From The Unconscious Civilizatiion, John Ralston Saul, 1997


"From Propaganda to Language" (chapter)


"Freud and Jung set out to conquer the unconscious.  However, by sending us back into the arms of the Gods and Destiny, they may instead have pushed us to cling hysterically onto the unconscious.


It is as if our obsession with our individual unconscious has alleviated and even replaced the need for public consciousness.  The promise - real or illusory - of personal self-fulfillment seems to leave no room for the individual as a responsible and conscious citizen.


The apparent corollary of the psychoanalytic movement's drive for personal consciousness is an unconscious civilization.  What Jung probably imagined would produce a marriage of the inner and outer life of the individual alone and as citizen has instead produced an either/or situation.


Of course, misinterpretation or inadvertent interpretation is the great fear of writers who have any sense of the real world into which their language flows.  Perhaps that is why so many of the key thinkers - let me call them the conscious thinkers - have feared the written word and expressed themselves through the oral.  Socrates, Christ, Francis of Assisi are obvious examples. Shakespeare's plays were almost oral, written down in bits and pieces, changed repeatedly on stage.  Even many who wrote - Dante, for example, or the great figures of the Enlightenment - consciously sought to use a language polished into a simple clarity that could both evoke the oral and be used as if it were oral.


Harold Innis, the first and still the most piercing philosopher of communications, wrote a great deal about the problem of the written or what George Steiner calls 'the decay into writing.'


The deeper we go into the written, the deeper we go into mistaking the snake for the apple - the messenger for the message.  I've said before that one of the signs of a healthy civilization is the existence of a relatively clear language in which everyone can participate in their own way.  The sign of a sick civilization is the growth of an obscure, closed language that seeks to prevent communication.  This was increasingly the case with those medieval university scholars known as the schoolmen.  This is the case today with those who wield the thousands of impenetrable specialist dialects.  They plead complexity, given this century's great advances, particularly our technological breakthroughs.  But the problem is not one of complexity.  Not many outsiders actually want to know the nuts and bolts of building jumbo jets or writing post-modern novels.  It is the intent that is in question - the intent to use language to communicate, or alternately, through control of it, to use language as a weapon of power.


Unconsciousness - even hysterical unconsciousness - is not a surprising characteristic in a corporatist society where the language attached to power is designed to prevent communication."


"From Ideology Towards Equilibrium" (chapter)


"Real individualism then is the obligation to act as a citizen.  This has nothing to do with conformism or obedience to interests outside of the public good.  Let me repeat for a last time a few lines from Socrates' self-defense:


            'Perhaps someone may say, "But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business."  This is the hardest

            thing of all to make some of you understand.  If I say that…I cannot "mind my own business", you will not believe [me]'


Now the very essence of corporatism is minding your own business.  And the very essence of individualism is the refusal to mind your own business.  This is not a particularly pleasant or easy style of life.  It is not profitable, efficient, competitive or rewarded.  It often consists of being persistently annoying to others as well as being stubborn and repetitive.  The German voice of the Enlightenment, Friedrich Nicolai, put it clearly:  'Criticism is the only helpmate we have which, while disclosing our inadequacies, can at the same time awake us to the desire for greater improvement.'


Criticism is perhaps the citizen's primary weapon in the exercise of her legitimacy.  That is why, in this corporatist society, conformism, loyalty and silence are so admired and rewarded;  why criticism is so  punished r marginalized  Who has not experienced this conflict?



Our problem is not choosing whether to abolish pleasure or to embrace it, but to find mechanisms that might help release the individual from the conformity of corporatism.


We have progressed in our control of high treason.  We no longer need to draw and quarter.  The heretic today merely finds his career shattered and himself cast to the margins of corporatist society.


When I talk about the necessity to make nonsense of official language, I am referring to our need to discredit a whole approach to language.  One small example:  it would be a major accomplishment if we were able to focus on the tendency of those, who make the arguments for corporatism, to also praise the rural idyll - Italia Rurale, as Mussolini put it.  Or small-town America.  Or common-sense conservatism.  Always behind these simplistic utopias is a sense of moral cleanliness, deep roots, local belong, clarity of shared vision;  all the things which the proposers of these simple utopias are removing with their other hand through corporatism.


Such a two-handed approach is so contradictory as to be ridiculous.  But the difficulty of expressing the corporatist problem, as against the simplicity of expressing the false utopia, makes one a perfect foil for the other.  As a result we seem unable to identify the comic nature of the official discourse.


And yet there is nothing new about this trickery.  Emile Durkheim laid out the corporatist method clearly a hundred years ago.  The real information, he said, was too complex for people.


            It can only become a public possession through the circulation of symbols which, because they are 'simple, definite, and easily representable', render intelligible a truth which      owing to its dimensions, the number of its parts, and the complexity of their arrangement, is difficult to hold in mind.'


Durkheim spoke happily of symbols as propaganda.  Symbols are the images of language which, used as values in themselves, are easily manipulable.  We have moved away from the symbols and images of race, but we are still subject to their sway in the domain of power.  Jung said that 'the psyche consists essentially of images.' And we are now in a civilization drowning under the impact of images.  We have so far been unable to identify consciously the role those images can and do play as a tool of authority.


The manipulation of images is open to all of us.  But is the funded propagandist who can most easily and effectively use them.  And even used honestly, the image is at best a symbol.  It does not replace the ongoing communication of a functioning language.


It is through language that we will find our way out of our current dilemma, just as a rediscovery of language provided a way out for Westerners during the humanist breakthrough that began in the twelfth century.  For those addicted to concrete solutions, this call for a rebirth or rediscovery of meaning may well seem vague and unrelated to reality.  But language, when it works, is the tool that makes it possible to invoke reality.


Before Benjamin Franklin began to think about lightning, the received wisdom had it identified as a supernatural phenomenon.  For that reason, gunpowder was often stored in churches, to give it divine protection.  Church bells were rung during thunderstorms to ward off bad spirits.  Between 1750 and 1784, lightning struck 386 German churches, killing 103 bell-ringers.  In 1767 lightning struck a Venetian church whose vaults were filled with gunpowder.  The explosion killed 3,000 people.


In other words, there was ample proof that divine protection did not ward off lightning.  But so long as there was no language to destroy the received wisdom, it remained in place.  Our experiences today with the invisible hand of the marketplace are similar.  What we require is the language to demonstrate its comic nature.  Between 19173 and 1995, how often has the lightning of economic catastrophe struck Western economies?  Where was the divine protection of the invisible hand?  Franklin demonstrated the true nature of lightning by thinking about the problem, constructing an argument and finally subjecting it to practical experiment.


The difficulty with many of the arguments used today to examine reigning fallacies is that they have fallen into the general assumptions of deconstructionism.  They do not seek meaning or knowledge or truth.  They seek to demonstrate that all language is tied to interest.  The deconstructionists have argued against language as communication in order to get at the evils of rhetoric and propaganda.  But if language is always self-interest, the there is no possibility of disinterest and therefore no possibility of the public good.  The net effect has been to reinforce the corporatist point of view that we all exist as functions within our corporations.


To rephrase this problem in terms of my argument, the deconstructionists have effectively attacked our addiction to answers, but in such a way as to undermine the validity of our questions.  And so the answers, assertive as they are, stand reinforced.


In any case, the best hope for a regeneration of language lies not in academic analysis but in citizen participation.