Last month, Alexander Buk-Swienty made a welcome return to the pages of the Ark Review with the short but thought provoking essay The Violence of Language and Literature. In the essay, he argued—from a Lacanian/Žižekian perspective—that more attention needs to be paid to the inherent violence of linguistic systems as they place limits upon the production of meaning in literature.
While I do not disagree with this point, in this essay I hope to problematize this seemingly totalizing spectre of violence that haunts our daily interaction and suggest that something lies beyond this frame. I shall argue that there does exist ways in which to engage in and with language that can mitigate its violence and perhaps even escape it. However, escaping the particular violence of language is not to be confused with escaping violence in general, because escaping language’s violent confines may instead, surprisingly, bring about the end of the world. But we’ll need to take a few steps to get to that.
So Much Lacan.
The view described by Buk-Swienty, that language enacts violence, understands language as a system by which experience is decoded. Something happens, in reality, fiction or the imagination, and, to render this experience consciously comprehensible, it is forced into the semantic constraints of language. This limitation of concepts and experiences to particular labels is a violent act that much of our communication is built upon. And with a capacity for application in some particularly dangerous ways, by fixing meaning to conform to the imperatives of systems of power. One such system of power would be capital, which has lead commercial journalism to fix words like migrant or refugee, to the meaning; existential threat to civilization. And not just now, but regularly throughout history.
That being said, I still wish to characterize language differently. Rather than see it as a way in which to decode the signal from the noise of experience, I want to suggest, with reference to the people whose ideas these actually are, that language is actually an encoded medium of transmission between subjects (both human and non-human), who then decode it in their own particular way. This still understands language as something violent but re-conceptualized as the ligatures of transmission, rather than as the backdrop on which all expression is required to take place. To decode the transmission does, indeed, require engagement with the system of language on the part of the subject but it is their own particular engagement with a general system. Their use and understanding of language is forever tied to their own experiences of things irreducible to language, as they continuously develop their particular engagement with the linguistic transmission system over time. So when it comes time to decode or encode sensation or nonlinguistic ideas into the communicative ligatures of language, it is a new unique entry into language. While there is a great deal of overlap of what characterizes these entries into language between language users, this entry is not overdetermined by the system itself. This allows for the existence of the subject in a space outside to this system of violence.
Buk-Swienty builds his work out from the theorizes of Lacan and Žižek, which, while often useful, I would suggest, have a substantial flaw in this area. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the subject comes into being, as it were, when the organism acquires the capacity for language. This need not be spoken or written but simply any form of communication that operates semiotically; meaning using signs to stand in for something else. This can be thought of as the production of the said (even if it is not actually articulated outside the mind), which simultaneously produces the unsaid, which is what constitutes the unconscious. This split between the conscious and unconscious then, in turn, produces a subjective gap where the subject is unable to access their desires in a consciously expressible way.
This results in an understanding of human psychology as inherently one based on an unresolvable lack. A lack predicated on the irresolvable rupture of the subject’s entry into language, which forces many of their experiences to remain unexpressed and inexpressible. It is this violent restriction enacted by the acquisition of linguistic thought that is often characterized as the production of the subject itself.
Against this, and with Deleuze and Guattari, I would suggest that this is not the moment in which the subject is violently ripped into being but rather when elements of a preexisting subject are ossified into a self, in the psychological sense of the word. What this means is that what could be properly called a self (the qualities that let you identify yourself with; a name, an identity, a position within an apparently rational social order), is built out from the subject/organism that precedes it. The self, in psychoanalysis, is something distinct from, but connected to the creature it inhabits, whereas for Deleuze and Guattari the self is only a particular formation of what that creature could become but under the particular circumstances of the social. There is still violence here but it is not at the same moment. The violence in the Lacanian model is at the inception of the subject, whereas the violence in the Deleuzoguattarian perspective is something that happens to the subject. And what language cannot express is not not expressible by the subject, merely inaccessible to the linguistic self.
