The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 4: The Word Humiliated
The invasion of the verbal realm by images results in role reversal and domination, leading us to another characteristic of our modern reality: the humiliation of the word.
1. Defacto Devaluation
No one consciously tried to bring it about, yet the situation of the word in our society is deplorable. For this situation the people who speak are particularly responsible -- not in the moral sense of guilt, but in the sense of lack and failure. The habit of speaking without saying anything has eaten away at the word like a cancer. Such people have spoken other than in poetry, myth, and the minimum necessary for legendary history. Instead of limiting ourselves to what is useful (no more and no less) for exchanging information, news, and teaching, we keep on speaking. In addition to the ritual and mystery that codify the word we insist on speaking. These days we speak without saying anything; we just chitchat.
Scholasticism, at its very origins, was not just chatter; it became chatter. Oddly enough, this chatter invaded the scholarly world and came to provide its security. Molière and François Rabelais bear witness to this chatter, these meaningless words. Then too, there is Shakespeare: "Words, words, words." Suddenly the tragic discovery was made that words were only words, without power to act. People became acutely aware of the uselessness of mere talk. People were not aware of this during the Middle Ages, when the word was venerated, not only in liturgy but in all its forms. After the sixteenth century, we have an avalanche of talk that is increasingly useless.
This development is easily associated with the bourgeoisie: they reduced the word to the schematic needs of business, or to conceal what people wanted to avoid saying. In this view, the word became insignificant amid the elegance of the court, through Marivaux’s subtle use of it in his plays, and because of everyday triteness that lacks any reference to real life. Mundane and intellectual chatter mixed together (as Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point shows so admirably) finally collapse into wordlessness. Eugene Ionesco’s reputation as a playwright is based on this situation.
The speaker’s error comes from the absence of something "to say," so that he doesn’t say anything, but (as poet Jacques Prévert puts it) just goes on talking and talking and talking. We have an excess of talk devoid of meaning and veracity. We are satiated with electoral and political speeches (which we are sure say absolutely nothing), with false conversations, and with books paid by the word (some find it necessary to write, and so become writers by trade!). In spite of the lack of anything to say, the speaker continues as if he were a wordmill moved by the wind, and he becomes responsible for the fact that no one can any longer take any word seriously. No word can be taken seriously, because the rush of these words prevents us from discovering the one which, in the midst of the torrent, has meaning and deserves to be listened to.
This devaluation of words can also be the fault of intellectuals, who give us many examples of such usage these days. We will mention only the impenitent chatter of the Henry Millers and the Deleuzes and Guattaris, (To mention only the "greats"!) whose logorrhea conceals the poverty of a few simple ideas under a flood of deceptive verbiage. Their words are mere illusion, completely devaluated because they have said nothing and because of the superabundance of discourse. But this suffices for those who seize upon one glittering word and thereafter explain everything by referring solemnly to "flux" or "desire." They do this without realizing that they only repeat medieval theories concerning the Impetus, the Impulse, etc., from which Jean Buridan’s successors were to build such beautiful effects based on vain words!
While we have a wasteland of empty verbiage, at the same time we suffer from an excess of information broadcast everywhere about everything, so that its quality is utterly destroyed. We are overwhelmed by a jumble of information: on the latest model of ballpoint pens, the pope’s election, the wedding in Monaco, the Iranian revolution, increased taxes, new possibilities for credit, the conversion of the biggest polluter to the cause of nonpollution -- ten thousand words of information in an instant. We would go crazy if we really had to listen to all this seriously, so the flood of words continues, and we let it flow by. After all, whether any words are involved, the result is the same: I listen with half an ear and I catch here and there a snatch of a phrase, or a moving tone of voice, but in any case the word no longer matters to me. I have been exposed to too many words and too much information. I must defend myself against these invasions; my mind closes up spontaneously, to keep me from being torn to pieces. I am like Orpheus turned over to the media Maenads; I am blown by every wind of doctrine and words; I am lured into every trap. I have stopped listening. I refuse to hear (without even realizing it).
As noise, however, the anonymous word continues to flow. No longer is any kind of relationship established. Henceforth the word is definitively detached from the one who speaks. Nobody is behind it. When language theorists take their analysis to its logical conclusion, they declare that no person is speaking, nor is there any content to communicate. They say we must recognize that in the strict sense, it speaks, or one speaks. They are mistaken, however, when they turn this into a general rule and claim to give us either an objective analysis of language or a new psychoanalysis of the "nonsubject." They are wrong to present this as something permanent. For our society and our epoch, for our intellectual or bourgeois groups, they are correct, but this is a sociological observation rather than something linguistic or psychoanalytic.
In our day, in this place, a sort of social discourse flows endlessly and is repeated twenty hours out of every twenty-four, expressed by individual mouths. The discourse is completely anonymous, even though it may sometimes be affirmed with force and conviction by a particular individual.(On the intellectual level, of course, l consider the books of Jacques Lacan, Foucault, Jacques Derrida, etc., utterly typical of this anonymous social discourse. These writers constitute in themselves a demonstration of what they say about all individuals who speak.) This corresponds to the speaker’s anonymity. The word has become anonymous and therefore has no importance, since its only reality involved the meaning of two living persons who needed to know and recognize each other and to exchange something. Words are just wind. They pass by and have no importance: as long as no one puts the weight of his entire life behind the word he speaks, how can we take one statement more seriously than any other?
The rupture between the speaker and his words is the decisive break. If a person is not behind his word, it is mere noise. This matter of looking for the weight of truth in philosophical or political phrases (independently of the person who said them) goes back a long way. What do I care if a person lived like a coward, a liar, or a hypocrite, since the words he left are so beautiful! This is the first great vacuum.
