Brain Bytes #4: Strategic Ambiguity

This isn’t the first/best/most important thing that needs to be said (I have a big ramble about Battlestar: Galactica and the posthuman that I must get around to writing).
In his documentary series Fry’s Planet Word, Stephen Fry refers to the linguistic vagaries of political spin doctoring as ‘strategic ambiguity’. That sounds much more polite than ‘flip-flopping’ or ‘cynical obfuscation’ or ‘breaking election promises’ or whatever else we mere mortals would call it–it’s a little bit more nuanced, it’s calculated, and it’s probably much closer to the practical truth.
What makes it fascinating to me is that, essentially, that’s what I think poetry relies on as well. Strategic ambiguity: the careful, intentional plotting of a course between two or more possible ways of interpreting a given set of linguistic information.
If we accept the premise that poetic language and political language share this key characteristic, then maybe we can start to think of poetry–its form, its construction, rather than its content–as a tool for better comprehending the strategic ambiguities of politics. Maybe it’s a (generally) low-stakes arena to practice our ability to decode these ambiguities and see how political language is calculated to be a mixed message, even in cases where it seems straightforward and univocal.

This isn’t a perfect argument by any means, but it’s been rolling around in my head for weeks now and I think there’s something to it. There are no better liars than politicians and poets; they were probably saying that as far back as Socrates. But maybe analysing one form of language will give us a better handle on the other, far more insidious one.


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