I’ve become increasingly tired of the narratives used in public discourse. I find them tedious to listen to and impossible to take part in. I’m thinking particularly about the narratives which preside in politics, religion and the arts. There are certain discursive styles in these domains that have long histories with clear conventions around what to say and how to say it. The types of arguments employed are usually well rehearsed by the practitioners and delivered in subtly coercive ways. Sometimes they are not so subtle.
In key respects the bedrock values of the culture are maintained by these narratives and by those who are skilled in employing them. They give rise to a set of conventions such that to stray outside of these conventions and attempt discussion using any alternative vocabulary renders one almost unintelligible. A certain conformity is required to be fully immersed in the dialogues. An immaturity of mind and an unexamined kind of thinking doesn’t go wrong either. All this is evident in everything from church congregations to party conferences where the body of the kirk seems entirely gullible looking up to leaders as they pontificate so eloquently, usually with consummate poise, imparting their supposed wisdoms on the gathering clan.
What struck me from a fairly early age about leaders was the apparent nonsense they spoke. As a teenager I was readily sceptical about what was being said from any podium. Not that I became overly cynical like some do. I learned that this is what happens with narratives. In ways, they are games to be played, language games as Wittgenstein called them. That great philosopher realised too, that though language was invariably nonsensical, its usage was what gave it meaning. And so people who listened attentively in churches or took part in political discussions were engaged in a game of sorts, one that would give their lives value it might not otherwise have.
Wittgenstein also said that the limits of language were the limits of thought. There was to be no deeper seam of understanding that somehow stood apart from what could be articulated, no private language as he put it. Whether that is true or not it feels as if there are other strata of comprehension existing that ordinary language can’t express. It seems that the deeper the thought or the more complex the emotion the harder it gets for language to be able to capture its essence. Words often reduce to what is sayable rather than what is actually felt. This is why music is so valuable when it speaks to a different understanding than does talk.
It is not surprising then that I find the narrative around music to be especially useless when music’s high value is tied to the fact of its being largely non-verbal. The notion that a discussion adds much to the listener experience seems spurious to me. Consequently I always found art reviews to be verging on the absurd. I could never connect the talk to the work in much of a meaningful way. Criticism seemed a world in itself, an art-form in its own right, separate from the thing it purported to capture.
I suspect that the congregations around politics and religion will dwindle over time and only the lost souls who need a refuge, the naive and the undereducated, will still take part. Those on the stage, the performers with their sophistry and spin, still power hungry enough to think they can manipulate a community, will of course continue to do so as long as there is favour to covet. I contend that in a fully evolved society there would be fewer universal stages where pontificators, whether religious, political or artistic, can stand.
My sense is that the times when people did such things in droves will come to be seen as characteristic of a primitive past where the average citizen remained infantile in his understandings and was in need of charismatics, leaders of tribes, to stand up and paint a picture. Thankfully we are moving away from that. The perpetual disillusionment with politicians is an indication of it. The puerile aspect still looks to leaders for guidance but is always left wanting because there is little wisdom to be imparted any longer and it is questionable if there ever was.
I think myself lucky being an early sceptic about politics and religion therefore never had to suffer much disillusionment there. Had I been a staunch supporter of this or that movement, a believer in the great myths of antiquity, a follower of some influential creed, then cynicism might have been the consequence of a lifetime of disappointments when humanity in its myriad ways didn’t live up to its own promise. As it happens I’m not that cynical, especially about politics, quite grateful actually that liberalism prevails in our time. Although it took a while we have been very well served by it. Being sceptical about leaders and their narratives is an important part of its process.
It also took me a while to think through the issues I have outlined here and to arrive at a healthy scepticism. I think it will take wider humanity longer still but my guess is that it will get there eventually and be better off as a result.
words often reduce to what is sayable
rather than what is actually felt
commentary • 07.10.12