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Language, the Deepest and Most Reliable Tradition

Language is the best example of how, in Michael Polanyi’s words, “we know more than we can say.” Most of our linguistic knowledge is tacit, and the semantic distinctions built into the myriad grammatical constructions we know we know not how represent ages of thought and practice so that, to the extent we could credit an individual for this or that innovation, we could only do so by identifying a tiny wrinkle within a massive, ever-changing system. Moreover, language frames reality for us, with each language doing so distinctly, with translation a far more complex matter than it appears. Anna Wierzbicka, in a series of books in the ethno-linguistic tradition on the way modern English constructs reality, shows that entire semantic domains, organized around words like “fair,” “sense” (“sensible,” “good sense,” “common sense,” etc.), and “experience” are without equivalents in other languages (Wierzbicka traces all of these semantic domains to the empiricist revolution summed up and popularized by John Locke). In an analysis that uncannily and no doubt unintentionally parallels critiques by Alexander Dugin and others of an Anglo-centric world view imposed imperialistically on the rest of the world, Wierzbicka shows how the emergence of English as the global commercial, scientific and communicative lingua franca displaces native ways of thinking and presupposes without basis the universality of these specifically Anglo concepts (when someone says that “we learn from experience,” he is speaking Lockean English, or “Lockese,” not making a universal claim about the human condition). At the same time, Wierzbicka claims very convincingly, based on empirical (another untranslatable Anglo concept) evidence (there’s another), that we can identify what she (and her colleagues) calls a “Natural Semantic Metalanguage”—a group of words, numbering no more than 200 or so, that we can find in all languages (so far). Wierzbicka uses this NSM to provide a method of translating concepts from one language to another, in what might serve as a kind of Star Trekian universal translator or virtual linguistic UN (far more benign and efficient than the actual one).

Still, while calling the NSM vocabulary “semantic primes” Wierzbicka does not claim that the NSM constitutes the actual original language that humans spoke before Babel—such a claim would presuppose some kind of universal cognitive apparatus that somehow pre-existed language, and where would such an apparatus come from? It’s far more likely that the NSM is a sediment of words/concepts that would have started off far richer and more idiosyncratic but ultimately got worn or pared down (“bleached”) through usage to words/concepts like “say,” “think,” “happen,” “see,” etc. The best proof of this is the absence of any word for “God” or “sacred” in the NSM, since language is inconceivable without such a word. It must be that the various words for “God” and “sacred” never shed the residue of the ritual practices and occasions in which they have been embedded to become identifiable as the “same” word across languages according to Wierzbicka’s exacting standards. It is impossible to imagine language originating with propositions, even the seemingly simplest ones, like “food over there,” because there is no way to construct a plausible scene in which one person could say something like that and be understood when saying it for the first time. Language, as Eric Gans has shown, could only have originated as an ostensive sign, pointing to a desired object in order to renounce direct, unilateral appropriation of that object—in such an event, we can imagine all participants on the scene repeating the sign and “understanding” (the term is somewhat anachronistic here) it to refer to this most desired and yet/therefore forbidden object. Such an ostensive sign must remain untranslatable (while being iterable) since it only means something when and where it is produced publicly.

All languages are different, then, because they have all developed their unique ways of articulating centers and peripheries in myriad ways. Language is first of all about inter-human relations, not relations between things, but relations between humans require that objects stand in between us as centers around which we congregate. Language quickly comes to generate its own centers, as meaning is attributed in increasingly less urgent situations. To learn a language is to master a system of comprehending bodies and concepts in relations to each other—relations between “inside” and “outside,” “part’ and “whole,” “high” and “low,” “life” and “death,” human and other, and so on. We can sum this mapping of reality through social relations as “centered ordinality” (I mean no mathematical reference here): in any event , someone goes first, and being first means indicating the center around which activity will revolve, someone must go second (confirming and “standardizing” the initial gesture), third, and so on (although I suspect that once we get past the third we will see diminishing analytical returns—we can place lots of people in the “third” category—and can just conclude the order with “last”). Centered ordinality accounts for hierarchically ordered and yet reciprocal social relations (the first must attend to the second, who is attending to the first, and so on), whether those manifested in consensually recognized pre-eminence in informal settings, or in complex and organized institutions.

