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The Dartmouth
March 4, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Dangers of the Over-Systematic Impulse

The influence that the vagaries of language have over our mental processes is immense, and potentially very dangerous. One of the more pernicious impulses we see today is the urge to classify and schematize all things under the sun. The perceived need for this extreme systematization, I believe, is the product mainly of the staggering degree to which all intellectual discourse has been remodeled along academic lines, since it is principally for study and research purposes that gross generalization and categorization become necessary.

We must never lose sight of the fact that grouping individuals under broad terms is a highly artificial, if necessary, process, and often misrepresents reality. Here is a simple example: it so happens that most history courses divide "The Roman Republic" and "The Roman Empire." The incidental fact of the division for study purposes must not blind us to the fact that it is perfectly possible to possess an empire without an emperor, which was precisely the Roman situation for at least the final century and a half of the republic. We speak both of "Queen" Elizabeth I and "Queen" Elizabeth II; yet how useful is the mere congruence of title for understanding their actual roles in their respective societies? Social change is effected beneath the surface of these linguistic homogeneities; this concealment does not exempt us from the duty to recognize it.

The impact of the growing impulse for rigid classification has had a deleterious effect on the study of literature. The common English-speaking literary culture that once existed has not been meaningful since at least the generation of W. H. Auden. I believe that the misguided sense of "modern" uniqueness, the obsession with individual national situations and the excruciating self-analysis which disfigure much twentieth-century writing account for much of this dissolution. Thus, Mr. Owen and Mr. Sassoon seek to persuade us that the horrors faced by an English blighter in the first World War are brand-new, uniquely appalling, and for some reason particularly atrocious given his Englishness.

It is not impertinent to note that with Auden we rather sidestep the problem, since of course he, like Eliot, exchanged citizenships. In any case, not many people would claim that Mr. Kinsella or Mr. Tom Paulin or even Famous Seamus are as well known outside Ireland as Yeats was in his time; nor is it easy to imagine Betjeman in the next century being studied with universalist avidity throughout the English-speaking world, as Browning and Tennyson are in this. For our purposes, the important question to consider is not whether the poetry of the more recent figures is "less good," but rather whether our horizons have not progressively narrowed over the course of a century in the way we imagine writers ought to, or can reasonably, be studied. Nor can the impact of this categorization on recent generations of writers themselves be underestimated; as with so many other latter-day phenomena, we see ascendant the self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are raised to believe we cannot transcend our origins nor our time in any important sense, how many will try?

The excessive desire to categorize and systematize takes its most insidious and absurd forms in questions of race, ethnicity and nationality. Mr. Bernard Lewis made this point amusingly when he pointed out that upon the celebration of the millennial anniversary of his birth Avicenna was claimed retroactively as an Arab, a Persian, a Turk, and a citizen of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan. As movements of peoples and ideas accelerates to blinding speed, we cling absurdly to the notion of national citizenship. Would anyone sustain that a miserable passport properly conveys the complex mix of loyalties and duties that gives citizenship its substance? Yet it is precisely this preposterously legalistic notion that we adhere to, having yet to adjust (if such is possible) to the abominable ease of transportation and communication.

Why do we feel the need for crystal-clear identities? Again, the computerized bureaucratic state forces us from an early age to define ourselves, with the normative first and last name, sex, race, social security number, etc. We may note that since the rise of the industrial state with its devastatingly efficient means of social control, those authoritarian regimes that have persecuted groups on one or another irrational basis have invariably undergone tortured psychological maneuvers in attempts to define the out-group. And if we are to be fair-minded we will probably concede that over-systematization is a charge that can much more often be lodged by the Left against the Right than vice versa (see, for example, the perceptive remarks of Frederic Jameson in his discussion of Wyndham Lewis). There are few sea-changes to be conceived that would be more felicitous to peace of mind than an emphatic recognition of the uniqueness of every situation, person, place and thing; an intellectual task made extremely difficult by mass media, with its tendency to discern false and misleading patterns and parallels. For it is likely that journalism is the profession most susceptible to and communicative of the over-systematic impulse, and that the potential for the mental numbing of a people which imagines itself well-informed by the popular media is great. But that is a plaint for another time.