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Home | 2016

Channelled speech

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2016-09-19 09:23. Updated on UTC 2016-09-20

In 1959 the German writer, dramatist and poet Günther Eich (1907-1972) was awarded the Georg-Büchner-Preis, the most prestigious literary prize in Germany.

The dramatist Georg Büchner (1813-1837) died young. In his 23 years he managed to be an irritant to the great and the good, politically and religiously. As a result he was persecuted, hounded by the censors of the time and driven into exile. Even after his death his fiancée Minna Jaeglé took scissors and eraser to his work to eliminate passages she thought unfitting – or perhaps it really was selective nibbling by the mice, after all. It is one of those ironies that we enjoy so much on this blog that Büchner's name should be attached to the most ponderous and establishment of literary prizes in Germany.

In his speech Eich spoke of the insidious effect of what he called gelenkte Sprache, 'steered' or 'channelled' speech – speech that is carefully directed, filtered, guarded, positive and uncritical. Where earlier totalitarian regimes had used prisons and execution as forms of social control, the modern way using channelled speech is much more subtle.

In this sense he was close to the writings of his near contemporary George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950). The latter's examination of the distortion of language by totalitarian regimes – most famously in Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and a number of essays – compares with Eich's attack on the 'channelled speech' demanded of their subjects by the powers that be. Orwell is ahead of Eich in the literary development of this theme – Eich lacking Orwell's allegorical subtlety – but Eich is ahead of Orwell in the development of the doctrine of gainsaying, troublemaking and stubborn questioning as the essential characteristic of a literary work for our times.

We discussed one of Eich's troublemaker works last April. Eich had spent his war years in the German army writing folksy, ideologically sound, feel-good plays to keep the home-front happy, so he knew whereof he spoke.

Here are some very short excerpts from Eich's speech (translation ©FoS). Those whose sleep is troubled by the modern concepts of 'hate speech', 'hate crimes', 'twitter storms' and 'snowflakes' may find some nourishment here, half a century before such things came into being.

Günther Eich's Büchner prize speech


There are less conspicuous ways of making the world more beautiful, making people happier, making the powerful even more powerful and the sweetness of it all even sweeter. There are paths that are easier to beat through the thickets of our distrust, assuming that our distrust is any kind of serious undergrowth at all. Whether it is more than mere window-box plants, from behind which one morning we rub our eyes and wonder who has erected the barbed wire and set up the stakes for burning – how crude even that is! A sort of Biedermeier of Hell. One day, without diminishing the dominance of the powers that be, they will be able to be turned into scrap iron and left to rot. There are more subtle ways.

We want to take a stand against one of these more subtle means, in the hope that we will gain the support of the writer, in whose name we are gathered here today.

The grim determination with which we [Germans] acknowledge authority allows us to see criticism as a criminal act, or at least as a regrettable aberration.

And although power was used even before the Fall of Man, I shall never cease to insist that it is an institution of evil.

There has never been anything inhumane in the world, no lack of conscience, no blood and no terror that by artful argumentation has not been presented as being good and justified. Just decapitate your enemy – someone will turn up to praise you as a saviour. Some reason can be found: national identity or the fight for existence, the demons of Nature or blood, people and proletariat.

No, I feel no joyful thrill in the face of power, I find it repellent, wherever it is demanded or obtained through trickery, battled for, acquired by force or even legitimately.

But we are just at the beginning. The roses all around us have started to put down roots full of hope, und since we are negative, we are looking for an effective poison to stop their flowering. We are not happy at the prospect of forcing humans to follow particular patterns of behaviour. … We would really much rather be unfriendly, before we are finally condemned to silence. It is time for mockery and satire, high time.

For my part I suspect that the 'eternal values' perpetuate power and the invented joys of existence remind me of the happy-to-serve face that I once had to make. This affirmation of life in channelled speech, this unremitting 'strength through pleasure' motive (Kraft-durch-Freude-Motiv) and be-nice-to-each-other! (But woe to you if you are not nice, and woe if you are not happy!)

The task of creating the perfectly functioning society is being driven forwards. We no longer have any time to say 'Yes'. If our work is not seen as criticism, as opposition and resistance, as uncomfortable questioning and as a challenge to power, then we are wasting our time writing, we are just positive and decorating the slaughterhouse with geraniums. The opportunity of making a statement, amid this channelled speech, will have been missed.

I also include [in this cause] all those who don't allow themselves to be categorised, the individualists and the outsiders, the heretics in politics and religion, the malcontents, the unwise, the battlers for hopeless causes, the clowns, the incompetents, the unlucky dreamers, the visionaries, the troublemakers, everyone who is incapable of forgetting the misery of the world when they themselves are happy.


That Eich problem

Our description of Eich's advocacy of troublemaking has to come with a health-warning.

His conduct during World War II is not easy to reconcile with his noisy, post-war advocacy of resistance to and questioning of authority.

It was discovered after his death that he had applied to join the National Socialist Party a few months after the Nazis had seized power in January 1933, one of the many who did. There were so many, in fact, that the party blocked most of these applications. Once they had achieved power, it turned out – what a surprise! – that the National Socialist German Workers' Party were not interested in diluting their elite with workers, or almost anyone else for that matter. Only the carefully chosen ended up with that lapel-badge.

Who can now distinguish whether the motives of all these people for joining the NSDAP was enthusiasm for the cause or the desire for a career – or both? The lapel-badge would certainly be a career help. The fact that all these latecomers managed to contain their enthusiasm for the party until after it had seized power may suggest that, now the Nazis were in charge, the career motive was paramount.

Whatever. Eich's application to join was either rejected or withdrawn. He was never a member of the Nazi party.

During the war Eich served as an officer in a staff position writing propaganda radio plays and carrying out censorship duties. This activity kept him away from the front line. He is one of those artists who are held to belong to the so-called 'inner emigration', those opponents of the regime who for whatever reason could not flee Germany and who were forced to coexist with the regime in some way.

The author who now urges us to resistance against all authority kept his head down and mouth shut and muddled his way through the war. In our extract from his Büchner speech he notes the 'happy-to-serve face' he had to wear during these times. Had he done otherwise, had he complained or objected at all, he would have been killed, without a doubt.

Hypocrisy? No. Eich is not calling for martyrdom or suicide, but for a questioning resistance whilst that is still possible. What price should the individual be prepared to pay for saying the 'wrong' thing and asking the 'wrong' questions? Imprisonment, fines, loss of livelihood, opprobrium, social media venom? That's for the individual to judge.

Update 20.09.2016

This piece could probably be updated five times a day. Brendan O'Neill supplies an example straightaway:

Wilkinson went on to tell Gazza: ‘We live in the 21st century — grow up with it or keep your mouth closed.’ This captures the tyrannical essence of the state’s clampdown on hate speech. What is being said here is that if you have not fully imbibed today’s mainstream moral outlook — in this case that it’s bad to tell racial jokes, in other cases that you shouldn’t mock Islam, make offensive gags on Twitter, or even engage in ‘uninvited verbal contact’ with a woman — then you should not speak publicly. You should STFU, keep your warped ideas and humour and morality to yourself, thanks. And if you don’t, then expect a knock on the door from the cops, a fine, and maybe jail. This is profoundly illiberal. Under the cover of tackling ‘hate speech’, everything from people’s humour to their moral attitudes to our everyday conversation is being intensively policed and sometimes punished. The seemingly PC war on racist, sexist and Islamophobic language has opened the door to state monitoring of thought, speech and behaviour.

'What price should the individual be prepared to pay for saying the "wrong" thing'? £2,000 – which is probably just a starter.