Tag Archives: society

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)

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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

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The Meaning is the Question

[O]ne might refer without irony to man’s superior irrationality. Certainly human development exhibits a chronic disposition to error, mischief, disordered fantasy, hallucination, ‘original sin,’ and even socially organized and sanctified misbehavior, such as the practice of human sacrifice and legalized torture.
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (11)

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I love that excerpt from Lewis Mumford’s Myth of the Machine because it appeals to our myopic sense of superiority and then makes plain that, truly, it is our irrationality with which we maintain a clear lead. As I always say, if you’re not laughing—it’s just fucking depressing. I am not suggesting that Mumford’s book is a laugh-riot, only that he does have a certain level of wryness which he employs to point out many ridiculous qualities of the culturally induced assumptions that we seem to hold dear about ourselves.

For man to feel belittled, as so many now do, by the vastness of the universe or the interminable corridors of time is precisely like his being frightened by his own shadow (33).

Why? Because “time,” as we understand it, is a human construction—the vast universe cares nothing about the particular matrix we use to describe time. But this misunderstanding of how we see ourselves in relation to all else is at the heart of Mumford’s thesis. The myth is that human beings are foremost toolmakers, and machine makers—that our tools describe us better than any other measure, and therefore our tools are our only means of progress.

In short, if technical proficiency alone were sufficient to identify and foster intelligence, man was for long a laggard, compared with many other species. The consequences of this perception should be plain: namely, there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge (5).

We are so inured in the idea that our tools have been the formative objects of our human development we can hardly see that tools are merely the formative objects our our human history. It’s simply the story as we tell it. Just think of how we define the ages: the stone age, bronze age and, iron age without ever taking into account the more ephemeral aspects of our history—the greatest of which must be language. And what of our imaginative minds? our playful (and ernest)curiosity? which are elements without which we can not even begin to explain ourselves.

[F]or ninety-five percent of man’s existence, as Forde points out, man was dependent upon food-gathering for his daily nourishment. Under these conditions his exceptional curiosity, his ingenuity, his facility in learning, his retentive memory, were put to work and tested. Constantly picking and choosing, identifying, sampling, and exploring, watching over his young and caring for his own kind—all this did more to develop human intelligence than any intermittent chipping of tools could have done (101).

This book was first published in 1967, and so there were times when I felt it was, of course, dated—there seems to me much more consensus on these ideas by this point in time. But it is still well worth the read because what Mumford does is alter the reader’s perspective, and then shows other possible explanations for rituals, social organization, and onto the “magamachines” (his term) which are “composed solely of human parts.” Meaning our long history of kingships, priesthoods and bureaucracies that make these human machines (slavery, feudalism, serfdom, slave minimum-wages, debt-based societies) a necessity for their own existence: “forced poverty made possible forced labor” (206). The ritualization and moralization of work have long held sway and are forces that, in many ways, describes capitalism.

In sum, where capitalism prospered, it established three main canons for successful economic enterprise: the calculation of quantity, the observation and regimentation of time (‘Time is Money’), and the concentration on abstract pecuniary rewards. Its ultimate values—Power, Profit, Prestige—derive from these sources and all of them can be traced back, under the flimsiest of disguises, to the Pyramid Age (279).

What happens if one acknowledges that there may be something built into the power structure that gives us a propensity to view ourselves as inherently selfish and warlike beings, and that that may in fact, and very likely is, simply untrue? What is not, and never will be dated about Mumford’s work is that one must always question. Question our beliefs, question authority, question! That is our human gift.

Is intelligence alone, however purified and decontaminated, an adequate agent for doing justice to the needs and purpose of life? (288)

The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development
Lewis Mumford
London, Secker & Warburg, 1966

In League With the World

You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little.
-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (8)

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Divided into three parts: The World, The Flesh and The Devil, Death of the Heart is remarkable book . A society drama in the vein of Edith Wharton, the story centers itself cleverly on the journal of the young and innocent Portia.