In the Bible the word is an integral part of the person. It is true if the person is true. Jesus’ words have no value or importance whatever if they are separated from the person of Jesus. In him there is perfect unity of life, action, word, relationship, and knowledge. The current rupture between the speaker and the word strips the word, but soon it takes on value again. But from where? Necessarily from something nonhuman, so that this value will be related to reason, science, some opinion, a social tendency, or a concept of beauty or truth. A concept rather than the beauty of an experience lived in harmony with itself, or the truth of a person’s unity. Once related only to a concept, the word is at the mercy of all sorts of winds and changes; it loses all weight and meaning. It becomes an instrument, to be manipulated. It does not commit anyone to anything.
When the word is utterly emptied of itself, it becomes mere slogan, at the service of any structure whatever.(See Olivier Reboul’s basis study, most enlightening, on modern devaluation of the word: Le Slogan (Brussels: Complexe, 1975). It becomes propaganda and serves falsehood: (I am not saying that propaganda is not based on falsehoods concerning reality; I have shown elsewhere that propaganda is efficacious only if it refers to accurate facts.) fundamental falsehood, which has to do with the unity of being and the word. The word thus becomes the servant of whatever doctrine, since any political doctrine, considered in itself, is as good as another. The word may be prostituted in any venture. The anonymous word has no name and thus is not really a word. No one has spoken it. It spreads out like liquid across a world with no reference points. All the talk about signs (signifiers and signifieds, the referent and connotations) is utterly empty talk when there is no more word. This is the fault of those who speak.
* * * * * *
The word is also devalued by the very conditions in which it is spoken in our day. The triumph of thought based on images implies a reduction of the word. We are all aware of the remarkable phenomenon that has left its mark on our era, the disintegration of language in various ways. We also see the word used in propaganda and advertising, in which a simple onomatopoeia or the elimination of a word’s meaning is sufficient, since the word is reduced to functioning as a stimulus. This is also clear and significant in contemporary poetry, in the effort to separate meaning from the word (Abraham Moles’s experiment); also in the reduction of the word to a mere conveyer of information and the tendency to analyze everything in terms of communication and information. From all this one concludes that algebra is superior to spoken language, or that images are superior to the word.
This situation is simply induced by the invasion of images. Reciprocally, based on this invasion, anything may be called language. We have the language of fashion in clothing, cinematic language, body language, etc. But it is clear that in every case a shift toward visualization and images is involved. As if without intending to, as if it were obvious, people fuse all "languages" -- spoken and heard language become only a particular instance of communication. But in reality, we are dealing here with the disappearance of one sort of thinking for the sake of another.
This process confirms our tendency to live only in the present. Again, in this situation it is not by accident that we draw back and refuse to study history, and that historical continuity and significance derived from the past are rejected. This refusal obviously is not consistent with the temporal dimension of the word. On the contrary, it coincides with the fact that visual images belong to the present. An image-oriented person is a person with no past. He lives only on the basis of what images can supply. Each image contains all he needs to know; he has no need to remember or retain what he learns today. Images and the transmission of knowledge through association of images convey all one needs immediately. The uselessness of history as the study of the past coincides with this. Neither is it by accident that education loses its content. Finally, structuralism, with its crushing dominance by the synchronic element, is the method and the philosophical mode that is consistent with visual images. It is not by chance that structuralism reduces language to a relationship of structures.
The word also undergoes the repercussions of the technicalization of everything. We must become basically aware of the fact that the word is strictly contradictory to technique in every way.(I know, of course, that language is also a technique and the object of techniques. Rhetoric is a case in point. But there is no comparison between this technique, which belongs to the most traditional group, and what technique has become today.) Technique’s unconditional triumph empties the word, which becomes a wandering and dispossessed servant. The word is then further reduced within the technical framework to the level of a mere instrument. The word becomes vain because of babblers, and it becomes an instrument because of techniques. The context determines evolution in this case. The word no longer needs to bear meaning; it has been divorced from what it signifies. Once again, the scientific analysts (who refer everything to language structures, since they observe that meaning is useless) give a correct account not of what the word is, but of what it has become here and now.
The word is still used and is not yet entirely emptied, because it retains some of its former prestige. It is indispensable that we go on talking, though meaning and real value no longer exist, and even though we no longer make any reference to truth. After all, we have those ancestral memories according to which the triumphant word dictated God’s laws to the world.
Similarly, everyone holds political language in contempt. We shrug our shoulders at its promises and lyrical excesses, but it is necessary. The politician who did not give himself over to this game would have no chance of being taken seriously. This is true even though we know that this language does not commit him to anything.
Technique makes us live in a world of action, figures, demonstrations, and efficiency. But in this context there is a double effect: the emptiness of words spoken by an anonymous speaker who is not committed to his word, and the triumphant evidence for the efficacy of action -- action that is now always technicalized. The word can find a modest place for itself only if it is utterly subordinated to the efficiency and the imperative of technique. The word has become image: the word made for computers, dominated by writing, inscription, and printing, and changed into a thing, into space and something visible. Now it must be seen to be believed, and we think we have finally fathomed all of language when we can apply a semiotic diagram to it.
The word deprived of meaning by the use made of it is thus transformed into something other than itself. This temptation had been great ever since writing began, since unity was the equivalent of an image. The distortion is clearly seen when within a single society one moves from a representative sign to a syllable or a letter with the same meaning. For example, a sign that represented the ocean ends up replaced by a letter or a syllable which has nothing in common with the word ocean. The same sign can thus be read twice: once in pronouncing the word ocean, and again by pronouncing the letter a.
At this point the word becomes uncertain and unstable. But obviously as yet we have no real change in that common use of the word, which remained overwhelmingly dominant. With printing this changed, because so much writing came to be distributed that reading became more important than the ability to speak. The term illiterate is the equivalent of uncivilized. Civilizations based on spoken language are usually not considered to be truly developed, although from the human point of view (of relationships and the unity of the person) language dominates and writing is quite secondary. Writing has placed the word in an ambiguous and defensive position. Beginning with writing, the word began to be devalued.
