CONTEMPT FOR THE WORD.

“An extraordinary contempt for the word, or what might even be called a loathing for the word has seized humanity. Confidence in the notion that human beings are capable of persuading one another with words and language has vanished in the most radical sense. Everything associated with parlare has taken on negative connotations. Parliaments are corrupted by their own disgust with parliamentary activities in general, and when conferences are convened somewhere the participants gather in an atmosphere of scorn and skepticism. Knowledge of the impossibility of communication has become too pronounced. Everyone knows that everyone else speaks a different language and lives in entirely different value systems, and that every people is trapped in its own system of values. Indeed, this is true not just for every person, but for every profession as well. The businessman can’t persuade the military man, nor the military man the businessman. The engineer doesn’t understand the worker; or rather, they understand each other only in so far as each of them concedes to the other the right to bring all means within their power to bear, to ruthlessly use their system of values to their own advantage, to break any contract necessary in order to crush and overrun their opponent. Never before, at least not in the history of Western Europe, has the world admitted with such honesty and openness… that the word is of absolutely no use, and further, that it is no longer even worth the effort to pursue understanding…. Silence weighs heavily on the world…. A mute silence reigns between people and between groups of people, and it is the silence of murder.


“But in spite of this muteness the world is full of voices. They aren’t the voices of assertion and rejoinder, however. Rather, they are simply voices, screaming chaotically… over each other, drowning each other out, a simultaneous hullabaloo of language and opinions being spoken past each other, interrupted only by the rather mechanical and unceremonious sounds of dull church services, rendered banal and destroyed by the earthly noise. It is the terrifying noise of a silence that accompanies murder,… a muteness that is audible, but is no longer language. Rather, these disjointed cries make up components of language…. And in this silence they are merely eruptions—eruptions of anxiety, eruptions of desperation, eruptions of courage.”
From Hermann Broch‘s essay “Reflections on the Zeitgeist,” available in a different translation (titled “The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age”) in a collection called Geist and Zeitgeist. It was written in 1934.
The excerpt above (translated by Daniel Slager) is, by the way, used as the introduction to the first issue of AUTODAFE, The Journal of the International Parliament of Writers, which has published two issues (some of the contents available here) and is about to come out with a combined n°3-4 (2003): “This issue attempts to provide an overview of the new dangers weighing on literature and thought, the unprecedented forms that censure and propaganda are wearing today, as well as the new means and networks of intellectual, literary and linguistic resistance…” Highly recommended.

Comments

  1. A cynic could read that as a comment on the world of blogs, and as a deterrent to leaving comments . . .
    Except the real cynic knows how futile that would be.
    Confidence in the notion that human beings are capable of persuading one another with words and language has vanished in the most radical sense.
    I’d say one postmodern response to this is to turn it on its head. That is, a typical postmodern suspicion is that it is all too easy to persuade (coerce?) people with words. This passage alone is a gold mine for those seeking epigrams to decorate their papers for “Cultural and Critical Theory Since Structuralism.”

  2. their papers for “Cultural and Critical Theory Since Structuralism.”
    You kids have a good time, now. (*shudders*)

  3. “Rather, they are simply voices, screaming chaotically…”
    But they are not “simply voices”. Institutions give more weight and legitimacy to some voices than others. All voices are not equal. Presidential press releases are almost never questioned, while critics are always presented as voices from the fringe who need to be “balanced” with conservative “experts”. If anything, the inequality of voices is increasing, not decreasing. While the blog lets anyone publish on their own, studies show that most people visit just a few web sites (CNN, Yahoo, FoxNews etc.). But even on the fringes, there are higherarchies. Just look at the Technorati Link Cosmos for a site like Calpundit.com, which has 1483 inbound links! (My site has 41…) I’m not complaining – just making a point. (Calpudit deserves to have so many links!)

  4. Maybe I’m missing the point of this wonderful quotation, but I think we’re all missing the point, which is: Nobody is listening. The ‘consumers’ of language are all turning it off and turning away. Ratings for news in all media are down over the long term, and only go up briefly for sensational news items, consequential or not. Public opinion of the media has never been lower. And everyone who actually cares about what is happening (politicians, activists, the angry and disgruntled, and small sections of the blogosphere) are listening only to people who share and reinforce their own opinions, and tuning out everything and everyone else. And with respect to Calpundit and all us lesser bloggers, a readership of 1483 wouldn’t even support a small community newsrag. The silence Broch refers to is truly deafening.
    (languagehat — thanks for this)

  5. No, no, no. The really important point is: Nobody is listening to me! Which is why I expect to be torn limb from limb by an angry mob at any moment.

