“It’s important we’re having this discussion”

A long time ago, I wrote a song that had the line: “Post-semantic discourse in the age of na-na-na-na.” The song was not very good, but I was very pleased with that line. It was written as an ironic comment on the function of public discourse and how its utility  often seemed to override what was actually being said. According to my freshman observation, its importance as ritualistic small-talk often trumped any semantic content or meaning. I was young, cynical and into poststructuralism. Reading the news this morning, it struck me that we have actually entered a post-semantic era. The nightmare has actually come true.
It does not seem to matter if what corrupt public officials and businessmen say does not correspond with their actions. What matters is that they are in public saying whatever they are expected to say with cameras rolling and people taking notes. Discourse for the sake of discourse seems to prevail over meaning here and elsewhere. People say: “It’s important we’re having this discussion,” when it’s clear that the only ones benefitting from it only pretend to converse with and listen to the other. Sometimes the discussion is purely ritualistic and everyone involved goes through the motions of debate without saying anything. I’ve been in meetings like this and felt terrified when someone has said “it’s good we’re having this discussion.” No, it’s neither good nor bad that we’re having this discussion. What really should matter is what is being said.
What “It’s important we’re having this discussion” usually means is that the person wielding power in the situation is pleased that they can justify their decisions by referring to the fact that discussion occurred. Whatever was said matters much less. In the past, you could point out that this was a perversion of the reasons we make small mouth noises and launch them at each other through the air. But not anymore. You will sound like a crank if you do that in a post-semantic setting. It would be great if I could say this is why the holy man climbs up the mountain or the monk takes a vow of silence, but it’s hardly clear who the enlightened ones are in these bizarre conditions. Enlightenment as a form of nihilism as it is understood in some forms of Buddhism or someone like U. G. Krishnamurti or even Gianni Vattimo is an interesting proposition but a moot consideration in the chatter of post-semantic discourse. One of the major problems is volume. There is a lot of noise generated by the chatter. It’s almost impossible to distinguish shit from Shinola.
The only place where you find meaning in any profound sense today is art. When an artist puts himself or herself in a position where their attempt to convey meaning can be subjected to intense scrutiny, it is possible to make semantic distinctions. It is very brave of artists to do so. Their words, images and melodies have meaning because they are meaningful to them and to us. That is their only purpose. This does not make all art good by default, but it does distinguish it from the everyday noise of post-semantic discourse. Even bad art has its place. It is not important we’re having this discussion. What is important is that we all create more art and more meaning in a world that is being emptied of it. Art is the thing that might save our humanity. Go make art! You will probably not become rich and famous. You may even be mocked for trying, but you will discover meaning in what you have made.

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