The latest example of this devaluation clearly comes to us from computers. Computers went from using specialized language to direct language. Soon we will be able to talk with computers in normal language and receive an answer written in normal language. Fine. But what sort of language? Obviously computers cannot understand ambiguities, connotations, allegories, metaphors, metonymies, ellipses, and paraphrases. Computers must have unambiguous language, with no double meanings, subtlety, or complexity. We will also have to remain within a certain limited vocabulary. There can be no choice of uncommon words, no alliteration or neologism that is not yet in the dictionary but which can conjure up myriads of reactions and images in the listener. Computers cannot deal with a poem by Henri Michaux. They have neither reactions nor images.
Computers require clear language that is never ambiguous. They must be taught a syntactical approach that spells out grammatical rules precisely; then the speaker must follow these rules if the machine is to understand. Examples like this one are given: How many inhabitants do Rennes and Châlons have? Answer: zero, because the computer understands: How many people live in both Rennes and Châlons? The computer cannot understand that two questions are involved. The syntactical approach must be further refined by a semantic one in which the most important words are indicated, because they establish the meaning of a sentence. But this great effort involves converting language into something that is not the word: all the richness and openness to truth lie precisely in what must be eliminated in order for the computer to understand.
Naturally, people say: "That doesn’t matter; language spoken between people will remain complex. Nothing is going to change just because we must discipline ourselves in order to speak to computers." Not so! Beginning in 1930, experts noticed that language was becoming impoverished because of the development of telegraphic style and basic English. Both of these reduce the construction of a sentence to its utilitarian elements, eliminating inflection and embellishment. Computer language completes this process. You think you still remain free to speak with someone using complex or flowery language? Of course you do! But it will be taken for an esthete’s or poet’s language, without importance.
This is where language’s real devaluation lies: on the one hand we have "serious" language that is strong, useful, precise, and situated within society’s general tendencies. It has this status because it corresponds precisely to technique and technique’s development. Such language is taken seriously because it suits serious matters. On the other hand, we have a floating language, good enough for intellectuals and artists, a language for distraction and fantasy. It has no status or position, and its meaning and changes are not important in the last analysis.
Who can fail to see how much the word has been devalued by this rupture and explosion? Who could be ignorant of the fact that the same person who wrote incendiary slogans during the disturbances of May 1968 has adopted ten years later either the sober and precise language of the highly placed administrator, or else the wooden language of the militant who has become successful in the establishment?
2. Contempt for Language
Our discussion now brings us to one of the aspects of the contempt for language. We may see this contempt in two different practices related to the explosion of language. These involve the scorn of both technicians and intellectuals. From the technician’s point of view, the nearly irreparable defect of language is that it is ambivalent and has many facets of meaning, so one never ends up with absolute certainty. We need to make what we say monovalent instead of ambivalent; we must eliminate uncertainty and transform language into a useful supplement to demonstration. Language usage must be purified of any reference to any unknown. Technicians who love diagrams cannot do anything with language except to make it an annex (if it must be included) to explain a given point. Language can never hold the key to meaning or to a demonstration.
For this reason we said above that the devaluation of language through subordination to computer needs is extremely important. The conversation with a computer is not limited to that situation; it becomes the model for all conversation. This was already the model, to a lesser degree, in all relationships that involved technicians. This covers an enormous proportion of language use, since it involves all sorts of technicians: administrators, jurists, economists, physicists, chemists, marketing experts, doctors, engineers, psychologists, publicity experts, film makers, programmers, etc. They represent nearly the totality of language use.
Let’s have no misunderstanding: I am not talking about the specialist’s language, which is impenetrable to the noninitiated. The structure and the purpose of language are at stake. "Let’s get down to facts.... " There lies the problem. Language becomes purely instrumental and therefore in its specificity is scorned.
Technicians deny that there is any value in the scholastic type of reasoning, which is based solely on the relationship between propositions. Such reasoning seems to them to be empty and ineffectual. Certainly it lacks technical efficacy. Therefore the technician says we must eliminate this sort of communication in order to arrive at pure communication.
Language is made to transmit information -- but only useful information. This can be accomplished satisfactorily only if there is no redundancy, double meaning or "interference" in the communication. "You’re coming through loud and clear": that is the ideal. All uncertainty must be eliminated. We cannot waste time figuring out some meaning that comes from the beyond. We are here, on this side, and that is all that matters. Everything else is just philosophy; that is, a pastime, an odd craze some people have, without any practical significance.
Who among us has not talked with developers and builders and been struck by their irritation when we speak about a term like "the quality of life," not in vague terms, but saying exactly what the expression means. "You’re a humanist," they respond. Such a response communicates clearly how much language is despised. When an expression such as "quality of life" or "environmental protection" catches on, they say "of course!" They take over the expression and apply it to any effort to "develop" land, to destroy genuinely human life and landscape, or to change the environment. "Why not? These are just words, and therefore nothing. They are just popular expressions Let us put serious ideas into practice, such as growth and development." And when you show that these "expressions" have vast content and value, and that they involve basic choices, these people reject what you say. They refuse to be directed by words or references to values. "Practical matters are completely different from your talk," they say. And under the thin, icy politeness of the chief engineer of the Highway Commission, his scorn for the philosopher and the humanist immediately shows: "Go ahead and play with words: we’ll choose a few to use for decoration; but leave practical matters to us."
