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Of Trump, the pandemic, and the ergonomy of meaning

As I write this, over 16 thousand people have died in the US from contracting Covid 19. Yet, not to be outdone by reality,  Trump forecasts a total of around 200 thousand deaths for the pandemic in the US, and casts the pandemic as a war: an analogy is both alluring in its simplicity, and baffling in its idiotic avoidance of reality. For, indeed, this level of mortality stems from a healthcare crisis, not from a war, and Trump’s analogy provides a clear example of how semantics are being used to engineer an ergonomy of meaning, a form of meaning that had been weaponized for political gain.

In the current, late capitalist world, meaning has to be engineered if words and symbols are to activate the latent cultural mythology and mobilize public opinion, this process is the creation of an ergonomy of meaning:  meaning that becomes constrained, more precise, and elicits safety, trust and comfort. Unlike the Orwellian newspeak that aimed at removing associations through abbreviation, ergonomic meaning in a political context is only possible if it awakens simple, common associations and references latent mythological elements in each community. By making references to this well known, and widely accepted national mythology, the message is activated, accepted and becomes a directive that is followed with less resistance.

Let us illustrate the concept and process by deconstructing Trump’s administration’s posture on the pandemic: at the surface, this characterization of the response as a war ensures the consistency of the GOP’s message that the American healthcare system works well, is responsive, provides choice, and is covering all the citizens it should; obviously, calling the botched response for what it is – the unmasking of a failing health care system – does not serve the purpose of those whose re-election depends on the largesse of the healthcare industry. Moreover, calling it a war (metaphorical or not) casts the response into a narrative that has become familiar to the public since the Reagan years, with its attendant reality of eternal war, and the optimized industrialization of murder-for-profit.

The characterization works in manufacturing compliance and in mobilizing the population because it taps into the latent mythology of American culture. This way, the concept of war taps into the hero archetype that is a main vector of American mythology; Trump becomes a hero, not just a hero, but a deeply flawed one, a hero that has to slay his inner demons before he turns his spear on the external ones, be they dragons or windmills, as a hero, he ruptures the sordid chrysalis of his life to become an abstraction and we all love to follow abstractions. Our mythology reconciles individuality with leadership by making our leaders abstract, it is easier to follow whomever we cannot conceive with clarity, but sounds great and dresses well. The concept of war also mobilizes our sense of heroic participation without infringing on our individuality (because lack of individuality is communistic, and anti-American by definition and consensus), this is a war that gives us the opportunity to become heroes by donning our pyjamas, and watching Netflix documentaries until we run out of beer.

War also elicits images of winning, and winning is what we are all about – even when the country has not won a war since 1945 despite the fact that it has been constantly at arms since then. Heroes win wars, and by casting the response as a war the GOP transforms a possible victory into a certain and grandiose one.

Deconstructing the elements of American national mythology may seem like an armchair pursuit unless we think of the intensity and precision with the manipulation of meaning references it, and how engineering an ergonomy of meaning impairs our reason, and chips away at what is still good in our society.

Adelino de Almeida
Abril, 2020

Foto de Manuel Rosário

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Nasceu e cresceu em Lisboa, doutorou-se em Engenharia de Estruturas na University of Colorado at Boulder, e depois de décadas de uma carreira peripatética em consultoria de gestão, tenta agora reinventar-se como escritor e tem para publicação a sua primeira novela, The Sublime Eucharist of Alfred Packer.

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