The Language of Crisis and the Crisis of Language

Law Of The Land

In the wake of social and political upheavals now spreading like wildfire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, we hear noble slogans and soothing words about the will of the people being expressed and their desire for democratization.  We find such sentiments slipping comfortably from the lips of Western politicians and splattered across the pages of our presses, as they seek to reassure us that this is just the natural longing of the human spirit to participate in our ideals of democracy and free markets.  There is a concerted effort on the part of our elites to paint these events as an endorsement of Western values and lifestyle.  But what exactly do these calming references to ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ denote coming from our elite?  And are the changes these diverse populations seek really consistent with the worldview and values of the West?  In light of these questions, it is appropriate to consider the role of language today, and particularly the challenge it poses with respect to the discomfort underlying current global upheavals.

In the slogans alluded to above, as is the case with much communication today, one might notice how there is quite a bit of talk but very little being said?  Well, it’s true. Language has been truncated, if not trivialized in the modern world, stripped bare of its depth and power. Where words once were heard as pregnant with signification, in our rationalized, digitized, and abridged vocabulary of the West all that has changed for the worst.  Now a strictly calculating and logistical principle holds sway. Words have been reduced to mere symbols in an equation, placeholders in a syllogism, each having a single unambiguously identifiable referent, and only one.  A must equal A, and it can never equal B; let alone A, B and C all together at once. There must only be one precise “signified” for each “signifier” – everything disambiguated – following both the formal demands of objective science and the legalistic requirements of hierarchical control.

But if you look back into the obscure and shadowy origins of language, you will find that before the written word there was only speaking, with oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. The written word emerging a little less than six thousand years ago, only fully appeared coincident with the birth of cities, with the organization of empires and their apparatus — with civilization and history. We began making history only when we began to write that history!

This was another momentous invention of domesticated life. With the birth of cities on the heels of big agriculture, it was necessary to develop uniform (if not abstract) systems of economic, social, and political control to handle the gathering together of diverse and unrelated village, clan and tribal members, now as urban strangers – within and well beyond the city walls. This demanded a severe change in the nature of human communication, including the removal of polysemic ambiguity inherent in primal speech, and the articulation of a strictly univocal, disambiguated, written code.

Such linguistic rationalization was only effected with the invention of the syllogism, early on perfected by the Greeks, and recast by scientists, legislators, and politicians down through the ages. According to syllogistic reasoning, universal statements were to be related to particular circumstances within a coherent structure leading to unambiguous legal and scientific conclusions. So it all came down to “precise words and correct syntax…that is where social laws [were] made and natural laws [were] made or discovered.” (Bram, The Recovery of the West)

But long before such sweeping linguistic changes took hold, our pre-historical speaking and proto-historical writing were much involved with myth. Passed on from originally oral sources, myth had a textural depth, ambiguity, and resonance that was still packed with meaning. Not only did the mythic word call up multiple referents, but also the copula between those diverse referents was extremely strong. To speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to experience its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. For a preliterate gatherer-hunter, to identify your totem was to become one with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.

Even revisiting one of the earliest known written languages, Old Kingdom Egyptian, one finds oneself immersed within a polysemous, poly-textural world whose non-alphabetic characters still bear this sort of weight and significance. Hieroglyphic writing retained almost as much multi-referential power as did the preliterate word of far-older, oral traditions. Hieroglyphs not only allowed of multiple meanings; they also embodied the power of the signifieds within the signifier, whether it was etched on a tablet, a sarcophagus, or the temple wall.

Such was the wealth, potency, and openness of primal tongues. Over millennia of civilization, these languages were destroyed, forced into univocity and impotence. Stripped of their resonant depth, words were flattened-out under the cold and calculating logic of imperial and imperious histories.  Words became slaves to the exacting requirements of syllogistic reasoning, eventually defining the direction of all civic life – social control grounded in rigid laws and specious principles artfully constructed to protect increasingly arrayed power hierarchies.

