Language Expansion

It is just one day after the attacks in Paris, which shocked Europe. Many are at a loss, now they are forced by the events to try and understand what is happening around ISIS. What are its ambitions, its origins, what has been happening in Syria and Iraq? Those who up to now managed to kind of ignore the wars in the Middle East, and tried to convince themselves that the high numbers of refugees are just a tragedy, …or just a problem, now have been awakened from their slumber. This post is not about ISIS, though, nor about migrants or muslems, but will probe into the feelings of those who have a hard time to be heard in society, from whatever background they are.

What I will do in this post, is go to another age, and another people, and try to open up an unexpected angle in looking at anger in society, and its possible roles and expressions. My implicit philosophical background will be dialogical hermeneutics, combined with the problem which became clear to me after learning about Habermas’ idea of a non-violent conversation model, a long time ago. This problem, a problem for any possible dialogue is: violence is already inherent in how we use language. In the implicit rules of ruling elites about what is considered the right language for a conversation, and what is not. These rules cause that the language of large groups in society is ruled out. Silenced.

Europe not only has to deal with troubled lives of so many immigrants, stuck away in so many banlieus where not much is happening except dealings which won’t help you to become part of ‘succesful’ society. Europe also has to deal with its ‘native’ poor. And it has not done very well over the past decades, in which neoliberalism or what goes by that name has reduced to a minimum support systems like social housing, social healthcare and social advocacy, leaving those who cannot speak in the places where the elite takes the decisions much less protected. Whilst almost everything has been brought under the rules of the market, contracts have become more explicit, general terms and conditions almost unreadable, and getting some insurance, or some right in case of injustice, has become nearly impossible for those who do not have enough computer skills. Many of these people tend to turn against ‘the migrants’ – feeling that their rights are not worth much over against those of refugees. The ruling elites often howl along with that song, as it leaves themselves safe from possible attacks.

When I was around seventeen, punk music came on the scene, and I didn’t like it. The fighting which surrounded concerts, the undirected explosions of unrest and violence. I would never have expected back then that right now I would be reading the life story written by the face of punk – Johnny Rotten, whose actual name is John Lydon. In his book Anger is an Energy he recounts how rotten was the state of England when he was young, how poor his people, Irish immigrants, were – living like many in a two room house with a public toilet outside, shared by many families. Playing in the puddles of the backyards where the rats also roamed, he contracted meningitis as a child, and suffered a months-long coma, and quite some health problems afterwards. The systemic discrimination against anyone poor, in general society, and especially in the schooling system, made the anger of the bright kid fester inside – and break through in an outburst of language when he got the chance to become the singer and songwriter of The Sex Pistols.

I think Anger is an Energy should be recommended in European high schools, as it tells a part of European history that one doesn’t often hear about. It is not about poor people in the UK in the sixties and seventies of the last century, it is written by someone who looks at society from the standpoint of poor people. The housing in the western part of Europe may be better nowadays than it was back than, I am convinced that the experience of not being heard, of being considered the ‘trash’ of society will not have changed much. What John Lydons writing shows is that ‘non-elitist’ language can be as clear, creative, beautiful, and more mind-opening than, say, Thomas Mann’s or that of any writer of the literature canon. I will just give you some samples of sentences:

‘The coldness of my mother’s family, the insane fear of whatever, and endless troops of disaster marching in from the other side.

‘The country was still in massive debt from the war. Unlike Germany, which was built up afterwards, Britain, for winning, got fuck all. […] The oil industry profits greatly from wars, and that’s really who benefits. It’s us who are expected to be loyal cannon fodder.’

‘Chaos is a very fine tool but it’s one that you have to craft well. Just bubbling along, and bouncing from one incident to another, which is what I felt was happening, was not right for me.’

‘Others have told me that they go straight into it and they love it, they love that false sense of security that heroin creates inside your brain. […] You make yourself pointless. You have no love of the world any more. […] And then ultimately you’ve got to face the dilemma of, how are you going to pay for this situation you’ve become so accustomed to? That’s where a chap like me will go, ‘Well, it ain’t for me.’

And there’s much more, and I’ve read only a fourth of the book – the abusive catholic priests and nuns in the sixties, the danger of walking home when you could not pay the bus ticket, the gang fightings, the unfocused anger between socker supporters and members of different music scenes, the record companies, the police. And what the author did, his specialty, was focus his anger into language. Although the book is about a specific country and a specific time, I want to recommend it to anyone who wants to open his/her mind to the experiences of those we do not hear very often, those in our big cities, who speak a language which is not the language of newspaper journalism or of university textbooks.

