THE INARTICULATE SOCIETY: Eloquence and Culture in America by Thomas Shachtman

THE INARTICULATE SOCIETY: Eloquence and Culture in America

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A fairly persuasive if not entirely original commentary on the breakdown from an eloquently literate society to an incoherently oral one, and what it means for our egalitarian, technological democracy. Having written about such cultural hot spots in American history as the turbulent 1960s (Decade of Shocks, 1983) and the Manhattan real estate boom (Skyscraper Dreams, 1991), Shachtman turns, with mixed effect, to the fluid field of the American language and its social ramifications. Although he has essentially written a screed on society, culture, and politics, he begins in linguistics: the anthropology of oral vs. literate societies, children's acquisition of language, and the consequences of parents' and schools' neglect of word-rich ""standard"" English (as opposed to more limited vernaculars). Arguing that our collective social vocabulary is contracting alarmingly and that our use of language is less and less suited for abstract, complex expression--in short, that we are becoming more like an oral society--Shachtman searches for proof in television news, film scripts, political debates, and election campaigns, areas already well-mined by cultural critics from Emerson and Mencken to Neil Postman and Daniel Boorstin. The author's brief history of American eloquence, examining the models of Jefferson and Lincoln, as well as the 19th-century lyceum movement and Chautauqua tent-lecture circuit, is a telling chronicle of decline. By contrast, his analysis of 20th-century language--whether Nazi and Soviet propaganda, Pentagon and government jargon, or PC and neocon rhetoric--is generalized and conflated. After too many such social generalizations, familiar criticisms, and roundups of the usual suspects, the earlier material loses much of its pessimistic force. Over-familiar and hampered by sketchy citations, but still a depressing commentary on communication in today's dumbed-down, plugged-in society.

Pub Date: July 21st, 1995
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Free Press