Marxism and linguistic communication - 6
At the end of my column last week, I underlined the importance of the
concept of the lifeworld as enunciated by Jurgen Habermas. In today’s
column I wish to explore this concept with particular reference to
fictional criticism. Some might think that I am making too big a leap of
imagination; I can well understand the reasons for such reservations.
However, I feel that the concept of the lifeworld contains within itself
certain seeds that can be germinated for the purpose of fashioning a
broader approach to fiction.
The central theme of the columns that I have been writing during the
past few weeks relates to Marxism and linguistic communication.
Habermas’ concept of the lifeworld has important implications for both
This concept can only be understood in terms of verbal communication;
indeed, Habermas has repeatedly made this point. Similarly, to assess
the full force and significance of this concept of the lifeworld and its
applicability to literary analysis, we need to recognize the important
ways in which Marxism has given an added dimension of meaning to this
concept as re-fashioned by Habermas.
Last week I stated that for Habermas the idea of rationality was
central to his social analyses. It was his judgment that the way that
this idea was inflected by such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Adorno,
Horkheimer was defective. They seem to, according to him, focus on a
uni-dimensional notion of rationality. They saw rationality as
essentially purposive and an instrumental form. Habermas, however,
thought otherwise, and he sought to expand the idea of rationality by
coming up with the notion of communicative rationality. He saw
communicative rationality as a way of critically understanding the
limitations of the notion of rationality in existence.
According to Habermas, the concept of communication rationality
addresses three important issues. First, how does an action come to be
regarded as rational? Second, how is it possible to effect
consensus-oriented communication that operates on the basis of cultural
values? Third, how has communicative rationality evolved over time in
cultures? These three questions are vitally linked with his notion of
communicative competence that I discussed last week.
What is interesting about this concept of communicative rationality
is that it feeds directly into the idea of the lifeworld as elaborated
by Habermas. The concept of the lifeworld has roots in philosophy,
The German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl popularized this concept.
It was elaborated on by subsequent thinkers such as Alfred Shultz.
Wittgenstein’s notion of forms of life displays some resemblance to this
notion, although his philosophical priorities are clearly different. The
idea of the lifeword as it has been developed by Habermas constitutes an
extension of his notion of communicative rationality. Indeed, therefore,
it has an important connection with both Marxist thought and the notion
of linguistic communication. To appreciate the full force of Habermas’
meaning, at times, one has to read against the grain.
The English word lifeworld is actually a translation of the German
word ‘lebenswelt’ and it figures prominently in German philosophical
writings. As Habermas sees it is within the borders of the lifeworld
that social and economic forces interact with human consciousness and
One’s conscious view of the world is inseparably linked to the
lifeworld. The lifeworld comprises the enormous store-house internalized
understandings, interpretations, presuppositions that govern one’s life.
Our day to day activities are invested with meaning and significance by
This phenomenon is so deep and pervasive, and often unobtrusive, that
we tend not to recognize its significance. As Habermas remarked, the
lifeworld is ‘so unproblematic that we are simply incapable of making
ourselves conscious of this or that part of it at will.’
Jurgen Habermas is in the habit of deploying different tropes to
characterize the lifeworld such as the ‘storehouse of knowledge’ that is
transmitted from one generation to the other and ‘the background
consensus of everyday life.’ An important fact about the lifeworld is
that there is no location outside of the lifeworld from which we could
In other words, it is not possible to transcend it. This concept has
enabled Habermas to go beyond the standard sociological vocabulary of
analysis – sanctions, rewards, roles etc – and to re-inflect the notion
of socialization that is so pivotal to sociology in terms of
communication and reciprocal learning.
To use a turn of phrase employed by phenomenologists, the lifeworld
constitutes the context forming horizon of human actions and human
consciousness. When we say that a given social structure has been
institutionalized, what we are really saying is that it has begun to
inflect our outlook on the world, our presuppositions and
When we seek to understand society, or for that matter a complex
novel, we pay close attention to the intersections of language, culture,
morality and social structures. This interaction is both reflected in,
and made possible by, the existence of the lifeworld. Hence for
Habermas, it is indeed a concept that carries a heavy burden of meaning
For Habermas, then, the lifeworld is the site in which substantial
inter-subjective communication takes place that has as its preferred
goal the achievement of mutual understanding. As we observed earlier,
this is indeed an objective of communication as a process of
It is also the site in which basic ideas of good and bad, just and
unjust emerge unannounced and spontaneously. So what Habermas, through
his elaborated concept of lifeworld, is seeking to do is to demonstrate
the existence and importance of rationalities that lie beyond purposive
rationality that has come to be regarded as a unitary form.
