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.