Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Public opinion- a brief, gnostic history

P.S. is a 42-year-old man who has been affected by paranoid schizophrenia since the age of 20. At the onset of his psychosis, he was trying in various ways to compensate for his difficulties in getting in touch with other people. He had no secure ground to interpret the others’ intentions. He lacked the structure of the rules of social life and systematically set about searching for a well-grounded and natural style of behavior. For instance, he was busy with an ethological study of the “biological” (i.e., not artificial) foundation of others’ behaviors through a double observation of animal and human habits. The former was done through television documentaries, the latter via analyses of human interactions in public parks. An atrophy in his knowledge of the “rules of the game” led him to engage in intellectual investigations and to establish his own “know-how” for social interactions in a reflective way. – Giovanni Stranghellini, At issue: vulnerability to schizophrenia and lack of common sense (2000)

1.

Consensus omnium, common sense and public opinion all exist as separate tracks through the intellectual history of the West – and each trail can be superimposed upon the other.
Early on, in Klaus Oehler’s definitive essay, Der Consensus Ominium als Kriterium der Wahrheit in der antiken Philosophie (1963), there is a quotation from Hesiod. The line quoted comes from the section of the poem devoted to “Days”, with its sometimes obscure reference to work, luck, gods and the days of the seasons.  The line, 760, goes: … and avoid the talk of men. For talk is mischievous, light, and easily raised, but it is hard to undo it. Talk is never completely lost, which has been in the mouths of the many. For talk is itself a God.” Talk, here, is not logos, but pheme – which, as Jenny Strauss Clay points out in Hesiod’s Cosmos, is the antithesis of kleos, that is to say, fame: “kleos is to be heard about, pheme is to be talked about.” This enduring couple still presides, in all their debased divinity, over the newspaper and the news and entertainment channels. They are structured by what is likely, or plausible. Only scandal breaks the dome of plausibility – it lets in air, it lets in horror, it lets in real life, that is, the margin that always escapes generalization.

