Language isn't — except as an abstraction. Merleau-Ponty says, somewhere, something like this: "There's only language when it's failed" — that is, only when we're alienated from the words we say, hear, read, and write can we look at language and say what's that?
To say there is language is to assume there is this thing — this tool set, this system — that exists outside of us, something we can look at, examine, study. It has words and rules.
But what are we using to study this language? Do we step outside of language in order to examine it? What exactly does that look like?
Now, certainly a surgeon uses his hands to examine hands. What's wrong with that? Well, the analogy doesn't hold (like most analogies, it assumes sameness when there is always, necessarily, difference). The proper analogy would be: the surgeon using his hands to study his hands. And that is quite tricky.
No, there is no such thing per as language. There is the idea of language which may or may not be beautiful and productive. But there is no such thing as language. There is, alas, rhetoric.
Language suggests that there are words which are arbitrary sounds and marks that designate meaning; when we put them together, we make sense (if we follow the rules).
But a word is not first and foremost a meaning that accumulates emotions and connotations. Rather, a word is all the ways it can go; it is always already affective and, yes, argumentative. A word is a perspective and its utterance, the staking of a position. The example I always use is moon and la lune: one argues for cycles, the other for light. Do they, in fact, designate the same thing? (What would the same thing be?)
Argument is not something added to words, to language. It is argumentative, perspectival, from the get go. The basic unit of meaning is not the word; it's the trope — a turn, an inflection.
Words are inclination; they are swerves, clinamen (pace Lucretius). Words are not neutral bearers of meaning, innocently designating objects
and ideas. They are ways of shaping the world.
"Abortion" suggests the stopping of something in process, presumably a birth or gestation; call it a "renaissance" and it means something else entirely — the rebirth of a woman's menstrual cycle. All words are arguments, ways of shaping the world: they cast the the conceptual, social, and practical map of relations. They define and coerce the social, political structure of society.
To begin with rhetoric rather than with language is to begin with argument and to understand that everything we say has effects and affects: saying always does something. Our words construct, rearrange, jam the world. The sense certain words make is not the only sense possible; the tenor and timbre of the dictionary is not the neutral voice of meaning speaking from outside the fray of life. Dictionaries are argumentative, too (pace Lohren Green). (Arguments needs not be combative but they are always political in that they stake a position.)
To begin with rhetoric is to see the world differently — to see difference everywhere, all the time. Rather than there being a foundational sense and then the ways we inflect or adorn that sense, the sophist sees inclination, swerve, perspective in every utterance. Suddenly, the world brims with vitality — all these swerves! All these differences!
The way of the sophist is glorious.
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