Is There a Language Problem?

Is There a Language Problem?

2004-10-21

R.M. Berry on the recuperation of politicized language, in (and through) the fiction of Marianne Hauser and Lidia Yuknavitch.

No one attentive to words is likely to have missed the turnabout in political rhetoric that has occurred since the fall of the Berlin wall. Starting at some point in the late 80’s, the right began to sound like the left. From Newt Gingrich’s talk of revolution to W’s harping on freedom and self-determination, American conservatives have assimilated the visionary diction of progressives. In fact, today it’s far from clear just who is a conservative. Perhaps it’s never been clear. Again and again we hear the left lambasted for obsolete schemes and outdated thinking, while neo-cons speak assuredly of themselves as the wave of the future. If I find this self-advertisement preposterous, that doesn’t mean I know why it’s wrong.

If you are someone who lives by words - by which I mean someone prepared, perhaps not to die for them, but at least to go down fighting with them - then I think you’re likely to find this turnabout unsettling. It’s as though the meanings closest to us, those embodying the deepest strata of our intelligence and moral aspirations, were being displaced by insipid burlesques. Language seems very susceptible to this sort of manipulation. Contrary to what Logical Positivism once feared and Deconstruction celebrated, words no longer strike anybody as particularly alien or uncontrollable. Every time W stands up to make a speech, I think, “Where’s a Freudian slip when you really need one?” I mean, the word “democracy,” is that just some old slipper to throw at the dog? And yet, paradoxically, it’s as if these speakers (and now who am I talking about? Neo-conservatives? Mencken’s “booboisie”? Fox News? I feel like the 70’s sit-com character Archie Bunker, shouting at his black neighbor, “No, you people are `you people’!”) it seems as if the political right had merely discovered language. Or had discovered it as I once imagined I had discovered it, that is, discovered it as detachable from context, free-floating. I feel like saying: if you haven’t seen words come loose from their moorings, then you just haven’t seen words.

So my question is: Is this a problem, or have we gotten what we wanted?

Maybe an example will help. In Marianne Hauser’s 2002 novel of Oedipal violence, Shootout with Father, a section opens with the sentence, “Shoot the motherfucker!” There seems at first little noteworthy about this. A commonplace obscenity has been literalized, reiterating Hauser’s title and calling to mind what no one doubts, that every father is the violator of somebody’s mom. However, when, on the celebration of his birth, Hauser’s narrator receives a pistol from his mother’s fucker - i.e., the patriarch who taught him “to shoot to kill like a man” - the Oedipal plot inscribed in her familiar obscenity seems literally to materialize on the page. You can think of this as fiction expressing a conflict latent in its language or language undergoing contamination by a fictional conflict, but either way, the experience for me is uncanny. In following the text I feel like I’m only now discovering what “motherfucker” means, something I thought I’d known since boyhood. I’m unsure whether to describe this as a word’s asserting its independence or merely as its behaving normally, even naturally. That is, calling to mind the violence of our diction, Hauser’s fiction seems to have become other than I imagined, a world without me, and the effect isn’t one of estrangement or dislocation, but of self-recollection, even of grounding. How could recalling my words be anything I needed to do, or even possible?

I want quickly to acknowledge my ardent desire for John Kerry to perform as a virtuoso rhetorician, one who is at least as capable of manipulating phrases as our present administration is, and nothing I have to say here should be taken to imply that I don’t want him to mangle words to the point of unrecognizability, if that will bring peace. Rhetoric is as old as demagogues, and dissatisfaction with both has never prevented anyone from wanting the most skillful one on her side. [ link to Eric Rasmussen’s October 2004 interview with Slavoj Zizek in ebr -eds.] However, I can’t say I take great hope from this truism. The idea of language as an unresisting domain, one readily overwritten with my party’s or candidate’s schemes, bears just too much similarity to the idea of Iraq as an unresisting domain, one readily overwritten with my nation’s schemes. All the problems of the autonomy of words return with a vengeance as problems of the autonomy of states, minorities, cultures, individuals. Theoretically and practically, the issues are the same. [ link to Lisa Joyce in ebr, on language, geography, and “orienteering” -eds.]

So my initial answer to my question is: If language represents a problem, then the first problem, the political one, will be to represent the problem. That is, it’s not wrong to think that, in our post-cold war liberation of words, we got something we wanted. What’s wrong is that we never wanted enough. Our wanting has been found wanting. I feel like saying: we need something more alien, less controllable than an answer. I recall Wittgenstein’s retort to the solipsist, “I am not of the opinion that he has a soul” - a remark, not on the existence of the soul, but on the grammar of the word “opinion.” Fundamental differences - of cultures, languages, individual consciousnesses - aren’t representable as differences of opinion or belief, and unlike acknowledging the latter, acknowledging them is not, or not normally, representing anything. The problem of language, like the problem of freedom and self-determination, isn’t known until solved. Or put another way, what’s wanted now is a rhetoric that’s not what we think of as rhetoric, that’s a giving way before words, a rhetoric that frees words for the first time to be words, frees us to mean them. There’s a radical politics in this.