“But Matchett, she meant to do good.”
“No, she meant to do right.”
(96)

Having just lost her father, quickly followed by her mother, the sixteen year old, Portia, goes to London to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna (also, the brother’s life long housekeeper, Matchett). Portia and Thomas’s father had made the unforgivable social faux pas of falling deeply in love with a woman other than his wife. When the other woman became pregnant, Thomas’s mother stoically and sacrificially insists that he marry the soon-to-be mother of Portia, thereby more or less exiling the indecorous (if happy) family to wander Europe until their ends.

“Sacrificers,” said Matchett “are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh,  the sacrificers, they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without.” (92)

Anna and Thomas are unhappily married to each other in that smooth cold manner that society generally facilitates so neatly. Anna suffered a serious heartbreak earlier in her life, which is never fully explained, but which warps and poisons her feelings towards Portia. Her heart, and its death, cast Portia’s innocence into a guileless search trying to make sense of the people around her.

In this [Daphne] was unlike Anna, who at a moment of tension let out oaths and obscenities with a helpless delicate air. Where Anna, for instance, would call a person a bitch, Daphne would call the person an old cat. Daphne’s person was sexy, her conversation irreproachably chaste. (188)

So delicious! I love the observations and keen insight Bowen displays – which is cleverly self-referenced in all the talk about keeping a journal. The act of Portia writing down her innocent, and therefore, perspicuous observations is taken as a near act of war. This novel was published in 1938, but the attention to female dispositions and attitudes is notable. Bowen’s descriptions of the various types of women that populate this novel are wonderful, down to the details of how they approach food, one “making a plunge for the marmalade,” (185) or some other fantastically illustrative sketch.

“If you were half as heartless as you make out, you would be an appallingly boring woman.” (318)

When the novel reaches its crisis it is Anna who while answering how she would feel if she were Portia, calls out the crux of the book. The cruel, crushing, corruption of one’s heart by societal mores….and for what?

“Boredom, oh such boredom, with a sort of secret society about nothing, keeping on making little signs to each other. Utter lack of desire to know what it is about. Wish that someone would blow a whistle and make the whole thing stop. Wish to have my own innings. Contempt for married people, keeping on playing up. Contempt for unmarried people, looking cautiously and touchy. Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling…”

To be handled with feeling…because the alternative, as the character of Anna proves, is certain death to the thing we most dearly cherish: our hearts.

*title from page 385: “Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

Waking Inclination

DSCI0016The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is-  there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.

The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)

The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.

Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.

He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)

There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story:  the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.

He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)

But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?

Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)

Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want.  When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:

He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)

He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.

He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)

*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.

Other books by Heinrich Boll:

18 Stories: Process of Elimination
What’s to Become of the Boy? : The Howling Void
Billiards at Half-Past Nine: Abscissa and Ordinate

A Pertinacious Azure

The part in each of us that we feel is different from other people is just the part that is rare, the part that makes our special value – and that is the very thing people try to suppress. They go on imitating. And yet they think they love life. 
– André Gide, The Immortalist

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The back flap of The Immortalist frames the story as one which is about a man’s struggle to live within the polite bounds of society: the “d” words out in force – dereliction, debauchery, debasement. And yet I found it much more subtle than that. I can see that in 1902 it would have stretched the faux-morals of the day, but in this day and age the actions of the protagonist Michel would be almost quaint. What makes it a good read, in fact, is that it is subtle. The more fundamental questions that torture are never so clearly defined as society at large would have us believe. We are immersed in our sea of grey reality wondering where the hell the clear blue is. 

‘What! You too Michel! But you didn’t begin by insulting me,’ said he. ‘Leave that nonsense to papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.’ (100)

The character Ménalque who makes the above declaration is a man that lives outside of society’s narrow and arbitrary strictures, and is quite comfortable. I kept waiting for Gide to let the “moralizing” begin, but, luckily, he doesn’t quite get there. Yes—there are punishments served up, but they are not real punishments, they are only Michel’s self-flagellating perception.

