News stories in the British press recently reported that a French labor accord had banned work-related email after 6 pm to protect employees’ free time. The stories tapped into British conceptions of the French as lazy, hedonistic and unproductive. As it turned out, the law was less restrictive than readers were led to believe and concerned only a small segment of French workers in specific industries. The New York Times took it upon itself to set the record straight, challenging the British for “misapprehending” the law and lamenting their “scornful stereotypes about the French.” Strangely, however, in so doing the Times couldn’t help invoking its own derogatory clichés.
“Given France’s 35-hour workweek, generous vacations and persistent, if not accurate, reputation for indolence,” the article begins, “it may come as a surprise that the French are only now considering limits on the work emails and phone calls that come at all hours.” There’s a fine line between repeating and reinforcing a slur, and the Times treads that line here. Taking it as a “given” that French vacations are “generous” (rather than hard-won concessions from bosses, or that Anglo-American vacations are, say, “miserly” or “cruel”), the article flirts with op-editorializing, while the weakly-constructed syllogism reinforces exactly what the article supposedly aims to debunk.
One might wonder whether the author of the piece is conflicted in his feelings, or whether, as an American and a reporter, he can’t invoke French people without using insult, even when defending them from the Brits. These contradictions take the concrete form of an odd grammatical slip in the phrase “persistent, if not accurate, reputation for indolence.” The online version of the article lamely emends the phrase to read “persistent, if not altogether accurate,” as if the writer were aware of an error but couldn’t see how to fix it.
No doubt the reporter meant to say “persistent, if inaccurate”; in other words, the bad reputation is tenacious but unjustified. As it stands, though, the phrase is flawed, because in “X, if not Y” constructions, “if not” does not serve to simply negate what follows. Such locutions are in fact quite slippery and ambiguous; to be able to wield the formula is to employ a Janus-faced turn of phrase and convey ambiguity, complexity and understatement. Complexity, needless to say, does not amount to incoherence, and ambiguity is not illogic; a decent grasp of rhetoric enables a fine tuning of verbal complication without which a writer is condemned to the kind of incoherence demonstrated by The New York Times.
The critic Hortense Spillers’ always enlightening “American Grammar Book” — a desktop reference at The Purgatory Press — provides a succinct example of the turn of phrase in question. “To insist on the integrity of female/male gender,” the author says, “would appear reactionary, if not dumb.”* The phrase is well formed because correct usage requires that the term introduced by the “if” clause be stronger than the first. Accordingly, Spillers’ phrase suggests that we might go so far as to say that such conservative ideas are simply stupid. Or not. Perhaps they are; perhaps they aren’t. Göran Kjellmer makes a helpful distinction between exclusive and inclusive interpretations of such ambiguous phrases. In the first case, this would yield the meaning “reactionary, although not exactly dumb,” while in the second it would give us “reactionary, or perhaps even dumb.” It’s worth pointing out that the inclusive version doesn’t say they are actually dumb, though they might be. Like a litotes, then, the rhetorical force of the construction lies in understatement.
An example from late Victorian literature shows how an “if not” phrase shouldn’t be confused with a simple negation and how it can sustain a nice interpretive puzzle. The text is Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Sue, after parting from him earlier in the day, had gone along to the station, with tears in her eyes for having run back and let him kiss her. Jude ought not to have pretended that he was not a lover, and made her give way to an impulse to act unconventionally, if not wrongly. She was inclined to call it the latter; for Sue’s logic was extraordinarily compounded, and seemed to maintain that before a thing was done it might be right to do, but that being done it became wrong; or, in other words, that things which were right in theory were wrong in practice.
Hardy’s novel is a fearsome assault on religious morality and the social constraints erected against love, individuality and freedom. To know the difference between what is merely unconventional and what is plain wrong is the gist of the characters’ dilemmas, so the entire stakes of the novel’s social critique lie in the equivocating balance struck by the phrase “unconventionally, if not wrongly.” The free-thinking Sue is usually able to see religion and morality for what they are, social conventions rather than absolute laws, but here her courage slips: “she was inclined to call it the latter.” Interestingly, this inclination is preceded by an ought in the very same sentence, an ought floating in the unattributed voice of free indirect discourse, as if Sue’s personal will has already been absconded with. This may account for the fateful way she understands the “X, if not Y” formula. Hardy makes clear that an erroneous substitution has occurred, as in a Freudian displacement: “Sue had placed the minor for the major indiscretion.” And so the tragic has already struck the young girl; her merest inclination in this scene foreshadows her harrowing claim later on that “we must conform” and the novel’s final proof that “things which were right in theory were wrong in practice.”
Jude was published in 1895, the year that saw the birth of psychoanalysis. It’s more than a coincidence that this novel in which the words “unconscious” and “unconsciously” crop up so often should be the contemporary of Freud’s discovery of the mental ills caused by social regulation. The affinities between the two are grammatical as well; like Hardy’s “X, if not Y,” any given negation in Freud’s book can always mean its opposite. The work of repression tends to make our logic “extraordinarily compounded,” as Hardy puts it. Or to quote Freud’s essay “Negation”:
The content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed. We can see how in this the intellectual function is separated from the affective process. With the help of negation only one consequence of the process of repression is undone—the fact, namely, of the ideational content of what is repressed not reaching consciousness. The outcome of this is a kind of intellectual acceptance of the repressed, while at the same time what is essential to the repression persists.**
In its ambiguity and equivocation, “X, if not Y” is a fine example of how opposing ideas can be sustained by the duplicitous function of negation, as well as how our “values” and “beliefs” can be prey to affective ambivalence. To defend rhetorical turns of speech against their misuse in the media today is not to prescribe traditional modes of expression. It is to make room for the verbal straying and interpretive conundrums that open up the rich field of unconscious transmissions in language.
* Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” Diacritics, Summer 1987, 66.
** Sigmund Freud, “Negation,” The Standard Edition 19, 236 (1925).