Economic Language in the Face of Disaster

Carmen Grillo

When we think about gaps, right away the mind pictures space; quantifiable physical gaps are intuitive, and un-troubling to the collective psyche, because we live in spaces of separation.

There are, of course, a few other kinds of gaps that are not often addressed in the common sense.

One such gap is the supposed gap between language and reality.  Can language ever describe reality fully?  Some thinkers, like Nietzsche and later Foucault, understood that there is no gap between language and reality. In a sense, language IS our reality, because we live in language.

What relevance does the language gap have for us plebeians?

We are all familiar with the earthquake that struck Japan a few months ago.  What is surprising about the situation is how it is discussed in some media.  Reading an article in the Globe and Mail, I was taken aback at how concerned the author was with the Global Market effects of disaster in Japan.  I read figure after figure measuring the effects on global energy markets.  There was not much attention given to the human devastation that just happened, or the fact that a nuclear disaster will affect peoples’ health and the environment for decades to come. Other articles illustrate what should really worry us about disasters like this, but they seem to be a minority.

This shows us that language, particularly the discourse we find in the media, is a symptom of our times.  In the face of impending ecological disaster and great human suffering, the front page of a major Canadian newspaper features an article about the quantitative energy-market effects of the nuclear crisis in Japan, the same way it would have an article on bailouts.  What about the global effects of radiation on the environment?  What about questioning reliance on nuclear power from a health perspective?  Notice how these fundamentally economic questions relevant to everyday individuals (people who do not speculate on global markets) are ignored. The market-centred framing of the article shows us that in our day and age, especially in the West, we are often blinded by arbitrary quantities that in many cases limit our ability to think about economics in new and pertinent ways.  When crisis happens, we should not only be talking about global markets.  We should be having spirited discussion about how we might better organize our societies micro-economically in the wake of upheaval.  A certain “Economy” however has become our primary concern, especially when dealing with disaster.

Next time you read an article about a real (not market) crisis, pay attention to what is said and how it is said, and what is omitted.  You might be surprised to find that in the age of techno-capitalism, all we care about is “forecasting” the economic “weather” for the benefit of speculation, even when there is a real and important debate to be had about how we order our lives.