I had this half-baked thought back in March, when I read the headline of a news story about the possible impending government shut-down in the U.S. It’s sort of still relevant, topically, and the argument I jump to from the topic is almost always relevant, so here we go:
In the news story, the possibility of the (then) current government shut-down was automatically compared to that of 1996. Maybe this is a valid parallel, but it might not be. The contexts of the shut-downs, the possible causes, will necessarily be very different. They are located in different socio-historical moments, after all. But in mass-mediated news, even publicly-funded news outlets, those contextual details get lost in favor of familiar narratives and neatly packaged parallels. And then future historical narrative–as presented by the media, at least, and perhaps high school text books, will remember the parallel and constructed similarities of the incidents, if it remembers these two incidents at all. (Maybe they won’t–maybe they’ll stress the differences. I can’t predict the future. But the two incidents will, in all likelihood, be compared and packaged together in some way. The will reference one another and thus imply similarity.)
The larger point is that, regardless of context, political discourse and the way in which it is structured, both internally and as a genre with all its connections and within the wider culture–and importantly, the ways in which it is mediated to various segments of society (pundits, the public, the politicians themselves, etc)–makes these instances meaningful. In this case, the mediated political discourse makes the parallel a talking point, maybe even an accepted truth, because of the way that political discourse and the media frame events–stripping them of context to make that neat parallel. (This argument just got dangerously circular, but hopefully it’ll pull out.)
Other types of narrative and rhetorical tricks and performatives exist as well, parallelism is just one of them. One easily understood and accepted by the masses, perhaps because it is so often relied upon to make the news familiar and digestible. To make the masses return to particular outlets for their updates, to make students remember things in history classes. Familiar narrative structures win over the unexpected and un-categorizable. The latter is just an unexplainable horror until it can be narratively stretched and twisted until it fits into a safely shaped box.
Anyway, one point I want to return to is that use makes meaning. Saying it and repeating it makes something true: political discourse and historical narratives like patterns. Patterns are safe. And the patterns become reality. The idea that meaning comes from use is a tired argument, itself, and the basis for a lot of anthropology, but it seems to hold up when confronted with fieldwork data. (But perhaps we anthros are just making that fit into our own familiar, underlying-premise box. Disciplinary existential crisis warning!) Back to the topic that started this whole fragmented musing, reporting things makes them relevant to the debate; to the voters; to the election. The media and the pundits do have power: they have the power to shape the debate. And on a larger scale, the historians have the power to shape the grand narrative. Not sure exactly the ways in which those two entities are related, but they are…maybe someone else has the energy to unpack that messy box.
Returning to the potentially obvious conclusion, meaning comes from use, and performativity. Practice proves it. Maybe.