The Language of Decline

by Fergus Downie (November 2012)

The Medium is the Message

                        -  Marshall McLuhan

That intellectuals have a greater influence than is commonly allowed for, is a fact attested to by the staple vocabulary of people who spend little time around books. If anyone doubted it, they need only expose themselves to an episode of the Jeremy Kyle show (Americans may be surprised to learn the UK has produced something more vulgar than Jerry Springer) or any other outlet of prole porn and listen to the Freudian psychobabble so effortlessly spouted by its degraded participants. That they ingest the words without the theory does not make the influence less profound; words shape thoughts and thoughts as Nietzsche observed are the greatest deeds.

This intrinsically political feature of language notwithstanding, it has been contested with remarkable lethargy by the Right, and the price has not been cheap. Much of the transformation in our social and moral attitudes is attributable to this inability to identify the real priorities. In retrospect the ephemeral resurgence of political conservatism in the eighties was a pyrrhic victory outweighed by a more profound victory for the Left in the culture wars. It was during the Thatcher-Reagan era that the spurious fads of New Literacy and deconstructionism entrenched themselves in educational bureaucracies and arts faculties, and the ease with which this Long March was completed owes much to the New Rights fetishisation of market economics, and the supplanting of the conservative disposition by a militant ideological liberalism. This was a malady present on both sides of the Atlantic but in America the auto destructive tendencies of liberal individualism have been softened by a uniquely successful experiment in God building[1]. It is not through the sober calculations of utility that the values of political freedom are cherished and renewed across generations but through a sublimated religiosity which has transformed an ideology into the living faith of American exceptionalism[2].

Little of this Straussian logic surfaced in the free market ideology of Thatcherism, which was thus destined to live off the social capital it was simultaneously depleting. Her invocation of Victorian values notwithstanding, Margaret Thatcher possessed little of their sense that the invisible hand actually rested on a shared notion of the common good which could not in itself rest on market principles. Her famous suggestion that there is no such thing as society is, to be fair, frequently taken out of context, but it serves nevertheless as a useful metaphor for the creed. When her disciples tried to articulate a political vision, it quickly degenerated into the market metaphors of classical utilitarianism, and was unsparing of the little platoons and traditional institutions which had been the building blocks of the conservative social vision. The symmetry of all this with the agenda of Marxism is often overlooked. For Marx the revolution would be brought forward by a bourgeoisie which was driven remorselessly to cannibalize the moral foundations of its own society, and the most striking passage in the Communist manifesto relates to the self-destructive tendencies of unfettered capitalism.

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx’s timing, famously, was off, but it is worth bearing in mind that no true conservative would dissent from these words, which could just as easily have been written by Edmund Burke or Thomas Carlyle. The comical prudery of the Victorians was in itself simply a manifestation of this fear that without the moral self-discipline provided by nonconformist Christianity the character building effects of the market would simply dissolve into the conditions of  license and incipient social breakdown which had characterized the pre-Victorian era ( the Marxist historian E.P.Thompson famously suggested that Methodism, characterized picturesquely as a form of psychic masturbation had saved England from revolution) In replacing conservatism with a de-moralized liberalism, the Right simply created the year Zero which Marxists were eager to build upon. T.S. Eliot had noted these crisis ridden tendencies of an ideological liberalism decades earlier and his prognosis has been more than vindicated by future events

By destroying traditional social habits of a people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its own chaos.

As Jonathon Saachs has noted in a particularly penetrating observation, it is no accident that demoralization conveys both a loss of meaning and a loss of power, a deficit strongly manifested in everyday language. The classic example of this is the increasing resort to therapeutic idioms in describing what were once regarded as routine existential experiences. Describing his encounters with his patients over the years, Theodore Dalrymple noted that fewer than ever confessed to feeling unhappy but countless individuals volunteered a self-diagnosis of depression; a semantic shift which conveys a real deterioration in the quality of human aspiration; the travails of life itself rendered a pathology which it is the responsibility of medical practitioners to alleviate.

Langauge changes as social attitudes change to be sure, but the same is true in reverse. To suppose otherwise is to make the mistake Michael Oakeshott identified of assuming there is a transcendental ‘mind’ existing independently of the thought and traditions which are nurtured and transmitted through language. Debase the latter and you corrode the former. That this should prove so attractive to the modern Left is hardly surprising. Language has a profoundly sacramental function in renewing a citizen’s attachment to his country’s traditions, and an attachment to a literary heritage has historically been a powerful aesthetic dimension of patriotism[3]. What better project for the revolutionary Left than to sever this root and drag the sublime into the dust through a coarsening of the imagination.