So it turns out he is anti-bourgeoisie- so what? I am a bit of a failed bourgeoisie myself, (I just don’t care enough for things or social ambition to bother)  so perhaps I am not the right person to be shocked by Michel’s histrionic  search for justification of tangible pleasures of the non-materialistic type. It is an exercise in depression for me to consider the way that societies encourage open lust for, say, the latest Apple electronic device, yet consider the desire for personal happiness (ye gads, not that!) to be a depraved selfishness or at best a cultural weakness.

I have a horror of rest, possessions encourage one to indulge in it, and there’s nothing like the security for making one fall asleep; I like life well enough to want to live it awake. (95) 

Much of the book is wrapped around the corporal experience. Michel suffers from tuberculosis, and the intensity of illness—of being forced into such close appreciation and dependence on one’s body alters his emotional state throughout his convalescence, recovery and subsequent role reversal when he must nurse his angel of a wife Marceline who contracts the dreaded disease as well.

‘I should like an explanation for your silence.’
‘I should like one myself.’ (95)

It’s Michel’s curiosity that propels him. His fear of feeling nothing, of giving into the malaise which society cultivates and needs in order to function smoothly falls away from him by an illness that produces a physical malaise which humiliates whatever put-upon mental inclinations that cling to him. He is fascinated by people that don’t  self-inflict what fills his soul with despair. He wants to live, to feel, if only he could run away from the idea that that is somehow wrong and bad- even though some of his studies are on the ignorant depraved side of things…but that’s life—complex.

Nothing is more discouraging to thought than this persistent azure. Enjoyment here follows so closely upon desire that effort is impossible. Here, in the midst of splendor and death, I feel the presence of happiness too close, the yielding to it too uniform. (157)

In the spirit of gross Colonialism (in this case French) they travel to Africa where Michel really discovers and indulges his senses in the…presumed looser morals of the natives. It’s that myopic idea that just because “your” people aren’t watching and scandalized, no one is. Not to mention ascribing ones own warped ideas onto a people in which there is very little true understanding. Never the less, if we substitute what is more true—that inner country of knowing, where the passions of the body and soul can meet—if we’d let them, then the point is well made. That is the persistent azure—and it endures.

‘One must allow people to be right,’ he used to say when he was insulted, ‘it consoles them for not being anything else.’  (91) 

*The Immortalist translated from French by Dorothy Bussy

Was it all for nothing?

“They’d drive you nuts,” said Mac. “Men are bad enough, but the bugs’d drive you nuts.” (327)
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle

DSCI0013Jim looked evenly at him. “Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work at a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you? Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except hatred,” Harry said quietly. “You’re going to be surprised when you see that you stop hating people. I don’t know why that is, but that’s what usually happens.” (12)

A few weeks back, probably more but no matter, I was having a fun discussion with my comrade blogger Tocksin. We were talking about Steinbeck and he mentioned that Steinbeck had written his books at a “fourth grade level,” as he had wanted them to be completely accessible to the masses. I have a son in the fourth grade, I didn’t think my boy would get through a Steinbeck novel, but I wondered if he would listen to one read aloud to him. Tocksin suggested that I read In Dubious Battle to him, and as I am highly susceptible to suggestion, I did.

Mac said sharply, “You think we’re too important, and this little bang-up is too important. If the thing blew up right now it’d be worth it. A lot of the guys’ve been believing this crap about the noble American workingman, an’ the partnership of capital and labor. A lot of them are straight now. They know how much capital thinks of ’em, and how quick capital would poison ’em like a bunch of ants.” (321)

My son really seemed to enjoy it. He liked the somewhat coarse language and tough talk, and after a few primers on geo-politics, political systems, and a brief history of worker’s rights, he got into the drama of the apple orchard strike. I think he liked the idea of a huge campout, and he bore  the protracted discussions of how to keep people engaged in a fight and the morals of instigating and agitating for a higher cause admirably well.

His knuckles were white, where he gasped the rail. “Comrades! He didn’t want nothing for himself—” (343)

Last night we came to the final chapter. We had a bet going on how it would end: would the strikers high tail it, or would they stay and fight for their rights? As I read, he snuggled close to me and every four pages or so I would ask the little head tucked between my arm and body, “Are you still awake?” “Yes!” he would assure me with a small measure of offense. In the end we both lost the bet, because Steinbeck does not finish that particular question, but those painful, frightening questions like:  was it worth it? was it all for nothing?- those are the questions that haunt.  What was it all for? Why did we ever start? I looked down at my son, and — heard him softly snoring.

