Category Archives: knowledge

The Slaughter of Language

There are books/authors that mark a time of life. Of these, I would include Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet; D.H. Lawrence and Scott Fitzgerald; Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley, May Sinclair and a swag of other women writers who were published through The Women’s Press and Virago. The defining characteristic of books that exert a significant power at a particular time is that most of them cannot survive later readings. It is best – kinder – to leave them in their times.

Other books/authors traverse an entire lifetime. For me, these would include the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf (also Woolf’s letters and diaries), Proust, E.M. Forster, Maugham, Coleridge, Rilke. Life companions such as these are relevant no matter where you are on your life’s journeying. You read them over and over again. Each rereading is a new reading.

I first read George Steiner’s Language and Silencein 1971. It was a remarkable event. I was astonished and captivated by the ideas, dazzled by Steiner’s erudition, delighted and surprised by the richness of his language. And there was a sense of privilege too, that I, a twenty-year-old in Melbourne, Australia had access to something so extraordinary.

I have returned to Steiner many times through the years. I have read each book of his as it was published (Steiner is over 90 and is still working) and I have returned to several of them, but none so often as Language and Silence. Steiner is definitely one of my life’s companions, most especially through his Language and Silence.

I am a more critical reader these days than I was as a twenty-year-old, but still I find Language and Silence a compelling book; still I come away with the delight and appreciation and new understandings that have accompanied all my readings. This morning I reread the second essay in the collection, ‘The Retreat from the Word’. In this essay, from 1961, Steiner considers the dilution and shrinkage of language usage. He writes about modes of understanding other than linguistic, e.g. mathematical and musical, as well as the use of jargon. He is highly critical of the often quasi-scientific jargon in the humanities and social sciences. This jargon does not illuminate, rather it obscures. (Steiner’s essay was written before critical theory strangled the life out of the language, replacing it instead with deadly neologisms.)

Since the time of Shakespeare, common language usage has consistently shrunk. These days, all you need is a few hundred words to navigate the press, social media and everyday conversation. A few hundred more and you could probably get a PhD. We are like Moloch, killing off all that is most humanly precious.

In killing off the language, we also snuff out theorising and understanding and debate. The process has been accelerated with the doorstop interview and the 24-hour news cycle. It is impossible to get across a policy or a complex argument in 10 or 20 seconds; similarly, it is difficult to persuade people to shift from long-held attitudes and beliefs. Under present conditions, considered explanation and reasoned argument are jettisoned, and instead, our politicians and policy makers are resorting to emotional wrenching and obfuscation in the guise of euphemisms.*

Remember THE PACIFIC SOLUTION (nothing peaceful about it), and PEOPLE SMUGGLERS (at one stage mentioned ad nauseum, in contrast to desperate people seeking asylum who were hardly mentioned at all), and QUEUE JUMPERS and the MALAYSIAN SOLUTION. Now we have the absurd and almost incredible NEGATIVE GLOBALISATION (straight out of the Breitbart handbook), the tritely rhetorical HOW GOOD IS….?, and the just plain trite IF YOU HAVE A GO, YOU GET A GOWhile the current Prime Minister on his recent suck-up trip to the US was an embarrassment, his use of language is simply shameful. It’s as if he, and others like him, actually want the population – us – to be ignorant and stupid. Yes, our leaders are dumbing us down.

Back in 2012, and posted on this website, I wrote an article titled THE LANGUAGE OF LYING, about the way in which language was being defiled and squeezed of life. It is only 7 years ago, but with the dominance of social media and the prominence of Twitter as a means of spreading news at the expense of the traditional news; with a man in the White House who talks in tweets, who lies without compunction, and who never defends himself against criticism but rather attacks instead, and with several similar types in other parts of the world mimicking the supreme commander, language is truly in terminal decline.

In Australia, anyone under twenty and most people under thirty have never known life outside the digital age. It is hard to suffer the loss of something you’ve never known or experienced. Privacy, contemplation, personal responsibility, mental arithmetic and memory (to mention just a few human qualities and skills) are fast going the way of telephone boxes and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. And so too a language usage that is lithe, argumentative, subtle, persuasive, that feeds and expresses an active, hard-working intelligence.

How can we navigate our way through this complex, fast-paced world if we don’t have the language to perceive, to analyse, to understand what is going on? How can we change what needs to be changed if we cannot define it in the first place? How can we head into an uncertain future if our power to reason and understand, both vitally reliant on language, is crippled?

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*During the most recent election, Bill Shorten dropped his pre-fab zingers and decided instead to treat the electorate as capable and thoughtful. In the post-election analysis, however, it was decided that Shorten’s message was too complex, too over-whelming for the average Australian. (Is it like climate change? Have we passed the point of no return with our language usage and ability to consume ideas?)

I would argue against this analysis. Politicians need to work out other ways than the ten-second grab,\ to get ideas and policies across to the electorate. We need vision in our politicians, and we need skill. We need politicians who make us better citizens, and our country a better country, politicians who address the best in us, not our worst.

 

 

Gods, Power and Knowledge

Throughout human history we humans have created gods to help explain our existence. We look to these deities to give meaning to our circumstances, our actions, our past and future, our blessings and our sufferings. That these gods, with their immortality and their extraordinary powers, are often given human form is an interesting paradox: we create them because they are NOT like us, and yet we domesticate them by giving them our bodies and other human characteristics.

