Revolution and language

On language’s tendency to destroy itself

“Power should be a check to power.”
The political ramifications of this line from Montesquieu’s book (The Spirit of Laws 1734- 1748) are in accordance with the thrust of the argument he advances in all his works: that man, if granted absolute power, tends to abuse it, and that a government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches must be kept separate from one another for a nation to be free. 

The quote itself might be read in a number of ways outside its original context. Applied to language, for instance, it might offer an insight that had never before occurred to anyone: to have language considered as a “world”, so vast and wide it becomes impossible to confine it to a basic “transmitting” function, to a tool or expressing ideas and images. Instead it is a living being that is born and dies, that grows, evolves, spreads out, reshapes the mind, is rational, thinks, feels, guesses, deduces, takes risks, revolts, conquers, is defeated and loses, and one that endlessly destroys. Given this, empowered or unconstrained language, whether political, religious, socio-cultural or intellectual, can seem as if it works—by means of this very power and without even realising it—to destroy itself by creating a parallel “anti-language” of equal strength and power, whose purpose is to check and destroy its own unfettered power. This we might term a “linguistic suicide” brought on by power; a linguistic suicide that anticipates the actual, “real-world” demise of this power.

If we wish to understand how language has destroyed itself by generating a language in revolution against itself during the Arab Spring, we might profitably take a moment to consider the revolutionary slogans of the youth as representing a language with equal force and authority to the unfettered and defiant language of the ruling regimes. We would not go far wrong by claiming that the Syrian revolution is the revolution of language par excellence as well as being the revolution of bodily emancipation. From a few words daubed by children on the walls of their school in Deraa (The people demand the fall of the regime) the popular revolution spilled over towards all points of the compass. For the first time, after long decades of isolation and alienation, the Syrian found himself speaking his own private language with his own personal logic; standing in the public space of the street and addressing a state that had been stolen from him until he had become a stranger there. Thus began the journey of fragmenting the language of power or the language of the “family” that had ruled over his life with a fire and steel that was as much linguistic as it was physical. This language is an “official-security” language that prevented society from becoming acquainted with its own dreams, even its own function and way of operating. It is an arrogant language, completely self-enclosed and mean. It promotes unhappiness, foreboding and fear and is freighted with a Utopian ideology that loads the mind, soul and consciousness with the schizophrenic dream of a united Arab nation that is entrusted with an eternal message, and with slogans of defiance and resilience, the slogans of fraudulent resistance.

Inevitably, this produced its mirror image: a parallel language of equal strength and defiance. This is the language of the revolution, the language of (The people want)…. Fire, it seems, can only be put by fire. When the authorities confronted the revolutionaries with a languages fire and destruction (e.g. It’s either Al Assad or we burn the country and Bashar don’t you worry, you have on your side a people who drink blood), the innate cunning of the revolutionary youth countered their conflagration with a language of illumination and enlightenment. If (The people want the fall of the regime) is an “equivalent” language to that of fire and arson, this implies the existence of people who want to achieve freedom, justice and dignity by bringing down those who want to burn the country and shed blood. Thus, the language of the authorities is made to seem intent on destroying itself by clinging to terms that promote arson and blood-letting, terms that generate a “counter language” designed to defy it and bring it down. And what happens in the linguistic sphere is manifested on the ground: fire and arson became reality after appearing in language and on the other side, the fall of the regime was imagined in language and is now gradually coming about.

