Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: July, 2015


When you walk through the streets of Naples or Salerno or any historic city in the south of Italy, you will be struck by the extent to which old building materials have been recycled again and again over generations. The Greeks and the Romans left their mark in this part of the world, and their architecture was the best. The people who lived here never forgot it. Architectural styles and human needs kept changing, but it always seemed such a shame not to make use of all the good old stuff lying around. That is why builders, beginning in the Middle Ages, found creative ways to build in bits of Greek and Roman houses and ruins into their own constructions. The cathedral in Salerno is a good example. It is a medieval building, but the fine classical pillars come from some old Roman palace nearby. As a result of all this recycling of architectural materials, many buildings here, though built in a particular style that was in vogue at a particular time, in fact contain physical elements of earlier styles going back to Antiquity.

Art historians have a special word for these reused bits of classical buildings: spolia. This is a Latin word for “spoils”, which of course originally refers to equipment left behind by a defeated enemy after a battle and reused by the victors.

Looking down over the beautiful Bay of Naples in the evening sunset, and thinking of the unbroken continuity of man’s history here for thousands of years, I begin to think that as well as architectural spolia, there are intellectual spolia too. To be sure, we come up with new philosophies and scientific theories, but they are never entirely new. We use and reuse the old ideas, transforming them in the process. Democritus was the first to talk about the atom, the indivisible constituent of matter, and we are still talking about it, though we have our own more subtle definition of it. Aristotle and the Church Fathers talked about the faculties of mind, and speculated as to how they might be distributed in certain parts of the brain – neuropsychology is still fixated on the same idea. One could quote many other examples. The point is that our philosophies and theories never seem to start from scratch; they always use bits and scraps of previous theorizing that may go right back to Antiquity.

Lévi-Strauss had a similar notion of bricolage (“tinkering” or “do-it-yourself”) in anthropology: cultures do not create their intellectual systems from scratch, but use existing material in creative ways, just like the hobbyist uses whatever materials he has got in his home workshop to produce charming and ingenious contraptions.

“Nothing new under the sun!” exclaimed King Solomon in the Bible, and he was right. When we innovate intellectually or technically, we are always recycling old terms and concepts from our history and even from other cultures. It is humbling to recall this as the umpteenth visitor admiring the scenery and the sunset in the Bay of Naples.




Promotion to subject (2)

At times, whole categories of people can be demoted from subject to object. The insane experienced this in European history. During the Middle Ages they were mythified, and even listened to as having something strange and other-worldly to say. In modern times, however, they were regarded as sick, as patients, and were not listened to; doctors treating them spoke in their place – about them, as objects. This was associated with confinement and loss of liberty. In the Middle Ages, the insane had roamed about freely, sometimes finding a livelihood as entertainers – court fools and clowns. In modern times, they were locked up in institutions.

My point is that many kinds of people have been demoted to objects who once were subjects. An obvious example would be colonized peoples. Once they spoke for themselves, but then they were conquered and their conquerors spoke in their place, about them. For many such peoples, all we know about their history is what we gather from the hostile accounts of their conquerors.

In more modern times, there was a benign variant of this: anthropology. This was a discourse in which white guys went to study exotic tribes. George Steiner, glorifying Western civilization, remarked: “no exotic tribes come to study us”. But they could not, because anthropology is a discourse that does not admit of exotic tribes being anything but the object of discourse, not the subject. In recent years, this fact has made some anthropologists uneasy. But anthropology is still largely a matter of “us” studying “them”.

My proposal is that objects of discourse in this sense should be promoted to subject, using the analogy with linguistics with which I began.

The big problem is language. Often the object of discourse, if he is very different, does not speak the language of the present subject he is trying to replace. He may be an exotic tribesman. But he may also be one of the inarticulate working classes in England identified (rightly or wrongly) by Basil Bernstein in the 1960s. When this object is promoted to subject, he can do one of two things: he can speak in the language of the former subject – assuming he is up to the job of learning it – or he can speak his own language. If he learns the former subject’s language, he is likely to lose his own authentic voice when he tries to talk. But if he speaks his own language, the former subject and the former subject’s audience will not understand him.

