Literature, Language and the Destruction of Cities

By Sharon Thesen | March 15, 2001

It seems preposterous to make “bad literature” responsible for the destruction of a city, yet Dzevad Karahasan attempts to do just that in the “Literature and War” chapter of his book Sarajevo, Exodus of a City(trans. by Slobodan Drakulic, Afterword by Slavenka Drakulic. New York: Kodahsha, 1994). That chapter, beginning with the sentence “I come from a destroyed country,” devolves from his analysis of what had held the city together in the first place, none of which seemed to have had much to do with literature as such. Rather, Karahasan describes a lived aesthetic of exchange between perimeter and centre, past and present, instance and type: the city as metaphor. The destruction of Sarajevo was something he never imagined, let alone could have imagined as an opening line in a debate about literature. But now, he says, he holds literature’s failure “to be true to itself” responsible for Sarajevo’s exodus into destruction.

Sarajevo was founded in 1440. A century later it had gathered within itself “people from all the monotheistic religions and the cultures derived from them, with myriad languages and ways of life.” Karahasan ascribes the city’s success to the interplay between the mahalas, the ethnic and religious districts on the perimeter, and the charshiya, the commercial centre. “Upon leaving Charshiya, all Sarajevans retreat from universality into the particularity of their cultures.” At the same time, charshiya was the necessary balance to the insularity of the various mahalas, the place of both collaboration and conflict “where elementary humanity” was realized. This interplay between “opposition and mutual reflection” is the exchange of discourses that Karahasan saw as the basis for Sarajevo’s civic grace, its vivid cosmopolitanism.

But the world Sarajevo contained and the world it constituted has been destroyed, and the city has become another kind of world—a sort of concentration camp, “a closed system in which people get killed,” as Slavenka Drakulic puts it in her afterword to the book. Karahasan for his part tries to trace the drama of “the destruction of a multi-ethnic and culturally pluralist society,” its transmogrification from one kind of microcosm to another. Mass graves and mounds of rubble deface the city now. Mahalas are the strongholds of murderers. Citizens who once traded good s and services in the vitality of the charshiya outwit snipers to acquire the basest necessities. Daily life has become a cartoon of mere survival, and all that is certain is the hopelessness of Sarajevo’s ever again being the kind of city it once was.

For this state of affairs, Karahasan blames “bad literature.” As a writer and teacher accustomed to “striving to understand literature from both outside and inside,” he has since come to the conclusion that literature is “greatly responsible for people’s actions in immediate reality.” The “values and choices” which according to Karahasan make up the “foundation of human ethical existence” are most immediately “articulated and determined by literature.” His coming so late and so desperately to this conclusion is part of the tragedy he outlines—a tragedy created, he says, by “indifference.” When indifference is “produced and accommodated” by literature and by literary studies, it helps to foster “general indifference in an indifferent world.” Karahasan advises us not to be foolish: “The world is written first,” he says, “and all that happens in it, happens in language first.”

On the front cover is Karahasan’s book are two photographs: in one, hands press in terrified and hasty farewell upon the windows of a bus full of exiled citizens; in the other, the Sarajevo String Quartet performs amidst the ruins of the National Library. Images of exodus and transcendence. Karahasan himself risked his life fleeing in 1993 to Salzburg in order to see his book published in the West—a book that declares not that literature and politics are intertwined, connected, even indistinguishable, but that “literature is…responsible for politics.” This is hardly a radical position these days, except in the sense in which Karahasan seems to mean “politics,” that is, war. In her afterword, however, Slavenka Draculic gently dissents: “If war is the negation of humanity, documentary prose is its affirmation. More than that I am afraid we should not hope for, either as writers or as human beings.”

Karahasan’s indictments of the “misuse of the literary craft” are based on what he sees as deliberately naïve or contorted conceptions of the relationship between literary language and experience. On the one hand, literature has been disabused by poststructuralist theory of the hope of any possible collective meaning or even formal legitimacy. If literature is by definition a tissue of lies and misrepresentations, a documentary of its own impossibility, why would anyone want to read it, let alone take it seriously? No member of the public has nearly the hostility to literature evinced by literary studies. When it comes to the documentation of personal or social grievance, however, all such notions are set aside and the “literature” is read respectfully. In the first instance, in which literature is seen as a joke on itself, the life of which that literature speaks is disfigured by relentless irony; in the second, the life described is absorbed and effaced by the categories of the social sciences. These two kinds of artlessness Karahasan would refer to as “indifference” and “politics.” Yet it is only literature, Karahasan says, that can conceive of the integrity of the individual and of our world. The values brought into being by literature differ from those of the social sciences and of literary studies because they are “imperatives of our own beings, not requirements imposed by fate or knowledge.” And because the people in his city, the ones among whom he wrote his books and taught his literature classes, are dodging snipers or shelling apartment buildings, what he wrote and how he taught must in some way have contributed to the general destruction.