Just as the language of power helped create a counter-language in revolt against it, the language of the revolution helped create an evolved language of power influenced by the revolution. The capabilities of language were now at full gallop: the word producing and consuming its peers. However the difference between these two cases can be seen in the fact that the regime forces borrowed from the vocabulary, phraseology and even the poetic and musical forms of the revolution. For instance, the slogan The people need re-education which regime soldiers daubed on walls in the Kafr Sousa and Daraya districts outside Damascus [1]. The phrase gives a good indication of the way the regime thinks about “its people”: wayward children who need to be disciplined and constantly cautioned. In any case it is exactly equivalent to the coloniser’s view of indigenous peoples, which seeks to “subjectify” [2] colonised populations by referring to them as children, barbarians, uncivilized, irrational, rabble, scum etc. The phrase brazenly displays the aristocratic superiority which is brought to bear on anything regarded as “popular” or “of the people”, while simultaneously revealing the extent to which the authorities are influenced by the revolution whether consciously or, which is more likely, unconsciously. On the one hand, therefore, the soldiers’ slogan reveals that the revolution has become powerful enough to impose its language and linguistic presence on the authorities while on the other, the soldiers’ use of the revolution’s language exposes the regimes own confusion and weakness. The first half of the phrase admits the existence of the force of the people’s will (“The people want/need…”) while the second (“…re-education.”) shows the regime’s desperate need to bring the people to their knees and return them to the state they were in before they started “wanting” things. The contradiction between the two halves of this sentence indicates that the language of power is intent on destroying itself. At the same time, the people now classify the authorities that have ruled them for decades as no better than colonisers and occupiers, a sentiment expressed in their own private language—(Syria belongs to us, not to the House of Al Assad)—which is a language in revolt against a language that makes Syria into Al Assad’s Syria: in other words, to provoke the self-destruction of the language of power by forming an anti-language which pulls it down, word by word, phrase by phrase, construction by construction. This language employs words that are used to pen a new history, written in slogans and demonstrations by a people seeking to reclaim their country and liberate from the occupier’s grasp (Syria belongs to us…). These words embody an alternative memory saturated in these new meanings and referents: what was contingent has become essential. “Revolutionary writing” has become an attempt to obtain a truce between freedom and memory, where freedom is only freedom when it results from the people’s liberation movement. Furthermore, the language of (God, Syria, Freedom and nothing more and (We don’t love you Bashar) has flourished amid the destruction that the language of (God, Syria, Bashar and nothing more and We love you Bashar) has wrought upon itself. The language of power, which embodies the country in a single individual granted a universal spiritual authority (i.e. made equivalent to God) has been subverted by the language of revolution. The revolutionary language has booby-trapped its creator, replacing the all-powerful ruler with “freedom”: words that once caught reality in their web have turned into bombs. 

If language is the natural product of the period in which it is spoken and the individuals who speak it, then the identity of the revolutionary as painted by his language (or by the revolutionary writing of a new history) is only distantly related to the linguistic norms and standards of the authorities. If this is the case then the most dangerous kind of break with the authorities is realised, a linguistic break that allows language to distinguish between truth and falsity for the first time. It is as if the act of revolution only produced something of worth to society when it blew apart those sedimentary formations of language which seemed as though they would last forever until the very moment that the revolution broke out.

For us to understand the significance of the slogan (Mohammed, Our eternal leader) it seems we must try to understand the consequences of building one’s ontology on psychology, of passing from one to the other thanks to an innate psychological and ontological predisposition, a knack for being simultaneously subjective and objective that the revolutionary evinces without it coming to define him absolutely. In the slogan above we see a use of ontological (existential) language usually encountered in spiritual/religious/mystical phraseology. This is a reaction on the part of the revolutionary, who constructs the language’s ontology on a psychological state in revolt against the “eternalizing” language of state power, a language that turns the president, commander or leader in to an “eternal leader”. This feature of the language was inherited from the current president’s father, Hafez Al Assad, who presented himself as an undying presence. His son Bashar is left to continue along this path and even the naming of the grandson Hafez can be seen as a continuation of the “eternalizing” policy. Substituting an eternal leader who is alive in memory (Al Assad senior) and in reality (Al Assad junior) with one who is dead in reality and alive in memory (the prophet Mohammed) suggests that the state’s “language of eternity” can only be deconstructed and challenged by a parallel counter-language of eternity. This being the case, we are obliged to draw a careful distinction between uttering this slogan on purely religious grounds and doing so for psychological reasons. Most of Syria’s Sunni Muslims do not hold extremist religious views. Historically, Syrian society has not been fertile ground for religious extremism. It is thus important when trying to explain this slogan, not to ignore the historical context in which it is spoken. It was first used months into the Syrian revolution, after the authorities had set about murdering, massacring and destroying in earnest and deploying violence along sectarian lines. Thus, the slogan plays no part in the formation of the revolution, in its foundations and goals, but rather springs from frustration. When a human being is subjected to nerve-wracking circumstances, is subjected to a brutal and tragic reality, it is in his nature to turn to some symbolic figurehead, a paragon from whom he can draw the strength and patience he needs to see him through. In the process of turning to this paragon, the individual’s mind is seethes with all the qualities that make this figurehead so effective in confronting the emptiness of the human condition. The paragon fills the spiritual, mental, emotional and existential void created by rebelling against a brutal and tyrannical regime that has emptied human existence of any meaning. In times of trouble the religious imagination is stirred to life, a boon to lessen the fear and terror.

