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Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America Paperback – September 11, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Shachtman's (Skyscraper Dreams) latest seems to start out as an intriguing study of the fate of conversation and Socratic dialogue in America. But the study of such an elusive topic would require a great deal of supposition, and apparently Shachtman prefers to deal with facts. After reviewing studies on how we learn to speak, standard English and on the culpability of schools in declining literacy, he makes it clear that his primary interest is political discourse. With television news more closely approximating entertainment and election campaigns approximating advertising, Shachtman worries that Americans are in danger of losing their voice in the democracy?and, what's worse?not really knowing they've lost it. Little of this will seem new: informed readers are aware of changes in network news coverage; of the low intellectual caliber of talk shows; of the decline in literacy in schools; and of the spin-doctoring and sound-biting of political communication. Shachtman offers suggestions for increasing general articulateness (and, in doing so, raising the level of discourse), but most are commonsensical, and some are naive: does anyone really believe that "Oprah Winfrey might hire a vocabularist to cook up some delectable words for her talk show"? Probably not. The book will confirm readers' worst suspicions, but it gives them little new to think about.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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This business of throwing out perfectly good library books is bogus.
Many books approach the nature of the problems within the media or public education as something which is apocalyptic. That may not be all that bad since it creates some sort of artificial tension that makes for more interesting reading. Tom Shactman does the same. However, unlike Sykes and other writers who tend to be dramatic, Shactman does spread out blame in a real sense. There isn't even the stench of an ad-hominem. What's more, the blame is really centered on a process, not on agencies or any sort of ideology. This makes for an clear thesis that exhibited exceptional follow-through in rhetoric and evidence.
What is the thesis? Well, I can't remember exactly what he wrote, but the gist of it was that we as a society has been losing the ability to discern and convey wisdom. Not raw data, precisely, but useful, contextual, nuggets of information. This inability to connect by conversations can, and he documents the results, lead to serious problems like decreased conflict resolution, poor education, and media manipulation among others.
He ends up describing a couple of remedies that do have some hope of solving some of these problems.
If you are researching pedagogy or media studies, or just plain interested in communications, this is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.
In the course of his discussion, Schactman relates how the classic liberal society was founded upon the belief that all (male, property-owning) members of society must be engaged in the public discourse, and the corrollary that in order to be able to do so, individuals must be able to discuss complex issues articulately and persuasively. Here is his succint summation of the rise of liberal individualism and its implications: "Empowering individuals regardless of class began with the revolution of Martin Luther and the Enlightenment, and found political expression in the populism of President Andrew Jackson and the 1848 nationalistic upheavals in Europe. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, from Karl Marx's theoretical bifurcation of the population into the exploiters and the exploited arose attempts to form the exploited masses of a particular country or region into coherent groups that could agitate for change in their political and economic status. Where the residue if feudalism held sway, nationalism also began to provide a rationale for the old feudal constituencies to cohere of the purposes of organizing themselves in nonfeudal aggregates. Leaders whose abilities lay in mobilizing these masses came to the fore and pushed out those old-style leaders who had previously made their way up political ladders to positions of ascendancy and who saw their task only as influencing the elites." Pg. 96.
He goes on to discuss how the Marxian analysis has been refocused in the face of the proliferation of various forms of media: "Jurgen Habermas insists that the center of argument about the modern world has now shifted from Marxism contentions about how industrial production is organized to an examination of how commination in societies is organized and effected. That contention is well founded. While a discussion about the bases of entertainment can be held without reference to the political sphere, it is no longer possible to discuss the modern political sphere without reference to communications techniques and communications technology." Pg. 97
He further expands this particular line of argument to point the finger at a media which has all but abandoned its mandate to inform and engage the American people in the political process. He notes also that in addition to jettisoning journalistic principles that originally posited the media as corrective to the abuses of power, the media now crowds out those who do not seek to appeal to the LCD. In an apt metaphor which neatly depicts how there is no such thing as a neutral "marketplace of ideas," he says: "...quality (entertainment) products are few in number and power, a half-dozen rowboats struggling to stay afloat in a harbor crowded with the yachts, international freighters, and cruise ships of the mass entertainment industry." Pg. 101.
But that is just the beginning of the insidious effect of the entertainment cultures effect on public discourse which, according to Schactman, views people not as citizens, but as consumers. "...It is a way of thinking that presumes everything has a price, all things can be bought and sold, and therefore all things should be bought and sold. ....No other objective--not art, not morality, not personal integrity, and certainly not the modeling of good articulate behavior--can be of importance. Articulate behavior is not perceived as able to sell anything but itself, and as such it is useless to the commodifiers. Inarticulate behavior, on the other hand, has been construed as something that appeals to the masses, and thus as a useful commodity." Pg. 107
In a pincer movement, under the guise of populism, conservative elements attack articulate culture as unmanly, villianous. This strategy supports and cheers their unreconstructed supporters who have been raised on the myths of the tight-lipped gunslinger, the man of few words, the man of action. Think of the current administration where lack of articulateness is promoted as a virture, where tough talk is portrayed as emblematic of American character and American resolve. Schactman argues that in the face of a society that promotes inarticulate behavior, that it is up to every individual and every family to resurrect and nuture this dying virture. He also suggests that those in government should lead us by example into a newly articulate age. That would be welcome, but as it does not seem to serve the political and economic goals of the governing class -- who sell themselves as commodities and enable the market culture to pervade every aspect of our lives -- the adoption of this particular proposition seems seems doubtful. Nevertheless, here's a slogan I offer that may be of use to those who seek to resurrect a country founded by intellectuals and bomb-throwers: Representation without taxation is tyranny.