Now in exile, Karahasan says he can no longer write; he is too aware of the “culpability” of his craft. Are these the night-thoughts of a war-deranged refugee, or has Karahasan something to tell us about the relationship between what the American poet Charles Olson used to call “polis,” and speech? We know from the history of 20th century totalitarianisms that a country’s language becomes “a sort of concentration camp” before the country itself becomes one. And we know that dystopian literature consistently presents worlds devoid of conversation, laughter, gestures, jokes, poetry, and vernacular vocabularies.

The former-Yugoslavian writer Dubravka Ugresic, in her book Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream (Trans. Celia Hawksworth, New York: Viking, 1994), describes another view from the window of the bus. The book’s cover photo, rather than the postwar cliché of the string quartet among the ruins, portrays an adult in a Mickey Mouse costume walking through an immaculate corridor where signs point to Adventureland and Frontierland. Urgresic’s book is a “fictionary,” a compendium of her experiences in the United States divided into words such as “addict,” “body,” and “harassment,” words integral to the culture of the American intelligentsia in places like Middletown, Connecticut, where Ugresic wrote and taught for periods after her exile from Zagreb in 1991. Her “fictionary” began as a weekly column entitled “My American Dictionary.” As the number of columns added up, Ugresic’s Dutch editor wrote to her noting that her articles were “very sad. They seem to be about someone who has stumbled into a completely empty house.”

Have a Nice Day collects some of Ugresic’s encounters with the language with which Americans frame their experience: the jogger who accuses Ugresic of “polluting the park” by smoking a cigarette; the police roster of “crimes” reported by young women at the Middletown campus (a young man pulls a shower curtain aside in a women’s locker room!! Another young man grabs at a woman’s skirt!!); the rampant infantilism; the “general, panic-stricken anxiety about health”; and, perhaps most objectionable, the condescension toward her.

When she first arrived in the United States, Ugresic was accosted by a journalist eager for sound-bites on repression, censorship, nationalism, and so on—problems this reporter clearly thought were endemic only to the Eastern Bloc. Urgresic noted “how easily all those words: communism, transition, postcommunism tripped off her tongue.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a writer,” I said.

“I’m asking you because you’re a writer, an intellectual, the representative of a postcommunist country.”

God, I thought, if she only knew that in my country writers, taking on the role of politicians, were as responsible for the war as the generals, because when they were asked the same questions they were only too eager to answer.

Ugresic, embarrassed to have come from a destroyed country, is at the same time embarrassed for Americans who assume destruction only afflicts other countries. As a writer, Ugresic clearly has no respect for the ignorance that permits these delusions; but as an exile she tries to accommodate herself to her new milieu. In this way, Ugresic is more pragmatic than Karahasan, with his emphasis on the literary use of language. Where Karahasan accuses writers of pretending to be confused about the world in order to justify and promote artlessness, Ugresic notes a tendency in American discourse to ignore the “world” altogether—the world, that is, of adult life. In a culture in which art refuses its authority as the “single defense and proof of the unity of the world and of human actions,” and in which adults refuse to leave the self-absorptions and anxieties of childhood, we should not be surprised by the ease with which public and private discourse has surrendered to a takeover by the ersatz language of corporatism and of in loco parentis public administration.

Proscribed first are distinctions—of degree, of kind, of intent. And with the loss of distinctions necessarily goes the loss of vocabulary itself, and with vocabulary goes the vernacular. (I don’t mean the rude, the blunt, the outraged: that remains alive in parts of the ecology of popular culture; I mean the vernacular of what used to be called common sense.) Whole species of words and expressions, histories and understandings, knowledge and technologies, lie dead at the margins of the administrative, corporatist, scientistic “systems”-language choking our life and our thought.

Some of the implications of this disaster are examined by the German linguist Uwe Poerksen in his book Plastic Words: The Tyranny of Modular Language( Trans. Jutta Mason and David Cayley, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995). Poerksen notes that modular language seems more and more to circumscribe our existence. The language of work, the language of love, even the language of dismay and indignation are rapidly being replaced by modular words, modular feelings, modular experiences. Among these plastic spectres are “relationship” and “sexuality,” as well as “health,” “growth”, “system” “model,” “partner,” “development,” and “identity.” Other modular experiences and emotions are, as Ugresic had noticed, “networking,” “harassment,” and having a “schedule.” Urgresic says she was forced quickly to become aware that “contact, network, networking are words which are part of American etiquette…and in the little dictionary of etiquette words stick to one another like magnets.”

