One can’t help notice a bad grammar mistake, but it doesn’t set off an alarm until you hear it again. With repetition the error becomes the linguistic equivalent of a sin; but what then of the first transgression, you wonder, and where does the fault lie if it exists only in the plural? Meanwhile, undeterred by your moral troubles, the locution spreads, becomes commonly accepted; you wonder if it might enter the dictionaries. You wonder, that is, how low we can go.
“Downfall.” The word is increasingly used to mean drawback, presumably by association with downside. “The only downfall was the bathroom,” says a restaurant review on Yelp. “The only downfall is the service,” says another. In a Seattle hotel review, “the only downfall” was urine on the sheets of “one of our beds.” When so much can go wrong, it seems that a lone downfall, or a single soiled bed, can be a blessing. In this way, mentioning a “downfall” can emphasize an overall success. Out of sheer scrupulousness, apparently, a patron of La Quinta details her frustration with the hotel’s excessively soft pillows. “Nonetheless,” she cheerily concludes, “that was the only downfall!”
Since “downfall,” in its proper sense, signifies a uniquely terrible and often terminal ruination, its use in these cases can be judged hyperbolic, while the adjective “only” seems entirely redundant. But this is where the word’s new usage parts company with its staid cousin. The chorus of downfalls in our current vernacular suggests that ruination is in fact common and ordinary; the word “only” implies that the downfall in question is just one among many potential or even infinite possible downfalls. Other phrases suggest the same: the ever-relevant “new low,” for instance, and the increasingly popular “fresh hell” — as in the phrase (rhetorical question? Or not?) what fresh hell is this? Grammar prescriptivists may scoff, but who can deny the aptness of these phrases in a time when every low point turns out to be a false bottom, like a trap door to endless stacked gallows?
A book written by Christian Marazzi in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis implies as much by predicting “repetitive downfalls” in the world economy: “Over the course of 2009, and beyond,” says the author, “we will witness the succession of a false recovery, a hiccups movement in the stock exchange followed by repetitive downfalls.”* Marazzi’s volume includes a handy appendix, titled “Words in Crisis,” that lists the key terms of contemporary financial jargon. But the language of the analysis itself, including “repetitive downfalls” and “hiccups movement” seems to be symptomatic of crisis too, its stuttering awkwardness the sign of a hurried attempt to catch up with careering events — unless it is due to the translator, who we imagine (why not?) as harried, wretched, underpaid, no doubt desperate to keep to her deadlines and obligatory word count? Whatever the case, the prognosis of “repetitive downfalls” in The Violence of Financial Capitalism lends support to Colin Crouch’s insight that following its apparent demise, neoliberalism now persists in a weird state of continual “non-death,”** as well as the grim prognosis of “permanent economic collapse” that David Wallace-Wells says is our likely fate on an increasingly overheated planet. More recently, an ominous editorial by Eugene Robinson points to “a succession of new lows” in U.S. politics and darkly predicts that “the worst is yet to come.”
As a complex of overdetermined meanings, then, “the only downfall” is a culturally valid expression. It contains a host of social and economic anxieties and is therefore “crucial enough to pass along,” as a film critic says of horror’s infectious appeal.*** Google the words “only downfall” and your first hit is likely to be a popular and widely-shared quote signed r.h. Sin: “The only downfall of having a good heart is that you’re constantly looking for angels inside of demons.” The quote suggests that the word “downfall” may have migrated from its standard meaning, glomming new ones in the process, but still remains close to the source: Sin’s “downfall” unmistakably suggests Lucifer’s fall and man’s degraded state.
No joke, then; no mistake; no exaggeration. Wordsmiths at the blast furnace, our amateur linguists who labor pro bono on Yelp, Twitter, and interminable comment threads may be right to complain. They say we’re in hell, and glad “nonetheless” that our punishment is “only” this bad, that it’s “only” a few degrees warmer, and it’s “only” just begun.
*Christian Marazzi, The Violence of Financial Capitalism, Kristina Lebedeva, trans. (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2010), 11. It is noteworthy that the later edition of the book, translated by Lebedeva and Jason Francis McGimsey, substitutes “downturns” for “downfalls” — a translation no doubt more grammatically accurate but less symptomatically true to the crisis of the writing. Indeed, the previous “error” might be said to be closer to the events the book reconstructs (the start of the Wall Street crash) as well as those of the author and his translator, both suffering its immediate aftermath. Accordingly, a truer historical account of the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis might be best pursued not in the field of economics but in close reading — specifically, close reading of significant errors, including the word “downfall.” What justifies this foray of literary analysis into the study of contemporary finance? We have seen that the word “downfall” is laden with an implicit knowledge of the socio-political conditions of the present. Further, grammatical errors, due to their dense overdetermination of meanings, are close to poetic expressions in their semantic complexity, and thus to artistic expression more generally. As a result, Argentine author César Aira’s theory of interpretation can be brought to bear on the socio-economic historiography of our recent past. Indeed, Aira’s theory of historical reconstruction, according to which “art … permits the reconstruction of the real-life circumstances from which it emerged” is the only theory capable of approaching the time-frame of financial trading, whose complex operations, like dreams, can occur in mere nanoseconds. In this way, interpretation can yield results a great deal more concrete than linguistic meanings and mathematical figures, even if the reconstructed “particles of reality,” in their increasing detail, tend ineluctably toward the impalpable. As Aira says, “The course of events that preceded the composition [of the work of art] can be deduced from the text, in ever greater detail, as one reads it over and over again. Perceptual data is recovered in this way, but also psychological binding elements, including memories, daydreams, oversights, uncertainties and even subliminal brain flashes. The treatment of the external conditions should be similarly inclusive: the succession can be progressively enriched with particles of reality, down to the subatomic level and beyond.” See César Aira, Varamo, Chris Andrews, trans. (New York: New Directions, 2012), 45, 44.
**See Colin Crouch, The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).
*** James B. Twitchell, cited in Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11.