March 5, 2005
Richard Mitchell Interview, Pt. 1art 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8
Thanks to Styles for the transcript of his July 6, 1982 interview of the father of The Underground Grammarian. I'm transcribing a hardcopy, so this may take some time. I'll try to do it in fewer than 10 parts.
Richard Mitchell Interview Part 1:
The Purpose of Language
Styles: You express some surprise that the Government would issue a stamp linking writing ability and democracy because you suggest that the propensity of Government is not to insure our liberty, but perhaps to take it away. The suggestion, of course, that literacy is fundamental to democracy, you agree with, but you...well, you had an ironic reaction to the stamp itself. Can you explain that?
Richard: Yes, I did. I'd like to change a word, though, in what you've just said. Freedom I would substitute for Democracy. I'm not sure what we mean by democracy. Obviously, the German Democratic Republic can call itself a democracy, then so can we and so can anybody else.
But I think I do know what I mean by "freedom," and freedom requires the ability essentially to be free in the mind. The ability to think one's own thoughts, and not somebody else's thoughts, and there is no government ever constituted on the face of the earth that does not have an interest in the contrary of that.
Indeed, this was why Jefferson was so hot for what he called, by the way not literacy, but informed discretion, which only begins with literacy. That is, that if the citizens had this informed discretion, then the natural propensities of government could be checked.
I don't think that Jefferson felt he was giving us a good government; he was giving us the least evil government possible, under the circumstances, but these natural propensities, the most important of which is the propensity to seize our minds and our thoughts, can be checked if there is a truly literate public, and therefore?well, I don't think it's the least bit sinister, or even a taunting act on the part of the Federal Government to issue a stamp promoting literacy. I think it's because they don't know what literacy means.
Styles: Well, we as educators certainly have a responsibility to teach the government what we mean, at least, by it. We know what business we're in.
Richard: I wonder if that's true. It's certainly true that we have the responsibility, but as it happens, most of us who call ourselves educators--and by the way I don't?I reject that title--
Richard: Teachers. Most of us happen to work for the government in one way or another. Most of us are--we don't often think of it--most of us are government agents. There is no other way to put it, and as the current government prospers, and waxes fat, and grows, and is rich, so are we.
So that for all that we know in some compartment of our minds that, in effect, we must be subversives, I think it's probably very hard for us to be that. Literacy?well, look, look at what we have recently done about so-called literacy. I think what sweeps the country now is a rage for basic minimum competence.
Styles: Basic skills?
Richard: Basic skills?the notion here being that literacy is a skill like any other, and that reading--the word reading is very much misunderstood by us--that reading is all one thing, so that if I can read my chronometer, or if I can read a paragraph, or if I can read a stop sign, it's pretty much the same kind of thing.
This arises from the delusion that the purpose of language is communication. So we say, well if our children can read The Times and a chronometer and a paragraph, then that's literacy, but it's not. It is not even close to being literacy, and I think I like very much Jefferson's phrase, thoughtful discretion.
Styles: You raise the issue that communication is a delusion, if we keep that as a focus, and yet communication and community are of the same root. To the extent that we're going to have a community of people who are free, we have to have some from of communication obviously.
Richard: No, I didn't say that communication is a delusion. It is a delusion that the purpose of language is communication.
Styles: What then is the true purpose of language?
Richard: Oh, I think it's a delusion to seek the true purpose of language, too. Let me start though with that notion. If the purpose of language is to communicate, in the first place this is very much like saying that the purpose of the wind is to blow; it is to find some attribute of a thing and because that is, in fact, its attribute, somehow assume that that is its purpose.
Certainly language does communicate as do many other things, but if the purpose of language is to communicate, then suddenly language becomes secondary in importance. What becomes important is that communicated. So that if we sit here imagining the purpose of language is to communicate, then I imagine the following condition.
I imagine that there is something here in one place, and I want to move it to another place. That one place perhaps being my mind and the other place perhaps being your mind, or the minds of the citizens. Now if language is nothing but a bridge from the one to the other, then if there were some other bridge, that would do too. And if I could put my thumb to my nose and waggle my fingers, that would work; or if I could hold up a yellow sign with a blue stripe across it and have the same effect, that would work. Which is to say that the language itself is of no importance. That it is simply a way of communicating.
This is one excuse nowadays in many of our schools for not teaching too much, by the way, in the way of language, the skill in language. Well, if you can get your point across, that is all that counts, but anybody who has seriously read books knows that the business of language is not that.
That is, what takes place right there in the language on the page before our very eyes and mind, that is the business that is going on here, and when you have read David Strauss, for instance, you do not say, "Oh, something has now been communicated unto me," because if you were called upon to say what that was, all you could do would be to recite David Strauss back.
No, something very other than that has taken place there, although many things may have been communicated to you as well. But if we teach ourselves and our students that the purpose is to communicate, then we end up being quite satisfied with the kind of language that is utterly non-metaphorical, utterly without tendency, utterly without those endless levels of meaning that language does have.
Furthermore, we blind ourselves to the fact that a great many things are communicated, even by the most seemingly neutral language, that we are not aware of on either side of the communicating process. I have an anecdote. Would you like an anecdote?
Richard: It happened to me just today. I was writing about something and I wrote saying that there are certain grounds upon which we might object to a certain belief. At least two of them come to mind. One is purely hypothetical and the other is practical. Then I stopped myself and I asked, "Why did I write purely hypothetical?" And examined a rather quite long chain of pros, as a matter of fact, the consequences of having written that, and the roots of having written that.
I wrote it as a clich黠we always say that things are purely hypothetical. Why do we say that? This is to make some important distinction between the hypothetical and practical, but not just the distinction hidden in the words.
I don't say this is purely hypothetical and that is purely practical, you'll notice. This is, in a way, to denigrate the theoretical and to convey the impression that, "Well, we all know the important thing is the practical, and anything theoretical is only theoretical." And indeed the word purely carries flavors of the word only as it carries flavors of the word merely.
So here, you see, in what seems to me nothing but communication--in fact, I have inserted a thought which a) was not mine, b) of which I do not in fact approve, which I cannot in fact commend, and c) which was until I stopped to pay attention to the word, invisible to me.
So that thinking in terms of mere communication, I have in fact done a great deal more than communicate what I thought I was communicating, and I did not intend to do it; I did it as an automatic twitch.
Posted by witnit at March 5, 2005 5:30 PM
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