Saturday, July 29, 2006


Refelction on Responsibility

It is inevitable that in thinking responsibility, the question is begged; what makes responsibility? How do we arrive at a stage when we recognize that onus? What I wish to do is consider what makes responsibility, how it is stirred, taught, implanted or cultivated in our hearts and minds and why it is so important to keep this as a purely ethical term, with its own grammar.

Responsibility is a term, which is much knocked around these days, in newspapers, journals, popular literature, and scholarly studies. One would be hard pressed to find a day when the word responsibility is not featured conspicuously in editorials. No discussion of politics, art, economics, culture, religion, or ethics seems possible without dependence on responsibility. We hear a lot about “responsible leadership”, “responsible media”, “intellectual responsibility”, “individual responsibility”, “collective responsibility”. It appears to be a fashionably useful weapon in the arsenal of political debate. When one side disagrees with the other side, it’s the other side, which is highly irresponsible.

I’d like to state right away that I consider the inflationary spiral of such an important term as a crime against language. Why so harsh a verdict? Responsibility is a complicated word, a signifier, which ought to signify, point to, a complex philosophical and ethical term with a puzzling etymology and a solid, well-formulated denotation. Such a term should be applied with the utmost care and circumspection in order to preserve as accurately as possible its ethical relevance. When employed with flagrant and obsessive repetitiveness, a word can become so conventional that it ceases to be visible, loses its precision, its edges get blurred to the point of dissolution and before we know it we are into a kindergarten level of discourse: “Am not” “Are too”. This coarsens the discussion and renders it an exercise in futility.

“ Politics and the English language”

In his famous article: “ Politics and the English language” (1946) George Orwell writes:

“.. It is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything..our language… It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. … the English language.. becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

Orwell was a most conscientious thinker and writer. His expostulations about the cheapening of language in the service of shrill and mostly meaningless polemics is just as relevant today, if not more so.

“Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry”

Michael Ignatieff, in his book “Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry” looks at the depreciation of the term “human rights” from a similar vantage point as Orwell:

“Global human rights consciousness, moreover, does not necessarily imply that the groups defending human rights actually believe the same things. Many of these NGO’s espouse the universalist language of human rights but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes or persons… The problem is that particularism conflicts with universalism at the point at which one’s commitment to a group leads one to countenance human rights violations towards another group.”

Ignatieff is claiming here that a noble term which was supposed to uphold an ideal of universal justice, the kind that safeguards the equity and inviolability of all human beings, has been devalued by different interest groups to the point where it is nearly worthless. Politicization of an ethical principle can only lead to the kind of confused, dislocated application of the term “Human rights”, where some NGO’s use it to justify their support of terrorist activities.

“Economy of the Unlost”

In her book of essays “Economy of the Unlost”, Anne Carson tries to locate, as far as she can, the meaning, source, energy of poetry, its possibility of being and what that possibility means. She does it by comparing two poets who lived 25 centuries apart, Simonides of Keos (5th century b.c.e) and Paul Celan (a Romanian Jew and a survivor of the Holocaust).The “economy” of the title refers to the spareness of poetic application of language. It would seem that one of her suggestions is that at times when parts of language and meanings of words have been appropriated and deformed, thereby lost, it is the duty of the poet to use what is left economically. Simonides’s notorious stinginess with money was mirrored perfectly in his language-sparing poetry. It was as if he tried to illustrate the total and overwhelming importance of the word by using money in the way he used words. Keep a small portion of the gifted commodities to himself, sell the rest, for money. For Celan, this reality is not of his own choosing. The German language, into which he was born and upon which he grew up, was hijacked at a certain point for a national “deathbearing talk”. Once the 15 minutes of the Thousand-Year third Reich were over, language survived, but badly beaten, warped, crippled, decimated, terribly fragile. That’s what Celan had to work with, decided to work with, but with great care and frugality, to preserve what is unlost that is still usable. In other words, to use language with extreme economy.

Paul Celan was extremely anxious about the erosion of meanings in language.

“ He sometimes saw language-death as a more universal problem: The tendency of meanings to “burn out” of language and to be covered by a “load of false and disfigured sincerity” is one that he here ascribes to ‘The whole sphere of human communicative means”

It’s this kind of anxiety that animates my concern over the bowdlerization of the term “responsibility”, that it is drained of its moral import and relevance by being associated all too freely and cheaply with a-historical analogies. It is my belief that intellectuals ought to adopt this pristine ethos of linguistic economy, to be particularly mindful not to squander the precious meanings of moral terms in the service of some short-term political thesis.


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