Do some language expansion, and try to open up to the non-famous Johnny Rottens of today, those who have a hard time in our rich western world, not so much through rats and hunger, but just as well through money problems, administrative and justice problems, and more through not being noticed or being heard in an ever faster moving world of big money, ‘high’ culture, and ‘good’ education. Just let’s not get this world to accelerate so much that it will take off and fly away – but find how to undo the violence inherent in language that makes real social dialogue impossible.

Quotations from John Lydon, Anger is an Energy. My Life uncensored, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, London, 2014

Documentary on the album that made The Sex Pistols famous.

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7 comments
  1. Congrats Ms. Roothaan!

    I leave here a short part of Sex Pistols’s words claim.

    Moi, je suis l’antéchrist
    Moi, je suis l’anarchiste
    Je sais pas ce que je veux mais je l’aurais
    Je vais semer la terreur dans la rue

    Car moi, je veux l’anarchie

    Is this just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

    • Thanks, Batschauer, for the words of that song. No, it is no coincidence. But reading the autobiography John Lydon makes it very clear that he never was promoting violence, but expressing violence experienced. He was thrown into jail for words he used. That is something else than taking up guns and hurting people. Words should be listened to and taken seriously, although they may be hurting – that could help to heal differences. Don’t you think?

      • But, looking at the English version the sentence with ‘terreur’ reads ‘I want to destroy passerby’ – he explains in his book that ‘passerby’ is the person who does nothing and accepts everything as it is. The silent complice with existing violence.

  2. I agree with your line of reasoning. Although I had no intimacy with the punk movement of the 60s and 70s, I always read subjective critical to society and governing (The Clash is iconic on this way).

    However, speaking superficially, I understand this issue closely linked to phenomenology. Receiver and sender in complete disharmony on all levels: cultural, economic, temporal and so on. Those who lived John Lydon’s way will understand easily his words, but most of us not experienced that kind of poverty. In the end, each one of us will interpret the song’s words in accord of your own experiences. So, at this moment, opens an endless range of possibilities to the humans behavior. It’s emphasized the positive zone of acquisition of phenomenological attitude, in the meaning of science reason of human being, in the opening of his free and determined responsable possibilities.

  3. Michael S. Pearl said:

    I am wholly in favor of “language expansion” – who would not be? – but how is this done? And is it really expansion that is the goal? Or is it something more like disruption or constructive destruction wherein the individual’s own current habit of thought and expression is seemingly almost annihilated only to be reborn as the beginning of a new habit which is once again to be subject to further disintegration? Now that I think about it, maybe dis-integration is an early stage in language and thought expansion. I will try to expand on this based upon some passages from the posting.

    What John Lydons writing shows is that ‘non-elitist’ language can be as clear, creative, beautiful, and more mind-opening than, say, Thomas Mann’s or that of any writer of the literature canon.

    Style is a most important aspect of writing. However, to the extent that style is regarded as a matter of form, then style in itself is far from sufficient for producing the most worthwhile writing, because it is also content that makes any writing interesting and, therefore, appealing. Accepting that Lydon’s content is interesting at least because of the perspective that it provides, then it can certainly be the case that the “‘non-elitist’ language” he uses would best suit the story he presents – despite the fact that his style might not in the least strike the reader as (let us say) elevating by means of a strictly aesthetic experience (other than in the way the reader might conclude that such an ordinary or earthy style so very well comports with the importance of the perspective). So, sure, it can most definitely be worthwhile to move beyond “the literature canon” and embrace more ordinary manners of expression.

    Yet, that does not exactly produce language expansion. Instead, language and thought expansion is more likely to follow by considering matters and terms such as “non-elitist” and, thereby, “elitist”, as well as Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, capitalist, socialist, rational, science or scientific, etc.

    These are categorical terms, terms that generalize by means of apparent similarities, of course, and, particularly in matters where at some point judgment will occur, categories most often serve as a shortcut way of imparting an immediate (even if only initial) sense or expectation that, based upon prior experience, something which fits into a particular category will ultimately be favored or disfavored.

    Categories are no doubt essential to orderly thinking, and that may well be why languages are replete with categorical terms, but categorical thinking/expression is far too rarely regarded as being indicative of initial or cursory thinking, and the associations that produce categorical thinking/expression are far too often taken as the conclusions necessary to justify the favor or disfavor which color a category.

