Kitchen Notebooks - Gramsci, Language and Understanding

Like Antonio Gramsci found himself confined to Mussolini's dungeons, having to jot down short lines of thought in small notebooks, I at times find myself confined to the kitchen table, by a laptop, forced by an uncontrollable impulse to comment on something I have seen or read, to write a few short lines about some subject.

I recently started reading Monthly Review Press’ edition of Antonio A. Santucci’s Antonio Gramsci. A quote from (Q,p.1818), got me thinking about a few personal experiences I have had with language, but let me rather start with the basics.

Words have no meaning. Not in themselves. A lot of people do not understand this, and this is the starting point of many a failure to communicate.

Words are in their most basic form only sounds - pressure waves in air. Or patterns of ink on a piece of paper. Or patterns of pixels on a screen sending out light waves in different wavelengths, creating different sorts of patterns. In itself a word is nothing more than these physical phenomena, and has no meaning other than any other similar physical phenomena.

Words get their meaning only when they are interpreted by humans. Words, terms, language - are per definition social constructs.[1] Words simply mean what people in a group think they mean.[2] And as a society changes, words change their meaning (and/or pronunciation) over time or disappear completely, while new ones appear.

Gramsci touches onto this problem in a quote from (Q, p.1818), which Santucci quotes on page 37 of the volume referred to above:

"The real Babel is not so much a place where many different languages are spoken as much as a place where everybody thinks they are speaking the same language, while giving different meanings to the same words".

The non-constancy of language probably sounds obvious to most people, however, in concrete cases in the public debate the information is often forgotten. A while back, in Norway, there was a discussion about the word "neger" (equivalent to the English "negro"). While this word, a few decades back by most people was perceived as a neutral word, simply describing someone’s African heritage, it is now by an increasing number of people seen as a degrading and racist term. (This debate has of course largely been over in English-language countries for decades, but not so in a Norway which until recently has been relatively monocultural.)

Many Norwegians protested that this word was racist or degrading in any way, simply on grounds that they themselves have used it for years without any racist pretentions. Unfortunately racists have also been using it with racist pretentions, and a sufficiently large portion of Norwegians with African heritage feel the term to be derogatory, such that the term is now perceived to be just that - or at best outdated. For people who have been using the word for years the discussion might become emotional, as they misunderstand the discussion, and feel that they are being accused of being racists. Keeping aside the fact that there is a difference between being a racist and because of unconscious prejudices at times doing or saying racist things (perhaps without being aware of it), people then forget the fact that language, and communication are contextual. The meaning of a word or a sentence depends amongst other things of who is saying it, to whom they are saying it, when and where. Thus the word "neger" uttered between two white Norwegians about a tribe in Africa in 1950, is not the same as a Norwegian uttering it to a person with darker skin tone in 2005.

Many people, when they are not consciously thinking about it, have an idea of words and language as something eternal and constant, with words having a certain defined meaning that is "right" while deviations from this are "wrong". (And what is right can be found by looking the word up in a dictionary.) This however is only partially right in one area. In science some words are clearly defined, and does not normally change their meaning (until the science itself changes). Words like Energy or Force in physics are clearly defined, however the same words are also in use outside the scientific world, and there have much less clearly defined meaning.

The same problem sometimes arises in politics. On the political extreme liberalist right Randians and similar forces, have a tendency to invent their own definitions of words like “freedom”, “violence”, “fascism” etc. so that everybody who does not agree with their views become freedom-hating violent fascists. This parody illustrates the problem of understanding language as something eternal and objective. Even in using words in a manner only a tiny fraction of the population will recognize, they will maintain their definition to be “right”.

On the left we have a similar but different problem. There can at times be, and historically has been, a constant bickering about what words like communist, socialist, social democrat, democratic socialist etc. really mean. There is of course no single correct answer. One reason for this is that many have tried to make politics into a science, and thus need clearly defined terms, and there is no doubt that there is a thin, and somewhat - perhaps we could use the term liquid - line between politics and parts of the social sciences. In many ways there is a continuum, although politics is more normative, and science more descriptive. Politics however has to be communicated to a larger audience - basically everyone - and not only a group of trained professionals. This larger audience cannot be taught the "correct" definition of a term before the term is used - particularly in today’s fast-paced media world there simply is no time. A politician thus has no choice other than using terms the public at large is comfortable with, although he may of course also at the same time choose to try to influence the public in their interpretation of words and phrases, as he tries to influence the public on other areas

A particular problem when it comes to this kind of understanding of language, it has in common with many political and societal ideas, is that they are areas where humans often overestimate our capacities. Another quote from (Q, p. 1779) (p 141 in Santucci) which illustrates this, goes as follows:

If a guy, who has never studied Chinese and knows only his provinces dialect [in Italy], is asked to translate a Chinese passage, he will be reasonably perplexed. At first, he will take it as a joke, but, if one insists, he will think he is made fun of, so he will be offended and start fighting. And yet the same guy, without being solicited, will think he is authorized to speak about all sorts of topics that he knows just as well as Chinese, about which he knows not the technical language, the historical context, the relationship to other topics, and sometimes their distinctive traits.

It is in this sense Gramsci means everybody is a philosopher. Whether one has knowledge or not, we all have some sort of world view, and ideas about the worlds around us. This is probably also the reason that a lot of people on areas like this are more reluctant - for good or bad - to accept the authority of experts.

This might sound elitist, but is in actuality the opposite. Only by recognizing our human shortcomings might we seek to rectify them. As everybody has - and should have a worldview - it should be the task of socialists to make this a worldview that is as informed and nuanced as possible. Only through education can we make a true democracy, recognizing that knowledge is power. In many areas - particularly in politics and social sciences - our current western democracies still leave a lot to be desired. It is thus not so strange that Antonio Gramsci chose the following quote from Ferdinand Lassalle for the heading of his paper L'Ordine Nuevo: "To tell the truth is revolutionary." This should be our motto still today.

Notes to the notes:
[1] Of course, this can also be neuanced - Chomsky has pointed out that we may have some innate linguistic structures, and it is hardly a coincidence that the first sounds children make (mama, papa/baba) in most languages are terms used on their parents. This, however, does not influence the argument made in this text.

[2] This does of course not mean that it is impossible to misinterpret a word or term. An individual or a small sub-group holding a different idea about a word than the large majority, without there being conscious about it, can in most cases be said to have misunderstood the term. That does however not mean that such misunderstandings cannot be the start of a process that changes the language i a direction more in line with that of the "misunderstanders".

Fascinating stuff. I tend to define the term "Socialist Republican" in an Irish context when I use it, which properly befuddles most people. Language and words are difficult and slippery. One problem of the left is that we tend to use marxist terminology as a tribal language - and sometimes in a way that is opposite to how most people use the same words. "Democratic dictatorship of the proletariat", for instance. Only makes sense if you have already defined democracy as most people know it as the democratic dictatorship of the burgeoisie, and a bit iffy even then.

A very good example of one of the points I'm trying to make. I must admit a few discussions of that nature did pop into my head while writing :)

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