Within Language

A very common comic device is to place a character who is locked into another, usually archaic or ridiculed, set of manners, habits and assumptions, in a group of normal people. (Don Quixote is an excellent example.) The source of the humor is then the constant misunderstandings, large and small, that result—if it’s done well, the audience can see how the same incident or words can make sense in completely different, but in each case perfectly reasonable ways, by the odd and the normal characters, respectively. The device is effective for two, seemingly contradictory, reasons: first, it reassures us in our normality, telling us that we are not locked into some bizarre set of rituals, routines, and denials; and, second, it disturbs our complacency by letting us see that we are, in fact, so locked in, that under certain circumstance our tacit assumptions would make us look as foolish as the character we laugh at.

The fish and water analogy can work here: we are so much within language, moving in it, “breathing” it, certainly thinking in it, that we don’t even notice it. Language is transparent to us insofar as we only see through it to the things which direct each other’s attention to; it only becomes opaque once language itself can become the thing we attend to. The shift can be effected by something as simple as someone asking what you “meant” by using a particular word (what you meant, not what the word means)—now, you’re paying attention to words rather than things, or, to use Frege’s terms, “sense” rather than “reference.” When language is transparent we refer to things and engage each other fairly unproblematically, not necessarily without conflicts but without constant misunderstandings; by the same token, everyone not inside our language is a barbarian. When we become aware of language, formalistic and seemingly niggling disputes ensue, but we are also capable of processing a far wider variety of “language games” or discourses. David Olson locates this difference in the emergence of literacy, which makes all language users linguists, to some extent—when children learn to sound out a word according to its letters, or when anyone uses the dictionary to settle a dispute over the meaning or use of a word, they are attending to the properties of language, rather than just using it.

This ability to attend to and study the properties of language makes us vulnerable to the illusion that we are outside of language, and can examine any use of language in accord with some extra-linguistic notion of truth or good; the contrast with pre-literate peoples, whose customs and beliefs are likely to seem arbitrary, bizarre, and therefore extremely localized, encourages the literate in this vanity. In fact, it is literacy itself than generates a concern with “logic,” and turns logic into a means for assessing the acceptability of a particular utterance: “logic” is really the abstraction of the grammatical properties that become visible in a written language, and the projection of these properties onto some disembodied mind. The linguistic turn in Western thought in the 20th century derives from this recognition, which was certainly aided by both the emergence of mass literacy and mass education, and by the emergence of new media that made it possible to place writing in a broader historical context. There are metalanguages—writing itself, as I just pointed out, generates metalanguages—but there is no all-inclusive metalanguage, and each metalanguage can be treated as a language by some new metalanguage in turn. The fact that one can easily imagine a comic routine (surely some along these lines have already been created) in which a linguist shows himself incapable of using language in some situation precisely because of his hyperawareness of language demonstrates that any metalanguage is just waiting to be swallowed up by some meta-metalanguage or dissolved back into language itself.

Now, let’s talk about power. Access to a metalanguage gives one power over those without one: the history of civilization can be, to a great extent, be summed up in this observation. But having one’s power rely on possession of a metalanguage leaves one vulnerable in important ways. It becomes important to maintain a monopoly on the metalanguage, and therefore to restrict access to it and, more importantly, to make the metalanguage immune to appropriation by those it is meant to exclude—this involves distancing the metalanguage from reality in the interest of maintaining its own coherence. As power is divided, conflict is introduced into the metalanguages: if the teaching of literature becomes central to educating the next generation of elites and essentials, then everyone will want a piece of it. In a more literate society, the distinction between metalanguage and language is constantly shifting, so the institutions housing the accredited metalanguages have to keep finding new ways of fortifying the distinction, often leading to various demonizations and anathematizations that would be completely unintelligible to those not within that particular metalanguage. Those within the fortified metalanguages find their language to be both more transparent and more opaque than those who are, relatively speaking, within language: more transparent, because the metalanguage itself is predicated upon vigorously enforced exclusions, so every use of the metalanguage massively reinforced in-group solidarity against obviously deficient outsiders; more opaque, because the more institutionalized and abstracted metalanguages spawn conflicts over the terms of the metalanguage with increasingly rapidity, so that no one really quite knows what anything means.

