by Ada Bronowski
More than an age of anxiety or anger, of indignation or self-righteousness, we live in an age of the constant high. We need not consume drugs or get inebriated to be met on a daily basis with sights and behaviours to which the only reasonable reaction is an alternation between ‘wow!’ and ‘oh my god…!’ From the still-not-yet-former British prime minister saluting the oldest of the modern parliaments with a deep-felt ‘Hasta la vista baby!’, to newspaper frontpages, to twitter feeds, the most pervasive mode of communication in contemporary society is the exclamation. Social media experts and communication analysts of every stripe routinely provide us with statistics demonstrating the normalisation of the exclamation point as a sine qua non of everyday communication. It is the lack of one which legitimately arouses concern. The use of a full stop at the end of a sentence tends rather to indicate that something is not quite right. Whether you write a text saying: ‘I’m waiting.’, or whether you write: ‘I’m waiting!’, the recipient knows either to be worried they have annoyed you in the former case, or that all is fine in the latter case, though without then assuming any particular degree of excitement. Whether someone writes in an email or text: ‘That’s perfect.’ or ‘That’s perfect!’, you sense in the former case, that something is in fact not quite perfect, whereas in the latter case, you do not consider anything’s being either perfect or not. The exclamation point, rather than emphasise excitement, functions as a neutraliser, shifting the focus of a sentence away from its actual content.
Where the full stop draws attention to the matter at hand: something’s being either perfect or not, and given that nothing ever is, most probably indicating it is not, the exclamation point takes the content of a sentence to another plane all together. It conveys a neutral common ground of exchange. In the often cited Send: the Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office, the 21st century version of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, spelling out the do’s and don’ts of digital communication, authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe insist that only with the second or third exclamation mark, do we truly convey what they call ‘friendliness’ and which a more cautious interpreter (more attune to irony perhaps) will be content to recognise as actual emphasis. But just the one exclamation point does not convey excitement at all, it only facilitates a non-problematic exchange.
Of course, it is part and parcel of the history of social communication, be it in letter-writing, literature or the visual arts, that what originally was emphatic gets absorbed into the banal to become common currency, pushing the boundaries of emotive expression ever further towards new forms of exaggeration and provocation. And if this evolution is part of history, it also has something of the inevitable about it: this spoiling of the special, the natural process of decay of a novelty that once was. It is a process which has its roots in the fact that languages (spoken, danced, or drawn) never stay still. The Roman grammarian Quintilian (1st century CE) lamented how the sobriety of the Latin of Rome’s first poet Ennius (2nd century BCE) was going to the dregs because verbs were constantly inflated by the addition of unnecessary prefixes, why not just have ‘mirari’ instead of the swollen ‘admirari’, when both mean the same thing, to admire? Because ultimately it is not exactly the same…the naked root verb lost something along the way through over-use, and the intensified inflated compound verb brings, well…just that, intensified inflation, which is what you need to do some heart-felt admiration.
The great French literary critique, Claude-Gilbert Dubois, in his book about mannerism (unexplainably still untranslated into English) theorises that the arts evolved in a helicoidal cyclicity: first the classical which emulates a model in which truth and beauty are one (it is the first Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, the monumental awe-filling sculptures of Phidias, e.g. the eleven meter high Athena (pic.1), it is Shakespeare’s sonnet 54 ‘O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem, / By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!’,) it is the sober earnestness of George Orwell compared to his contemporary W.H. Auden, one of the first mannerists of our post-war times. For second in Dubois’s cyclical theory comes mannerism, the expression of what he calls a ‘humility complex’, derived from missing the identity mark between beauty and truth, having the one always lag behind the other: it is Auden’s ‘Cerebrotonic Cato’ from his poem ‘The Fall of Rome’, whose Stoic reining in of emotion has no weight in the face of a greedy mob (‘the muscle-bound Marines’), it is Raphael’s Fornarina (pic.2) whose shy look catches the onlooker’s from below, in Princess Diana-esque obliqueness, and who has to give the spectator all she’s got to hope to seduce us, with her emphatically unveiled nudity. Compare her to the sober boldness of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, whose smile contains all the superiority of a knowledge she feels no need to share, and you realise what excess does to a pretty face.