This may not seem like a massive difference but it is significant because it problematizes the idea that semantic communication is inherently violent. Instead, we can give greater specificity to this notion of violence. The particular semantics that we have entered into are violent but these are situated on a particular planet with particular qualities that has given rise to particular being with particular bodies. These contingencies are common across humanity and have a far greater determining effect on the structures of thought, and its semantic expression, than we’d like to admit, and certainly far beyond our conscious comprehension. I would argue that this context has a great deal more influence on the production of language and linguistic thought than the other way round. And it is from this language, developed out of contingent actual circumstances, that our conception of the world emerges, although not the world itself.
Beginning and Ending the World… In Mexico
It is important to frame language within this context so we do not become too enamoured with its power and thus mistake its limitations for actual problems in reality. I take Buk-Swienty’s point that language is violent but dispute the irresolvability of the conundrum this poses. To find an illustration of this we can look to the post-Deleuzian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi.
Berardi illustrates the notion the notion that subjectivity can exist outside of or transcend particular linguistic structures by examining the quasi-mythical figure of La Malinche, an Aztec woman sold by her people into slavery for the Mayans, and who would go on to use her linguistic abilities to help the Spanish in their destruction of both of these ancient civilisations. Berardi argues, that the destruction of these civilizations was not merely political (through violence and power) but substantive as it brought about the end of the world as they knew it. He argues that language appears akin to nature or reality because it is with language that we constitute the world. Thus, we rely heavily on language to move through reality. It is only through a system of signification that there can be a meaningful separation between reality and dreams, as the labels create these concepts (are you not really dreaming?) or even the distinction between a pair of scissors and screwdriver (or the knowledge of how to make such things) depends on signs. We label things with signs and then use the signs to build concepts from the action of labelling. When we use linguistic tools to converse with one another, we are able to create the concept of the world.
Once we have created the world we can begin to do even more useful things (from the perspective of the biological organisms who have initiated all this). The usefulness of these things over time comes to take on the appearance of a tool for accessing reality and increasingly becomes the only space within which communication is acceptable and possible. If, for whatever reason, communication is no longer possible between those within the same semantic system, the world that this system constituted would then cease to be. Only the planet and people would remain. New structures would emerge.
None of this is to say that language bears no relationship to reality, all the aforementioned useful things are in illustration its effectiveness in this regard. Instead, what needs to be taken from this repositioning of language as something with an accessible outside, is the need for a project to understand how to deploy its violence and how in doing so we construct ourselves.
Tearing Open Language and revealing expression… with Xiu Xiu
While conversing with Buk-Swienty, we wondered what exactly language does when we communicate. More precisely, in prose fiction, as opposed to scientific writing or poetry, how is meaning conveyed. On occasion, it will be from the proximity of the signs to the referents but that is, I would argue boring from a different register of communication. More commonly, in prose fiction the words have a tendency to melt into the sensations they produce in the reader, the actual semantic content is lost to the interpretation of a communicative code. The idea we settled on was that words have a something of a sticky, treacly relationship to reality, like a blunt heavy object made of caramel, set and dragged across the surface of reality. Violent yes, but also a little hard to take too seriously.
This is all very well but I have not yet been able to answer the question; if there is an outside to language what is it? And I have already used some many words that adding more may not help. To quote prose fiction would require a great many words to even come close to the desired effect. But rather than simply suggesting a piece of instrumental music or abstract painting, I think we should instead look to try and find the sticky stuff between words and what they express. Lyric driven, broadly defined, “pop” music can perhaps provide a representation of this. In the song “Wondering” by the band Xiu Xiu, there is a profoundly moving section around 2:14, which is not evident from the unremarkable lyrics.
Oh, love was stronger then
Life went on without an end
Now to feel the sun
Burn our rights and wrongs
The shock of ash upon hope and peace
This could be just the vagueness of indie. But for those with prior knowledge of the band’s oeuvre which engages with abuse, self-loathing, repressed desire and degradation, the way the melody drags between each line (suuunBurn/ wroongsTheshock), opens up that space between said and unsaid, between conscious communication and unconscious desire, creating a space where one can tell what has been said is the same as the idea it expresses. When the next section starts at 2:47, this gap is closed by a return to straight, albeit syncopated, rhythm, and desire is forced into an ill-fitting social structure.
I want to make clear that this is only a representation of what I have been talking about not an example of the actual phenomenon. But it may have to do for now, as it seems I do not yet have the words.
Cover from Semiotic Apocolypse