Tag Archives: culture

Language Is an Heirloom

One cannot understand their mode of existence as long as the differentiation of basic concepts such as nature and culture, societies and individuals is not counterbalanced by the qualification of their relationships, by instruments of synthesis. Language and knowledge are examples of the latter.
—Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory (131)


The Symbol Theory by Norbert Elias (1991) is a book that attempts to highlight the need to form an integrated theory that not only describes that thing we, as humans, do with sound-symbols, but more importantly describes the synthesis of knowledge, thoughts and language. Try, if you can, to separate any one from the other. It is not what we do with language, but rather, what language does to us.

The nature of language cannot be understood if one uses individual actions as a point of departure (20).

Elias makes a compelling case that the studies of linguistics, epistemology, and consciousness can in no way be separated. Without language how does one have thoughts? Without language, or sound-symbols, as he names it, how can one come to any realm of consciousness as we understand it? How can one have any sense of “knowledge?”

Human societies and human languages can change to an extent inaccessible to the societies and means of communication of apes. The structure of the latter is still largely genetically fixated or, in other words, species-specific (29).

And this is an interesting point. Beyond the individual level, as a species, apes (for instance) are only able to act on a species level—their language skills are species-specific and as such have limits of mutability, in that it varies very little from group to group and needs some sort of evolutionary change to leap over to the sort of language/knowledge complexity we enjoy. Humans, by virtue of our language which is not species-specific but rather societally-specific (in our Tower of Babel way) with the ability to grow, alter, expand or contract our “knowledge” of the world regardless of the actual sound-symbols (languages) we are employing, and with the ability to create anew at any instance, communication with another human. It is a factor worthy of a system of study.

Descartes, is based on a strange assumption which is rarely stated explicitly. It suggests that the cognitive functions of human beings developed initially on their own independently of a world to be recognized and that human beings having at first developed without object of cognition at some time, as it were by accident, entered an alien world. That, however, is a fable. Human beings have developed within a world (98).

For instance, I give you the photo I took this morning of a group of trees in the park. Our knowledge tells us that, in my part of the world, trees grow in dirt, not water, and yet, I can take the photo and relate to any English speaker in the world the events that caused these trees to be immersed in water (the power and glory of the storm last night! Thunder and lightening, pounding rain and surging water tables!) these are specificities  and temporalities that are lost without language. This knowledge means nothing without the power of language to communicate. But, Elias would go further, because, consider how it is we know, in the first place that trees mostly grow in dirt? The idea that we come into the world and learn to speak, as if language somehow stands outside of knowledge,  negates the accumulative effect of our history and culture. It sets up strange desperate “ologies” that, in truth, are utterly un-seperateable.

Concepts such as ‘nature’, ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are telling examples of the tendency to treat as separate entities set apart from each other problem fields at a high level of synthesis, symbolically represented by different substantives surrounded by a fog-like aura of ideological undertones (38).

This creates a sort of “intellectual apartheid” in which it is impossible to begin to understand what is it that makes us human. For Elias an important aspect is “by acquiring the skill of sending and receiving messages in the codified form of a social language, persons gain access to a dimension of the universe which is specifically human” (47) He goes on to say that this acts a a fifth dimension, because it is within the four dimensions of time and space that all species act, but our ability to communicate and identify ourselves through and because of our sound-symbols is a post-animal state of being.

There is nature, there is culture, there is knowledge, scientific or otherwise, there are politics, economics and the all-embracing symbols of language, but how they all cohere with each other is a question that is rarely asked and hardly ever answered (89).

But we can’t help ourselves. We want to know. We want absolute beginnings and we want discrete theories of our world and our place in it. Elias is sympathetic. His only point is that when we begin to consider just how unique and complex our sound-symbols are, then we can begin to see a theory evolve which may help us understand how we got here, and more importantly, give us the perspective to see that perhaps we are really at the beginning:

I like best the suggestion that our descendants, if humanity can survive the violence of our age, might consider us late barbarians. I am not indulging in reproaches. Humans have to go through a long period of learning how to live with each other in peace. Our uncertainty, our inability to eliminate violence, are part of this learning process. No teachers are at hand. Outside help, evidently, is not forthcoming (147).

*title from p.129


Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.


Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.