Needless to say, you can’t “disprove” a language—you can’t show, for example, that English “misunderstands” the relationships between bodies and objects, even if, of course, that understanding will be at odds with scientific ones. We develop more specialized discourses (akin to dialects) within languages all the time, though, because disputes over the meanings of words lead to meta-linguistic discussions requiring the reworking of domains of language, and disputes over the meanings of words follow from interaction between different communities and discourses. Such metalanguages derive from remembrances of the originary scene, in which the centering ordinality of the originary scene can be used as a model for confronting some present disorder within the community. Philosophy is among the oldest such meta-linguistic discourse, beginning with Plato and returning with the logical positivists, Wittgenstein, deconstruction and others to the examination of what and how words mean. Philosophy goes wrong insofar as it considers itself to be correcting language rather than elucidating and extrapolating from the knowledge already accumulated there—as Gans has pointed it, in doing so, philosophy presupposes that concepts can be understood outside of language. To consider yourself outside of language is to consider yourself outside of traditions. When we “prove” things, we do so within and on the terms of a particular discourse, the institutional organization of which is a “discipline.” So much argumentation, political and otherwise, is wasted time because they take place across discourses with incommensurable rules for determining relevance and truth—and even those within a particular discipline can never be completely aware of the rules they “play” by.

What we can do, and which might be more useful than insisting on a specific meta-language that would provide for universally agreed upon forms of adjudication of truth claims (a kind of philosophical version of the “rule of law”), is enter and learn to speak one another’s languages. As mimetic beings, we already do this as a matter of course, both in everyday life and in heated political discussions, where we see the right and left regularly “appropriate” the other’s terms and use them against their enemy. Indeed, the left regularly advances through the right’s attempts to turn words like “equality,” “liberty,” “racism,” etc. against the left, thereby making the words common coin. Learning to speak the other’s language does not imply compromise or reconciliation, although it could be an understated way of approaching these goals—it could just as easily be a means of emptying or undermining the other’s language through implicit satire, parody, and exhaustion. Making the other’s words useless, or useful in unanticipated and undesired ways is far more effective than trying to prove those words, or statements using them, to be false. This “multilingualism” does not reject two very valuable linguistic strategies of traditionalists and conservatives: first, tracing the history of words, very often transformed in modernity, so as to recover their prior, ideally original meanings; and, second, dismantling the seeming obviousness and permanence of widely used terms by pointing to specific moments when they were invented or radically transformed. Political language learning would draw heavily upon such strategies, only not merely to “debunk” or buttress an esoteric political discourse (which are fine, as far as they go) but to interfere with and redirect those words in their current circulation.

The “better” or “truer” political discourse, then, would not be the one best able to withstand some arbitrarily determined logical or empirical scrutiny—“logic” is only a way of manipulating terms you already have, without accounting for why you have them; while no one has ever come anywhere near devising a means of empirically determining the truth of a political discourse—no one would even be able to coherently say what counts as a correct “prediction” in human events (what would count as a “control group”?). The truer discourse is the one that can generate new forms of reference within existing discourses, and enact paradigm shifts within those discourses. In the process, whatever discourse you started from is transformed as well—as you “hack” other discourses your own is getting hacked as well, and it will emerge from the process stronger or weaker, but certainly different. And the way you know you need to transition to a new linguistic paradigm is that you come across one that answers or at least formulates questions that the linguistic order in which you are presently steeped cannot, while indicating an inarticulate need to do so.

My own meta-linguistic starting point is Eric Gans’s originary hypothesis on language origin, grounded in its own tradition of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory, itself grounded in and transformative of the sociological discipline organized around the work of Emile Durkheim and modern novelistic traditions among others (and the broader Christian tradition)—a tradition that is always renewed and within which new progenitors can be “recruited.” The originary hypothesis is a genuine hypothesis on how language emerged out of non-language, and therefore how humans emerged out of pre-humans—this empirical dimension, while making an unfalsifiable claim (we could obviously never obtain evidence of the event in which language was invented/discovered), is to be taken literally and seriously—but we can also see it as an answer to a very basic, inevitable question—why do words “mean”? What are we doing when we utter or hear a sentence? We imitate an absent someone who resisted being swallowed up in his present by abstaining from the object of desire that pulled others in, making them all the same, and therefore unavailable for imitation—only language can make an absent someone present and thereby enable us to resist the mimetic, centripetal pull that would render us identical and therefore mute. All the words and sentences and discourses that have come down to us have been transmitted, remembered and commemorated, by those who, however minimally, created “presents.”