But unfortunately these days I also find this scorn of language among those who should have defended it without respite: intellectuals and artists. Actually their contempt is a result of the devaluation we have been speaking about: abuse by the speaker himself. Artists who accept being confined to their role as crazies and jesters play with words. When the surrealists and members of the Dada movement attacked language as they did, people experienced a strong sensation of freedom. The dismal traditional rules were exploded; people discovered that language had a meaning other than the direct one of our everyday lives. Words carried daily life toward some "beyond." But this destructuring of words and sentences was fatal. The surrealists brought off a Pyrrhic victory: their discovery led in the end to the downfall of surreality, since it demonstrated the emptiness and the vanity of language. They dramatically strengthened the position of scientists and technicians, according to whom words are only a game. The easily achieved rupture between meaning and sound was a disaster. The surrealists meant to combat facile speech and habit. They did not realize that at the same time they were destroying one of the most eagerly pursued and difficult of humanity’s conquests -- an achievement that had been slowly arrived at. Connecting meaning with words was not commonplace; it was the very condition of human development and intellectual possibility. They tried to "give a purer meaning to the tribal words," as Stéphane Mallarmé put it, and the result was the discovery that there is no meaning at all.
This soon led to the language games we are now well acquainted with. The surrealists’ desire to break with meaning involved the frantic search for a way out, but they destroyed the thing that made a way out possible! They produced crazy, unreasoned language. Many have shrugged their shoulders, saying: "That doesn’t matter. It is just a few intellectuals, only poets’ fantasies." This evaluation was far from the mark. To counterbalance technical, instrumental language that is transformed into images, we still had common everyday language, or else the possibility of restoring to language its entire sovereign dimension as the word. This was assaulted and destroyed by surrealism.(These comments in no way detract from my admiration for many surrealist poets. The evaluation of their effect and sociological significance is something entirely different from the esthetic pleasure I can receive from a given creation or from a given poet’s playing with language.) Anything means anything. Plays on words take the place of thought. All that was needed to play this game was to reverse the order of the factors, and this process became an epidemic. The pursuit of meaning turns into the meaning of pursuit, etc. A person can seem profound by playing this way with any commonplace.
Next came Prévert’s and Queneau’s playful destructuring. Then, the destructuring or dismembering of sentences, with "truth" springing from these dismemberings, according to Jacques Lacan. We also saw the mixing by multiple-track tape recorders of phrases and language sounds. These manipulations have had repercussions on all nontechnical language and can only be the expression of desperate abandon and a last effort at justifying language. They seemed to be saying: "We continue to speak this language, you know, but it is not a serious matter; just look at how we play with words and phrases. At least we are accepted as jesters; come on, let’s find a little folding stool somewhere in this serious society for the juggler of words." All of us agree and answer: "You aren’t saying a thing with these words (only we technicians do that); and when we feel like distraction, your tricks are amusing for a little while. It is even funnier when you use technical mixing methods to lacerate and pulverize human language." This is a frightening step to take, and its effects have spread to the entire language: you can do anything, and make words say anything. You can construct any discourse with them: they do not defend themselves. But our very human life -- and not only our reason or our intelligence -- is profoundly altered by this process.
Let’s mention one more effort. Since the rediscovery of linguistics and Ferdinand de Saussure, the mentality of scientism has pounced upon language and has involved us in reducing the word to the state of an object: a scientific object. Now we have semantics, semiology, semiotics, and semasiology. Apparently semiotics is the broadest; it is defined as "the theory of signs and sounds and of their circulation in society" (Paul Robert’s dictionary). The Lexis dictionary gives "general science of signs and modes of signifying." So language is only one of the modes of signifying. Linguistics is only one branch of semiotics.
Semiology is "the study of systems of signs in social life" (Robert); that is, systems of signs have a social function. Note well: signs almost always refer to visual things. To the degree that linguistics is one of the possibilities of semiotics, this means (implicitly; this is never admitted!) that language is reduced to relationships between signs, whose model and description are visual!
Even semantics (the study of language from the point of view of meaning) does not have the word as its reference point, but is rather the "means of representing the meaning of what is said" or the "signified of lexical units in relation to their signifier." Since all this is supposed to be done in a scientific fashion, irreducible units exist at the base of semantics: "sememes," which are minimal units that differentiate meaning.
I find it astonishing that on the one hand linguists can reduce plays on words, nonsense expressions, and paradoxes to differentiating units, and on the other hand they include the word in a science of signs that are definitely visual. I purposely "misunderstand" at this point, because all studies in semiology claim that this discipline excludes the word, but this is not so! Thus the spoken and heard sign is included, but the model is "shown and seen."
As professionals, linguists and structuralists take language extremely seriously, yet they treat it as physicists and chemists have treated matter: with utter scorn. They treat it as a mere thing on which scientific discipline is supposed to exercise its rigor. Treating the language as a submissive object is like treating the word of God scientifically. Can anything escape from the triumphant imperialism of the scientific method? A speaker’s claim to evoke something which cannot be submitted to scientific analysis is held in contempt in this situation. "You believe in the mystery of the word? Come along; we are going to perform its autopsy, and you will see that there is no soul under my scalpel."
This attitude involves contempt for the word, which had given people the impression and sense that there was a fissure giving access to the beyond. Now we are told that no beyond is involved in the word -- only precise structures in discourse. Everything that is not strictly speaking dis-cursus is rigorously reduced to structural relationships. And the dis-cursus, which exists only in the imagination and belief of the speaker, must be implacably destroyed.
There is no meaning. Everything in a text is reduced to structural relationships. This amounts to negating the word that escapes the scientific method. Since this method is law, according to the procedure followed in every science, let’s exclude as unreal and unimportant anything that cannot be subordinate or an object. For despite Edgar Morin’s question, scientists still are the subject (even when they pretend not to be) and nature the object. We have not yet reached the stage of humility in our relationship with the word!
Two tendencies become clear in this context: on the one hand, language is seen as arbitrary; on the other, the signifier becomes overvalued. Both tendencies coincide in their implicit contempt for language. First, language clearly has come to seem arbitrary. No natural relationship exists between a word and the thing it designates. No onomatopoeia reproducing the ocean’s sound designates the ocean in language. We have no howling sound that means "wolf" in language. Therefore language is an artificial creation: the word and the thing are not the same. No aspect of a given thing is included in the word for it. The word is pure convention. Children are taught the word not as a necessary means of survival but as the arbitrary imposition of social convention.
