“The energies of social life are compressed into words. The circulation of articulated speech is the lifeblood of society. Through speech, society sustains its time and space axes. These time and space axes give direction and orientation to all members of society. Without articulated speech, man has neither direction nor orientation in time or space. Without the signposts of speech, the social beehive would disintegrate immediately.”
— Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Speech and Reality

In my conversations with people about the fate of contemporary society, I’ve come to realise that most people do not have a good understanding of what “society” actually is. They seem to assume society is something “out there”, separate and apart from themselves; that society is a jigsaw puzzle of roads, buildings, bridges, electricity, automobiles, and the swarm of people somehow made to all work together like a clockwork mechanism or a beehive, and that it is the task of government to coordinate and regulate all this activity and to keep everything in its proper place.

Society, however, is not a “thing” but is the public conversation, and the character and quality of any society is stamped by the character and quality of this daily public conversation. Society is a creature of dialogue, and this is what Rosenstock-Huessy means when he writes “society lives by speech, dies without speech”  — dies, that is, without the free circulation of life-giving or inspired speech through all its parts. A society is coherent and intelligible to the extent that the public discourse is articulate and eloquent.

Not government, but grammar rules society. The language of the State (which is law and legislation) is only one special instance, or elocution, of the grammatical relation, as are the special languages of Church, Corporation, Arts, and Science, etc. The problem of society arises when a common idiom integrating these separate, specialist activities ceases. The consequence of the lack of a common or shared idiom is decoherence, disintegration, and decay, or one of these special branches of the grammatical relation that is society may coercively impose its specialist idiom on all the others, which is the problem of fascism or totalitarianism.

Dictatorship is not dialogue. It is a monologue. (Some people today are even using the word “ecologue” to either describe man’s conversation with Nature, or as multifaceted or ecological conversation). A monologue exists where one man or group has “free speech”, but with an exclusive “captive audience”, which is the ideal of all propaganda.

The problem of the missing common idiom is the problem of what is now called “the Multi-versity”, which is the problem of the over-specialisation or hyper-articulation of idiom. Various faculties of the university no longer know how to communicate with one another — physics and biology, for example, or arts and sciences generally. The problem of the multiversity is the problem of a society which has also fragmented into over-specialised idioms. It decoheres. It becomes disintegrate. There is a lack of concord and conviviality. A Tower of Babel.

To articulate means to integrate — to join or knit together — and thus make whole. This ‘whole” is an ecological whole, not a totalitarian whole. In fact, as discussed much earlier in the former Dark Age Blog, the tendency to use “whole” and “total” as synonyms expresses the confusion of life and death processes, for “whole” means health or life, while “total” has some connection with death — the Germanic word for death being “tot“. This confusion of contrary values (so reminiscent of Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism: ‘all higher values devalue themselves’) parallels the common confusion of integration with assimilation, for the former pertains to healing and making well, while the latter pertains to death and digestion.

This confusion of life and death processes exemplified in the confusion of values reminds of Omar Khayyam’s cautionary remark, “only a hair separates the false from the true”. A totality is assimilatory and only impersonates a whole. A total is a sum or aggregate, an amassing and a quantifying. A whole or holon is a quality which is not reducible to a sum of its parts.

So, it might be said that, in political terms, a totality is a whole that has deteriorated or fallen into a state of mere quantity and mass, and that it represents the final stage of a formerly living process. Applied to historical societies, and it seems borne out by the evidence, totalitarianism is the terminal stage of its possibilities for further development. It reaches a dead end.


One response to “Society”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I think of “society” as an “agreement.” Then, given that “Society is a creature of dialogue”, it seems to me that a dialogue can be a bout reaching an agreement 🙂

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