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Archive for August, 2014|Monthly archive page

Playfulness in language, its leaderful and commercial potential

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Playfulness in language as a notion hovers alongside the conventional informational telling of Western social-history. Where our fact-based education teaches us to learn time events, and believe this was ‘us’, turning to consider ‘the way we express’ our world offers potential. The history of the modern literature canon is a story of playfulness, or its absence. Modern utilitarian education deflected us from knowing ourselves through our own utterances, whilst broadening our language-set simultaneously. A focus away from language and its use is a focus away from us as unique selves. Fortunately, there is an important ‘turn’ towards reflection across many levels of education. A turning of the gaze from ‘out there onto a world’ towards the story of the ‘self within the world’ is a significant shift. Enabling people to locate their own self within their own story may well be the apotheosis of education itself.

A fact-based, object-focused, education is critical to a materialist economy. It drives global competencies. This is the world we’ve built, and we struggle to detach ourselves from its logic. The inexorability of its progress is the seat of our anxieties. The possession of how we choose to tell our own story may well be the most valuable element within a life’s journey, and possibly the saving grace from an economy that at some point will need new assumptions. The unwitting, and witting, result of industrialised education was to dynamically link utterances to objects, evolving a lingua-franca which meant human interaction was dominated by articulating events in time: “where have you been?” eclipsed “what do you think – and who am I?”. To re-represent such a hyper-literal encounter with ourselves fell to the modernists who painted in many colours, some vivid. I see it as playfulness, a coming out of an attachment to certain forms of expressing, to discover that the self should express the self from a consciously chosen language-set.

I popped into Thomas Carlyle’s home in Ecclefechan last year, just up the road from here. It’s not easy to get hold of the man from his roots, in what must have been a very tight language world. The wild playfulness of his Sartor Resartus, 1833, is still powerful to read now. His freedom to imagine, and create a world of allusion, should draw our attention to him again, and his complexities in a solid modern landscape. His ability was to change the horizon around his self and its representation, a virtue modernity intended to offer but gets frequently lost. Where Austen pulls you into the surface displays of a structure, with its detailed mosaics, in the same way modern behaviourism does in business settings, Carlyle re-tells the world through shifting colours. Which of course makes him a figure of suspicion. Re-colouring the world outside of the conventional political economy is iconoclastic, but necessary, as it is intrinsic to being human.

The political landscape for language use is rooted in horizons bounded by discourses. A modern education has its discourses of ‘inculcating information’. The social territory of the Westernised world has its narratives of ‘identity through work, consumption and possession’. Plus many others of course. What religion intended to offer was a domain of discourses resistant to these dominant competitors. But it’s struggled as Westernised nation states have a habit of co-opting religion into their utilitarian architecture, re-representing its meanings, not least the work ethic. Reinhart Kosselleck notes: “Each concept establishes a particular horizon for potential experience and conceivable theory, and in this way sets a limit”. Westernised economies mixed their discourses of political-economy and religious-fervour over the last 400 years with intriguing consequences for its members. A dominant and often unvoiced result was on the limits of expression and the freedom to choose one’s own paint box of language. A paradox for modernity itself which at its core is about freedom of expression.

I like the example in particular of how individuals will talk of themselves through shared discourses. An industrialised education tends to lead people to talk of their selves through their national identity, or their visits to places, which are both an objectivised form of discourse, constructed from the social milieu. A popular example of an objectified narrative which runs through Britain is: ‘We need to get back to when we were a Christian nation’. This is largely irresistible in its pervasiveness. It’s co-opted by political parties, individuals, churches, as a thread on which much is hung. Re-representing this form of immovable discourse playfully was Carlyle’s gifting but by changing the horizon boundaries around such language. If a ‘Christian nation’ as a persistent discourse is locked into the consciousness, Carlyle re-framed its assumptions through allegories, pouring in vivid images that shifted the aesthetics of a past that didn’t actually exist. Remi Brague attempts a similar colourful discourse: “What is called Christian civilisation is none other than the ensemble of collateral effects which faith in Christ has produced on the civilisations it has encountered along the way”. This new representation steers our imagery in a different direction. The portmanteau of Christian-nation is reformed. The story of our selves linked to its import is revisited, if not unlocked. The monumental efforts to restore a past world that didn’t exist can be re-directed. Bakhtin would claim this as a form of leadership agency, where Brague paid attention, dialogically, to the cute fractions of his social landscape enabling him to colour the past in the now.