Such statements belong to the "order of evidence" and are ruinous for language and the word. If we accept such statements we are not bound by anything. No syntactical, etymological, or commonsense rule has any reason for being. And since everything is arbitrary, why not change, overturn, and upset these words and rules? After all, we would just be replacing one arbitrary element for another. This process amounts to the negation of history (which is quite normal, considering the connection we have observed between the word and history). Also negated is the serious nature of language acquisition. The next step is to plunge into phonetic spelling, the creation of basic English, and the playful destructuring of language. Nothing matters anymore.
All these efforts invariably remind me of the ridiculous adventure of the members of France’s 1791 Constituent Assembly. Since they considered the French provinces to be purely conventional and artificial, they wanted to divide the country into equal, square pieces. At least that was rational. Of course, the human factor is denied; but this calling into question of language has all the logical reasons and evidence on its side!
We encounter the same contempt for discourse and for the word when people hit us on the head with: "the important thing is not at all to know what is being said, but to determine where the person is speaking from." This notion is always stated triumphantly, and as if it were a very serious matter. This is too much! The word’s content and what it expresses? Utterly unimportant! On the other hand, it is essential to know if the speaker is bourgeois, an intellectual, a worker, a student or a professor, a judge or the accused, etc. In reality, as with all these linguistic "discoveries," all that is involved is taking elementary ideas and making them look impressive by covering them over with pseudoscientific vocabulary. Simple ideas are turned into something absolute by the scientific establishment, so as to crush that remainder of language that is not scientific. By this very process and by their very scientific quality, such ideas become false, in the same now well-known way that pieces of reality do when science makes a fragment of reality its object and thus alters reality and loses its object! "Where a person is speaking from" (I would like to cite another example of such obvious matters, transformed by science into manifest error through the artificial cutting up of reality. What follows is the beginning of an excellent article by J.-L. Lavallard from Le Monde of 26 Jan. 1977. It takes its title from Paul Claudel’s expression:
THE EYE LISTENS: BABA+GAGA=DADA
We look with our eyes and we hear with our ears. At least that is what we think. But two British research scientists, Harry McGurk and John MacDonald, of the Psychology Department of the University of Surrey-Guildford, have just proved the opposite: our senses do not have such separate functions. These researchers have shown conclusively that we also "hear" with our eyes. What they have discovered is true generally and applies to children as well as to adults. It is true for each of us and is not limited to deaf people who learn to read other people’s lips by observing their lip movements.
The discovery began with the disconcerting result of an experiment. The subject watches a sound film showing the face of a woman speaking. This woman repeats the same syllable twice every second. She pronounces GA-GA. But the sound track accompanying the film is not the original one. It has been recorded with BA-BA instead of GA-GA. So the subject’s ear perceives BA-BA, whereas his eyes see a person who says GA-GA. The person conducting the experiment asks the subject what he perceives. The answer is disconcerting. The subject does not hear BA-BA as we might expect (only 2% of the adult responses correspond to the sound track). He does not hear GA-GA either (0% of the responses). Everyone (or almost: 90% of the responses) claims to hear DA-DA!
The phenomenon is very deep-seated. The authors of the study claim that even they cannot rid themselves of the illusion, although they know perfectly well what is said and what is seen. When they close their eyes, they hear BA-BA correctly, but as soon as they begin looking at the image, they perceive DA-DA again.
These results are astonishing. They show clearly that the perception of sounds is not just an auditory phenomenon, but that it is the result of complex operations in the brain, where the information from our various senses arrives before the brain makes a conscious analysis. Furthermore, even in the case of this sort of auditory information, visual information often wins out. Among the subjects who claim to hear one of the two actual sounds (auditory or visual), those who perceive the "visual" sound are almost always the majority.... The eye wins out over the ear.
What can we say about this experiment? Based on this study, can we really arrive at the conclusion that "the eye wins out over the ear"? It may show that we partially lip-read, which is obvious; every deaf person knows this. In this case nothing has been discovered. Or else the experiment shows that we hear a totality; that is, a person speaking, with his face and hands. The word is an expression of the entire person and cannot be separated from the speaker; this is just what we said above. In this case, again, nothing new has been discovered!
There is nothing else to be learned from this experiment. The rest is absurd and demonstrates nothing. It is absurd because the researchers make a person say sounds that mean nothing! And the person watching the film is asked to tell what sound he perceives, whereas he is expecting a word. The discrepancy between sight and hearing when a sound is involved has no significance at all as far as language is concerned. It is no more significant than seeing a worker five hundred yards away wielding a sledgehammer and hearing a horn honk from the same distance. Obviously, when I see the sledgehammer hit, I expect to hear the sound of its impact. And that’s all we can say!
The significant thing about this experiment is not what it might teach us but the unmasking of those who designed the experiment. For them, language amounts to noises and sounds, so that choosing any sound at all allows them to draw conclusions about language. Sounds are deformed through mixing what is heard and what is seen, because they are just sounds, with no referent. Had they used words with meaning, no confusion would have taken place. We often have this experience when seeing a poorly dubbed foreign film. I hear the French phrase and I see the German pronounced on the screen, but I in no way confuse the German with the French!