The diverse and highly differentiated value spheres such as religion,
art, law. ethics, call attention to this fact. When seen in this light,
it can legitimately be stated that one aim of Habermas in formulating
this concept of the lifeworld is to point out the plurality of
rationalities that exist beyond instrumental rationality.
For him communicative rationally, which has as its goal, the
attainment of cooperation and shared understanding, and not merely the
furtherance of egotistical interests, is primary among them.
Hence we can see the vital interconnections between communicative
rationality and the lifeworld.
At a deeper level of understanding, it can be asserted that human
communication is the mode through which we transport and reproduce our
lifeworld. One can point to three activities that serve to transmit the
lifeworld. First, there is the cultural reproduction by means of which
conventional understandings, traditions, cultural meanings are handed
down from generation to generation.
Second, there is social integration which enables us to understand
and come to terms with standards of sharing and cooperation. Third, one
has to recognize the importance of socialization which facilitates the
imparting of personal and collective identities to us.
The lifeworld serves to mediate symbolically these activities. We
transmit cultural understanding across generations, develop the ability
to live together as a unified collectivity in accordance with certain
norms and establish our identities through communication. All these
important activities are made possible by, and in turn, add to, the
It is important to bear in mind the fact that Habermas is keen to
explain the lifeworld in contradistinction to another term, namely, the
system. As he says, ‘we conceive of societies simultaneously as systems
The lifeworld , he says is ‘a culturally transmitted and
linguistically organized stock of interpretive patterns.’
As opposed to it, we have the system with its state, commercial,
bureaucratic influences, he believes that as societies evolve, state
apparatuses and market economies begin to increasingly impact the
lifeworld. He refers to this process as the colonization of the
lifeworld. As a consequence, Habermas maintains that there is a tendency
in contemporary society for administrative procedures and monetary
exchanges to undermine, and even replace, processes of communication.
Hence, in order to gain the full plenitude of meaning of the concept of
the lifeworld, we need to counterpose the notion of system. In the
fictional writings of, say, Gunadasa Amarasekera, this colonizing of the
lifeworld is reconfigured with prescience.
What is interesting about the lifeworld is that it functions as the
background to communication as well as a resource. What I mean by a
resource is its capability of providing certain understandings and
frames of interpretations to the participants in a communicative act.
The lifeworld is a resource in the sense that it is a condition of
possibility of communication. However, it is evident that the
relationship is dialectical in nature. According to Habermas while the
lifeworld functions as an enabler of communicative action, it is itself
reproduced by the dynamics of communication.
As participants in communication come to understand each other, they
relate a tradition of culture that they use and revitalize at the same
time. Moreover, as members of a given collectivity, they strengthen
existing bonds while forging new ones. In addition, they adhere to the
constellations of values propagated by the collectivity while coming to
acquire competencies that are central to the cultivation of identities.
Hence, the three domains of the life world identifies by Habermas,
cultural reproduction, social integration, socialization can be mapped
on to three functional aspects of communication; reaching consensus,
coordinating action and socialization.
This idea of the lifeworld as developed by Habermas, it seems to me,
has great implications for literary understanding and literary analysis.
This is indeed a connection that has scarcely been explored. According
to my gloss on the lifeworld, its representation of culturally
transmitted and linguistically coordinated storehouse of interpretive
patterns, become central to its salience. What Habermas has done is to
shift the site of observation of context of relevance that connects
ingredients of a communicative situation with each other; the shift is
from phenomenology and psychoanalysis, as was the case, to
communication. The structures that are germane to the communicative
event can be understood as intersections of communicative statements,
the context, and the culturally-grounded horizons of meaning.
As a commentator pointed out, ‘language and culture are constitutive
of the lifeworld itself. They are neither one of the formal frames, that
is, the worlds to which participants assign elements of situations, nor
do they appear as something in the objective, social, or subjective
worlds. In performing or understanding a speech act, participants are
very much moving within their language.’ These observations have a great
relevance to literary understanding as well.
This commentator goes on to remark that ‘in everyday communicative
practice there are no completely unfamiliar situations. Every new
situation appears in a lifeworld composed of a cultural stock of
knowledge that is always already familiar.’ These observations underline
the deep linkages between the communicative actions and the lifeworld.
