Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Common Language

“The intellectual is called on the carpet.  What do you mean when you say…?  Don’t conceal something?  You talk a language which is suspect.”

                                                                                                Marcuse 192

Well, you had better speak more slowly so we can understand.  We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times.  All right, now, go on with your speech.”
                                                                                                Ellison 31

            Marcuse asserts that language as a whole has become what he calls a “common language.”  That language has been, “pressed into the straitjacket of common usage, but also enjoined not to ask and seek solutions beyond those that are already there” (Marcuse 178).  Like everything is in a capitalist society, it must be considered and weighed for its value.  All confusion that arises from “symbols, metaphors, and images” must be eliminated to bring the speech into common language.  And then it can be neatly packaged and sold off as commodity.  Marcuse sees his (our) society as driven by consumerism/capitalism, everything has a monetary value attached to it and if one cannot be readily defined then the system will adept to absorb it.  The example of Mother Teresa and how one can relate a religious figure to the idea of selling a product.  This is where language as a whole breaks down into the common language there can be nothing above the common and it must fit the mold established by the society speaking it.
The narrator of the Invisible Man, after many degrading experiences, gives a speech to the same people who had abused him and others like him not a moment before.  The people of his race who, “depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man” speaks to the degree of not only his physical subjugation but his linguistic subjugation.  There is no hint of protest against the trials that came before the speech, he takes no action whether to flee from the scene or to resist in some fashion after the fact (though that would have likely resulted in his death).  Ellison is playing with the same idea of language construction that Marcuse is arguing, the speech is given with constant interruptions by the audience to have any word “of three or more syllables” repeated because it was not the common language.  This is the poetry that Marcuse argues the committee claims to love but that in order to be properly understood the “symbols, metaphors, and images” must be brought into ordinary language.  When Ellison’s narrator misspeaks and replaces social responsibility with social equality the audience is quick to question the mistake because where one falls in line with preconceived conventions the other speaks of protest, unrest, and change.  There is no possible use of equality for the established common language of the listening audience, the committee of language they have established is one of submission and degradation and the narrator can only function within that framework.  For Marcuse there is no discourse within this arrangement of committee all of the symbols must mean something and they must mean the right thing in the proper order.  “Tolerance is deceptive,” there is no meaning but the meaning of the common.  The narrator experience the hijacking of language and his dependence upon the listeners of his speech for his “success” later in life, specifically to his ability to attend a prestigious university.  Marcuse and Ellison point to the control of language as a way to control the individual, if language can be reduced to the common then the control of people can be just as simple.


  1. I think it's hard for me to criticize this beyond what was said in class. Seems like we talked about several of these passages and this topic most of the class. I think it would be good to incorporate some of that transcendental language idea that we discussed. I assume, as the novel goes on, that the narrator's language will begin to change and become more uncommon so that may make a good idea for a final project if you were searching for one. Also, I'm not exactly sure what purpose including the Mother Teresa example serves. It was thrown in there, and the idea didn't seem to developed in terms of that being a concrete example. Other than that I really like the idea you went with here.

  2. The conjunction of the two quotes, of course, is fantastic. Excellent work - you were wide awake and thinking hard on that one (even if it seemed like luck at the time that you put the two together).

    One thing I felt was missing in the first full paragraph was some kind of sense of what the alternative to common language is - that's important, because we need to think about the common *and* the transcendent in the context of Invisible Man.

    I like your analysis of the narrator's experience, although we should keep in mind how clueless he is at this stage - it might be a bit of a stretch to call his speech poetry, although that does *not* mean that he isn't put through the ringer for how he uses language.

    The long paragraph could use some splitting up and unpacking, and some time spent on the narrator's language. It's one thing that someone is expected to use "common language", and your analysis here is correct. But for this essay to evolve in Marcusean directions, the possibility, at least, of transcendence would need to be addressed as well. Does the speech contain a nugget of transcendence (despite all his cluelessness) which requires suppression?

    The last paragraph is problematic, but this may be your best blog post overall, in spite of that.