In this case again, pseudoscience makes no discovery, because it eliminates the basis of the problem! All that is involved is contempt for language! Sometime later, writing about Joseph Losey’s film, Don Giovanni, Christian Zimmer wrote "The ear sees" (Le Monde, 1 Feb. 1980), in a fine criticism of Losey’s stagecraft, which overshadows the opera itself. Losey is much more interested in space than time, and the result is that the music suffers the effects of his temptation to be realistic.) If this means that the same phrase spoken by a judge and by the accused does not have exactly the same implication and meaning, so that we must interpret what is said on the basis of who said it, then we are dealing only with an utterly obvious fact that has always been known. In this case, we are being warned of the importance of fine-tuning what is said -- but this has always been done. But when it is transformed "scientifically," the expression "where a person is speaking from" means that there is nothing else in language other than the expression of "where the person speaks from"; that is, one expresses only his (class!) interests. This is foolishness. But it is a foolishness which coincides with the widespread scorn for language! Today meaning is excluded -- any meaning -- and political, social, and other conflicts take its place. Language is considered to be an instrument of domination. We will return to this idea.
This tendency to view language as arbitrary is related to the second tendency mentioned above: the overvaluation of the signifier. The signifier becomes the interesting reality. What it signifies and the relationship of the sign to values or thought is no longer thought important. How often is it said: "Meaning does not matter to us; we do not perform structural analyses of the text in order to understand it better. In the same vein, the intention of the speaker, or what the author wanted to convey, is unimportant. The only things that concern us are the process of transmission, the mechanism of circulation, the organization of the signifier, and its structure. All our attention centers on this signifier" (probably as a reaction against the idealism of previous generations, which were interested only in the thing or idea to be expressed). The result is that such scholars deny not only meaning, but they also deny that there is anything "to say"; they deny there is any thought preceding the emission of the signifier. Thought comes from what one writes or says. What is to be said results from what has been said or from some mechanical stimulus. (We must again refer the reader to Ricardou’s scholarly and enlightening analyses of the New Novel (Probèmes du nouveau roman [Paris: Seuil, 1967]; Pour une thérie du nouveau roman [Paris: Seuil, 1971]; and Le Nouveau Roman [Paris: Seuil, 1973]) for an understanding of just how far this process of eliminating meaning can go (see Jacques Ellul, L’Empire du non-sens; L’Art et la société technicienne [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980]). Let us especially recall the disagreement Ricardou raises with respect to Jean-Paul Sartres thought on the thing "to be said." For Ricardou, Sartre’s main weakness is believing that there exists a thought which is going to be expressed. Actually, in conformity with the hatred of meaning, Ricardou shows that all we ever have is something "said," and that language produces itself through the working of its structures.) When we have examined the structure of the signifier, we have learned from it all there is to know. The signified is established through speaking and writing, and thus has no preeminence. Meaning comes from the meaninglessness of writing in itself. Moreover, this has little importance, since, as we have said, meaning does not matter.
At this point we do well to ask ourselves the reason for this overvaluation of the signifier. I can see two reasons for it. First, it can be observed! I cannot observe the signified, nor the relationship of the signifier with the signified. These are "philosophical" problems. On the contrary, I can observe the emission of a phrase, its circulation, deformation, and audition. I can even make nice diagrams of this process. This shows in the first place that this attitude follows the traditional "scientific" tendency: only what can be observed and analyzed by the classical scientific method is important (or even exists, in the extreme view). Since only the communication process involving the signifier can be thus analyzed, it is the only thing that matters to us. Everything else is a metaphysical argument that serves only to confuse the scientific relationship between subject and object.
In addition to these considerations, we now arrive at the "diagram" which is of fundamental importance. At last we can transpose this elusive language into images. We can make a sketch of how communication and even information work. Now we have our feet on the ground, having risked involvement with the signified in imagination, myth, and poetry.
The second reason I can see for the overvaluation of the signifier brings me back to technique: it squares with the technical mentality. We want to see how the thing works: the process of circulation and deformation. As we indicated above, the process is what matters. It just so happens that this is what interests the technician. Finalities do not concern him, nor does meaning! Without knowing it, structuralists are possessed by the spirit of technique. The ideal is to be able to transform everything that exists into a machine: language, communication, and relationships all become machines. Deleuze and even Morin are typical in their choice of terms: a century ago, only a few eccentrics wanted to reduce living beings to machines. Now it is the dominant term.
Machines do not ask questions about the why of things, or about ends or meaning. The only consideration is how a thing works. And this is in reality the preoccupation concerning language and communication. "Machinitis" explains perfectly the reason for the overvaluation of the signifier, which amounts to the invasion of language and the word by the technical mentality. Since we are invaded from all sides by the multiple functions of things, we are obliged to follow this path and reduce everything to this procedure. Here again we find the mania for reducing everything to the same thing, to a single model. Since the dominant model is technical, everything must become technical. The least technical of realities (I insist that this is so!), the word, must be cut up until it has been reduced to something that can be dismantled. In our mechanistic obsession, we confuse what can be dismantled [démontable] with what can be demonstrated [démontrable]. Since we have been able to dismantle the "communication-information" complex and the signifier, we assume we have "demonstrated" all there is to the word.
We have examined the two root causes of this raving overvaluation of the signifier. But as soon as one has eliminated the signified, this question is inevitably asked: "After all, is the signifier really so important?" Never does it occur to anyone to go back and give priority to the signified again. No! People assume that the elimination of the signified is over and done with -- and well done. Everyone agrees that nothing has meaning. The word does not say anything. People just continue on their way in the descent into the hell of contempt for the word. The signifier is still part of the word. And despite all scientific efforts, it is impossible to keep the word in a sealed jar. It always slips out again; all its edges and shreds of meaning or flashes of truth cannot be kept under cover. People are not comfortable with a completely mechanistic and mechanical word, even when it has been reduced to the level of a signifier. There is always an element of chance remaining, an unforeseen fissure. This is clear when one goes back to the studies of Henri Lefèbvre or Robert Escarpit.