In this way, originary thinking can be seen as a way of making language work, or doing things with words, recalling language to its originary function of deferring violence. As I have suggested in previous posts, the intrusion of the Big Man into history, replacing the ritual center with the sovereign center, introduced a breach in the human community and, we can now say, language, by creating permanent hierarchies and therefore specialties—once there is a sovereign there is, at the very least, something like “official” discourse (a metalanguage on the discourses regarding the sovereign center), distinct from “popular” discourse.” All “high” culture—philosophy, theology, literature, etc.—works to repair this breach so we can reap its benefits: high culture remembers the originary scene by generating centered ordinalities implicit, but not necessarily recognized, in existing hierarchies. It’s a search for the worthiest predecessors as they are sedimented within language. Wierzbicka’s Natural Semantic Metalanguage, which should be seen as genuinely philosophical, provides a means, for the patient, of translating between all languages and identifying where such translations are needed. The metalanguage of originary thinking is a means of entering any discourse and “practicing” it as an articulation of hierarchies and reciprocities at the peak of which can be posited a position for the one who will be worthiest of imitation in the creation of an extended and continuous present.

The political hypothesis I derive from this tradition, in intersection with the absolutist tradition in politics, is that all discourse is in search of a secure sovereign center. The traditionalist who bewails the absence of traditional norms and the chaos of contemporary morality and the anarchist who celebrates the endless dispersal of practices, attitudes and “memes” share the same search. The traditionalist might be looking for the hidden king while the anarchist believes that with sufficient centrifugal force a shared elemental humanity will rule through tacit consensus, but each imagines a center—the anarchist must imagine some source of imperatives that warns members of his (or xir) utopia against selfish acts that infringe on the rights of others, and that source must be unitary and consistent—and, it must be embodied by someone, even a “provisional” sovereign, who would point out when one has crossed a line. In learning the language of others, the absolutist generates a new referent, the absolute sovereign, that enables whatever can cohere in that other discourse to cohere. In this way we effect a confluence of traditions, into the absolutist one. The most productive form of political discussion, after all, would be one that starts with the hypothesis of all of us partisans laying down our arms, imagines one person with the power to adjudicate all disputes, and then proceeds to clarify how he might do that. Further questions follow from that opening hypothesis: Which institutions would actually exist without political partisanship? What disputes would emerge within them? How would the metalanguages of those institutions undertake to resolve those disputes? At what point would the sovereign intervene, and how might the function of the institution, and all the differentiations within it, be restored? We are already inclined to such discussions when we talk about “issues”—should X be legal or illegal? Should we have more or less of Y? Such discussions are usually nonsensical, because they invariably neglect the myriad mediations that deflect a “policy position” from its initial formulation (we must have X) through its translation into legalese, its modification by all the special interests, its implementation by bureaucracies with their own interests and conflicts, in a social environment different than the one in which the policy was first formulated—that is, they neglect the reality of divided power. Such discussions only make sense on the assumption of a sovereign who can ensure that what he orders is commensurate with what is actually done—which would mean the sovereign’s orders are, and are limited to those that can be, converted directly into acts carried out by those positioned to do so. The same is true of more abstract concerns about culture and morality—how do we change such things? Well, either we talk a lot about it and hope for the best—or we imagine someone in power who can, for example, eliminate foundations that fund the propagation of new sexual moralities, or instruct schools to privilege the normal (which they would probably do without instruction if left alone by outside troublemakers)—in other words, in our talk we model a centered ordinality that makes sense of chatter that just serves to justify goldbricking. If humanity is, most fundamentally, centered ordinality (and thereby generative of fractal networks of centered ordinality) then all language is most fundamentally interested in identifying the center and aligning it with all the ordinal orders.

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