Chris Hedges has correctly noted that empires often communicate in two languages, one of imperatives and decrees, the other employing a gentler vocabulary of transcendent values and high-sounding ideals.  Yet, they both do violence and are controlling in their own right, leading ultimately to the same end – disempowering the body politic (“Recognizing the Language of Tyranny,” Berserk Magazine).  So just maybe in their hearts and in their ears, the peoples to our east have finally identified one source of their suffering — in the words they hear and the relentless assault of syllogisms that keep them enslaved within a language of violence.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the Egyptian people (or others) have rebelled against their regimes due to the loss of rich oral traditions.  Their burning issues likely have much more to do with their bellies than with their tongues.  But perhaps the political and economic deprivations imposed by such hierarchies have been masked by a linguistic straightjacket foisted upon citizens increasingly forced to live in a world made empty by the violence of the word as much as by threat of the sword.

A key catalyst of today’s “global crisis” may be found in this emptying out of language, leading inexorably to an emptying of human experience – a hollowness that finds its only fulfillment in the proliferation of novel distractions and diversions as they consume and ravage all available resources, leaving nothing of value in their wake.  Or perhaps, it finds solace only in rebellion.  It is worth considering especially in light of Hedges final warning about any “centralized power.”

American democracy [itself]… looks real even as the levers of power are in the hands of corporations… It too communicates in two distinct languages, that is until it does not have to, at which point it will be too late.

23 Responses to The Language of Crisis and the Crisis of Language

  1. jaiseli says:

    The beginning of insight in to the power – or the tyranny thereof – of both oral and written language, perhaps lies in the comparative element. Fluency in a second language, regardless of election or circumstance, provides intimate perceptions, especially by way of idiom, of man’s external understanding that transcends dialetic. This is just one example of why the participants of a dominant culture become subtley “dumbed-down” to dynamic reality that eventually overwhelms the immediate and mundane proximate social condition.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Jaiseli

      A very perceptive and profound observation on the tyranny of language and its tendency to objectification and reification. I believe this effect is especially pronounced in written language (particularly alphabetic ones) as opposed to oral traditions, which themselves have a strong element of fluidity built in, so to speak. It does seem that our long familiarity with a particular vocabulary to the exclusion of all others results in a “dumbing” effect, much like familiarity with our dominant culture restricts our ability to understand divergent cultural traditions. Thanks for posting. Perhaps you will give me some of your thoughts on one of my other posts here. sandy

      • StrayCat says:

        Jaiseli and Sandy, good thoughts. A study of a foreign language is an important discipline in gathering tools for greater understanding. Maybe that is understood by those in the scientism/religious/corporate hierarchy, as they are doing everything they can to eliminate foreign languages from the public schools. One can read Camus or St. Exupery in English over and over again and not get the fundament of their writings. Hegel does not translate well into English, maybe because the German noun aggregates have more flexibility than ours. I don’t know. But having only one language is certainly a contribution to being one dimensional people.

  2. troutsky says:

    Are you arguing for the poetic, lyrical celebration of tension within language? I am probably hopelessly Westernized in my desire for a sphere which is poetic and heart based for some kinds of discourse but also for one with precise definitions, centered in the intellect, for other spheres such as production. ( even politics, I think) I’ll have to think about that. Interesting.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Troutsky

      Thanks for joining in. I think it is important to understand the continuous refinement (truncation) language has undergone in the service of hierarchical systems – science, politics, and religion. Language is now increasingly focused on the control of nature, society, human energy. In this regard language is now used as a tool of violence against the body politic, whether used by evident dictators and autocrats, or, perhaps more importantly, by free-market liberal democratic capitalists (Repubs or Dems alike).

      The language of the syllogism (of rhetoric) is a language of control. It is enslaving and dehumanizing. It is used by politicians to create and maintain loyalty to that Spectacle… to which you refer so frequently. It does its violence by stripping the individual of her real location/placement/integration within the world around her, and making her dependent upon the artificial systems of control.

