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Transcending into the future

[Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) on appointing a new director of the CIA:] We need someone to take charge and make it a five or six year [stint]. Someone who transcends into the future without politics.
This seems to be a portmanteau of “transcends politics” and “sees beyond the present”.
The common element is “beyondness”. The sentence doesn’t look like a malaprop (though perhaps Roberts had in mind “transition”, used as a verb). The Senator knows the meaning of ‘transcends’ (see his interview on Meet the Press). It would seem, rather, that two ideas (or two bits of boilerplate) interfered with one another, whereas in a malaprop one word is substituted for another by virtue of similarity in sound.
Columbia carried in its payroll classroom experiments from some of our students in America.
Bush meant ‘payload’. Probably most of the people who heard him made the correction as they were listening, hardly noticing the mistake. Bush’s error doesn’t seem to call for a “passing theory” of truth (on “passing theories” see Phillips 1997, Bawarshi 1997, Chomsky 1994). It’s not that in momentary Bush-English ‘payroll’ meant ‘payload’. He simply misspoke.
Senator Roberts’ utterance, on the other hand, suggests a passing theory according to which ‘transcends’ means something like ‘transitions’ (but with the connotation of ‘going beyond’ or ‘rising above’). Even then we can’t make much sense of the entire phrase by itself. Instead, given the context, we infer from the shards of its interpretation that Roberts wants a director who will not bend the CIA to the President’s whims, and perhaps also one who will assist in adapting the CIA to the “post-9/11 world”.
What distinguishes Roberts’ ‘transcends into the future’ from, say, e e cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town”? We can be sure that the poet knew how to use the word ‘how’. Even though there are good reasons to hold that deviance is neither necessary nor sufficient to trigger alternative (“non-literal”) interpretation, still in the case of ‘a pretty how town’ straight interpretation is defeated right off the bat. Moreover, we are reading a poem, after all; in that setting we expect that alternative strategies of interpretation will be called for. Senator Roberts, on the other hand, was stating an opinion, and politicians these days, when stating their opinions, rarely wax poetic. Political discourse includes little poetry but lots of (mostly stale) metaphors, the point of which is not to elicit interpretation but rather to be obvious:
To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.
These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust […]
Very few people who have reached the age of reason will not have heard of the “ship of state”. “Touchstone” is by now a dead metaphor. On the other hand, since relatively few people in the US now have the experience of finding their way by reference to the stars, working out the “bright constellation” may require more effort now than in Jefferson’s time.
What’s interesting in all this is that there doesn’t seem to be any principled way to distinguish between incompetence and inspiration. At least not locally. I’m not sure that intentions, even if they could be known, would do the trick. Senator Roberts may in fact have intended to convey the combination of vision & neutrality that is suggested by his words. He didn’t do it very adeptly; but in appealing to intention we abstract from implementation. Our assessment of his adeptness or lack of it seems to rest on (i) a sense of how words are to be used if nonstandard interpretations are not to be brought into play and (ii) the satisfactoriness of the result if they are brought into play, where satisfactoriness rests both on clarity and on æsthetic criteria.

LinkAugust 15, 2004 in Language