Well, then, why not also get rid of the signifier? The merry venture of Deleuze and Guattari in demolishing the signifier is well known. Their operation is possible only if one has previously excluded the signified. Once this is done, you are left with an imperfect and inconsistent machine. It can be accused of exercising an unacceptable, inadmissible dictatorship over the "desiring machine," the person. The signifier that was magnified at the previous stage becomes a tyrant at the same time as it becomes ridiculous and illegitimate. Simply by demonstrating the illegitimacy of the signifier (which is easy to do as soon as it no longer refers to a signified!), you can make it obvious to everyone that we need to be liberated.
Now the process is complete. There is no more word by which language is reduced to a vague phenomenon without importance. Such vagueness was strictly subordinated to desire and ordinary fluctuations. We have followed step by step the process of the incredible contempt for the word that has progressively dominated Western intellectuals. This contempt has expressed itself in stammering, stuttering, silence, the hiccups, periods indicating ellipsis, strings of nonsense, alliterations, onomatopoeia, inflated typographical arrangements -- all meant to replace a language no longer spoken. We no longer know how to speak it because it is not a technical and mechanistic language.
At this stage of contempt, language became literally anything except the vehicle of a message, the originator of meaning, or the place of dialogue. Speaking is anything at all except saying something to someone. I tremble as I write the last sentence! What a small-minded bourgeois I am; how reactionary, how backward and conservative; and what a refusal of progress! What a right-wing, antirevolutionary mentality! But those who judge this way have not understood that their attitude is neither leftist nor revolutionary, however much they may think so. On the contrary: it is just a simple, trite reflection of the most insipid, conformist, and benumbing technicalism.
I say "benumbing" because when a technician really does his job, he is working on the level of reality, and that is fine. But when an intellectual transposes the technical mentality into his domain and wants to treat everything like a machine, he is simply being conformist; he attains no reality, and behaves "like a child without a mother"! My mother the machine: that is the great lesson we learn from Deleuze and Guattari. Language has become anything at all: a social adapter, an instrument of control and conformity, a signal, ideological reproduction, a framework, alienation of the speaker, etc. It has become anything at all, but never the creative source of meaning; it is never a word borne by a human being and therefore a human word.
3. Hatred of the Word
Despising discourse and language was not enough. After scorn the next stage was hatred. To get a feel for this one must read the writings of Maurice Roche -- or many others -- that reek of hatred for the word. They no longer stop simply at ridiculing the word and demonstrating its futility as inadequate human expression. They find it necessary to destroy it, to dismember language, not stopping as before on the level of a theoretical analysis but going on to a practical level that brings disgrace on language.
What we have here is not just the poverty of expression of one who does not know how to speak, who has a reduced vocabulary and lacks coherence in his thinking. Nor is it the quest of the philosopher or formalist who considers language as an object. We are dealing rather with the deliberate act of someone who possesses a perfect mastery of language and wishes to kill it. He does this by means of a ridiculous exercise designed to demonstrate that the word conveys nothing, says nothing, and that the speaker is nothing but a machine gone haywire -- or that was never working right in the first place.
The dividing line comes at this point. At the stage of contempt for language, everything was reduced to machines. Then at this stage of hatred for the word, it is a matter of machines that are out of order, gone haywire. Language is nothing but a grotesque series of syllables, sounds that refer to nothing and signify nothing except mental breakdown.
Robert Pingent and Claude Simon perform exercises in style that are anything but innocent. What they really express is an unquenchable hatred both for our intellectual heritage and for our devotion to efforts at interpersonal communication. A kind of furor against anything that could be verbalized (Ricardou) comes over the intellectual -- a hatred of meaning. He feels it necessary to detach himself at all costs from what the other person meant, since it might have import.
This furor and hatred look suspicious! They really amount to avoiding the hard questioning that comes from language itself. Language poses the possibility that there might be a crack or fault in the wall we have frantically and deliberately built to isolate ourselves within meaninglessness and subhuman delirium.
Moreover, hatred of the word becomes more bitter through identification with hatred for humankind. But oddly enough, such hatred expresses itself as a desire for human freedom. The problem is quite simple; the first theme is: language is constructed. It has a limited vocabulary, a syntax, expressions, and a fixed spelling. Therefore it is both normative and at the same time follows norms which the speaker himself has not established.
We learn to speak. One or several adults teach us the language. Thus we are made to conform; we are molded, enclosed. As soon as I learn a language I am deprived of my freedom. What freedom? Why, to create ex nihilo my own language. And this is an unacceptable deprivation -- a violation of my most sacred right: the right to construct myself as a person.
I am forced to enter a prefabricated scheme; I am taught to speak according to a certain model. Scandalous! I hate this language simply because as an adult I look back on my childhood and realize that it is no longer possible for me to return to the stage of complete innocence and freedom, where nothing was determined in advance and absolutely all possibilities were open. Now all these possibilities have been taken from me. I was forced by language to behave in a certain way and thus left frustrated. I continue to be frustrated because I cannot create my own language. Someone overpowered me when I was innocent and defenseless. The instrument of that power was language.
This eloquent protestation overlooks one major factor: language does not consist of inarticulate howlings into the sea wind. Rather it is -- and is only -- the means of making a connection between one person and another. And if such a connection is to exist, a code is essential -- an agreement regarding the meaning of the sounds and signs employed. Without such a code, no relation, no communication, no connection is possible. Language absolutely cannot exist without it. The frenzied effort to place ourselves at square one is utterly naive.
Language, since it is language, is necessarily something given. Just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract is never the initial agreement; it is always a given. And if we refuse this given, the language simply does not exist. (In this connection it would be good to reread G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful story, "Professor Chadd’s Madness," in The Club of Queer Trades [Chester Springs, PA: Dufour, 1962].) Nothing new or free has been created through such a refusal; it represents no innovation or liberation of humanity.