      • jaiseli says:

        Being a man without formal education but ever seeking greater discernment, your thoughts on the efficacy/evil of neural linguistics would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Nasim says:

    Language certainly has been the primary tool for all of this but the actor of course is humans under the duress of the human condition. English as the most mechanical and abstract of languages is the most powerful. I believe this is also why music is the most powerful art emotionally in english speaking countries as it fills the void created by the separation of language from emotion. In oral traditions both functions can be filled together.

    • kulturcritic says:

      English is the most rigorous in creating divisions, and cutting up the world into so many independent pieces. It is the basis of modern scientific method, and the most elaborate in terms of detailing discrete processes and events. And it seems to occupy a unique place among the worlds languages for abstraction and lack of emotional integration. And you may be correct as to why, then, music is the strongest of all art forms in America — much more so than literature, sculpture, painting, poetry. It does seem to fill an emotionally integrating void.

      The remaining question is, to what degree can we create a social order that integrates with the natural world if all we can do is act under the conditions of our current language traditions, traditions erected to dissect the world, and liberate us from it in order to control it and one another?

      • jaiseli says:

        Some languages, such as Chinese and Thai, have a uniquely melodious element wherein the musically similar tonals even dictate meaning providing an experience that is inherently more emotional as well as intellectual. Ezra Pound forever!

  4. kulturcritic says:

    jaiseli – I do not know much about neuro-linguistic programming to respond intelligently to your question. I suspect there is some good information on the Internet that you could explore.

    Fascinating about your suggestions regarding the melodious and inherently more emotional elements of languages like Chinese and Thai. I feel similarly about Russian, where I spend the bulk of my time with my wife’s family in central Siberia.

    • jaiseli says:

      With regard to the neural linguistic inquiry, I was just interested to know if you had any personal thoughts or observations. I have been investigating its efficacy/evil via the “Gutenburg 2.gazillion” – time permitting while on-going exit/survival preparations take precedence. Are you familiar with the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Edward Bernays? If so, I would be eager to read any/all comment you may be willing to provide that it may “nourish my insatiable quest for greater discernment”. After all, by your own declaration, so you are the professor to which I “AFV” (accept for value) – without prejudice. (smile)

      I was unaware that the Russian language also has a tonal construct.
      In the Thai language, the simple single-syllable oral component of “cao”
      has at least four basic but very divergent meanings dependent entirely upon tone: falling tone = information/news, high tone = rice, rising tone = 3rd person impersonal pronoun, exclamatory tone = enter into.
      A similar example in Russian would be appreciated.

      I find the disclosure of your habitation curiously interesting and more understandable than you may possibly yet know. It appears that the yahweh elohim Creator has greatly blessed you with, in addition to noteworthy academic achievement, a unique discernment at least partially attributable to an alternate cultural immersion in a nation-state that appears not yet to be directly under thumb of the Zionist bankster-controlled, Anglo-American currency/war machine being conducted principally from the City of London, Washington District of Criminals, New York City, Vatican and Israel. Knowledge of your aforementioned choice of habitation, academic discipline, literary contributions and what appears to be an active commentary on Kunstler’s site, naturally leads me to some interesting preliminary speculations.
      Even though your environs are way to nippy for this thin-blooded Phoenician, I hope this finds your and yours comfortably cozy in this winter of unusual “anthropogenic global warming” – later renamed “climate change” – and eager to participate in a carbon tax to the hilarity of the Global Government Goons.

      • kulturcritic says:

        jaiseli

        I don’t have a Russian example, because it is not quite the same issue with Russian.. i.e., a matter of tonal adjustment. Although there is more compression and emotive force, IMHO, to the Russian language, than there is in English, for example. There are no articles, many more types of conjunctions, truncated everyday expressions, and much of the talking an understanding involves grasping the context of discussion.