The Greeks set the barre high when it came to numbers of immortals. They had gods for almost all aspects of human existence: love, war, hearth and home, harvest and hunting, wine, fire, message delivery, wisdom, fertility, and much much more. The Egyptians put up a stiff competition, so, too, the Romans. Then came the Jews, and after them the Christians and Muslims who dispensed with all but a single omnipotent being – though the Christians with their Trinity might be thought to be having two bob each way.

The Greek gods, despite their immortality and godly powers, reveal a range of familiar human characteristics. They are jealous and envious, they lie and deceive, they love and hate, they play favourites, they protect and they bully, they can be shockingly violent and they can soothe and heal. What is fairly consistent across all the gods, and humans too, is that if they have power, they want to hold on to it, while those who are powerless strive to get it. The problem for both gods and humans is you can’t have it all. As Shelley so aptly wrote in his Prometheus Unbound:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Shelley’s verse drama, Prometheus Unbound, takes off where Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound finishes. Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy known as the Prometheia. While there are distinctive differences in the approaches taken by Aeschylus and Shelley, they both present a Zeus who is stubborn and violent and vindictive, and a Prometheus who is wise and generous, also inclined to stubbornness, but always humane. (In some versions of the story, Prometheus, one of the immortals himself, fashions the mortal humans out of clay. He is often referred to as the creator of humankind. It seems entirely apt, albeit anachronistic, to describe him as humane).

The story of Prometheus is shaped around the enduring conflict between those with power and those with curiosity; the authority of rulers on the one hand, and the free will of ordinary people on the other; the exercise of the intellect versus god-given laws. The story is also concerned with the power that comes with knowledge.

There are several different versions of the Prometheus story, but all versions agree that Prometheus defied Zeus by giving the pitiful, uncivilised mortals fire. The story is set at a time not long after the creation of the world out of chaos. The humans in these times were a wretched, barbaric underclass. Prometheus took pity on them. He taught them how to build shelters, how to sow crops, how to hunt. Zeus ordered that whatever help Prometheus gave, he was not to give the humans fire. Zeus knew that fire was an immensely powerful possession.

Prometheus disobeyed. He hunted out the source of fire and carried it to the humans, ‘And fire has proved/ For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.’ With fire the humans learned to make proper tools, to cook their meat, defeat cold and disease; fire enabled them to pursue science and culture.

Zeus was furious. He ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountainous crag, there to remain for all eternity, forced to suffer winds, ice and heat. And if this were not punishment enough, an eagle would attack every day and eat his liver; the liver would regenerate every night only to be attacked again come daybreak. Zeus, along with the ancient Greek dramatists could fashion highly imaginative violence.
Hephaestus, the god of fire, was ordered by Zeus to carry out the punishment. He didn’t want to do it, but like those at Nuremberg several thousand years later, he excused himself by saying he was only following orders. He acknowledged that ‘Power newly won [like Zeus’] is always harsh’ (line 31), but authority is authority and orders are orders. Hephaestus does what Zeus commanded him to do, and Prometheus is chained to the rock.


Prometheus defies the authority of Zeus and cops the punishment. But what is he being punished for? Is it because he disobeyed Zeus? Is it because he saved the human race (who might later constitute a threat to Zeus)? Is it because he exercised his own free will? Or is it because he gave the gift of knowledge to humankind and thereby empowered them? Or perhaps a combination of these possibilities? In which case, Prometheus’ actions resulted in multiple threats. (And there’s an additional element in this story that further threatens Zeus: Zeus knows that Prometheus holds the secret to his own eventual downfall.)
Similar themes percolate through the story of Adam and Eve, two more ‘first’ humans. Adam and Eve defy God’s authority by taking the apple from the tree of knowledge. Maybe they could have got away with a potato from the soil of stupidity – but not knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is power, wisdom even more so.

Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism: ‘a little Learning is a dang’rous Thing’. Knowledge as something radical, that threatens the status quo, pervades the Christian era. This belief is still prevalent today in certain religious sects.

With the rise of fundamentalist interpretations in Christianity, Judaism and Islam across the globe, more and more people are forfeiting their free will to authority. Fundamentalism is exactly that: a way of life based on certain finite fundamental beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentalism holds things in place while world events whizz past at an ever increasing rate. Fundamentalism holds the believer in place while others grapple with the uncertainties and demands of contemporary life. For true believers doubt does not exist – and what a relief that is. There is no need to question, because all the answers are already at hand. Reason, memory, individual and idiosyncratic attachments are all neutralised. Religious authority cannot be questioned, its laws are immutable. All is pre-determined. Knowledge beyond religious lore is unnecessary, wisdom is heresy. Followers feel safe. And yet from those on the outside, they appear to be enslaved.

The certainties of structured religion keep adherents ignorant. But for the believers, far from feeling ignorant, they possess the truth, they have all the answers. Anyone who has tried to have a discussion with a fundamentalist of any sort – and fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion, there are plenty of political fundamentalists to be found, as there are fundamentalists on certain social issues such as abortion – knows that they argue from a closed position where everything is self-evident. There can be no argument.
People often wonder about the continuing relevance of the Greek myths to we moderns. Prometheus demonstrates free will, wisdom and courage; he shows the power that comes with knowledge. An immortal himself, he teaches by example what humans can achieve with courage, with risk-taking, with taking a stand for what is right. Zeus, in contrast, is the fundamentalist preacher/Ayatollah/Rabbi shoring up power, building a compliant army of the faithful, who will obey their leader without question.

Followers like this will burn down villages, they’ll rape and maim women and children, they’ll set fire to abortion clinics. Followers of fundamentalism will feed their children breakfast, strap bombs to their waist, wrap them in warm coats and kill them before lunch – and not need to give it any thought at all.