Literature and culture, a humanizing force?

My dissertation on democracy, language, and colonialism will likely be prefaced by the following quote:

We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct? Moreover, it is not only the case that the established media of civilization – the universities, the arts, the book world – failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality; they often rose to welcome it and gave it ceremony and apologia. Why?

George Steiner, Language and Silence.

The significance of Steiner’s question should not be underestimated. For he brings to light just how the content of language and the ‘spiritual energy’ of culture bear on our conduct in highly circumscribed ways and, where it matters most, seem to offer momentum rather than resistance to violence. Why?

Many have argued that the written word is responsible for severing our relationship to the earth and to others. Steiner’s invocation of Plato suggests as much, as it was the Greeks who first generated an abstract alphabet and ‘discovered’ objective, immutable truths reflected in the words they wrote. Objective, immutable truth is, of course, rather hostile to the realities of plurality and difference.

With this in mind, theorists often contrast western ‘civilized’ literate culture and its atrocities with a more pacific oral culture, citing the intimate connection between orality, the body, the world, and others, which has been eclipsed or displaced by the veneration of the abstract written word. But while it may be true that oral cultures are less violent, I would suggest that a veneration of orality is at least as dangerous as the veneration of literacy. Orality and literacy together constitute a distinct world of experience, a world of representation and mediation that ranges in feel from the cold and abstract to the heated and visceral. Whatever form it takes, however, the domain of language is associated with representational privilege. Human beings have throughout recorded history imputed language, both spoken and written, with mystical qualities, a force highly revered by poets, philosophers, priests and politicians.

It is largely due to the practices and institutions worked up by these members of the linguistic class that an estrangement has emerged in the West between human beings and the understandings they cultivate through silent bodily engagement, meanings that are always present and immediate. Starting with the Greeks, we began to understand ourselves and others increasingly as symbolic beings – language users. Our relations, too, were conceived of as symbolic relations.

Certainly there have been those who contest such a picture, figures like Gilbert Ryle, Michael Polanyi, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for whom language is but one way of being among many. But in general the story of the West is a story about ancient relationships between human beings and the natural world steadily dissolving under the pressure of Socratic and scientific interrogation, not because of the corrosive power of questioning, but because of the new political priority granted to reason-giving over reason-being.

What began as a celebration of language eventually led to a denial of our involvement in and dependence on a silent life-world of meaning. In the modern era, it culminated in attempts to reject the notion of extra-linguistic understanding as a dangerous myth. Power, we are informed, resides in language, and whatever meaning language might owe to silent practices it immediately subsumes and transforms.

Politically, the modern fetishization of language supports a formal opposition between voice and silence whereby speech is identified with action, and silence, defined in contradistinction, is equated with the absence of both meaning and agency. Hence, to be excluded is to be silenced; to be dominated is to be denied a voice. From this lofty vantage it is easy to overlook how the Athenian merger of democracy and imperialism has conferred on our modern form of democratic imperialism a deep regard for reason-giving, speech, and dialogue.

The union of democracy and imperialism is easily understood once one considers that the democratic demand for the public representation of ideas, interests, and identities in practice excludes everything that cannot or will not be represented. But there are more troubling issues. The art and culture of democratic negotiation privileges speech and writing no less that the fine arts, and both have proven rich sources of ceremony and apologia for violence.