This situation provides an opening for those who access the metalanguages, obey the primary imperative of metalanguage to inquire into language, and through language into the center, who accept their being within language, which is to say accept that their own metalanguage is as bounded and centered as any language, who discern the power relations measured and enabled by the metalanguage and, perhaps most of all, understand that their metalanguage “wants” to keep crossing over into language and other metalanguages just as much as it wants to explore the world of signs it has itself generated. So, what does this entail? Think about one of the most basic ways in which we maintain linguistic presence with others: by using the same words as they have used, but to do so in such a way as to show, first, that we noticed that they used the word in a particular way, for purposes of their own; second, to show that we too can use that word in a way somewhat distant from its more normal uses, and to do so in such a way as demonstrate implicitly that we understand what they were doing with it. This way of using language can be used to undermine an enemy, to enhance intimacy with a lover, to clarify a concept or to sustain a basis for negotiation. It involves playing both ends of the use/mention continuum, both using the word literally, referentially and meaningfully and referring to the word as a word with multiple uses.

This what everyone is doing all the time—everyone is within language, always. There’s nowhere else to be. If it seems to you that you’re just talking directly about reality, that just means your language is transparent and you’re unaware of how it’s informed by various metalanguages. It seems first of all imperative, then, in the spirit of formalism, to know where you stand and speak linguistically and metalinguistically; and, you can only know that by enacting it, by referring to things only made visible by the metalanguage you inhabit and referring to the words that makes those things visible in that way. This leads you into paradoxical territory. Let’s take, for example, Moldbug’s claim that any territory is ruled by an absolute sovereign, and that therefore anything that happens in that territory is permitted by the sovereign. We can see right away this is not really an empirical claim—it can’t be proved or disproved. Point to some junkie shooting himself up in an alley, or a couple of thugs pummeling an old woman in the slums. Does the sovereign really permit these things? Well, in the sense that the sovereign issued a writ of mainlining to the junkie, and one of assault to the thugs, or that he gave orders from the top that went down through the ranks until some local precinct officer whispered to the junkie and thug to do their thing, no, of course not. But in the sense that the sovereign has set priorities, delegated powers, distributed resources and signaled intentions, and has done so in such a way as leave the junkie and thugs on the fringes of his calculations, or on the calculations he has his subordinates do, yes, he has permitted it.

So, Moldbug’s claim is about framing, rather than empirical observation. Frames contend with, and supersede other frames—Moldbug here is contesting, and trying to supersede, a liberal frame which would see in the junkie and the thug effects of the spontaneous order of liberalism, or perhaps of stupid government interference in that spontaneous order. Which frame is better? We’d like to say the one that eliminates the anomalies generated within the previous one, and that accounts for facts made observable but left unexplained by an existing frame. And to some extent that’s true, but much more so the more the knowledge in question is sequestered from power. We can try to make it as true as possible in the realm of social and political theory, but in order to do that we must fully inhabit the frame. You can’t say, well, in general I think everything that happens in this society is permitted by the sovereign, but this one thing that happened yesterday seems to me to require another explanation. It may very well be that a particular event seems better explained by liberalism, especially if it was generated within a liberal frame. But you can only inhabit one frame, which is why you must fully inhabit it, and insist, even against the evidence, that that event is explained by it, fully and only by it. If your frame is wrong, that’s the only way you’ll ever find out anyway. The frame implicit in Moldbug’s claim enables us to see the sovereign as setting priorities, delegating powers, distributing resources, signaling intentions, overseeing operations, and so on, in a way we couldn’t have seen otherwise—it also allows us to see how divided power subverts all these prerogatives of sovereignty. We can now see responsibility where before we saw only remission. You can simply reject the frame (but only from within another frame), but once you enter it, you’re in it until you’ve seen everything you can see through it.

So, your metalanguage locks you in every bit as much as language, and leaves you in the paradox, not so much of self-reference as of reference—any time you refer to something you are noticing something already there and creating that thing as a thing to be noticed: it’s not representable until it’s represented. If we can talk about an outside to language, this is it—an outside that is inside. In fact, this is the most rigorous way of approaching our traditions, as a specific set of paradoxes, the implications of which we continue to work through. “Faith” is an acceptance that certain paradoxes can never be resolved, but only lived. Moreover, you can bring others into your frame, willingly or unwillingly—their words can be resituated within your system, and provide you with both testimony regarding the paradoxes they must live and spies within their system. Of course, they might also be converted. This is the true test of the “best” frame—which can most effectively reframe the others. In the end, there will always be ostensive signs that need to be accounted for. And what about originary thinking itself, which seems to present itself as a metalanguage to end all metalanguages? Ultimately, originary thinking is a way of tracing all the frames it comes across back to their origins, and through those origins, the origin of language and humanity. If originary thinking fulfilled its wildest ambition, which is, it must be said, to reframe all frames, it wouldn’t be a monolithic discourse describing everything in an abstracted meta-metalanguage; rather, it would be a world of originary inquiries, undertaken wherever people are, within their languages, discourses and traditions and through the new idioms the inquiries themselves would generate.

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