Furthermore, substituting a hypothetical, symbolic, spiritual eternal leader for a specific, historical eternal leader is indicative of a buried resentment, which is perhaps linked to the profound sense of persecution felt by the Sunni Muslim. Although they constitute well over 70 per cent of the Syrian population and are the largest and most active sub-group within the revolution, Sunni Muslims still feel that they have been removed from history. Sunni Muslim revolutionaries have suffered more violence, discrimination and repression than any other group. They are treated as “terrorists, fundamentalists and takfeeris” and have been on the receiving end of sectarian massacres perpetrated by a sectarian regime that uses the Alawite community as human shields. The atrocities they have been subjected to include: the Karam Al Zeitoun massacre in the Homs countryside on March 12, 2012, the Al Houla massacre also in the Homs countryside on May 25, 2012 and the al Qabeer massacre in the Hama countryside on June 7, 2012. Such treatment has led them to cling to their religion and “their” prophet with ever greater fervour.

A purely political reading of the slogan would explain it as a reaction to the revolutionary’s feelings (given that the vast majority of revolutionaries in the street are Sunni Muslims) of pain and rage that the revolution remains without a leader capable of leading them to safety, while the killing, imprisonment, destruction, displacement, rape and theft continue unchecked and while the traditional opposition politicians continue to demonstrate their inability to work together to create a serious alternative to the current regime. It seems clear that the dictatorial, tyrannical regime will never allow the creation of even a hypothetical alternative to its rule, so what chance does a real alternative have? To compensate for this, the revolutionary turns to a symbolic figurehead, one he loves and respects, and appoints him leader to fill the current political vacuum. Filling this vacuum gives him the psychological strength he needs to continue his revolution, a revolution that seems increasingly like a “miracle”.

Finally, this slogan has much in common with the revolution’s characteristically sarcastic and playful treatment of the president. By electing the Prophet Mohamed as his eternal leader the revolutionary is using him as a taunt. He is sending the “eternal leader” a daily message to the effect: “The likes of you are not fit to lead us. Our real leader is the prophet Mohamed: even though the man’s been dead for centuries he has all the qualities to keep him alive in our hearts, minds and souls.” The same explanation can also be applied to slogans such as (Freedom forever, despite you Al Assad) in which the citizen’s state of eternal slavery is countered with an equally undying desire for freedom. Here, too, we see the tendency of the language of state power to create another language in its image that will revolt against it, thereby destroying itself by its own hand.

Revolutionary language and unmasking power

When the people sing out demanding the fall of the regime they do not just expose the crimes of the regime, they also strip them of the justification long used by regime to excuse its catastrophic decisions: the description of them as “only natural”. Roland Barthes tells us that “a blinding” is taking place, a form of deception deployed in conspiratorial, authoritarian discourse, which claims that it is “only natural” that errors take place. The thoroughly immoral intent behind this trick is to lend historical and cultural phenomena the appearance of natural phenomena, and the only response to such “blinding” is to expose it [3]. Exposure, or unmasking, is the most important function of language in the Syrian revolution. It has unmasked the “naturalness” that the regime has ascribed to its crimes in an attempt to justify them, to draw the sting of the street’s anger and thus to escape responsibility. They wish to escape accountability and trial by describing what has taken place as “natural errors”. This was Bashar Al Assad’s intent when he stated on May 18, 2011, that he conceded that “the security forces had made some mistakes in their treatment of protestors and this can be put down to poor training.” The revolutionaries put it more plainly: (Whoever kills his people is a traitor). The language of this slogan is a form of social and political “enlightening”. It makes it clear that it is logically, morally and realistically impossible that the crimes committed against the revolutionaries be described as “mistakes”. These “mistakes” are often crimes against humanity! Furthermore, the language of this slogan extends to encompass all killing, regardless of time and place. The Syrian authorities’ murdering its people is not a new phenomenon; it did not begin with the start of the revolution in 2011 but is as old as the era of absolute rule in Syria. For many years the daily killings have acted on the mind, soul, morals, values and beauty itself, on everything that gives meaning to human life. Thus the language used in the slogan performs a number of different functions at one and the same time: it is a reminder of the regime’s history of oppression, especially since some memories, like those of the crimes committed in Hama by Hafez Al Assad in the early 1980s, are still fresh and it offers a cautionary tale, looking to the future with the lesson of the past in mind, informing us what was once described as a “natural error” will not be called the same in the future. Any transgression of the law in revolutionary, free Syria will result in trial and punishment. There will be no “natural error”.

