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  • The Meaning of Clichés
  • Tom Grimwood (bio)

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If there is a circulation that should be stopped at this point, it's this circulation of stereotypes that critique stereotypes, giant stuffed animals that denounce our infantilization, media images that denounce the media, spectacular installations that denounce the spectacle, etc.

—Jacques Rancière, "Art of the Possible"

The question of what clichés mean is almost inevitably asked from a particular, ready-to-hand disposition. When Jacques Rancière provides a pithy articulation of the "anti-critique" sentiment that has taken hold across much of the contemporary humanities, his words nevertheless retain a very familiar urgency: regardless of what we do with critique itself, we must rid ourselves of the ever-presence of clichés. This is perhaps why Christopher Ricks's comment in 1980 that "the feeling lately is that we live in an unprecedented inescapability from clichés" still resonates strongly in 2017, when emerging media appear to actively shape political and public debate, and the sound bite, cultural cipher, and social media meme actively influence electoral decisions.1 But in fact, the sense that we live in an age of clichés echoes throughout the modern era. There is no shortage of nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century literature condemning the generic, the formulaic, and the banal as not simply bad writing, but as a broader symptom of cultural stagnation. Furthermore, the recurrent motifs of such expressions—dying metaphors, stagnation, stupidity, mechanization, and, above all, loss—present an overly familiar struggle of the intellectual (whether modern, post-modern, anti-modern or something else). This is a struggle that has been reasserted by as wide a range of authors as John Rentoul in the 2010s, Francis Wheen in the 2000s, Hans Magnus Enzenberger in the '70s, Guy Debord in the '60s, Theodor Adorno in the '50s, and George Orwell in the '40s.2 Across all of these varied positions, the surface expression of discontent tends to be similar. If the arguments of anti-critique, such as Rancière's, quite rightly expose the inadequacy of conventional criticism in the face of such stagnation, they also maintain a critical distance from the cliché itself: whether as the object of criticism, or as criticism itself, it remains something to be removed.

However, the very familiarity of these expressions—not to mention the perpetual urgency of their tone—serves to cloud the question of when such a loss (or the threat of this loss) actually occurs, both in the historical sense (at what point culture becomes wary of, or resistant to, a thing labeled a cliché) and in the hermeneutic sense (the conditions under which cliché "means" something, even if this meaning is only ever a kind of "anti-meaning," or sense of loss or inescapability). Indeed, the actual theoretical engagement with clichés—what they are, what they do, and what specific role they play in the formation of "proper" thought—is rarely given serious or focused attention, other than to assert their difference from originality, creativity, criticality, and so on. And perhaps this is necessary; after all, if the cliché marks the absence of thought, then how else might it be thought about, other than in terms of its expulsion? If the cliché poses a specific threat to modern thought in particular, would raising it to an object of academic interest not risk valorizing the cliché, or elevating it to something beyond the banal? The [End Page 91] cliché is not an object of discussion; it is the very antithesis of discussion itself. Far from unlocking its meaning, then, theorizing cliché may simply be an exercise in sanitizing its peculiar threat, which is—as Jean Paulhan's masterful treatise The Flowers of Tarbes rightly noted—both irritatingly stupid and possibly tyrannical. But at the same time, it strikes me that there is something significant about this difficulty in handling clichés conceptually, and the subsequent and persistent failure of the intellectual to escape their inevitability: a difficulty that suggests a deceptive complexity in the cliché. How, then, do we situate clichés in relation to the production of meaning, without privileging "meaning" in a way that effectively...