The End of the Gift of Language?

Geoffrey Bennington, Professor of French Literature at Emory University, Atlanta

In November 2010 one of this country’s subtlest interpreters of French thought gave a lecture in the capital on Aristotle and his critics. Geoffrey Bennington’s rare London appearance was billed ‘Political Animals…’ but his actual topic was The Death of Aristotle’s Political Animal. I sat there wishing Derrida’s old friend and collaborator might just be plain wrong. There had to be a good argument against his drift. After all, if we lose our gift for rational language, what lesser way of deliberating on the useful and the just are we left with? And that was eight years ago, before we had a President of the United States whose political utterances are tweets!

When Aristotle defined us as political animals he meant we had the gift of reason, or language, the two translations of the Greek ‘Logos’. Christianity wrapped up the Aristotelian heritage with ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.’ These post-God days, in political communication at least, we reckon the Word on its own will do fine. A dominant strain in French postmodernism however declined to agree.  Jacques Derrida and his friend Jean-Francois Lyotard, for instance, both of them now dead, were more inclined, like Eliot, to see words slipping all over the place, playing havoc with any real meaning in public life. They used the slipperiness of the post-divine word to present a huge obstacle to political talk. For Lyotard the politics he detested was pure rhetoric. For Derrida towards the end of his life the Logos – and with it politics – was like the human body subject to a collapse in its auto-immunity. It could be healthy, but lurking round the corner was always the will and the means to destroy itself.

Well they were prescient. And I think that’s a better explanation of the connection between Trumpian post-truth and postmodernism than that the likes of Derrida somehow inspired it. I published a letter, headlined ‘Postmodern Pangs’, in the Times Literary Supplement making this point on August 3, 2018. I was taking issue with what Michiko Kakutani had claimed a fortnight earlier.

Bennington’s analysis, as I suggested, made gloomy listening, with its evidence of a new style of anti-politics underway. In Washington, he said, they called it ‘the game of the game of politics’ and in Paris ‘la politique politicienne’. How do you translate a phrase meaning ‘political politics’? Well I know what it means. It means politics was/is disappearing up its own backside, so riddled is it with posturing and manoeuvering, by way of delivering half-truths.

For Lyotard, as for Bennington, the one chance of doing anything about the horrible debasement of politics in a wickedly gabby age was to undo Aristotle’s distinction between the political and other animals. If Logos was what enabled human beings to live in a polis, now it was evident humans used their gift so badly perhaps it was the time to rediscover reason and language ’s excluded other. Not Logos should be our topic then but phoné,  a matter of inarticulate crying or vociferating.

In his 1988 book The Inhuman Lyotard seems to have thought that to resist the inhumanity of globalism politics had to return to the primitive cry. The globalized, over-articulate world silences what we really feel. The task is to re-centre politics on what the silence covers.

Should we then welcome to the arrival of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ to the political forum? Or even Trump himself? I noted in 2010 that with the primitivist agenda twenty-first century politics threatened to become one vast nutty tea-party, dangerously populist.


All I can do, from the sidelines, is observe the rise of the value of illiteracy, in postmodern times.

The 1990s may yet go down in literary history as the decade which saw the rise of the ‘illiterate protagonist’ as a positive force ranged against the all-enveloping corruption of public language. Two novels raise the question of how we can possibly think truly morally about salient issues when political rhetoric is primed to lead us astray.

In Bernard Schlink’s The Reader (‘Der Vorleser’, 1995, in the German original) a lawyer discovered that his one time teenage lover, an illiterate older woman who used to have him to read great books to her out loud, had been a concentration camp guard. His job was to prosecute for crimes against humanity, but her case halted him in his tracks. Critics at the time objected that Schlink used her illiteracy to reduce the enormity of her crime. But buried in Schlink’s text were a handful of sentences which seemed to adumbrate exactly what the philosophers in favour of a return to the animal over the rational in politics, phoné over logos, were getting at.

The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other than we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless I sometimes find it hard to bear.

For Schlink what was ‘absolutely present and alive’ was alone what was morally and politically true, beyond the rhetorical posturing. I take it that the point of his novel was, to borrow a phrase from Bennington, to counteract at least one instance of ‘the kinds of investment that political rhetoric attracts’.  Schlink didn’t just mean ‘Holocaust’ was an overworked word. He meant the moral reality it pointed to was no longer reliable. That’s why he had to write a novel, and not just a column. It’s terrible, of course, if what he is saying is true. But it’s even more of an indictment of the kind of society in which even the unspeakable is manipulated for partisan political gain.

If the fear of a totally mediatized (un-)reality was also hallmark of the postmodern French philosophy written in Schlink’s formative years, Philip Roth was no slouch in keeping up with European thinking. He only felt it had to be transformed by being threaded through everyday American life to make a satisfactory American novel.  And so he came to take up the theme of illiteracy in The Human Stain (2000). He tackled in in both major and minor keys.