The Mannerist is forever trying, admiring, wondering, tip-toeing towards the truth but never daring to assert it. His language is that of exaggeration and inflation, La Fornarina’s full-on nude, Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic adaptation of Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (his Symphony n.2 for piano and orchestra), two examples of a luxuriousness of highs and lows, maintaining a continuous state of euphoric drunkenness – but to what end?
Dubois’s contention is that the more hyperbole we inject into discourse (whichever the medium), the more we indulge in the use of the seductive tools of language, the more the rift between truth and beauty grows. It is a paradox: for the wealth of nuance and sensitivity to small variations which emphatic language, and exclamation at the forefront, reacts to, instead of getting us closer to what is real, and what is true, takes us away from it. And it does so, by releasing us from the obligation of searching for the truth, since we forfeit from the start, our capacity to attain it.
In contemporary linguistics, the exclamation is reserved a special treatment: it is the expression of an emotion which both confirms the fact of a matter (something is there and we are reacting to it: ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’) and marks the distance we take from that fact. We are too surprised to believe our eyes. But of course, the more continuously we are in a state of surprise, the less surprising the state of surprise we are in, actually is. Exclamations become regimented forms of speech, rhetorical crutches we use no longer to express spontaneous emotion at the unexpected, but rather to confirm a shared worldview.
Relationships can collapse because of the absence of an exclamation point:
In a scene from the tv-series, Seinfeld – a philosophical bible for our modern times if ever there was – Elaine breaks up with a man she calls ‘perfect’ because he does not use enough exclamation points. In jotting down a message about a friend of hers having a baby, the otherwise perfect boyfriend omits to add an exclamation point at the end of the note. Too bad for the perfect boyfriend, if he cannot share the emotional high contained in the sentence: ‘Mira had her baby.’, he’s out. If the comic situation adds a touch of absurdity to the sequence of events, there is at heart – as ever with the eagle-eyed creators of the series, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David – a deep observation about our decadent, pathos-drenched, times. The normalisation of excess in language becomes itself, a demand we make of others. Failure to meet this demand creates unsurmountable tensions between two attitudes to language, i.e., life. ‘I’ve never heard of a relationship being affected by punctuation’ says Jerry later to Elaine. But of course, an exclamation point is so much more than just a line with a dot underneath: it is the ratification of a social contract, which estranges the exclamation-teetotaler from the group.
It is just such a tension that the first philosophers to have identified the exclamation as social phenomenon anticipated, as far back as ancient Greece. And yes, it is and was, first and foremost a matter for philosophers because an exclamation is always at its core, a move to dodge the question of truth or falsity. ‘He is just the cutest baby!’ says nothing about actual cuteness and everything about social convention and an implicit belonging of the speaker to a certain circle. These first philosophers were 3rd century BCE Stoics, who, before they became more widely known as the arbiters of duty and endurance of external pains, were first and foremost thinkers of logic and the regimentation of language (activities not incompatible with said endurance of woes). The Stoics identify the communicative force of exclamations in a socio-cultural context which to all intents and purposes is an age of decline and decadence, in the aftermath of what is known as the Athenian Golden Age.
A recently published monograph on exclamation in Classical Greek shows that within the eighty years of the 5th century ‘Greek Miracle’ – in which Greek tragedy was born and died, comedy and satire flourished and dissolved into an early equivalent of the comedy of manners, sculpture went from majestic rigidity to graceful sexiness – the increase in the expression of exclamation went from a mere handful of dubious cases in the first austere tragedies of Aeschylus to an exponential presence in the last of the tragedians, Euripides and then to an overwhelming amount in the most representative of the authors of the new comedy of manners, Menander. The more decadent the times, the more exclamative the discourse. In parallel to the incremental presence of clearly recognisable exclamations in the later texts (with other criteria than the (non-existing) exclamation point in ancient Greek), the three authors of this remarkable study also note an increasingly regimented formulation put in place for the expression of exclamations. In the earlier – more sober – texts, though less frequent, exclamation was expressed thanks to a broad variety of linguistic inventiveness, revelatory of a spontaneity in the emotive surprise thus rendered. But by the end of the 5th century, just a few set formulations are used.