        Here is an interesting link someone just shared with me, might be relevant to your concerns on NLP (neurolinguisitc programming).
        http://www.inteco.cl/articulos/006/doc_ing2.htm

        And yes, I do find Siberia to be a bit far off the regular map; I like it here; there is a sick sweetness to being the outsider, and also for being less under the thumb of the usual dictators of modern militaristic-consumer culture

  5. Nasim says:

    Interestingly enough I think one of the best but most difficult things we can do in relation to language is to relax our spelling and grammar. This is especially difficult for those of us who were heavily conditioned in the school system. Certainly the proliferation of dialects and spellings perpetrated by the young is finding it’s way quickly and deeply into everyday life. This breakdown of traditional structure forces the reader into a more imaginative and less literal frame of mind. The use of emoticons takes us even further towards a hieroglyphic regression.

    how R u? ❤

    • kulturcritic says:

      Interesting thought, Nasim. That is what I was referring to with Russian, lack of article, more conjunctions, less structure in sentences. More fluid in many respects. I M gr8! ;-D

  6. Pingback: The Language of Crisis and The Crisis of Language | kulturcritic

  7. Straycat says:

    The problem with the newer English dialects of the young is that they tend toward a bare simplicity, without texture. As a nation, or even as a group of American/European countries, we have dropped the subjunctive instead of modernizing the verb forms that were so complex and tied to the old english syntax. We have decided that adverbs are too hard to say, and thus substituted the adjective in its place. As you point out, denotation is de rigeur , and connotation and context are avoided. Indirect objects are replaced with chopped sentences, and references, at least on the television are so indefinite that they invite solipsistic conclusions in the listener.
    However, I submit that more complexity and a return to the richness of English, whether by moving through this present linguistic wasteland to another renaissance or a return to pre 70’s language usage is critical to any increase in thinking ability among people. Fast food, fast info, fast living is at least one cause of this bleak situation. Our predator/rulers want to keep us too busy surviving to take the time to think. And the teaching of reading has been segmented into bits of tasks, sucking out the joy and peace that comes from letting your mind enter the book and the mind of the author. Much of the oral tradition and presence that you found in the oral tradition existed in the poetry, theater, and writings that were produced as late as the fifties. While some is created even today, Gresham’s law and laziness is driving it out. However, while the oral traditions, with the immediacy and merging of sginifier and signified are not necessary as Shakespeare demonstrated. The counterculture must lead by small steps, for listening and learning are hard work, and life is too easy for many.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Straycat, thank you for some much needed input from someone who sees the complexity and intertwining of these problems.

      And they (the predator/rulers) also want to keep us locked on the treadmill of unilinear time, running to its speedy conclusions. That may be the reason for fast living, and fast food… the clock is ticking, and time is money. Progress can’t wait. Better make something of yourself (i.e., make something FOR US) before you die!

