Skip to main content

Hemmed in by Language

Charles Rosen is one of a handful of living writers whose work I always look forward to reading, which for me mostly means articles on music that he writes for the New York review of Books. Rosen is a first-class pianist who had a professional career on the concert platform (his recording of the Goldberg variations is one of my favourite interpretations). He writes marvellous articles on the appreciation of composers like Chopin, Ravel and Liszt: since the arrival of Spotify I may sometimes spend a whole evening reading one of these pieces while concurrently listening to each of the performances he mentions (I hope music schools have discovered what a great resource Spotify is).

Rosen also has broader interests beyond music, and occasionally writes about philosophical matters and art theory, with a special interest in Romanticism. For example in the latest NYRB (May 10th 2012) he has a piece called "Freedom and Art" in which he typically digs far deeper than the guff one normally reads on this subject (Dada against the bourgeoisie, Constructivism for the revolution, Abstract Expressionism as Cold War weapon, Pop against elitism etc etc ad naus). In this article Rosen starts by discussing the constraints on freedom posed by fixed meanings and having to learn language, and comes out with this extraordinary sentence:

"Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know."

It struck me that in this single sentence he summarises, in an arresting and comprehensible way, everything post-modern theorists have been banging on about in such deliberately exclusive jargon for the last 40 years.

PS As a postscript to this thought, my partner Marion's grandmother often professed a belief that monkeys could actually talk, but they didn't because they knew that if we found out we would make them work...

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Trump of Doom?

Thought for the day. The type of economy we call social democracy depended for its success on a willingness of the majority of the population to cooperate as well as compete with one another, giving up a portion of their income in taxes to be spent on various public goods like medicine, education and transport. If the population loses its willingness to make these reasonable sacrifices then it becomes impossible to maintain a social democracy.

The UK population was so willing for at least 30 years following WWII, to a large extent thanks to the experience of necessary cooperation among the generation who fought that war. But over the *last* 30+ years that willingness has been steadily eroded by many factors, including (but by no means confined to): greater individualism stemming from precisely the relative affluence and economic freedom that post-war social democracy conferred; successive economic crises (some related to oil, some to financial recklessness); industrial decline, outsou…

Social Democracy Uber Alles

The outcry over the revoking of Uber's London licence shows that the service it provides is popular, and it's unquestionably a significant, innovative use of new technology to improve transport. On the other hand the outcry from drivers about lack of benefits and job security show that the application of technology is being used (not uncommonly) both to increase exploitation of the labour force and to flout legal regulation designed to protect labour and customers. The outcry of Black Cab drivers against Uber ignores the fact that people flocked to Uber not merely for convenience (though that is considerable) but because Black Cabs had priced themselves out of the market with the last big price hike.

Put all this together and it's clear that all the parties need to get together and find a workable solution, which is highly unlikely to happen because of the vastly different political atmospheres between UK and USA, and a general lack of adult leadership on both sides. I ca…

A New Age of Sabotage

I haven't posted much recently because every time I think of something to say, the extraordinary pace of events makes it sound lame by the next morning: New York under water, Obama re-elected, News International in the dock, rockets falling on Tel Aviv, and that's even before we reach the Mayan apocalypse on Dec 21. However I've finally plucked up courage to wade into the torrent of the miraculous-horrific thanks to a fortunate discovery on the web. In this previous post I confessed an increasing interest in the radical Norwegian-American economist Thorstein Veblen, but that interest was quite narrowly based on reading only three of his works, namely The Theory of the Leisure Class, The Theory of Business Enterprise and his important essay The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers. This wasn't just due to laziness but to the difficulty of obtaining many of Veblen's books, which have been out of print for a long time.

But I re-read Veblen's Wikiped…