For a past generation of Marxist thinkers the prestige of high culture was axiomatic; George Lukacs as convinced as T.S. Elliot that a mastery of Great Books was a necessary antidote to the power of advertising and the shiny barbarism of modern consumer capitalism, but this respect for the literary canon did not survive the counter-culture’s onslaught on dead white European males. Most self-consciously left-wing intellectuals in the culture wars take their cue from John Dewey for whom the destruction of high culture was the necessary prelude to the triumph of socialism, a crusade which would begin in the school system by the virtual dismantling of literacy. The effects of this erosion of a literary culture were predictable; a mass of deracinated consumers delivered up to the shallow stimulated sensations of an ersatz mass culture. It is often enough remarked that the Left won the cultural arguments and the Right the economic ones. What is less often noted is that this has been an optimal outcome for capitalism.

The most astute political manipulator of language in recent times has been New Labour, a linguistic slogan in itself, whose proclivity for Orwellian language is something of an academic phenomenon. Norman Fairclough’s New Labour, New Language is required reading for anyone who doubts the importance of language in redefining the political terrain, and its most interesting observations relate to the cultivation of doublethink. In 1984 the citizens of Oceania maintained their psychic equilibrium, and the regime’s legitimacy, through the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in their minds simultaneously, and the formulas used by New Labour to frame policy agendas followed much the same logic. Whereas conviction politicians like Thatcher used a polemical language which tended to identify an adversary, Blair adopted a rhetorical style which dissolved these conflicts in slippery neologisms. ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’: a transparent attempt to sound populist whilst endorsing the bien pensant prejudices of left wing criminology is one of the more well known clichés to emerge from this debasement of the vernacular, and it belongs squarely in the tradition of Left-wing persuasive definitions alongside such hopeful formulations as ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘socialist legality’[4].

One should not push the parallel too far. Nineties Britain was never East Germany but this trimming of the critical potential of language is not a trivial matter either. In 1984 Winston Smith worked alongside the Newspeak philologist Syme who spent his time destroying words in the earnest anticipation that thoughtcrime would in time be impossible to express.

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?... Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed in one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already in the Eleventh edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will go on long after you and I are dead. Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a bit smaller.

Orwell was right about the risk, but Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World had a more realistic grasp of the mechanism. In a candy floss culture, the boot stamping on a man’s face is superfluous; we carry out this feat simply by conniving in the dumbing down of our culture. The result is that increasingly we have words where thoughts should be, and once critical habits of thought are lost they are almost impossible to recover. Culture death in these times is heralded by a chorus of moronic incantations. Once you get to Yes We Can, the game is probably up.

Many of Fairclough’s observations were already chronicled in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man where a one dimensional language defined the limits of a one dimensional social existence. His animus was focused overwhelmingly on its anti-historical nature. Positivist language, with its ‘frozen predicates’ tended to exhaust the meaning of concepts in a precisely defined usage and thus hinder the development of the kind of historical consciousness which would equip men to ‘discover the facts which made the facts’[5]. This preoccupation with the genealogy of words, severed from any residual traces of Enlightenment humanism, was to be picked up by a later generation of postmodernists with baleful effects.

The context to this notorious descent into word play is well known. Western philosophy had traditionally been preoccupied with the epistemic problem of representation, and the cruder linguistic theories of the Enlightenment tended to see language as a neutral instrument for designating external objects. Condilac, for example, believed language reflected the structure of thought, which in turn was the simple epiphenomenon of sensory impressions, but this crude empiricism could not survive developments in modern linguistics. After Ferdinand Saussure no one could seriously maintain that language ‘mirrored’ reality and if language was, to the contrary, a structure of signs, the question inevitably arose as to what justified its conventions and implicit authority. Postmodern philosophy is largely a series of badly written footnotes to Nietzsche, and for him the obvious answer, arbitrary power, posed no ethical dilemmas. It was after all the ability of the Ubermensch to impose meaning in a world where there were no objective standards which proved his superiority to the Last Man. For a later generation of cultural Marxists this insight that power was the ultimate arbiter of any consensus opened up grand new vistas for Gramsci’s project.