It is the mobility of plastic words that so readily gives them the aura of meaningful lexical activity, Poerksen says. For plastic words have the ability, unlike euphemisms or abstractions, to exist in any syntactical combination with other plastic words and still give the impression of signifying something. Like Ugresics’s “magnets,” modular words seem to attract other modular words. Lego block snaps into Lego block to form a smooth reflective surface. The plastic words “development,” “strategy,” and “mangement,” for example, could be combined in various orders to produce three identical, and identically nonsensical, phrases: development strategy management; management strategy development; strategy development management. What all three share, besides their institutional ubiquity, is their utter vacuity of meaning, precision, beauty, rhythm, spark, or life. Even so, plastic words seem to inspire confidence—or at least fear. Certainly they are the words most quickly resorted to by “managers” and by those aspiring to “management.” They attract money and investment. And because of that, they change the world.

Unlike the fresh and exciting perceptions produced by the activity of metaphor (in which words literally cross from one field of experience to another, like the citizens of the former Sarajevo once did) only a lurid “strange new light” is cast when plastic words devour entirely the particularities of the language fields they encounter. Poerksen writes,

The forms of expression of one milieu can overwhelm, cover up, and “colonize” those of another milieu… There seem to be three particularly effective spheres of origin, three big image donors, which export their vocabulary and shed a strange new light on everyday existence: the languages of science (and technology), of economics and of administration.

We seem unable to speak for ourselves or for others outside this colonized domain, which has about as much of our best interests in mind as the candy-house witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Indeed, we think that applying modular language to every problem of our existence will save us, even if the problems themselves are phantoms created by modular terminology. Because of its surface neutrality, modular language seems rational. It seems to belong to the real, grown-up world of finance and technology. It even has the aura of filial wisdom: “development,” (along with “information” one of Poerksen’s most insidious and villainous of plastic words) is something parents oversee and something parents provide. And surely parental love is unambivalent, wise, and infallible.

I teach at a community college where we are being told that we must make accommodation to the “information” (now “knowledge-based”) economy. This accommodation and its concomitant “adjustments” are described as follows in a document entitled “Strategic Plan Initiative Outcomes”: “Educational technology will assist us in the development of new models for learning.” No one openly laughs at this language; no one is openly outraged by it. But in private, out of the view of administrators and managers, you can see a few people—usually the poets—miming the gag reflex, as if in looking at these words they had seen instead a dead rat or a pile of shit. Yet no one else understands this language either, because there is nothing to be understood: the thought-balloons floating above these modules contain nothing but cartoons of computer equipment and dollar signs.

It seems so benign. “These models will give learners more choices.” Everyone knows that “models” are created by experts, that experts by definition know what they are doing, and that “choices” are a good thing to have. Therefore, “instructors and departments will develop and incorporate these new learning models into their courses and programs.” The imperative gives away the fact that the adjustments to this new world have already been made in language. All that remains is that these “models” be “developed” into an “educational technology vision” which will then be taken on as a “system challenge” to enable us to become part of the “global learning network.” (More gag motions.) Only in this way will we experience “institutional survival”—the “learning community” (like the customer who was always right) will simply demand it.

Modular language is inert, hollow, dead, and impenetrable. Nevertheless, this language “sets the scene for actions that can so transform the city…that within one generation it becomes unrecognizable.” Poerksen is here not talking about war, Karahasan’s “politics” that destroy a city, but rather a municipal “Blueprint for a Plan of Space Utilization” for the city of Frieburg. This language, Poerksen says, is more than merely hollow: “It is a grader that flattens the landscape.”

The vernacular that may lie around the edges of these language modules, like the rubble around the site of a demolition, seems risible, obsolete, hopelessly naïve, even malignant: students, teachers, ideas, discussions, questions, arguments, conversation, etc. The preferred plastic words, such as the “development” of “skills” for “participation in a global economy” are, as Poerksen says, “cut off from the rich store of gesture, expression, and pantomime available to ordinary language; they are toneless.”

In the last couple of decades, the academic vanguard of political correctness saw to it that much of the vividness and picturesqueness of language was cleared away from public discourse. The vernacular, increasingly reduced to the apoplexies of talk radio or rap music, or to the image-banks of advertising companies, has become disreputable and therefore deserving of extinction. Even as linguists and anthropologists warn us about the extinction of language groups for lack of living speakers in various parts of the world, our own becomes more and more impoverished. What remains is a Lego-language, the sandbox toys of adult children, mental defectives, and consumer chumps. The more inarticulate we become, the more credulous. We seem simply unable to fathom that “information” and “development” are ghostly predators, not saviors, and that the very intimacies of our existence are their prey.