In Lidia Yuknavitch’s brief collage “Sade’s Mistress,” the problem of language is that, well, it’s just language. “The room,” we’re told, “is not a room, the body unbodied.” The woman is “naked,” but “no, not naked.” She “closes her eyes, but the closing is identical to open.” Time is marked merely as questions, “Days? Weeks?” The desire here seems to be for an impossible immediacy, a total immanence, as though she wanted to be at once body and spirit, both to materialize and be dispersed. Yuknavitch represents this desire as the protagonist thrusting one hand up her vagina, the other down her throat, as if trying to take hold of all within and drag it out. This is no fantasy of accurate correspondence. It comes nearer to a fantasy of absolute expressiveness, a transparency figured as radical openness, inwardness wholly exposed. “I thought that if I could write what the events that have so violently changed me were, transcribe them, if you will, I could at least say that I had moved something from the inside out.”

This kind of represented violence seems worlds removed from the violence in Iraq, but it shares with that war an absoluteness of demand, a refusal of detachment, experienced in both cases as our fear of getting too close. As the represented violence progresses, the woman’s writing competes with and ultimately overtakes what’s happening to her. Or maybe that’s not well said. Maybe the way to express it would be that the writing increasingly is what’s happening to her. But my point is that the violence in “Sade’s Mistress” is not fiction. “I want to write the sentences as a form of surrender,” she writes, “so that I need not worry about containing the chaos of my body, so that the grammar might hold what I cannot. I am no longer able to hold the sense. I want to let go.” The desire expressed in these words seems alien because it’s simply the desire for these words. That is, the prose seems to demand that two things, a woman’s body and its representation, become utterly simple, vanish into one another. Even our undeniably correct conviction that what we’re holding is a book, not a body, even this - in the context of Yuknavitch’s radical demand - constitutes betrayal. What materializes must be itself or nothing. “If love is a gaping rip into flesh so as to edge mortality, then yes. I loved him. But to speak of love is to let someone else guide the story. This was not love.” About such passages one can say either that they want to know what love is or that they want to know what the word “love” means, but either way, love is no longer just a word.

One of the most consequential, but rarely noted, characteristics of the political rhetoric leading up to the bombing of Iraq was that it had no present. That is, the representations of our predicament by W and cohorts focused on past examples of Saddam’s brutality and on future possibilities of terrorist attack, and when discussing the war itself, they represented it as a mere transition, a threshold through which we’d quickly pass on our way to democracy. That war’s violence could become what Gertrude Stein called a “continuous present,” a state of being in which chronology becomes inconceivable and each instant proves all-absorbing, seems never to have made its way into the public imagination. [ link to Berry on the “Present of Fiction” in ebr -eds.] It was as if the temporal distance afforded by representations was expected to characterize our relation to the anguish we would inflict. Our national delusion seemed to be that, instead of undergoing this catastrophe, we could just narrate it.

One way to characterize Hauser’s and Yuknavitch’s writing is to say that it abolishes these imaginary distances. In their work, meaning ceases to be an object - something detachable from its material expression - and becomes an event or action, something that occurs to us. That is, the meaning materializes, not just in the world of fiction, but before our very eyes, in the book we’re holding, and this incarnation occurs at a proximity unequaled by representations, regardless how vivid. We could say that, in contrast to political rhetoric, the object of this kind of writing is to be present merely, to effect a continuous absorption in what unfolds only at this instant. What occurs in the present, of course, is never all that matters, but when language does matter, it occurs in the present.

My example from Hauser’s Shootout with Father focuses on a phenomenon Stanley Cavell has called “hidden literality,” a linguistic potential conspicuously exploited for literature by Beckett. Although resembling puns, polysemy, and double entendre, its distinctive effect is to reveal a competing sense of a word that is more basic, more intimately familiar than the customary one. The result is that our normal mode of expressing ourselves comes to seem oblivious, a continuous forgetfulness or self-repression, as though in speaking and writing and reading we were somehow distracted. My example from Yuknavitch’s book Liberty’s Excess focuses on a phenomenon that Wittgenstein sought to bring out in characterizing meaning as use and that J. L. Austin investigated with performatives. The current jargon of “performativity” tries to articulate this potential, but because critics such as Judith Butler have assimilated “performativity” to theatrical performance, they’ve suppressed what was original in Wittgenstein’s and Austin’s idea. I prefer to call it the displacement of action. The idea is that the act of narrating - either writing or reading - displaces in our attention the action narrated, making our recognition of the former our means of access to the significance of the latter. In “Sade’s Mistress” this displacement occurs because the character is herself writing the text from within the narrated predicament, not afterwards. As a result, the occurrence of each word becomes an action in the narrative, merging the woman’s narrating with her struggle for immanence. When she writes, “There is no inside out,” she does not report on her present condition. She succumbs to it. [ link to Lidia Yuknavitch in ebr, on “writing as a visual medium” -eds.]

