via label management. I am a friend of the word “thinking”, not because I would overlook the fact that thinking is enough, but because the word makes it clear that the thought always comes later, in other words, simply put: too late.
What about the language of politics? Politicians in positions of responsibility often no longer convey clear messages, instead getting tangled up in technocratic terms or stringing together ready-made sentence modules.
The politicians have no different language than the rest of the entangled people – the difference is that they want to use words to exert political influence. Their individuality shines through through the learned rhetoric. We have a president of the trade union federation who refuses to formulate a single sentence in German. A proven ornithologist confirmed in the newspaper that the union boss talked “how his (Viennese) beak has grown”. It’s easy to fall for the jargon when you’re listening to the polished rhetoric of mainstream politicians. In our society, however, a boss is a boss, meaning “none of us”. The rhetoric of the top trade unionist should inform about this. But no, he says: “I looked like a bus.” I like to believe that from a trade unionist, because in terms of amazement, supposedly the beginning of all philosophy, his association is almost a bus station. The boss flatters himself – nolens volens from above – into us workers and employees.
Does it work?
What matters is that people believe it works. When such bosses act as proxies for the lower class and attack ladies of the upper class, it is too easy to combat class differences. If one emphasizes these differences through pseudo-proletarian speech, one inevitably slips into the conversation, see the “Heisl” recently put into rhetorical operation by an SPÖ district leader. Mayor Ludwig did the only right thing by reacting as if he were a cabaret buffoon: He sat there and laughed when he heard that his opponents were “Heisln”.
And what about the message packed inside?
The message of the formulation is in the form. There is also the jargon of the upper classes. Ex-Chancellor Kurz wasn’t bad at all. He had that “young man from a good family” slang and it went down well because it combined with his attractive, slim-fit exterior. Someone like the new Minister of Labor and Economics, who has marched through his academic career and always has statistics in mind – and that’s how he speaks. Herbert Kickl, the “urgent request” personified, is the parliamentary Iago. About Iago, a character from Shakespear’s “Othello”, the actor’s guide tells us: “He deceives everyone with mock pity or feigned loyalty, which is why most consider him to be extremely honest. Iago is aware that he is acting wrongly and shamefully, but he is not impressed by it, nor does he have any doubts about his actions.” The fact that Kickl has become big and strong in the Ibiza party does not bother him. This Jago, who has no awareness of wrongdoing anyway, calls out to the unfortunate clientele in jargon: “You are right, the others are wrong.”
In your opinion, what role does rhetoric play in politics?
There is rhetoric as the art of presenting a thing as precisely as possible. And there’s rhetoric as a skill to talk people into something, to convince them of something that’s wrong or that they don’t want. It doesn’t matter what the politicians say, but what they do unspeakably under their sayables. Politics has in common with the so-called art of language and advertising the search for the right word, for the “mot juste.” An example of this is Angela Merkel: if she hadn’t said, “We can do it,” she wouldn’t have opened up a front that could be constantly quoted. “We can do it” enables polarization. Political rhetoric means: mobilize friend and foe!
Similar to the “We’re not like that” from the Federal President?
This formulation does not work because it is all too obviously contradicted by the facts. “We’re not like that” was a protective claim, said precisely because “we” are like that. The majority sees through that, even if they don’t want to know for sure. But it does show that politicians are looking for such magic words of political effectiveness.
Why does politics so rarely find politically effective words?
Because politicians, like all of us, speak primarily to make a noise and not to say something. With this sound we can drown out the contradiction. That plays a huge role in politics, also because you can’t say everything in politics, especially since you don’t know everything you’re responsible for. Politics overwhelms politicians, and living with this overwhelm is certainly not easy.
Nevertheless, the basic idea of our political system is to use public speech to create majorities and gather support for projects. But that happens too seldom.
Yes, because what matters isn’t just what people say, but how that connects with – or contends with – the possibilities of procedural democracy, with “practice.” A brilliant rhetorician comes too close to “charismatic” rule, an antiquated mode of exercising power. Right-wing populism constantly connects full-bodied to the uneasiness of the people who feel they have been neglected. They are en masse too. That’s where this constant protest comes from, and the accusation that “the others,” “the politicians,” are so terrible. . .
Isn’t that what everyone in politics says?
Most are polemical about politics. If they did that less, nobody would believe the difference that supposedly exists between the “people” and the “representatives of the people”. With the exception of Herbert Kickl, they are not “lateral thinkers”, but they do represent a cross-section of the population. It will not be morally possible to get rid of the unthinking protest, because these opposites of “above and below” also keep the work going . But this automated contempt for politicians is a sickening self-aggrandizement. Example: A political genius, I am of course talking about Peter Westenthaler, explains Wolfgang Fellner, the journalistic genius par excellence, that there is not a single person in the current government who is doing his job well.
Who would you name that you think does the rhetoric thing well?
Not a politician, but a person of great political influence: Margit Kraker, President of the Court of Auditors. She speaks drowsily, but not soporifically, dispassionately – but by no means because she is not passionate about it, but rather to make room for objectivity alone. She really isn’t a whopper printer, but she can – in accordance with the seriousness of the situation – speak. This is what best reflects the mechanics of procedural democracy. The President says it herself: “It is always important to us that things get better in the state, that the institutions are strong, robust and able to act.” I have to quote that from memory, because the hieroglyphs with which power is announced already on Sunday supported the interview from the Saturday midday journal with the aphorism: “Audio no longer available for legal reasons.”
And what about the media?
The media would have better chances than the politicians to intervene – rhetorically – in what is happening: one can comment more freely than act politically. The term freedom of the press is often only understood formally – as the freedom to say what you want to say. But freedom, a difficult concept that has to be discussed again and again, makes demands on content that are worthy of publicity. What a person comments and writes should be really considered, “thought out” and fundamentally responsible. Then you might not become the savior of those who have been attacked in the war, but rather a sober reporter, but that’s still better than this commitment without responsibility for the consequences – even if the culture is based on the chance that we don’t immediately take responsibility for everything that has been said consequences will be punished.