The plausible as a category (whether epistemic or, what, ontic? From belief to the believable?) concerns the heart of Oehler’s theme. As he points out, Plato’s antipathetic stance regarding opinion – endoxe – is countered by Aristotle’s respect for it. “The positive value of general opinion is, as well, the ground for Aristotle’s preference for commonplaces [Stichwoerter]. It is said that in the peripatetic school, under his direction, a wideranging collection of commonplaces was made.” Furthermore: “… This preference of Aristotle … rested on the matter of fact that in commonplaces the infinitely rich experience of many races was documented in a unique way in brief and trenchant formulas, which is the way the Consensus omnium expressed itself.” [106]
One of the sources of Oehler’s interpretation of Aristotle comes from a fragment, preserved by a latter philosopher, Synesius of Cyrene, in a work boasting the comic title, “In praise of baldness”: “But how could it [common places] not be a [form of wisdom] concerning those things about which Aristotle says that when ancient philosophy was destroyed in the greatest cataclysms of men, the things left behind were preserved because of their conciseness and cleverness.” The mark of fire on the commonplace, the proverb – this is a rich image indeed, and has been the best friend of novelists since Don Quixote. In Bruegel’s painting, Flemish Proverbs, the metaphors contained in sayings are given literal pictorial space. The blind in Bruegel do lead the blind into a ditch. The painting is also known by another title: The World Reversed. The contrast between those two titles already speaks of an alienation from the common place – here we have the seed of what will later become critique in “modernity”.
If Aristotle’s notion of past cataclysms, in which the only fragments of science that survive are common places, is taken modally, that is, is taken to mean that the possibility exists that even the present order, or any order, can be destroyed in the same way, we have the steps leading to the Stoic notion of the eternal return of the same, and a strong tie between that idea and the proverb, or adage: the word in the mouth of all, which returns again and again.  The humanists of the Renaissance, with whom Bruegel associated, felt a strong kinship with the Stoics, in whom they saw the brilliant reflection of ancient wisdom and a certain dovetailing with Christian theology. The Stoics were, as well, an escape from the Aristotle of the schools – from which the humanists were in flight.  In Christian teaching, the apocalypse only happens once and for all: but that apocalypse is trailed by a history of fallen kingdoms, as given in the Old Testament.
Bakhtin, in  Rabelais and His World, borrows (although not literally – Bruegel is curiously unmentioned in Bakhtin’s work)  the Inverted World of Bruegel as a clue to what happens when a novelistic intelligence – one that can hear the Other in the speech of the other, endlessly and even in one’s own speech – comes into contact with the linguistic correlative of the carnivalesque: the coinages of the people in the marketplace, their proverbs, insults and swear words, where the Other in the speech of the other has become stony, bonelike – too explicative. In this regard, there is something metaphysically opportune about Aristotle’s view of the broken wisdom of the people emerging in a tract “in praise of baldness”. As Bakhtin points out, the carnival attaches to physiognomies, to noses, chins, Falstaffian bodies, big ears, etc. In the world of jokes, baldness has a definite place of honor.
It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – during the Baroque – that slang emerged in the books, became the tool of writers. Cant words and latin tags were part of the trove carried about by poor, lusting priests and perpetual students. This was the other side of the fragmented wisdom that had escaped the cataclysm. Daniel Tiffany has pointed out, in his marvelous book, Infidel Poetics: riddles nightlife substance, that slang and slum etymologically are themselves product of slang – slum entered into the language as a slang word denoting slang. Tiffany’s term, nightlife, points to the urban locale in which this culture was born. Peasant speech was simply, to the urban intellectual, unintelligible. Moliere’s Don Juan  made great fun of peasant French. Shakespeare’s clowns – from colonnus, to cultivate the soil – are distinguished by their speech patterns too, although Shakespeare was not into dialect humor like Moliere was, or Rabelais. When Dostoevsky was deported to Siberia for revolutionary activities, he began a notebook in his labor camp in which he wrote down the songs, catchphrases and proverbs of the other prisoners. Later, he used this material in his semi-fictious memoir, Notes from the House of the Dead.  Even Solzhenitsyn, no romantic admirer of thief culture, devoted some pages of the Gulag Archipelago to the poetics of thief’s cant. How could he not? It was Pushkin himself, the supreme instance for every Russian writer until recently, who used thieve’s cant in The Captain’s Daughter, thus creating another site, this one in language itself, of struggle between the legitimate and the illegitimate, between the authentic and the pretender, the real and the fake.
Cant is the ruses of reason elevated to a sub-language, caught in the mouths of rogues and meant to be obscure to all outside a certain sub-society. Yet in fulfilling the function of allowing members to communicate and obscuring communication with others, cant is only one of a species of jargons. There’s a parallel between thief’s cant and the jargon we are familiar with from academics, politicians, and all makers of “public opinion” – phrases that automatically pop up wherever dinner tables become arenas of political discussion – or even the discussion of entertainment.
But where does this conventional wisdom, with its language and conceptual limits, come from? Like rumor, popular opinion appears to be a mysterious social phenomenon, an epidemic of beliefs. Unlike rumor, though, public opinion  started out not as an oral phenomenon, not as what was being said in the supposed crowd, but as a written one. It grew into a semi-institution in correspondence with the growth of the bourgeoisie. Materially, that correspondence was about newspapers: not only what was written in newspapers, or pamphlets, but in the connection between the accelerated power of the printing press – the use of steam power, for instance, exponentially raising the ability of a newspaper press to produce sheets – and the written, the need to ride those blank sheets of paper, to fill them with words and pictures.   
Structurally, our thesis looks like this: the pair pheme/kleos presides over the objects of the news, the commonplace presides over the form. It is the style of the cliché, the proverb, the wisdom of mankind – the conventional wisdom of the moment. The duality of fame and infamy, expressed in cliché, is precisely the form of ‘betise’ that a certain school of modernist writers – Flaubert, Bloy, Peguy, Kraus, Tucholsky, Mencken, Orwell – took as their ultimate enemy, as the cataclysm under which wisdom, some essential relation to truth, was buried. In this way, public opinion became the weapon not of the slave uprising, but the slave catcher. For the latter, too, has his sayings. And he relies on the idea that consensus is better than truth – a substitute for it that allows for a slant that is rarely straightforward lying, but rather a means of clouding any method for finding out what the larger facts of the matter are, the air of the factual in which facts “live”.
See the rest of this article here: Willetts


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