It is my fervent belief that these understandings of Habermas, which
grow out of, and are directed to, the real world, can be extrapolated
into the world of literature as well.
Many communication scholars have stressed the fact that in the act of
communication, participants do not merely share information or ideas;
they actually construct narratives in which to communicate their
understandings and viewpoints. These narratives emerge perceptibly from
the lifeworld; it is the lifeworld that gives them point, structure and
What is interesting to note about these narratives is that they not
only serve to being about reciprocal understandings between
participants, but also deepen the self-understandings of the
participants by promoting a measure of reflexivity. These phenomena
which are observable in day to day life have a pointed relevance the
world of fiction as well. How words of fiction are produced by creative
writers, how characters communicate among themselves, how the author
communicates with his or her readers against the backdrop of their
lifeworlds should become important issues in literary exploration. What
I have discussed so far by way of elucidating Habermas concept of the
lifeworld can be usefully related to an actual work of literature.
Martin Wickremasinghe’s Gamperaliya (translated into English by Lakshmi
de Silva and Ranga Wickremasinghe under the title Uprooted), constitutes
a compellingly authentic and cogent depiction of a peasant society in
The novelist has portrayed the inward life of his characters and the
complex ways in which social formations determined their fates with
great authority. In my book ‘Sinhala Novel and the Public Sphere’, I
made the following observation. ‘What is important to note is the
cultural sensitivity with which this reconfiguration has been undertaken
by the author. The relationship between the decaying feudal class and
the rising middle class is far more complex and culturally nuanced than
normal sociological text-books would have us believe. For example, his
portrayal of the relationship between Piyal and Nanda is extremely
subtle and draws on culturally-grounded notions emotions, attitudes, and
perceptions with great dexterity.’
Let me quote an example from the novel. ’Piyal realised that this
crosstalk was getting him nowhere. All this while, he had been trying to
prepare the ground to ask her a very personal question, but Nanda had
parried all his attempts by leading him into fruitless debate. Piyal
never thought to attribute this to family pride on her part. In the eyes
of Nanda’s family, who were descended from a class of land-owning
village gentry of many generations, Piyal and his family were of lowly
social status, although they were of the same caste.
The Muhandiram and his wife had known Piyal’s paternal grandfather,
who was a vendor from whom they bought vegetables. They had seen him use
a pingo, to carry his wares. Nanda was also aware of this, though only
by hearsay. When in the company of others, Nanda was indulgent towards
Piyal. This encouraged Piyal to hope that she was becoming fond of him.
But when she was alone with Piyal, she acted as if she was conscious of
Piyal’s lowly origins in relation to the Kaisaruwatte lineage. When
Piyal attempted to probe her feelings for him, like a turtle that
shrinks into its shell at the first sign of danger, Nanda would withdraw
into the shell of her family pride, fearful of the consequences of
acknowledging any feelings of affection for Piyal.’
This description foregrounds many of the features that I have been
discussing in relation to the concept of the lifeworld. One can
understand the lifeworld of the characters in Gamperaliya as well as
their communicative acts in terms of some of the issues that we
discussed earlier. The pre-understandings, presuppositions that are
embedded in the lifeworld are of great significance for the motivations
of the characters. What is interesting to observe here is dialectic at
Martin Wickremasinghe as the author of the novel, through his careful
use of language and sensitivity to cultural knowledge, creates the
lifeworld of Gamperaliya. At the same time, Wickremasinghe as an author
had his own lifeworld that he inhabited. His ability to produce this
outstanding novel is a result of his living and acting creatively in
that lifeworld that he moved in.. In literary analysis, then, the
Habermasian lifeworld needs to be examined in two phases – the lifeworld
portrayed in the novel and the lifeworld inhabited by the author.
The lifeworld inhabited by the author is vitally connected to the
multiplicity of linguistic, cultural, political, ideological discourses
that he is subject to. It is, therefore, not a simple question of
reading off the biography of the writer.
What I have sought to do in the last six columns, then, is to focus
on the work of three important writers, who shared many similarities and
differences, and who drew nourishment from Marxism in exploring the
broad theme of linguistic communication. My objective in commenting on
these writers and their formulations is to clear analytical routes that
might serve to widen our approaches to literary understanding and
assessment. I am sure, to some, my approach to these writers and my
observations on them, may seem somewhat far-fetched. My subject-matter
was linguistic communication; my destination was literary understanding.
However, it is my firm conviction that an approach such as the one I
have taken can serve to broaden our discourse of literary understanding.