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Language, tension, change

In a celebration of the career of the late literary critic Richard Poirier, Alexander Star addresses the tension central to literary language, and perhaps many other uses of language as well. A writer struggles with and against the meanings that have gone before:

In painstakingly close readings, [Poirier] showed that poets like Robert Frost and Stevens and a novelist like Norman Mailer seek to trumpet their individual voice, but when they do so, they find that they are using words that are not truly their own or that they are imprisoned by previous self-definitions. “Struggling for his identity within the materials at hand,” they “show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things,” Mr. Poirier wrote. (“Richard Poirier: A Man of Good Reading,” NY Times, 8/23/09)

“The inherited structuring of things” here might include the fuzzy practicalities of common sense, the grasp various professions have on some portions of our experience through specialized language, the guiding generalities of our great founding national documents, the ritualized meanings of our institutions of education and religion, the comfortingly familiar tropes of our movies and pop songs, the cynical subtexts of government spending, the unchallengeable stock phrases of political rhetoric, and so forth. Poirier took a wide view of the matter in the passage Mr. Star sampled in his essay:

When a writer is most strongly engaged by what he is doing, he can show us, as if struggling for his identity within the materials at hand, he can show us, in the mere turning of a sentence this way or that, how to keep from being smothered by the inherited structuring of things, how to keep within and yet in command of the accumulations of culture that have become a part of what he is. Much of cultural inheritance is waste; it always has been. But only those who are both vulnerable and brave are in a position to know what is waste and what is not. (The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life, xxi)

The writer risks something — a sense of self-fashioning? the power to speak and act? — by living among the inherited truisms and contradictory common senses of the age. Yet over time someone has been doing the “structuring of things” that is passed down to us as culture, and that process continues.  The artist is one of the players who takes a hand in the work that each generation much do to receive and sustain and pass on the great unwieldy mass of custom and meaning and nonsense.

For Star, as for Poirier, this basic tension in language and society, between inherited structure and innovation, reveals a struggle for agency and speech that has implications for our understanding of self:

The principal hero of this struggle was Emerson, whose reputation Mr. Poirier did much to redefine, challenging the familiar view of him as a facile optimist, a woozy metaphysician or an enabler of laissez-faire capitalism. Nor would Emerson have embraced the modern notion of “the self as something put together by a person who is then required to express it and to ask others to confirm it as an identity.” Rather, he saw the self as something very much like what Frost called a poem: “a momentary stay against confusion.”

We need a space for self-fashioning, but for Poirier this space is in and among the materials of culture.  More than a merely private and  “momentary stay against confusion,” the individual’s expression organizes the messy mass of cultural materials provisionally, and bits of that work stick. And it’s a good thing, too; there is too much noise and junk that we would be, as Poirier says, “smothered” if it were not so.

But it wouldn’t “stick,” would it, unless the speech and acts of the individual were part of the group’s consciousness — were processed, at least sometimes, by a community that itself changed as individuals changed, that spoke because individuals spoke. The theory of assertive selfhood requires a theory of change in community. Both require the tensions that language contain and reveal in culture. They all require a place for work to get done.

Notes for next time around: Available here for entending the discussion might be Bakhtin, whose view was that language always operates via centripetal and centrifugal forces that both draw meanings into the control of social institutions and disrupt those patterns of meanings. And when following a line of thought involving Emerson and the lonely brilliance of the artist, it is tempting to see the whole matter as one of individual striving and literary genius, but that leaves out so many people.  What exactly is the social element? In what ways are groups involved in reshaping culture moment by moment? Or in making contexts for our individual self-fashioning? Do social media gives us clues about how individual acts coalesce into social patterns? And what portions is speech and what portion is action, as in the political sphere? Do social media reveal as well as change the way we work out the tensions discussed above? I hope that the answer is yes, at least in that there are new places for speech, for gathering people together, for sparking social action.

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