The novel is the epic tale of humanist professor Coleman Silk, destroyed by unjust accusations that he used a pejorative word to describe black students. In the background to his undoing we hear of his saintly daughter Lisa, who has abandoned her career to teaching reading to children who can’t master it. She is desperate:

I have days when I think, Today was good, but most days I want to jump out the window. I struggle a lot as to whether this is the right program for me…I want to do it the right way and there is no right way – every kid is different and every kid is hopeless, and I’m supposed to go in there and make it all work…What do you do with a kid who can’t read? Think of it… (The Human Stain, Vintage paperback edition, 2001, p.58)

Here is a real, apparently insoluble, first-world political problem. I’ve suggested elsewhere that Roth’s forte was to realize some of the themes of modern European writing as real social problems in America, and here he seems to be doing just that.

But the major theme of The Human Stain unfolds when Silk, the cultivated academic who has built a career on the integrity of his work in the service of the logos, is ousted on a trumped-up charge of politically misspeaking. Lonely and banished, not unlike Oedipus the King, for crimes he is alleged to have committed, but over which he has no control, he has a passionate love affair with an illiterate cleaner at his old college, an establishment nicely named as ‘Athena’.

Silk’s lover is called Faunia Farley, and the truth of her condition is held out to us in contrast to the terrible falsehoods in which the politically correct and self-deceiving university has embroiled itself. When the narrator tells Silk’s story his sister exclaims:

Sounds from what you’ve told me that anything is possible in a college today. Sounds like the people there forgot what it is to teach. Sounds like what they do is something closer to buffoonery…What happened to Coleman with that word “spooks” is all a part of the same enormous failure. In my parents’ day and well into yours and mine, it used to be the person who fell short. Now it’s the discipline. Reading the classics is too difficult, therefore it’s the classics that are to blame. Today the student asserts his incapacity as a privilege. I can’t learn it so there is something wrong with it. (The Human Stain pp.328-331)

The university itself has fallen on its knees in deference to ignorance. (This in fact is the extraordinary dialectic informing the whole novel asking, from shifting viewpoints, what the value of literacy is.)

On another level the name Faunia picks up the Dionysian theme that runs throughout The Human Stain. It is redolent of forces that, just as they undid the Apollonian Greek culture in Nietzsche’s judgement, substituted for its Aristotelian rationality the cry of the satyr. The narrator of the novel, early in his encounter with Silk, joins him in a satyric dance to show his sympathy.

But then it turns out that Faunia, who has suffered a life of abuse, has actually feigned illiteracy as a last-ditch political stand:

The illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded. But why? A source of power? Her one and only source of power? But a power purchased at what price? Think about it. Afflicts herself with illiteracy too. Takes it on voluntarily. Not to infantilize herself, however, not to present herself as a dependent kid, but just the opposite: to spotlight the barbaric self befitting the world. Not rejecting learning as a stifling form of propriety but trumping learning by a knowledge that is stronger and prior. She has nothing against reading per se – it’s that pretending not to be able to feels right to her. It spices things up. She just cannot get enough of the toxins: of all that you are not supposed to be, to show, to say, to think but that you are and snow and say and think whether you like it or not. (The Human Stain, p.297)

To conceive a raging passion for this woman, in her plight, and in her last-ditch political cunning, is a matter of the humanist Coleman Silk’s final, utterly self-destructive, awakening to the possibilities of ill-literacy in the present age so destructive of the logos. Faunia is the phoné incarnate.

Literacy under threat then, even as we pay lip-service to it. ‘Community’, suggested Bennington, in his extraordinary London talk, was a word and a value similarly at risk. It’s another one of those terms we have to get around, if we are ever to get back to the real issue. Politics, in short, if it is to survive as a literate endeavour, has to overcome the destructive power of its own rhetoric. But how can it, when its means of expression are totally mediatized? Only dropouts and pilgrims, those who have been involved in politics and been disillusioned and hurt, and stigmatized, and scapegoated (as Coleman Silk was), seem likely to take up the task, wandering through the world self-blindfolded, abjuring the old language, self-undefended. As I write this I realize there’s even a line joining Silk, exile from the university, to ‘John the savage’ in Huxley’s Brave New World. John who is in the care of dissident Bernard Marx, ends up exiling himself to the unmodernized countryside, outside the totalitarian grip of the city.

But then that was another French postmodern theme: that, though political totalitarianism is no longer with us in the forms practised by Stalin and Hitler, we shouldn’t imagine there is not a new form of totalitarianism abroad, affecting our lives, and our judgement, in the total mediatization of language.

All this is expressed in extreme form: but that is what literature is for.



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