There's No Such Thing as Language, or Rhetoric's Gestures & Events

While I hesitate to begin a post with Wittgenstein, he opens Philosophical Investigations with a fantastic critique of St. Augustine's account of learning how to speak. The Saint suggests that his elders would point to something — say, a pencil — and say, "Pencil." Little Augustine would repeat it and, voilà, the future Saint learned to speak.

Wittgenstein keenly notes the failure of such a method of learning language. When the elder points to the pencil and utters those sounds, how would little Augustine know said sounds referred to the pencil and not, for instance, yellow, thin stick (or any stick), or writing utensil in general? Wittgenstein suggests that this method of pointing and uttering might work for learning a second language but not for learning language per se.

It doesn't take much to realize that language is not just a set of words designating things in the world. Some words — such as one of my favorites, this — don't actually signify anything. They are functions within the act of communicating. Push at this and you'll quickly see that language is much odder than vocabulary and grammar (which is itself different than the way it's taught; grammar is not just subject-verb agreement  — I am, you are, she is — or inflection: Throw the ball to me (I becomes me when it's an object; linguists call this inflection. But more on this later).

Linguists study something called language. They break it down in different ways. The structural linguists, for instance, considered two aspects of language: langue, which is a system of references; and parole, which is the act of communicating — words spoken or written. For the most part, these structural linguists found parole so complex and unsystematic that they preferred to focus on langue, this thing they could dissect like a dead frog.

But where, exactly, does this langue — this system of communication — exist? Isn't language always and necessarily used? Give me an instance of language that is not parole, which is to say, a moment of language that is not somebody saying or writing something. There's no such thing. We make dictionaries seem like they weren't written but we all know some writer was not paid enough to write those entries. Language is always and already being used. The dead frog on the table — langue, a system of language — is dissecting itself with itself. 

This insight is the beginning of what we call poststructuralism and is how the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, made a splash with his form of deconstruction: every structure — in this case, langue — has a moment situated outside itself (parole) that undoes the structure. See his great essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play," not to mention his epic, if pedantic, Of Grammatology.

For Derrida, communication always involves this double gesture in which meaning is proffered and infinitely deferred. He refers to this function as différance (the "mis-spelling" is intentional, emphasizing the gap between written and spoken language, between langue and parole, a gap that at once makes meaning possible and impossible). This is to say that Derrida begins with the assumption that language tries to mean something, to signify something, but fails as the gap between structure (langue) and performance (parole) can never be closed.

But what if we begin from another place all together, a place in which there will never have been this dubious distinction between structure and action, between the static (langue) and the in motion (parole)? What if we begin by viewing all of life as in flux, even structures?

When my son was quite young, he started doing this funny thing. He'd speak about something as though it were a science documentary. Mind you, he wasn't offering actual knowledge. He'd use words that he didn't understand and offer facts that might or might not be related or true. But his tone was spot on. He knew the gestures of knowing.

And such is language: a series of gestures that distribute the world — facts, bodies, events, moods. Wittgenstein referred to these as language games. Learning a first language, he claimed, is not learning referents and grammar (as St. Augustine suggested) but learning which words delivered just so create a reaction. A baby crying, for instance, inaugurates a set of reactions — a mobilization of interactions. Every culture has different modes of games. Every household, indeed every person, is a player in this game and manipulates the players and action as they will. As we all know, the rules of the language game of parenting have changed dramatically since we were kids. No cry when I was a kid demanded the set of responses which, today, are de rigueur — unless, like me, you're interested in playing a different game. When two co-parents want to play two different games, we get discontent and divorce.

A word, I am suggesting, can't be reduced to its referential function. That is a misleading architecture of sense. A word is a gesture, an action, that aligns and distributes bodies in such and such a way. This gesture is at once meaning and movement, a meaning in motion, a way of taking on inherited terms and moving them about. In this model, rather than spoken language being a present tense example of an established structure of language, it is an event that distributes time, distributes structure, recreating it in the very act of using it. A word is not a tool taken from the tool set of language. A word, any utterance in fact, is a repetition of all meaning and structures. Every time I use a word, I am using it again, using it anew, forging nuance and inflection, changing the very mode of that word — what it can be, what it can mean. In the words of R.P. Blackmur,
"gesture is that meaningfulness which is moving". 

To quote 27 year old me invoking Merleau-Ponty: This gesture-event is at once meaning and movement; rather than pure immediacy, the event is itself the distributing of past, present, and future: "henceforth the immediate is no longer the impression, the object which is one with the subject, but the meaning, the structure, the spontaneous arrangement of parts."  Now, "past time is wholly collected up and grasped in the present." 

Some people, of course, prefer to copy word use — rather than repeat — to ensure that their utterances are in line with some notion of accepted meaning. They want to be in the game, "in the true," not changing the rules of the game. And some relish using words in ways that change the very terms of the game. These are poets and philosophers — although many of both in title are actually neither.

What happens when we begin with the assumption that there is no language, only rhetoric? What happens when we assume that the basic unit of communication is the gesture? In other words, why am I saying any of this?

By beginning with the gesture rather than the word, we shift the very terms of literacy. Now, rather than a learner mastering a definition, she is nudged to consider the operations of that word — its sense, its affect, how it moves people this way or that. We see some of this kind of critique coming from identity politics. Unfortunately, such so-called critics reduce a word to a fixed sense, to a univocal performance, so that any utterance of that word only means one thing: You're bad! 

If we're to consider gestures, then we are considering all different modes of that word, all the ways it can be expressed. Memorizing meaning, even if this meaning is now dictated by a cohort of identity-driven critics, reduces the play of words, reduces us to mere users of a system. A gesture lives in its execution, in its delivery, in its performance. And this is what literacy should embrace: a living through, an embodiment of meaning that conjures and arranges sense, history, and structure and, in the very act of speaking, recasts the very rules and modes of communication.

To live in language with its structures is to reduce life to referencing a world that is predetermined. If all my speaking and writing is just an example of an abstract structure with a set of rules, then how can I ever be free? I'm trapped in a prison house of language! How can we ever recast our dynamics if we're all taught to use a system that exists nowhere and whose rules are set in place? 

By shifting from language to rhetoric, from words to gestures, we infuse the past with the present and vice versa. We fold time. In the act of speaking and writing, each of us takes up the history of this thing we used to call language and rewrites the rules. No doubt, many seek stricter rules; to wit, today's internet. But these word police understand that language is, indeed, a living agent that we mold, even if they wish it to be more constraining. 

We can take up this logic of words as gestures to inhabit discourse, to make it weird, to make new senses of the world, of what's possible, using play, humor, seriousness, affect, and irony to break the shackles of inherited meanings: to recreate the world in every gesture.

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