The danger is getting caught reading these ‘heresies’, just like the Bishop of Barchester, reading Rabelais. Carlyle restores Rabelais’s social role. It’s not a heresy to choose the language that fits a profoundly held belief. What is heresy is to borrow discourses unquestioningly. Education has at times been about learning not to question. Tragic as that is. Govean-type sensibilities seemed caught between a pastiche of a ‘Christian-nationhood’ and a genuine desire to love literature, and its playfulness, but the media’s portrayal of his discourse denied him any humanity. Even Luther, Calvin and Jack Lewis thought it preposterous anyone should read a text divorced from their spirit’s involvement, but the social landscape has been riddled with Govean-language and empirical-self figures, where being invited to ‘tell your own story’ is anathema, and a bucolic image is preferred. This is a very modern inversion. Goveanesque propelled the value of literature, its freedom to colour the canvas, its sacred importance, whilst profaning its message through what Bakhtin termed the “didactic gloom of bigotry and moralising”. Which is the current modus of American Fundamentalism, both religious and secular variants. The two are synonymous.

The rich writing of Kerry McSweeney and Peter Sabor remind that Nietzsche said: “The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary”, pointing out Carlyle was too much the gentleman not to be a ‘good Christian’, which had a different meaning then than now. Goveanesque craving after ‘strong faith’ and ‘good education’ is no proof of a love of anything, but “quite the contrary”, maybe. I argue it is a lack of playfulness in our discourse which is a signal of our fears, our conformism to a very present impenetrable set of discourses, and the presence of others’ ambitions, and their desire to exercise power over of ‘our story’. Giles Fraser manages in his weekly column to invert this truism, but of course has to do this outside of central structures. Vicky Beeching is the latest figure to tell of the inability to construct a story faithfully due to the language restrictions. The fear of other’s individual utterances relates to our very local fears of seeing ourselves in our own constructions. Facebook hasn’t emerged in the West as a tool of critical engagement because its language appears to be held in a tight boundary. Twitter offers sufficient anonymity to express, possibly.

De Tocqueville notes the patriarchy of modernity: “I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world…That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing”. Modernity has slipped into this modus. This is why American conservatism speaks to the world as it does. It tends towards a Goveanesque Cartesian modern Millieism. A utilitarianised modern state where language use is literal and unplayful, as we were oft in the Victorian era. Language seen as a utility is a great danger for most domains. The evangelical church’s horror at Vicky Beeching isn’t her sexuality, but her telling her own story, in her own words. This will be the unravelling of America’s core Victorian literalism, and then China’s, and so on for all utilitarianised landscapes.  Mike Kann offers an image, I interpret, of American manhood resting on the power to steer expression towards convention. Professionalism and other economic modes require approved language-sets. Cosmopolitan Europeanness is what American fundamentalists see as secular, not because they understand its history, but because it won’t conform to recognisable language patterns. To ‘be good’ is to ‘be hyper literal’. When in truth fundamentalist American industrialism is thoroughly modern and thereby secular in intent. We know this because the lack of playfulness in its landscape. Those who do speak oft possess a hysteria, a form of desperation, like Elmer Gantry, or the sourness of John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom.

Returning to playfulness as core to language-learning isn’t easy. It’s painful because of the profound association with notions of dignity and self. From a leadership perspective changing the horizons around language-sets has commercial risk for business communities long celebrated for their conventional use of language. Bakhtin appeals to the shades of meaning available in such an approach, its ability to disrupt patterns of thinking which might be locked onto dangerous trajectories. He notes de Tocqueville’s concern for modern patriarchies (Bakhtin being a Soviet subject) where societies perpetuate themselves through bounded language sets. Disruption facilitates change, Bakhtin notes. The other high value proposition is that dialogical societies are fundamentally entrepreneurial, but not just commercially. Dogmas, single narratives and measures have distorted late-capitalism.

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