Why greeting-card clichés are utterly empty yet full of meaning

<p><em>Photo by frankieleon/flickr</em></p>

Photo by frankieleon/flickr


by Daniel Fraser + BIO

Photo by frankieleon/flickr

Cliché is the nemesis of creativity. This statement pervades contemporary attitudes to language, both in the field of literature and in conventional human interactions. Across the landscape of the written word, from Martin Amis’s declaration of The War Against Cliché (2001) to the professional products of creative writing schools, even the best of which treat language as a tool that can be manipulated to achieve maximum results, cliché is continually depicted as an abject failure of language. This failure is demonised as obfuscating true expression, offering little more than banal sentimentality, and to be avoided at all costs.

As a method of communication, the giving of greeting cards stands in stark contrast to this phobic attitude to cliché, and functions in a manner that throws many of the problems of this phobia into sharp relief. Cliché is the life-blood of greeting cards, they thrive on it. Their messages are ones that have been used and discarded over and over again:

Sorry for your loss. Thinking of you. Our deepest sympathies. I love you. Congratulations on finding each other. Best of luck. Happy birthday. Get well soon.

And so on.

The exchanging of these cliché-ridden tokens shows no sign of slowing down. Even within the context of the explosive proliferation of electronic communication and social media that characterise human forms of connection and conversation today, greeting cards have remained a huge industry. In the United States, approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards are bought each year, and the annual retail sales figures are valued at between $7-8 billion. It would be easy to write off these cards as empty sentences, a commercial option for the inarticulate consumer, without questioning the reason for this failure of expression.

Greeting cards present themselves at some of the most important, and often difficult, events of our lives: the loss of a family member or a friend, an outpouring of love and devotion, or even the simple recognition of time’s passing. The strange thing is that these moments of love and loss are not the place where language finds its truest expression of meaning but are in fact the place where meaning itself starts to break down, where language as a whole reveals its incapacities. The cliché is a marker, or a stand-in, for something we aren’t sure how to express. Whether the message is pre-printed or one we resort to writing ourselves, clichés appear where words fail. In this way, greeting cards function as material testament to the lack of articulation at the heart of human experience, drawing attention to the gap between language and life.

This gap is at once infinitesimally small and so vast that it might never be adequately crossed. Small because, despite the opening between the two, it is through language that human beings encounter the world. As the poet Robert Duncan put it: ‘our human language is a ground in which we participate in the greater language in which the Universe itself is written’. Yet also vast because, aside from anything else, this participation is a conceptual structure formed by human beings to interpret life. Language is always a falsehood imposed upon the reality of silence.

At the extreme end of this, Georg Hegel wrote in the Jena Lectures (1805-6) that language murders the living things that it names. The implication being that, when we speak or write, the nouns we use subsume the individual under a universal. In the act of identifying a ‘tree’, a ‘cat’ or ‘sadness’, we destroy that object’s individuality by categorially aligning it with all the other trees, cats and moments of sadness that have been and gone or are yet to come. Inscribing these sensations and objects into the historical register of language’s conceptuality enacts a double violence: both refusing to recognise the uniqueness of the object, or feeling, and calling attention to its finitude, pointing directly towards its inevitable destruction. Language then appears to feed vampirically off the organic entities to which it becomes attached. It is both the way in which we gain access to life and that which destroys life through its very operation.

While we might wish to take this as a paean for quietness, a sign for us to take up Samuel Beckett’s aphorism that ‘every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness’, we know this is not possible. Beckett himself qualified the statement by appropriating Democritus’ line that ‘naught is more real than nothing’. No matter what violence language commits against life, or what scale of human loss seems to render all speech meaningless, it is inevitably language that remains, in the words of the poet Paul Celan in 1958. Though there is a futility in language’s attempt to express feeling, the card cannot be left blank. Something has, in the end, to be said.

Clichéd statements such as ‘I love you’ and ‘Sorry for your loss’ call attention to this double futility: language always fails but it is impossible to remain silent. Nowhere is this clearer than in the sympathy card phrase ‘There are no words’. Though the statement is true, in order to be given meaning it must be expressed and, in doing so, is falsified. This axis of articulation and absence, of speaking and silence, is the dilemma that language continually re-presents.

The task of linguistic expression then can never merely be reduced to one of linguistic competence, fetishism of originality or some kind of arch-musicality. To take the elements of human experience and seek to mould them in the most mellifluous manner is to miss that very thing that’s missing, the unsettling and moving lack that leaves language seeming clumsy and cumbersome. Greeting cards and cliché more generally bear witness to the fact that the most banal and the most meaningful regularly coincide, and that something always remains beyond the reach of words. Cliché is a place where life and language resist one another.

By recognising the radical imperfection of language, cliché can help ameliorate the damage it does. The continual return of these stock phrases reminds us that, though language can say ‘I love you’ or ‘Our deepest sympathies’ – which ties the love and grief we feel with all those who have ever, and will ever, love and grieve – it can never completely capture this grief or this love. After which, the universality of our love, our grief, begins to feel less like an act of violent conceptuality and more like an act of community, transposing us into a commune with all the living and the dead.

Greeting cards serve as a reminder that it is often with the clichéd and the ordinary that the fabric of language starts to unravel, and the pulse of life – that which will always remain beyond words – begins to bubble up from beneath.