Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does Literature Exist? Part 5

On the Purpose of Language

The purpose of language, that is, the purpose to which we put it most of the time, is the creation and maintenance of social relations. The vast majority of all communication*, in all media, (spoken, written, whistled, tactile, whatever) is not intended to entertain, inform, persuade, instruct or anything else, it is a negotiation of a shared understanding of the nature of the relations between the people involved, and usually also an enjoyment of those relations.**

Story-telling is, like other uses to which we put speech and communication, an example of an adaptation of an ability for some other end. We didn’t become bipedal so we could play basketball, our dexterity did not evolve because of a selective advantage possessed by piano virtuosi, and the glottis has a purpose not remotely related to the singing of grand opera. And, although story-telling often has a partly social function or context, the type of language used is quite different, on another creative level, from ordinary social communication. It involves the manipulation of newly-created abstract concepts into a pattern that will be perceived as having the possibility of being real, and can be accepted as such. We are so good at doing this that we fail to realise the intellectual challenge it represents.

Literary texts take the intellectual challenge and attempt to refine it in a way that most of us are not capable of imitating. In doing so they (deliberately) distance themselves from the social function which usually forms a part of all communication, even story-telling. That is perhaps where literature is distinct from mere story-telling, a higher and separate entity. In this sense, naturally, literature certainly exists.

In any case, the point of this last post in my rambling mini-series is just to point out that story-telling is not the main purpose for which we use language. And neither is telling the truth.

*By communication I mean an utterance directed at a specific person or group of people. Novels, especially literary novels, articles, and so on, are usually not communication in this sense. Not that it makes much difference to the point.

**(It is possible, but not at all certain, that language originated because of selective pressure on the ability to create strong social groups through verbal communication, but that is not what I am trying to argue here. There are those who suggest, and argue well (see Babel’s Dawn on the blogroll, or his new book which is just out), that it originated in the sharing of an interest in an object, that is, that the motor function was informative rather than social.)


James Higham said...

Oh, I'd say literature most certainly has a social function. It speaks of life.

CIngram said...

But it sets itself apart from the society it comments on. It's the reader who can then reintegrate it into society; the work is deliberately outside it.