    Language and thought expansion occur after an individual identifies an instance of categorical thinking/expression and then faces up to the fact that no linguistic term is necessary even if some term must be used, leaving that person to re-think and re-express using alternative terms which have the effect of discarding the category without dismissing the similarities upon which the category is based, but, at the same time, re-viewing the differences which the category in itself tends to hide. To put this another way, whereas categorical thinking/expression tends to occur in terms of either this or that, thinking/expression which starts from apparently unavoidable categorical thinking/expression and then dis-integrates the category tends to result in terms of both this and that whereby both the similarities and the differences are pursued.

    the problem which became clear to me after learning about Habermas’ idea of a non-violent conversation model … a problem for any possible dialogue is: violence is already inherent in how we use language. In the implicit rules of ruling elites about what is considered the right language for a conversation, and what is not. These rules cause that the language of large groups in society is ruled out. Silenced.

    I am aware that plenty of thinkers agree with the notion that violence is inherent either in the functioning of language or in the way we often use language, but I think that such associations of violence with language are grossly problematic. In conversations of the sort that this blog entry has in mind, I think it would be a good thing to describe the use of language as the presenting of challenges even if the challenge approaches the level of being at some point possibly traumatizing. The dis-integration I mentioned earlier is necessarily challenging and might be sometimes traumatizing, but, ultimately or ideally, the conversation is only an invitation to the other to dis-integrate for himself or herself. However, even such an invitation will often be challenging or even perceived by the other as the putting forth of a challenge, but this is not an inherent violence. For that matter, the perception that one person in a conversation is more skilled linguistically than others presents its own sense of being challenged, but the use of that skill is not inherently violent. Likewise, the use of formal (or should we call it “dogmatic”?) reasoning or logic is a skill, and such reasoning is very often used to not just challenge but in order to silence, and, still, despite the rules intensity of logical reasoning, it is not useful to regard logical reasoning as inherently violent although it can be used violently.

    We can use language – we can converse – in order to invite or to persuade, and intended persuasion can be regarded as being more towards violence than is an invitation to engage. For language to be used successfully as conversation, it is most likely always necessary that at some point at least one participant re-express the perspective/thoughts of the other with terms recognizable to the other as a step towards expanding the thinking/language into terms which are other than those with which the initial perspectives were presented/thought. Without charity, there can be no conversation.

    • Thanks, Michael, for your elaborate reply. I completely agree with your final sentence. I hesitate to agree with your words on linguistic skill and logic, though. Isn’t what we see as linguistic skill defined by seeing the language of the elite as a norm? Some people may have very high linguistic skills, but if their dialect or language is deemed stupid or boorish, they will get no recognition for it, nor will they be listened to by the elite. This is described by people from colonies, like in one famous chapter by Frantz Fanon (in Black Skin, White Masks), where he describes the change in language in the colonial citizen who travels to ‘the motherland’ and learns to speak ‘real French’. The same goes for ‘lower class’ language, countryside language, etcetera. With logic there might be a similar problem, as it is part of what is learned in the ‘master culture’, but I have no sources to back that up.

      • Michael S. Pearl said:

        Angela, yes, it is most definitely the case that their are linguistic prejudices against dialects, accents, and the like, and, yes, these factors will lead some – even many – to discount the expression that exhibits such features. I could note that such prejudices are further examples of the very sort of categorical thinking which I was saying needs dis-integration, or I could say that when a prejudice manifests as a judgment without re-consideration of the prejudice, there is a definite lack of charity. Each of these responses has its own utility, its own place.

        I think the above remarks also apply to the question regarding whether “what we see as linguistic skill [is] defined by seeing the language of the elite as a norm.” Alternatively, I could eschew the use of the terminology “linguistic skill” that I used and, instead, make more explicit how that terminology was intended to stand in for the machinations of personal thought that go into producing judgment – including how personal thought is affected (without being necessarily determined) by the context of the social/societal.

        With regards to whether there might be some similar problem with logic, again, I do not see the problem(s) as inherent in logic itself, but there are often prejudices operative in the minds of folks who have not formed an appreciation for the insufficiency common to what I will, for now, describe as rigid logic (where rigid is meant to indicate the inclusion of content beyond the emptiness of acceptable or preferred form/structure). This could be a place for going off on the necessity-of-imagination-even-in-logic tangent.

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