Promotion to subject is a laudable project for those who have been talked of as objects for too long – but it is fraught with challenges that cannot be glossed over.

Promotion to subject (1)

Generative grammar has always used the notions of subject and object, which are supposed to be universal – that is, found in every language and culture. There was a sub-field of generative grammar, case-grammar, which went a bit further. It did not focus on the grammatical case of nouns familiar from the classical languages, but rather on “deep” case or semantic case – that is to say, the roles that the persons and things referred to by the nouns play in the sentence. In traditional classical grammar we accounted for that in terms of “agent” and “patient”, or “doer” and “sufferer”. Case grammar expanded this list to take in “the theme”, which often corresponds to the direct object, but sometimes to the subject. In fact, there can be “transformations” of the sentence to let different nouns or roles be more or less prominent in the sentence. This often involves the prominent noun becoming the subject of the sentence. Hence the term “promotion to subject”. The most obvious transformation is “passivization”, where the active verb becomes passive, the “agent” or “doer” is demoted from subject to a subordinate case, and the “patient” or “sufferer” becomes the subject. So “the man saw the boy” becomes “the boy was seen by the man”, where “the boy” is promoted to subject.

On the other hand, one must remark that the capacity to occupy subject position is usually tied to being the focus of interest. We are less likely to say “a car ran over the man” than we are to say “the man was run over by a car”, for the simple reason that the man is our natural focus of attention. There can be other such transformations, however, such as, for example, “bees swarm in the garden”, but also “the garden swarms with bees”. The focus of attention may be on the bees, or it may be on the garden.

Be that as it may, some nouns – or what they refer to – seem inherently more worthy of being subject than others. If we focus on the subject, we can identify with it.

There is another sense of subject and object in connection with language. A subject can mean the person who is talking or doing something. We talk about “the knowing subject” in epistemology, meaning the person who knows something. What this person knows or talks about is the object of discourse. (“Subject” can also be used to refer to something talked about, but it is usually a whole topic, or a realm of discourse, like epistemology itself.)

Of course, if the subject is talking about a person, that person will be the object of discourse. Different kinds of people may be the subject or the object of a discourse. Some people are always subjects, and other people are always objects. For example, in medicine, doctors are always the subjects and patients are always the object. Medical discourse consists of doctors talking about patients and in particular what is wrong with them.

The dismantling of nations

As many commentators have been saying, the Greek situation represents the victory of politics over economics. The EU has always been an economic union, most recently a financial one, and the political side has only been an afterthought. The political side was in fact a nuisance and a distraction from the real business, which was just that: business. There was a playing down of the patriotism about nations, and there was no attempt to create a pan-European patriotism in its stead. This was supposed to be a recipe for the destructive nationalism that plagued Europe in the past. But it is not necessarily all good.

Politicians excoriating Greece point to countries like Ireland who took their medicine and are now recovering. But Ireland has paid a tremendous price too in terms of young people lost and mortgage defaults by families. This is repeating itself in Spain and Portugal as well, not to speak of Greece. The social price is too high. The “core Europe” represented by Brussels shrugs its shoulders. They (core Europe) are doing all right. There is a feeling of moral superiority in Brussels, and an acceptance of “l’Europe à deux vitesses”, the two-speed Europe of winners and losers.

With the withering away of the nation-state, which has certainly not been a perfect institution, people lose any say they had in their own lives. In the current discussion about Europe, not enough attention has been paid to the lamentable episode that is usually called the reunification of Germany. What happened there was the dismantling of a nation, the DDR – for a distinct nation, however imperfect, had constituted itself, and it was ignored. The social costs have been tremendous: unemployment, emigration to the West and other countries, neo-Nazi pathologies. East Germany has never recovered, perhaps never will.

There was an unmistakeable tone of self-righteousness in the way West Germany went about “fixing” East Germany. German politicians, and the public there too, now expect Greece to take the same lethal dose – to agree to what is essentially its own dismantling as a nation. When people lose a sense of control over their own lives, all that is left to them is negative power, the power to sabotage the functioning of large organisations (as Charles Handy has pointed out in the context of labour relations). They will use that power, whether the people supposedly running things like it or not. We are seeing it happen now, in Greece.