La palabra en crisis / Oswaldo Barreto

The Word in Crisis

The two terms that make up our title, so often used separately, are rarely found together. Of course, people speak of all types of crises, but these always occur in the world of things, of events. Economic crisis, financial crisis, petroleum crisis and the like, ad infinitum. And yet, it’s enough for us to focus for a substantial amount of time on any aspect of our social and cultural reality to realize that not only are we effectively living a crisis of the word, but also that this type of crisis can have even more nefarious effects than any other. Everything indicates for us that in the world of the word in Venezuela we are living a situation similar to the one we’re living in the financial world, the world of currency, that other instrument of relation or exchange among humans. Given that the monetary avatars are more familiar to us than these other verbal avatars, it’s worth trying to develop a quick comparative analysis between them.

Regarding our currency, every day we speak in terms of crisis: the devaluation of currency, the recycling of the diminished bolívar into the strong bolívar, the shortage or overabundance of currency – which quite often determines the rhythm of inflation. And that’s not to mention the difficulties that arise when we try to exchange our currency with those from other countries. So then, analogous phenomena occur to us permanently in the sphere – even more decisively in social life – of the word. There are words that are no longer worth anything and there are words whose real meaning (whose real value) is the object of controversy and doubt. And there is, correlatively, a scarcity of words, an absence of them for naming what happens within and beyond our selves. How do we name, for example, the regime that Hugo Chávez is imposing on us: dictatorship, fascism, communism or participatory democracy? And, regarding the latter, what exactly does participation mean? It’s possible the need to resolve the meaning of these terms doesn’t present itself to everyone but, on the other hand, knowing the exact meaning of socialism, communism or asymmetrical war has become a genuine social necessity. As it’s become an imperious existential necessity for an infinity of individuals to know if today is a moment of the left or of the right, or to know if being a patriot means being sheep and submissive.

Next to these problems that belong, as academics say, to the field of semantics, to the meaning of words, other no less serious ones appear concerning the word itself. Today we’re forced to ask ourselves, not just what meaning this or that word might have, but rather what value the word itself has in Venezuela, what value the president gives to his own words and what value he attributes to the words of others.

Nonsense? Sophisms? Exquisiteness? Am I the only one, then, who has witnessed the fulminating insults a normal citizen has hurled against another when he calls him “squalid” or the great debates surrounding the meaning of “solidarity” and the meaning of “manipulation.” Isn’t it true what one of my best students at the School of Education, Mercedes Álvarez, means when she says: “It’s not the verb, but is it something verbal?”

And the problem, regardless, is not that the word is in crisis, but that even the simplest and most innocuous words begin to lose the supreme character of the verb among us, which is to be a common good for an entire people. We should remember the blessed Tower of Babel.

{ Oswaldo Barreto, Tal Cual, 24 August 2007 }

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