When Dzevad Karahasan, exiled and looking back on the destruction of Sarajevo, speaks of the culpability of literature; when Dubravka Ugresic, exiled and looking back at what remains of Zagreb, speaks of the widespread use of words like “contact” among American writers and intellectuals who seem to prefer that “metallic-tasting” word to “friend” or “conversation”: and when Uwe Poerksen warns of the enclosure and organization of “enormous spaces” of human experience by modular language, we should listen to their warnings and concerns.

The rest of this essay, written in the spring of 1996, concerned the then-recent separation referendum that was held in Quebec and which lost only by a few thousand votes, attributed to “money and the ethnic vote” in Parizeau’s scandalous alcohol-fueled parlance. Even so, his concession speech was vibrant by comparison to that of the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, who read a prepared statement. Five years later, the modular continues without challenge both to reflect and to shape a modular world. Like the franchises that disfigure suburban landscapes, their equivalent in language disfigures both public institutions and private thought. It’s easy to poke fun at the grotesqueries of politically correct euphemism and the jargon of middle management; less easy to protest the almost universal use of modular language when it comes to land use, city planning, conservation, transportation, education, and business, now known as the operations of “globalization.” Modular language is particularly adept at successful parasitism because of its identity with the language of technology and systems: the two areas that as Poerksen pointed out in his book, are given the most freedom, power, and money with which to affect the world. In the category “systems” I also include the ubiquitous middle-management roles of “sexual harassment officer,” “conflict resolution adviser,” etc. with their arsenal of plastic remedies for people’s despair such as “anger management” and “addiction recovery.” The people who are employed to run these “human resources” “programs” proliferate in number as the money for academic courses seems to always stay the same, if not diminish.

Likewise for computers. Computer technology in the community college system is by far its largest expense, which is only logical considering the world is moving toward a “global learning network.” Set this up against, say, poetry courses and the degree to which poetry’s (or as Karahasan would say, literature’s) irrelevance could not be clearer. T’was ever thus, but at least in the fairly recent past, poetry’s enemy was “relevance,” an easier foe to contend with. How does literature contend with, on the one hand, “globalization,” and on the other, students’ demands that they “feel safe” in classrooms? Many resources of the college are devoted to this modularity “safe”; as if in the past classes had been taught by psychopathic ogres. The modular “safe” has done more to repress thinking and reading and talking than outright censorship would. Even worse is the dilution of the powerful and revolutionary notion of human rights, now modularized into a label for workshops sponsored by managers fearful of lawsuits launched by students who don’t feel safe enough in their classrooms.

There is currently on TV a commercial for a major bank’s so-called “products”: in the commercial, people walk around holding plastic orange cubes which are meant to represent their “dream.” The modular reified at last: a plastic cube, the future. Worse, the people carrying the cubes look like somnolents, the body-snatched of a 1950’s horror movie. The cubes even have a life of their own: they float in the bows of canoes; they sit on a dock with a Golden Retriever. When I referred to this commercial in one of my classes recently, performing the sleepwalk with my hands outstretched in front of me, the imaginary cube cradled on them, no one found it amusing, and one student pointed out that I had proved the commercial was successful, since I had remembered it so well. He was a business student, taking literature because he needed first-year English as a prerequisite.

When Karahasan warns us about the unforeseen effects of an attitude of “indifference” toward literature (either in the teaching of it or the deconstruction of it by literary studies), I sympathize intuitively with his concern, even as it appears overstated. But teachers and critics both must take responsibility for having destroyed the credibility of literature and found themselves now in the position of having to try to reconstruct that credibility in the face of massive indifference (despite the evidence of “book sales”). I don’t think people want to be indifferent toward literature, I think they are trained to be, and by the very people who claim to care about it. The fact that the academic study of literature has now polarized into theory on one side and formalist readings of 18th Century texts on the other speaks to the real existence of a bombed-out space where, as in Karahasan’s destroyed city, “opposition and mutual reflection” could take place. Lest this essay degenerate into an epitaph for some gilded version of the past, let me say only that twenty years ago I taught dozens of “challenging” postmodern texts and no student ever reported me to the managers.

Uploaded March 15, 2001: 3664 w.
This essay was first published in The Vancouver Review in 1996. It has been abridged and updated.


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