  6. How many people have read Christopher Smart? Since he first wrote? Yet one of those people was W. S. Merwin.
    A world of patient listeners and calm reasoned argument sounds wonderful, though we may be a little overcrowded for that at the moment.
    The smallest whisper may still carry past the herd’s thunder. Things change. Nothing lasts.
    “… brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar…”

  7. Words, written and spoken, are an expression of our individual consciousness; our consciousness is the experience of reality. We attempt to control the experience, the realm of our reality and the span of our consciousness with control over our words.
    It is no wonder, then, that we treat other’s words with disdain. Being persuaded is not what we fear; it is the breach of control, the break in the dam of our individuality, the loss of our selfness that is threatened once we permit an opening to other’s words and other’s consciousness.
    Our greatest fear is this: that there is no self, there is no individual, that we are but one spirit into which we would be subsumed by the mere assimilation of words.
    But is this evil, to become one people? No; the evil lies in being only a part of some people, in not sharing the consciousness, the awareness and realities of all peoples. It is separateness, that which willfully divides us and sets aside other human experience that is evil. Our challenge is being open to all voices, hearing the unity in the message that appears to be chaos and discord, finding the common oneness of humanity.

  8. I don’t know – everyone on the Subway in NY seems to be very busy reading the NY Post or Daily News. So I find it hard to believe that “nobody is listening”. Of course, people prefer stories that they can use to talk about with their colleagues at work to complex analyses of international relations, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t listening… And if we look in a comparative light, newspaper readership in the US is much lower than many European and Asian countries. Maybe it is just because the papers suck…
    About Calpudit – even though a thousand links may seem small – those are not “readers” but other bloggers who link to Calpudit in their own posts – this means that the total number of readers of Calpudit stories (either directly, or as cited on other sites) is quite high.

  9. As someone who teaches freshman composition, I guess I’m a little too hopeful to share Broch’s despair that “Confidence in the notion that human beings are capable of persuading one another with words and language has vanished in the most radical sense”. At the same time, I’ll certainly say that when I ask students to write a persuasive essay, their early drafts invariably involve a lot of “opinions being spoken past each other,” and it takes some careful coaching to help students arrive at the understanding that the most important element of persuasion is finding common ground with your interlocutors — and not, as so many seem to think, taking gleefully mean-spirited potshots at all of their arguments. If you’re gonna try to get someone to see your point of view, you gotta identify with them first, as Kenneth Burke well knew.
    Back to revising the syllabus.

  10. Broch was, of course, overstating the case for the sake of a more sweeping despair. But:
    If you’re gonna try to get someone to see your point of view, you gotta identify with them first
    You, as a teacher, can manage to achieve that result with a certain percentage of your classes, who will go on to be the better for it. But (without downplaying that accomplishment) I’m afraid I don’t see how to extend it to the bulk of humanity, particularly that portion of the bulk that makes the decisions for the rest of us. In those heady realms, language gives way to force with barely a whimper, and identification with the Other is regarded as treason.

  11. I don’t agree that “nobody is listening.” What do we really mean by listening. When we say “nobody’s listening to me” are we really saying “no matter how much I talk I can’t get anyone to see things MY way”?

  12. I have never seen so much incomprehending gibberish in a lh comments section.

  13. Why, since no one is listening, do those who speak all say the same thing, or one of a few things? Are cliches innate?

  14. I suspect they are, HT. I strongly suspect they are.

  15. I wonder: how recent is the despising of cliche as a phenomenon of literary criticism? Is it contemporaneous with Matthew Arnold’s elitism, with Emerson’s romantic individualism?
    I ask because I think that our learned cultural distaste for cliches is just that: learned. Another word for ‘cliche’ might be “commonly accepted truth, phrased in a way that’s startling to some but tired to those who’ve already seen the construction”. Perhaps cliches aren’t so much innate as they are devices to foster identification. Consider the cliched use of the phrase “always already” among academic poststructuralists: it’s a way for them to say “I’ve read Foucault, and I want you to recognize that I’ve read Foucault.” It’s a way to display shared values.
    This comes up for me when I have students read and respond to early drafts one another’s papers: inevitably, the students will point to the phrase that strikes me as horribly cliched and say to the author, “That’s so true.”
    Are cliches then things that overcome the “impossibility of communication” until they get tired? To take this train of thought on into the domain of absolute silliness: are they discourse’s use-by date?

  16. This site is always so educational – even the comments. I’ve never seen the word “incomprehending” before.

  17. A hit, a very palpable hit!

  18. Note that Broch was saying this from an
    ethical perspective, long before
    pomos (postmodernists) fatuously wallowed in it.
    But langugage is perhaps not altogether
    dead yet. As one counterexample,
    I would cite George Steiner’s books and
    essays. For instance, in a New Yorker
    Magazine essay some years ago, Steiner
    characterized the then just passed
    100 years as “The Century fo Barbed Wire”.
    Anyone interested in Hermann Broch might
    see my web page about my study of
    Broch’s writings and my friendship
    with his son, H.F. Broch de Rothermann.
    http://www.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/broch.html
    “Yours in discourse….”

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