On Serious Grounds
Can we visualize a future where citizens can be inspired by vague ideas? Where they can be inspired by politicians who dare to say, “I’m not certain. I don’t know what sort of future we’re going to have.” – Brian Eno1
A few years ago, I began making a list of phrases that I kept hearing over and over again from U.S. politicians, elected officials and their spokespersons, phrases that were transmitted — you could even say replicated — through the numerous media channels whose hosts and publications echoed the phrasing in the daily, rolling dictation of current events: WikileaksblacksiterefugeeWMDdroneArabSpringsurveillanceterrorNSAdrownchemicaldigital…2
Time and time again there they were, our representatives — admittedly tasked with addressing some of the most fraught problems of our time — using phrases that seemed so conspicuous, so self-conscious, so branded it was as if they had been sent to Hair & Make-up before being uttered. The phrases themselves were composites, hitched together, often in pairs. When they appeared, there seemed to be a bit more space, more air, on either side of them in the sentence you read or in the utterance you heard. It was as if the official and his or her staff knew they needed a bit of working room just in front of the phrase for its initial deployment — light the fuse, pull the cord — while just after a bit of space was necessary to allow the audience time to fully appreciate the effect and mystery of contemporary statecraft.
The phrases seemed to be new. Perhaps they were old and I was just now noticing them, but what was true was their usage appeared to have hit its stride. These phrases were match-ready and repeatedly called to the field. I imagined they were crafted and rolled-out by teams of communications experts with gold-standard-resume experience in the weighing of words and their abilities to modify and morph, communicate and conceal a message. It was as if the experts had developed the diplomatic equivalent of some kind of Shakespearian insult generator. I imagined them waiting and ready at any moment to swoop in and package the global crises of the day in such a way that the boss could calm the commons or seek its support or communicate sidelong with any number of vested interests.
The phrases ranged from awkward stand-ins to gloriously opaque code for things that were confidential or controversial or unconfirmed or simply unutterable in pure form, one wasn’t sure, but you wondered why they just couldn’t dispense with the need to project reassurance and control and simply be honest — the world is clearly a complex place. As someone who had tuned-in to be informed, there was often a residual sense that one had simply been told: Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. All the while, just beyond the crime-scene tape, the appropriate crews worked feverishly to save lives or at least, we were assured, destroy them less thoroughly.
Like a lot of my work, Serious Grounds is a composite, a collection of fragments. I think the fragment that finally suggested to me there was a list to be made was gravely concerned and his or her oft-used companion deeply. But it was finally the phrase serious grounds which suggested the image of a café in which all of these phrases, after having returned from their various deployments, could come together for an annual social to relax finally and take a load off. It simply occurred to me — to paraphrase Quentin Tarantino — that I could put them all in the same room and let them talk.