“But do you think they’ve got brains enough to see it?”
“Not brains, Jim. It don’t take brains. After it’s all over the thing’ll go on working down inside of ’em. They’ll know it without thinking it out.” (322)

I think that’s true. We can’t know what sticks in our guts, or in our hearts. Perhaps it helps to be awake, but even so, it’s in there- and my dramatic retelling at the breakfast table was…entertaining as well. We can’t really see what the seeds we sow today will grow up to be, but all these sweet moments, and the hard ones too- they work down inside of us.

All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could

“What is optimism?” said Cacombo – “Alas!” said Candide, “it’s the mania of maintaining that all is well when one is wretched.” – Voltaire, Candide (19)

DSCI0011I am a big believer in the power of optimism to knock you on your ass. My brain is highly susceptible to positive thinking. I have a tendency to feel inexplicable reoccurring episodes of positivity. Over and over again with relentless purity. Still, each time the legs of the chair called optimism are cut out from under me – it hurts. Where, oh nascent psychology student, is the conditioned response?

“It’s a great pity,” said Candide, “that the wise Pangloss should have been hanged contrary to custom in an auto-da-fé; he would tell us wonderful things about the physical evil and the moral will that cover the land and sea, and I would feel enough strength in me to dare, respectfully, to make some objections.” (103)

I have some objections. Not least of all the “inspirational” “power of thinking” that leaves one feeling worse for having failed to positively think themselves out of a housing dilemma, low paying job, or sick family member.

“You are very harsh, ” said Candide.
“That’s because I have lived.” said Martin. (237)

Voltaire uses grotesque exaggeration to make his amusing point, but I think he would probably throw-up if he knew how much more ridiculous the cult of optimism has become. As much of a romp as it is to read Candide, I can’t help a creeping disgust at how depressing it is that things have changed so little. Whywhywhy?

“My fair lady,” replied Candide, “when you are in love, jealous, and whipped by the Inquisition you are beside yourself.” (69)

True, true. I will collect myself, Candide suffered far worse. I don’t think he would have chosen me as worthy of his pity. But he would have to forgive me for my Pangloss moment:

“I flatter myself,” said Pangloss, “that I might briefly discuss cause and effect with you, the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and pre-established harmony.”  At these words the dervish shut the door in their faces.

But wait! I really do. I, perhaps by sheer necessity, pursue Voltaire’s prescription to “tend to ones garden,” in other words: look to work to “keep away from us three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” (295) It is a good strategy. But why have the ability to think if that is the cause of the harm? I wonder about a philosophy, or strategy, however simple and “effective,” that at its root is avoidance of introspection; avoidance of contemplating the world as it is. Is a “work” ethic really so different in essence from prayer meditation positive thinking visualization incantation? Don’t they all just refocus the mind elsewhere? Of all methods, (could just be my absorbed Protestant mentality) I’d certainly go with work for the added benefits, but who among us doesn’t pause in their steps at moments and say – why? What’s so great about work? Nothing. It’s purpose and meaning that satisfy, if work provides that, then it fits the philosophy, if not- you didn’t work hard enough. Or at least work so hard that you didn’t have time to notice that boredom, vice and need are also forms of creative impetuous, and…interest.

If we don’t find a pleasant place, we will at least find new things.”(141)

Why can’t people make a cult of kindness? Be kind. That’s all. Of course, given the many men and women, far wiser than me, whom have espoused an ethic of kindness- some of whom have many a shrine built in their name – I am not optimistic.

I wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most baleful inclinations; for is there anything more foolish than to want to bear continually a burden that one steadily wants to throw to the ground? To hold one’s being in horror, and to cling to one’s being? In a word, to caress the snake that devours us until it has eaten our heart? (99)

*Voltaire’s Candide A Bilingual Edition translated and edited by Peter Gay
** Title from page 225