One of the most influential applications was the sociolinguistics pioneered by Basil Bernstein whose famous distinction between elaborated and restricted speech codes gave left wing teachers a powerful catechism to guide them in their long march through the institutions. Studying the speech patterns of working and middle children in East London, the birthplace of ‘slum missionary’ sociology, Bernstein made some pretty banal observations on their contrasting vocabularies. In the intimate settings of close-knit communities he observed that working class communities operated a restricted speech code, characterized by informality and a greater dependence on implicit preunderstandings, whereas the middle class, being more culturally and socially mobile, were bound to have a greater proficiency in the elaborated codes which prevailed in the school system and public-institutional settings. Bernstein was at pains to insist the restricted speech code was not inferior; it simply reflected the differing patterns of socialization; but he could not ignore the inevitable head start it gave middle class children in a credentialed society. To sensible people the conclusion to have drawn from the distinction between the two codes was obvious enough – in an impersonal, increasingly knowledge based economy where communication is necessary in a universal idiom, all children needed to master an elaborated code, and this meant in the first instance mastering grammar. With Dewey’s disastrous theories on child-centred learning already entrenched in teacher training colleges the latter objective was already wishful thinking, and to the apostles of the New Literacy this residue of the elaborate speech codes was an instrument of bourgeois hegemony which needed to be challenged. The self esteem of pupils was now the key priority and it was to be massaged by a deprecation of accepted canons of literacy[6]. Against all reason, and armed with the leaden phrases of a new Marxisant doctrine, Bernstein’s humdrum observations became the cutting edge of teacher training orthodoxy

Conceived gravely, as a moral and ideological effort to ‘remedy social injustice’ perpetuated against working class students, the New Literacy movement was diametrically opposed to ‘any notion of a literacy which is defined as the ability to perform at a certain level on a standardised test and which asks education for preparation and practice in that ability’ – i.e. teaching them how to read and write. This awful prose meanwhile provided a worrying portent of trouble to come[7]. If teachers could talk like this how much worse could it get lower down the food chain? The first hand effects of this shift against phonetics and towards fuzzy child-centred learning are humorously chronicled by Michael Collins in The Likes of Us, but the social effects of this attempt to make the proletariat unfit for capitalism are deadly serious. In 2012 something like 20 per cent of schoolchildren are classed as functionally illiterate, with all the consequences this entails in a sophisticated post-industrial economy[8]. At the time that this de haut en bas contempt dressed up as compassion gained the upper hand in the education system, Britain’s simultaneous de-industrialisation was also removing the employers of last resort for illiterates, and all this when the cold logic of meritocracy was robbing manual labour of its élan. This is a cruel betrayal by any standards.

The clinging to such easily refuted theories, against all the evidence, raises real questions about the hidden motivations underpinning the ideologies. With Bernstein there was plenty evidence of the narcissistic ressentiment that Joseph Conrad divined in all would be revolutionaries, and the latter have certainly gone to remarkable lengths to exempt their own works from the relentless psychologizing that they apply to their opponents (Theodore Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality a case in point). If ‘genealogical subversion’ is the favoured strategy of postmodernist philosophers, for instance, they have taken care to exempt their own philosophies from the Law of Base Motivations. None have been keen to ‘deconstruct’ postmodernism and this is just as well, for it fares far worse than the bourgeois straw men upon which this technique is usually sharpened.

The roots of postmodernism in the disintegrating civic impulses of Vichy are well known. No serious French intellectual believed Vichy was a shield protecting France from the greater evils of the Germans, and all have had to contend with the fact that during the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, the French state hastily volunteered Jewish children for the Final Solution, when even the Gestapo had not asked for this gruesome tribute. Post-war France had more than a few bad memories to repress and it is difficult not to see in its preoccupation with the arbitrariness of meaning, a symptom of the will to non-knowledge suggested by Richard Wolin; its grammatology a ready made epistemic crutch to obscure the significance of wartime complicities. In the case of deconstructionism, the most tediously obscure postmodernist cult, this suggestion gains extra credence when we consider the revelations surrounding Paul de Man’s shady wartime collaboration. His torrid articles on the perfidious Jew were perhaps not quite as bad as Heidegger’s post-Stalingrad ramblings but they beg a question; is deconstructionism anything more than the false consciousness of Vichy?[9] Orwell’s observations on the possible motives for linguistic convolution are suggestive.

When there is a conflict between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

And how could any deconstructionist respond except perhaps thus?

The dative or vocative dimension which opens the original dimension of language, cannot lend itself to inclusion in and modification by the accusative or attributive dimension of the object without violence. Language, therefore, cannot make its own possibility a totality and include within itself it own origin or own end.

