America, Kakania, and Language

Events during 2016 (and not just the US election) have caused me to re-assess my work and many of the assumptions of my life, from the ground up.  What do I mean when I say I'm a Christian, and how does that really come out in my life?  What are my fundamental commitments?  How do I identify myself as a reflective, thoughtful person in a culture that has no room for reflection, thoughtfulness, and a most casual disregard for basic matters of truth?

So I began to start again, to re-examine authors and composers that have affected me the most from my beginnings: with the Greeks; the Greek New Testament; the writings of John Calvin and Karl Barth; George Herbert, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot; J. R. R. Tolkien; Søren Kierkegaard, Ludwig Wittgenstein; J. S. Bach; Johannes Brahms, to name a few.  (I am very aware that those are entirely European and male, but I have to be honest about how and what I learned, and when, and who I am.)

As regards Wittgenstein, I also have returned to renew my reading of German, with Hermann Hesse's Demian in a dual-language edition, and to the intellectual world of 19th- and early 20th-century German-language writers and thinkers, especially in Vienna.  Hence I returned to Wittgenstein's Vienna, by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin (Simon & Schuster, 1973), a book that still holds up well more than 40 years later.

The authors mount a multi-pronged argument, that difficulties regarding communication, language, and expression arose in late Hapsburg, fin de siècle Vienna that became ripe for philosophical investigation, and that these difficulties were shared across a wide spectrum of artists, musicians, writers, physicians (including psychoanalysts) and scholars –almost all of whom knew each other, at least socially.  The central figure is the now-not-so-well-known Karl Kraus and his scathing critique of Viennese bourgeois and aristocratic life and social realities (almost all of which were officially denied), and the loose circle of Krausians such as Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos (architecture), Artur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Robert Musil (literature), Arnold Schoenberg (music), Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoscha and Egon Schiele (art).  Musil satirically dubbed a semi-fiction empire of his fiction in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities) "Kakania," a play on the  kaiserlich-königlich or kaiserlich und königlich, expressions that provided status indicators in the complicated social hierarchy of the time, and equally concealed the dishonesty and deceit at the core of the Hapsburg state.

Janik and Toulin articulate their central thesis most clearly:

We have spotlighted the problem of language in Hoffmannsthal, because this serves to introduce and illustrate our own central hypothesis about Viennese culture –namely that to be a fin de siècle Viennese artist or intellectual, conscious of the social realities of Kakania, one had to face the problem of the nature and limits of language, expression, and communication. . . . . By the year 1900, the linked problems of communication, authenticity, and symbolic expression had been faced in parallel in all the major fields of thought and art. . . . So the stage was set for a philosophical critique of language, given in completely general terms. (page 117 and 119, with authors' emphasis)

Janik and Toulmin then examine how this task presented itself to thinkers such as Ernst Mach, the Kantian traditionalists, and the "anti-philosophers" following Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and (to some extent) Mauthner.  They will then place Wittgenstein (the early, of the Tractatus) in this context.

These central problems of the nature and limits of language, expression, and communication, authenticity, and symbolic expression are all involved –in a remarkably similar manner– in the political and social events that crystalized in 2016, although tendencies toward strident nationalism, racism, and the remarkable coarsening of political and social communication were well apparent decades before.  Social media have created a post-factual communication of deceit which is routinely denied by the networks' owners' who benefit from the confusion and monetarized deceit.  American society faces a number of problems that simply cannot be addressed given the terms of communication and expression before and in 2016.  Like the creaking, only-semi-functional Kakanian state, the American state and culture is a shaken, badly sagging structure (and infrastructure), and it does not require unusual foresight to anticipate any number of future disasters, whether ecological, political, social, cultural, or military.

Like the blissfully ignorant inhabits of Kakania in the early 1900s, we 21st-century Americans may all have completely missed the ominous and destructive potential of our times, in large part as a function of inauthentic language, expression, and communication gone wild.  Our language and media have lost their mooring in authentic use and useful social understanding of justice.  I will be reading more Wittgenstein, and more about him, and writing here.  We may be facing, as found Karl Kraus' writings, Die Letzte Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Humanity).

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