  8. Straycat says:

    I am rereading your essays, and the comments. I do this because I think that the fundamentals of your inquiry are important to understanding social superstructures, by which I mean the scaffolding upon which the ruler/predators hang their sophistic feather boas. In the history of the development of modern American English, I find a freedom of expression, and a subtle and rich vocabulary and syntax. The teutonic forms and words impart a very different feel and message than the Norman French additions, and the direct Latin offerings are different again. Therefor, I have difficulty accepting your assertion that “English is the most rigorous in creating divisions, and cutting up the world into so many independent pieces. It is the basis of modern scientific method, and the most elaborate in terms of detailing discrete processes and events.” French and, for a longer period of time, German were the languages of the scientific method. However, in whatever language scientific discussions were held, specific “jargon” was developed, with an attempt at specificity, so that linguistic communication could transmit thoughts that contained mathematical statements. However, these developments did not enter the common language, except in bits and pieces, have contributed some, but a small part in the sophistic rhetoric of modern politics, journalism and economics. I suggest that one can trace the doublethink of today, and the empty chatter one hears on TV and in daily life to, first, the success of positivist legal and ethical thought into the popular realm as it has become so popular in academia and the legal profession. The notion that ethical and moral statements are nonsensical has led to a widespread feeling (it seldom rises to the level of actual thinking) that morals and ethics are irrelevant to modern life, and that success alone is the measure of a person, a corporation or a government. Means become murky, unseen and, as we see in the latest behavior of our governments institutions as it deals with the wide and deep fraud committed by the banks, by the securities industry and by their regulators, irrelevant to the success of the corporations. Similarly, the idea of moral or ethical substance is absent from personal decision making and conduct. “Whatever it takes”; “Winning is everything” and similar statements reflect a society, both American and European, that shrugs at drugs in sports, obvious criminality in financial matters, and the dearth of any value in the “media” of public discussion. We have devolved into a period where the “media” is no longer a medium, but is the substance. Thus, the media has stolen our ability to communicate and discuss matters of import by being no longer media, but Res. We are reduced to facebook, half hour news productions that spend time on the silliness of TV characters, and omit reporting on the world outside New York and Hollywood.
    This set of circumstances, however, is not the fault of language or its limitations, but upon the failure of our “illiteratti” to actually use the language. Further, the syllogism is one very limited, though exceedingly important, use of language, and there remains large areas of reason apart from the purely logical statements that have lifted us out of religious and superstitious mudholes to a way of understanding the world from a rational perspective.
    It is our journalists, sports figures, politicians and economists that have used the language of uncertainty where matter are clear, and asserted clarity where matters are contingent and complicated that leaves us where we are today. The battle is, in part over language, but it is for the use of language in all its honesty, and clarity that it offers. My fear is that our undereducated, infantilized younger generations, and those of the older ones who wish to “succeed” are unable to think because they cannot write, and are unable to spend the time necessary to read as they seek the next shiny, sexy experience.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Wow – excellent insights Straycat.

      There is little here for me to disagree with. But I might take issue with a few minor points just to keep things interesting, OK?

      With respect to (post Old Kingdom Egyptian) written languages, and English specifically: there is hierarchization inherent the written word, as demonstrated by the semantic, syntactic, and logistic “levels.”

      In our literate world you will find an increasing level of univocity at the semantic level (one word = one meaning: emptying out of the fullness of the word); a highly ordered syntactic level (here is where English excels), there is a prescribed ordering of each sentence (S-V-O) structurally to denote specific and well controlled meaning; a strongly ordered logistic; hypotactic narrative structure, with complex subordination (hierarchization) of all semiotic elements. This entire framework reifies and is reified by the syllogistic, unilinear time model we have concurrently established, while creating differentiating attention, contestual behaviors, and problem-solving discourses regarding “nature,” people and other objects. This is the foundation of the causal thinking behind the natural, social, and human sciences, a mode of thinking that has led us to this precipice.

      Anyway, just some thoughts to reflect upon.

  9. Disaffected says:

    In my experience, American fundamentalist Christianity has been particularly affected by the notion of language, and by extension, thought itself, as a strictly literal and precision exercise (What would you expect from a system that holds that saying or even thinking certain words can lead to eternal damnation?). I was brought up in a fundamentalist environment and rejected – rather pointedly! – at an early age their literal interpretation of what I clearly saw from the time I was old enough to know better, as little more than I child’s tale.

    I mellowed over the years, and even attempted to reach out occasionally after studying the writings of Joseph Campbell, all to know avail. I now avoid the discussion of religion assiduously, especially with the “born again” crowd, but if the subject comes up, as it inevitably does from time to time, and one of them launches into one of their inevitable “sermons,” I immediately shut down the conversation by whatever means necessary and clear the area. Literalistic fundamentalists of whatever religious and/or intellectual persuasion are by definition THE MOST unreasonable people currently drawing breath, and are to be avoided at all costs.

    I might add, it’s no mystery to me why conservative Republicans are allied with fundamentalist Christians. They’re both cut from the same dogmatic, literalistic bolt of cloth. That’s also why the US leans decidedly right and Christian. Regardless of the merits of their beliefs, they simply believe them more strongly and passionately than those of us with more moderate and balanced beliefs (rightly or wrongly, labeled as “liberals,” whether the shoe fits or not). And one thing religion does have right, is that passionate belief in anything by groups of people with a common purpose, does indeed move mountains.

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