Such is precisely the charge Aristotle (4th century BCE) makes in his Poetics against his contemporary playwrights, the post-Classical writers: that they put in the mouth of their protagonists sentences devised by the rhetoric of ‘what is fitting to say in a given situation’ (Poet. 1450b5-8); they no longer allow the characters to imitate spontaneous reactions. But what Aristotle is describing is not so much a move towards a precious artificial language, as rather the conformity of his contemporary authors to their decadent times in which an implicit agreement holds between speakers to maintain an exchange at a heightened emotional level. Most of this is done through regimented forms of exclamation, in which pathos and over-excitement alternate to create a high that has in fact become ordinary.
What the Stoics added to Aristotle’s critique was to shift the debate from linguistic verisimilitude (Aristotle in the Poetics is, after all, teaching us what it is to have good taste) to de facto linguistic analysis. The Stoic logicians became worried, not that the formulations of exclamation were too rigid and rhetorical, but rather that this was how people mostly communicate and that, by so doing, they alienate themselves from the truth of what they are saying, since the truth is no longer the reason for communication. That should not be such a problem in itself. After all, we are large and contain multitudes, as the poet says, and there’s a time for truth and there’s a time for exhilaration, pathos, and the pleasures of surprise. But if we in fact, mostly communicate via such exclamations, the philosopher is wary that we grow thinner, less multitudinous and the time for truth trickles away through unclenched fingers. The philosophers’ insight, from Aristotle to the Stoics, is that, despite the decadent inflation of our expression, our desire to communicate truths nevertheless does not dwindle. Only that the material we are left with, through which to do so, is mostly exclamative, and hence highly unfit for the conveyance of truths.
The indignation and anger that flows in streams of exclamations from the mouths of so many of our fellow inhabitants of this world on fire, are, by their very nature, the expression of surprise with added emotion, at something people refuse to believe. But instead of keeping to the emotive nature of their words, those very expressions, those inflated exclamations, become the vehicle of truths which are not truths at all. When Dubois characterised the Mannerist as suffering from a ‘humility complex’, he meant precisely this: pussyfooting around the truth, always at an oblique angle from it, never quite committing to it, but somehow obsessed with it. It is not by chance that the form in which fake news and ‘alternative facts’ are packaged is largely exclamative within a normalised context of exclamative communication. This is all the better to blur the distinction between emotional exuberance and truth. The dark genius of fake news is thus that they are not even false and not even lies, because just as exclamations are not truths, neither are they falsehoods.
Dubois’s theory is tripartite, mannerism – he anticipates – finally morphs into the baroque: where hyperbole is enthroned as a full-blown structure of its own, no longer pandering to vestiges of the classical identity model between truth and beauty. There are good signs that we are stepping into our own version of the baroque. The ordinariness of excess in language has pushed the boundaries of decadence further out. It is only perhaps after the third or fourth exclamation point that we succeed in conveying some form of intensity. And so it is clear that the exclamation point just does not cut it any longer.
Today emoji-language rules. A novel from 2020 by the French writer Frédéric Beigbeder is titled: (just the emoji) and in it, amidst a scalding satire of our exclamative society that thrives at constant jeering at anything which remotely pretends to some seriousness, the author also suggests that in the future, books will be written in emojis. Meanwhile in America, a recent video published in the humour pages of the New Yorker online anticipates a world in which all communication is done through emojis. Having learnt Seinfeld’s lesson, relationships here, are saved through recourse to emoji-talk, and the essence of the novels of the past are brilliantly (!?) conveyed through a few simple emojis. The video is a fantastical, satirical piece of comedy, but astonishingly a huge proportion of the comments from the million or so views, took the video’s message to be real and serious. Emoji designers and university professors expressed relief at finally having the future they are working on documented on a mainstream, serious (!), platform.
After the exacerbation of the will to power of the baroque – according to Dubois – there should be a return to the classical, to sobriety and the harmonious marriage between truth and beauty. Unfortunately for our turn on the cycle, it looks like the only users of purely true or false sentences are artificial intelligence machines. The mere thought that sobriety will be algorithmic or won’t be at all, is enough to ultimately side with Seinfeld’s Elaine: perfection is nothing without an exclamation point!
 Biraud, M., Denizot, C., Faure, R. (2021), L’exclamation en Grec Ancien, Peteers : Collection linguistique de la Société Linguistique de Paris.