The language of the revolution is shaped by terminal hardship, by the endless lies, the despicable actions of those who, veiled in lordly airs, spread corruption and thievery through the land, the mistreatment and terrorizing of any able-minded and enlightened citizen and the constant belittlement of anything approaching honour and grace. It was shaped by a powerful feeling of contempt that the “grand men” of state should be those who betrayed their trust, while the righteous were always marginalized and exiled. It was shaped by a thirst for vengeance which has grown over decades of watching the ruling/royal family betray the country they govern. The regime and its president assumed the mantle of the resistance hero and betrayed their people. They engaged in conspiracies, broke their pledges and sold off land and honour. It is this reality that gave us the language of slogans like The bastard sold the Golan, a prime instance of the language performing its “unmasking” function; it shows that the Syrian people’s struggle has produced a language of great clarity, so that it seems at time like a verbal event so pure it has plucked up existence by the roots. A bastard is the offspring of an illegitimate sexual encounter. In other words, the revolutionaries do not consider the president who sold the Golan to be a legitimate son of Syria, since a true Syrian would never have sold the land. The slogan has a further message: the presidency of a son who did not come to power through legitimate popular elections but rather inherited his position from his father is as illegitimate as the presidency of his father who seized power in a military coup. Killing his people, selling their land and betraying the homeland are not “natural errors” but crimes in every sense of the word.

The revolutionary utterance may only last an instant but that instant is bright enough: it forces us to think about certain concepts, to return some to their proper place and reshape others. The term “error” is one that revolutionary language has returned to its proper place. The concept of error contains positive aspects, associated with the fact that it precedes, and lays a foundation for, the “correct act”. This is what French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) meant when he wrote that, “scientific history is always an expression of science’s errors.” 

We are all familiar with the repressive overtones of the word “regime” so how could a regime like the Syrian regime conceivably permit “error” to occur, the effect of which is to promote deep thinking and lay the foundations of scholarship and truth? The Syrian regime actively promoted fear of “problems”—the biggest problem faced by the revolutionaries is the “problem” of final disillusionment. In this sense, the Syrian regime has always permitted all types of crimes to be committed, but never an “error”. Its description of its crimes and those of its various agencies as “errors” (as opposed to acts committed with evil intent) is a dirty linguistic trick. This reframing of their actions, which allows security and intelligence operatives to escape accountability [4] is perhaps the firmest evidence of the regime’s encouragement of crime and its criminalization of error. Error gives rise to important “problematizations” that might cause people to stop thinking and start acting: to move from understanding to exercising their will. The language of revolution unmasked the Syrian regime, its conceptual framework and its verbal sleights of hand. The Syrian people describe the man who sells national land, destroys the country and kills his people as a “traitor” and a “bastard”, a man who must be tried as a war criminal. They do not say he has “made a mistake”.

2. The term “subjectification” refers to a core concept in the field of post-colonial studies sometimes used to describe the “interpellation” of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who posited that the “interpellation” of the authorities in the self ensures that the individual members of society do not achieve subjective identities or selfhoods until “hailed” or “summoned” by the forces that rule society (what Althusser calls “the ideological agencies of state”). See Translation and Empire: Postcolonial Theories Explained by Douglas Robinson.
3. The section above the note appeared in my article The Intifada of the language or the language of Intifada? Published on the al Awan website on May 5, 2011, as part of a feature of Uprisings in the Arab World. In it, I attempted to deconstruct the slogan The people want the fall of the regime. It is worth mentioning here that I have previously analysed and deconstructed a number of slogans from the Syrian revolution in my published articles. These slogans include: Curse your soul, Hafez; One, one ,one/ The Syrian people are one; Death rather than humiliation; To heaven bound/ The martyrs in their millions; For God, for God/ Not for power or glory; We won’t kneel/ To anyone but God; We won’t kneel; Oh God we have none but You, Oh God.
4. Law 64, 2008, which grants immunity from prosecution to all employees of the various directorates of state security.


This article was first published in Arabic on AlefWebsite - 3/10/2012
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger

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About the Author

Oula Shaib Al Din is a Syrian Writer with many contributions with well established media.