Monday, June 18, 2007

Language as Unaction


A recent idea in the air is that ours may be a post-linguistic era, in which, for example, the Bush adminstration can act first and explain nominally later and in practice not at all--a time of dominant actions that "pre-empt" discourse. One way of thinking about this is provided by Claude Lefort's and Etienne Balibar's successive interpretations of Machiavelli. Balibar performs a philological investigation into Machiavelli's enigmatic phrase "la verità effetuale della cosa" (“La verità effetuale della cosa: Praeter Mathesin,” lecture at UCLA, February 10, 2003). In the paragraph of The Prince in which Machiavelli uses the phrase, Machiavelli links his own action in writing the book to the power of princes to make things be; he claims to "go right to the effective truth of the thing [andare drieto alla verita]" rather than speaking imaginatively or speculatively. Balibar points out that in this "rather strange word, 'effetuale,' . . . we hear directly the notion 'in effect,' but without knowing exactly how to interpret it": as claiming the performative power to make the truth or, as Lefort interprets Machiavelli, as claiming to gain authority from following the truth of things. Therefore, Balibar goes on, "the term 'effective' thus involves a kind of play of words, indeed amphibology."

What would be the role of the critic trying to register the power of "effective" actions that oppose themselves to words? It may seem like the thing to attend to formal structures and monetary exchanges rather than people's words. But in this there would still be an allegiance to words, unless the critical writing itself were meant as merely a projectile instead of a translation into language of these power-actions. Psychoanalysis proposes that a lot of the realm of "action" is acting out, unconscious expression that doesn't have to be justified and restrained by dialogue in the way that verbalization does; and that complementarily, speaking to other people has a privileged place in psychic change. Action is more unconscious as discourse than discourse tends to be as action. By that logic analyses of structures of power hope to make actions negotiable again, if only in a different tense--as they were before they occurred--by rendering them into language. Language would be the closest thing to undoing: something that takes the implicit matter-of-courseness of actions, which says without owning that it is saying it that nothing matters except what has happened or can happen on the basis of power, and exposes it as the rhetoric of action. In language, everything is arguable again. And so the famous ineffectiveness of language, for which critics often tend to apologize, itself can have an effect, repinning some un-undoable action to its mere premises and making us remember a time when it was merely doable, not done.

3 comments:

etc said...

I was reading psychoanalytic-marxism: groundwork, by eugene wolfenstein, shortly after reading your blog, and found the following sentiment very much along the same lines as your doable/done: "This does not mean, however, that we must begin from scratch. Beginning from scratch is, in fact, literally unthinkable. It can’t be done." Wolfenstein is talking about the changing political question in terms of the expansion/exhaustion of material production. I have the sense that in some way the notion of psychoanalytic marxism or "freudo-marxism," as Balibar termed it in "fascism, psychoanalysis, freudo-marxism," as a theory, has an interesting intervention in the discussion of language that you phrase here (and i am very happy to read your discussion of the nexus of power and action, which has underlain a lot of things, i think, but which i have not read in writing from you). I am also thinking of an article that I read the other day which talks about pre-emptive language, I think, through the discussion of kennings. "A New Illiad: The Fixation of Dubya or the Wrath of the American People" (wow) http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/06/17/1940/. I have to say that i like to read the articles on commondreams often to see what it is that their calls for action are. In this article, the author, caroline arnold, confesses that she is getting tired of playing with words and meanings and suggests that words have lost their meaning, their grasp of reality--that all is kenning? Part of the argument is that things have just gotten to be too much--information, knowledge, the things you need to know to know about anything. The frustration with her own activity seems to correspond, for her, to the notion of moral or cultural or societal apocalyptic decline (this strikes me as being similar to e. grotz's sense of the "world out of control" which would call for abstraction and in which "normal" forms of action no longer function). So what Arnold calls for (and says we are already doing)is the writing of an epic, called Oiliad, about the wrath of the american people. language, it would seem, is the only action. and this seems to offer an adequate counter-part (and i think i mean partner-in-crime) to the view of the critic of language, one that might hold to the expressibility of language or to abstraction (and its abstraction) and create the sense of its necessity by depicting a world out of control.
on another note, i was happy to see "amphibology" phrased, and seeming to mean "play on words"? a friend suggested recently that (the logic of) amphibology, in kant, is the same as (the logic of) forepleasure...

RT said...

Thanks... I'm also happy to get on to this subject and would like to continue. Your thoughts help to lead to some more thoughts so that's easy to do...

Caroline Arnold leaves us guessing how it would help to write a contemporary Iliad; she'd been discussing projectile speech in the form of "labels" (e.g., "Cindy Sheehan = attention whore"), language that doesn't mean to interpret, describe, argue, or discuss. Arnold complains about that, and meanwhile notes the ritualistic speech and heroic epithets of the ancient epics--which might seem similar--and then the next thing you know, she's calling for new ritualistic speech to channel the wrath of the people. It sounds like the people who've been maligned or at least barraged by the slurs are supposed to give it back, return the labels, but in the higher (because more fully expressive?) form of epithets that are eloquent representations of their wrath. There's probably a therapeutic assumption that this would be a way of organizing the frustration and pain and getting hold of ourselves, more or less; and then what's not exactly therapeutic but something else is the implication that the whole thing could then win an expressive war (?).

etc said...

I agree about the expressive war. It seems like Arnold is about consciousness raising, like if we collected together the last 6 years of wrath we would realize and rally around that aggregate wrath. That's one other aspect this "effective," i think--often the present, or what it would mean to think you are in the present seems to be constituted by your best moment or greatest extent of consciousness--or perhaps not even "most" but particular, in some way. Consciousness, or self-consciousness also seems to be one of the ways in which something like a Benjaminian past, nachtraglichkeit and all that deferment might be registered. But I feel like what "effective" registers is something in addition to consciousness, or other to it, but that seems to be or is, in amphibological terms (sorry), covered by consciousness. A related question: Is it always easier, in this mode, to say that things are conscious--I mean, to admit it all as something recognized? or perhaps that is part of the mode that you are pushed into.