Understood politically, writing of this kind answers the question: how is it possible not to know when war is present? That is, it reveals a collusion between our efforts to know and our failure to know, our representation of our real condition and our avoidance of it. If we failed to anticipate the present violence in Iraq, it wasn’t because we lacked any intelligence. On the contrary, freedom was never anything we could’ve given the Iraqi people - a remark, not about Saddam’s rule or the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, but about the grammar of the word “freedom.” This verbal limit on our power is as much metaphysical as political, and the latter precisely because of the former, but no one whose words are slaves will be able to see this.

I had thought to conclude these reflections with an example from A. B. West’s astonishing fiction, Wakenight Emporium, but when I tried to make West’s words illustrate my idea, their stubborn refusal illustrated my idea. So, my final example comes from work of my own. I call this last phenomenon readerly transference, another idea developed from the writings of Stanley Cavell. Transference is, of course, familiar from psychoanalytic practice, where at a stage in the neurotic’s therapy he or she transfers onto the analyst the role of the psychic adversary - usually some significant figure from the neurotic’s past, classically a parent. The therapeutic importance of this kind of transference, whether onto a therapist or onto a text, is that, instead of merely discussing problems, the neurotic begins to act them out, reproducing the past difficulty in the present. Part of Freud’s insight was to recognize the educational potential of this present-ness. No recollection of former defeats, regardless how vivid or accurate, can ever prove as striking as their recurrence right before one’s eyes.

In my own case, the specific problem involves the word “nowhere.” It has long been a source of wonder to me, as I suspect it has to others, that this word is commonly pronounced by breaking its syllables after the “o,” not after the “w.” There appears to be nothing about its appearance that would make one of these breaks more likely than the other, since the phoneme “ow” is as familiar to English speakers as “wh,” and although linguists could formulate a rule in accord with the break, it is far from clear that the rule would explain our practice, not just describe it. At any rate, I find for myself that I am easily tempted to pronounce “nowhere” by analogy with “novice” and “nothing,” that is, by disregarding possibilities such as “no” “vice” and “no” “thing,” rather than by analogy with “notate” and “noblest,” and I only need gaze at the word for a few seconds for it to start behaving like the duck / rabbit, flashing convulsively back and forth before my eyes, now here one moment, no where the next.

“Nowhere” occurs on page 127 of my book Dictionary of Modern Anguish. The context is a fictional essay entitled “Samuel Beckett’s Middlemarch” where a nameless scholar sets out to recuperate Beckett’s reputation from a discovery among Beckett’s posthumous papers of a manuscript corresponding in every word to the novel published in the world of the reader - but apparently not in that of this scholar - by George Eliot. I believe I am correct in saying that readers have tended to regard “Samuel Beckett’s Middlemarch ” as a parody. That is, it has seemed to spoof high theory and academic discourse, a reading made plausible by the scholar’s treating of rival commentators’ jargon, overstatement, and exorbitant neologisms with perfect solemnity. While I don’t consider this reading to be wrong, or even imperceptive, it does seem to me to replicate the problem I wrote the fiction to solve. Whether the failure is mine or the reader’s, of course, is for others to say. I’ll just note that the problem is one that, although present in every word and in no sense hidden, has seemed to me extraordinarily hard, almost impossible, to make known. At any rate, it is not made known in being narrated. Perhaps it will help to add that, for me, if Samuel Beckett really had written Middlemarch - as in this scholar’s world he has - my problem would not be to understand why someone would write an essay as bizarre as “Samuel Beckett’s Middlemarch.” My problem would be to write.

Prior to the above noted page, the nameless scholar has been defending his thesis that Middlemarch, far from being an anomaly, is the culmination of Beckett’s whole career, the work anticipated by every writing from Dream of fair to middling women through Worstward Ho and Ill Seen Ill Said, and so has reached the inevitable conclusion that nothing written by or about Beckett until these words now can still matter. This conclusion, of course, seems insane. At which point he makes an unexpected concession: there is one sense in which Beckett’s Middlemarch could perhaps be considered “a falling off,” not a culmination, and that sense is “to be located in Beckett’s language.” Acknowledging that this concession could jeopardize his own words, to say nothing of Middlemarch, the scholar nevertheless goes on to characterize the presently missing dimension of Beckett’s language as a “war of the worlds, fought out in sentences between (in the apt phrase of one unidentified commentator) `the near and the nearer still.’” The unidentified commentator’s phrase is then duly footnoted. If a present war is what Beckett’s language is fighting to make matter, then the reader’s problem is to acknowledge this world-annihilating violence in which he or she is already involved. The footnote reads:

The phrase is quoted by debi chang in her widely anthologized “Beckett or Else,” and its source is identified (note 3) as an obscure text entitled Dictionary of Modern Anguish. I have, with some difficulty, secured a copy of the only edition of this work and have discovered that it is not a dictionary or, for that matter, any kind of reference volume, but is a book of fiction! Chang’s essay cites page 127 as the source for her quote. I have scoured this page. The words are nowhere to be found.