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Sunday, 30 January 2011





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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 of them.

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, especially phenomenology.

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 human action.

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 the lifeworld.

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 observe it.

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 understandings.

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 and significance.

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 interaction.

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 lifeworld.

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 and lifeworlds.’

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 direction.

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 transition.

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 play.

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.


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