When you make a cult of this kind of indulgent tripe, there is plenty of space to bury an egregious nihilism. The above quote by Derrida, the archpriest of this nonsense clearly does not make any grammatical sense but what he is arguing for, in so far as he is able to escape the trap of non-meaning to which all bar perhaps a few French postmodernists are subject to, is the position that language is impotent without violence. Anyone even attempting to wade through Derrida’s dense works does not have to turn many pages before realizing violence is the central organizing principle. Meaning in western civilization is dominated by a ‘violent hierarchy’ of binary oppositions in which one term governs the meaning of the other – Derrida contriving to make the surreal point that a black/white binary opposition creates the devalued ‘other’ of African-Americans and is responsible for the entire ideological superstructure of American racism. This banalisation of violence, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, is one of the most insidious linguistic sleights of hand committed by deconstructionists and it has an obvious utility. If violence is everywhere; ‘structural’; to use the favoured Marxisant parlance; the special opprobrium reserved for unique episodes of barbarism is diminished. In the new moral dispensation the barbarism of McDonalds jostles with the Holocaust as the epitome of evil. One can see why some would want to believe this and the appeal of this amoral cynicism to American academia is understandable. As Eric Hoeffer lamented, in no other country do the educated classes possess such an immeasurable loathing of their own country than in the USA. Deconstructionism is the perfect vehicle for these ingrained feelings of misanthropy towards their fellow citizens, and the Left’s visceral estrangement from its host society has generated a peculiar weakness for the kind of puerile provocations and smutty language which anyone prepared to force themselves through a few pages of Andrea Dworkin’s drivel can sample with ease; Piss Christ erected into a system of philosophy with legions of slobbering acolytes.

France outgrew deconstructionism largely because of the survival of Marxism as a secular cult, and if a nation is to have an overwhelmingly leftist intelligentsia there is maybe something to be said for inculcating such an orthodoxy. It is at least capable of generating a healthy antithesis (where would neo-conservatism be without this finishing school?), and it might at the very least have its epitaph written by more elegant hands.

[1] The origin of this Marxist heresy lies in Feuerbach’s religion of humanity which attempted to appropriate the emotional intensity of religion in the service of secular ideals. I’m using the term ironically but it is noteworthy that ex-Marxist neo-conservatives should seek to leaven their secular creed with Christian fundamentalist fervor.

[2] Shatov’s words in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed, could have been spoken with the USA in mind.

If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people. A really great people can never accept a secondary part in the history of Humanity, nor even one of the first, but will have the first part.

[3] As Edmund Burke put it ‘for us to love our country our country must be lovely’ Reflections

[4] The term is usually attributed  to the philosopher C.L.Stevenson and refers to a form of definition which purports to describe the 'true' or 'commonly accepted' meaning of a term, while in reality substituting it with an uncommon or altered use.

[5] Some things are best buried in footnotes. The following agonizing excerpt is the simplest way Marcuse could find to convey the point. This verbosity is no doubt the price of genius.

In this behavioral universe, words and concepts tend to coincide; or rather the concept tends to be absorbed by the word. The former has no other content than that designated by the word in the publicized and standardized usage, and the word is expected to have no other response than the publicized and standardized behavior (reaction). The word becomes cliché and, as cliché, governs the speech or the writing; the communication thus precludes genuine development of meaning.

To be sure, any language contains innumerable terms which do not require development of their meaning, such as the terms designating the objects and implements of daily life, visible nature, vital needs and wants. These terms are generally understood so that their mere appearance produces a response (linguistic or operational) adequate to the pragmatic context in which they are spoken.

The situation is very different with respect to terms which denote things or occurrences beyond this noncontroversial context. Here, the functionalization of language expresses an abridgement of meaning which has a political connotation.  (emphasis added)

One Dimensional Man

[6] Much the same silliness is evident in theories of supposedly authentic ‘black’ speech patterns amongst African-American schoolchildren, in reality, as Thomas Sowell has shown, derivations from a dysfunctional white ‘cracker’ culture.

[7] This is not a misquote of the words of Margaret Mathieson, a British New Literacy guru, of evident literary flair.

[8] Source is the impeccably Left-leaning Sutton Trust.

[9] Though the acknowledged inspiration for French deconstructionism, De Man himself hailed from Belgium, an occupied country with an even worse record than Petainist France. Over 400,000 Belgians were investigated for collaboration after the war, a subject largely glossed over in Flemish speaking circles. Paul de Man's uncle Hendrik de Man, a substantial figure in his own right, was a leading socialist intellectual who served in the puppet Nazi administration. After the war the French took the pretentious theories, the Belgians opted to bury bad memories in the pieties of Euro-enthusiasm.

The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.

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