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Niels Helsloot, 'Linguists of all countries ...!, On Gramsci's premise of coherence', in: Journal of Pragmatics 13, 1989, pp. 558-559.
Chapter 6, Charlatanism of the will (Vološinov), section 6.1.
© 1989, 2003 (posted with permission from Elsevier)



'Grammars' express relatively permanent forces, constituted in a process of historical evolution. But even 'relative' coherence exists only inasmuch as it possesses an efficient premise, in the form of active 'popular beliefs', or mass adhesion. This premise must be linked to acts, passions, and feelings that have the power to lead people on to action 'at any price' (PN 412-413). Only those who will something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for the realization of this will (PN 171). Thus, 'laws' expressing a tendency (comparable to Bartoli's statistic laws) can be valid – not deterministically, but in a 'historicist' sense; that is, to the extent that there exists an environment which is organically alive and interconnected in the phases of its development (PN 401; cf. Gramsci (1967: 253)). In short, in order to see any permanence at all, an orientation towards coherence has to be premised.
   This premise is fundamental. For Gramsci, it is not just desirable, but even (historically) necessary to organize the chaotic and confused process of history, in order to adapt to a rising new order. "Only a totalitarian system of ideologies", he says, "represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionising of praxis" (PN 366). Of course, this is no defence of a [p. 559:] totalitarian State, or of a Party unifying knowledge by force, but it does support a universality of knowledge that unifies and includes everyone (PN 348, 398, 445n92). While Gramsci is pessimistic about knowledge, this pessimism is offset by an optimism of the will, in the sense that he expects historical will to be directed towards unity (PN 175n75).
   This expectation forces him to object to any language that does not aim at coherence – an objection that is very clear in his development of the concept of neology ("neolalismo"), which defines every form of expression that remains the property of a restricted group as a pathological manifestation of individual language. Gramsci uses this concept to indicate a whole series of cultural, artistic, and intellectual expressions (CW 122); e.g. the dead Latin of the Middle Age elites, the literary Italian from Florence, and the Chinese ideography of his own time (Gramsci (1984a: 120-125)). From this perspective, he also argues against illiteracy. A 'unified language' that acquiesces in the exclusion of any social group lacks cultural scope, and should be considered a case of 'neology'.
   Typically, Gramsci also opposes the claim for Esperanto's status as a unified language (CW 26-31): Esperantists try to introduce an artificial coherence on a world scale that is not culturally supported. According to Gramsci, the problems of communication caused by the multiplicity of different languages, as perceived by Esperanto's protagonists, were a cosmopolitan, not an internationalist, anxiety on the part of the bourgeoisie. The necessary preconditions not (yet) existing, the want to communicate with people all over the world was an arbitrary one. This, according to Gramsci, caused Esperanto to turn into a fixed idea, a humanitarian, democratic obsession. Looking back from our present stance, however, the question is rather how it came about that Esperanto prevailed (Michéa (1979)): unlike other 'artificial languages', it did not remain a mere 'logophilia'. Especially in socialist and third world countries, Esperanto has succeeded in establishing itself as a social movement. In retrospect, this shows that what is at stake in the historical struggle is the distinction itself between coherence and incoherence; understandability and arbitrariness do not exist outside of praxis.


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