Such furor against language is nothing but another illustration of Blaise Pascal’s "he who would act the angel acts the brute." By trying to be liberated from a language that is learned, along with its accompanying conditioning, one simply gives up all possibility of relationship with others, and forgoes the one thing that makes humankind truly unique: the word. Such an effort leads not to a new level of freedom, but to foolishness. I do not say "to an animal-like existence," because it is impossible to "return" to an animal stage, after having had the use of language and then trying to kill it. Language has made me what I am. Taking such a passionate position against language is not simply the scornful analysis of a phenomenon, as in the previous section. Rather we are confronted with the kind of rage experienced by someone who feels himself trapped with a tongue which he cannot loosen, and who begins to hate his torturer.
This stage of immediate reaction by someone who awakens to his lack of freedom is soon superseded when he comes to the ideological phase. Language is not just the abstract conditioning I was made to undergo when I was still impressionable as wax. It is rather a conditioning that made me agree with the dominant ideology. Now the cat is out of the bag! Language is an instrument of oppression and alienation used by the ruling class to keep the oppressed classes in bondage.
Look at this picture: even before a single word was spoken, evil leaders, cruel tyrants, had the dark design of enslaving others. To entrap poor innocent people who were without any malice, the despots invented a subtle instrument of enslavement out of whole cloth: language. They imposed their language on these poor innocents so that, when they began to speak like their masters, they quite naturally adopted their masters’ ideas. Thus they became an obedient and bleating flock.
You find what I have just described ridiculous? but it is only a slightly exaggerated expression of the formula that is accepted as true with no questions asked: "the ruling class makes the oppressed class learn its language in order to turn the oppressed into prisoners of the ruling class’s ideology and to prevent them from thinking." Language is not a neutral instrument that conveys anything whatever or that can be made to serve any and all purposes (certainly this much is obvious!) Rather it orients discourse, and therefore thought, in a certain direction in advance. It is an instrument of social control, much more to be feared than the police or censorship, since it is internalized. It is an element of control anchored in the unconscious, lodged there at an age when we cannot react.
Thus a person will think according to the mold which was forged by the ruling class. He will receive in his person its patterns of thought, its prejudices, its points of view. More than any other means, language constitutes a tyranny over thought, thanks to which everything works by "reproduction" (the famous reproduction theory!). No one can escape from it -- we are prisoners of the authoritative meanings.
The next element in the analysis is a fury against this language that imprisons me every time I speak, and that forces me to side with the ruling class. Such an angry cultural revolution is indispensable if I am to free myself from bourgeois culture. But who can help us escape from all that language itself conveys (since even the counterculture is encapsulated in this conformist, sterilized language)? Most solemnly then, the reign of Anti-Word begins, and everything is gladly embraced that produces clear-minded, deliberate "destruction" of the exchange value of the word.
Beginning with such obvious facts, we can easily see what drifting has taken place -- all resulting from the combination of para-Marxist ideology and a simplistic analysis of the relationship between language and culture. The emptiness of this intellectual attitude (so widespread in our day) is easy to demonstrate.
The first criticism, obviously, concerns the concept of language connected with this attitude: how can anyone fail to see that this violent diatribe is valid only if one subscribes to a mechanistic and rigid concept of language and the word? This absorption of the contribution of language into bourgeois ideology -- language as an instrument of domination -- would be a fact only if language were rigorous and precise, if the phrase corresponded exactly to the speaker’s intention. It would be true only if the word reproduced ideology precisely, including no halo or haze, no empty spaces or margins. The listener would then have to receive the word with the same precision, understanding exactly what the speaker means.
But we know that this is not at all the situation. On the contrary, discourse is full of empty spaces; there are fractures in the word and gaps in language. In other words, the listener must interpret: he inevitably learns, understands, and receives something quite different from what was said. To be sure, I do not deny that today’s culture is the achievement of the bourgeois class, or that its ideas haunt everyone’s mind. But perfect reproduction of the bourgeois mind-set does not take place. Alien creations and images are born elsewhere, in the gaps of language!
Note that this famous accusation applies only to visual "language." Images, films, and television convey the dominant culture, express the bourgeois mentality, absorb alien tendencies, and neutralize potential threats from other cultures. How remarkable that in these raving imprecations against "reproduction," spoken language and the word are attacked rather than film! This indicates the prestige attached to visual images! Meanwhile we hypocritically accept the preconceived notion of the visual as popular culture. Enough of that!
A second criticism is then immediately apparent: how can language be accused of conveying nothing but the ideology of the ruling class, images of capitalism, and the bourgeoisie’s "truths"? How can it function as an ideological appendage of the State, ensnaring us and making us conform? How can anyone substantiate these claims when historically the word has continually constituted a revolutionary ferment and been the instrument of the great rebels? What means did Robespierre and Saint-Just use? And Marx and Lenin? Language was their strength.
The dominant antibourgeoisie mentality expresses itself neither by images nor by action, but first of all by a new word. This word is coherent and reasonable, and expresses an analysis, an idea, knowledge, criticism, aspiration, and a utopia radically different from all the words and teaching of the ruling class. Where would these instincts come from if all ideology reflected the ideology of the ruling class? How could language express the revolution if it were only the devoted agent of bourgeois efforts to produce conformity?
In reality the word is revolutionary in itself. Just as it was the agent of humanity’s formation in the midst of the animals, so the word in our day is the agent of the great refusal. Only the word is revolutionary, and only language can lead to the realization of human hope. This is because of language’s relation to truth. The ruling class has to fight an enormous battle to prevent this mole’s undermining of the status quo. They need to have a sense of purpose, in order to castrate the word, to domesticate and to circumscribe it -- sap its strength -- to make language a simple neutral instrument!
How can anyone fail to see that this war against organized language, this hatred for the word, means accomplishing the bourgeoisie’s goals? This struggle can only neutralize the one force that challenges the ruling class! The switch from Marx’s language to Antonin Artaud’s or that of the Dada movement enables the bourgeoisie to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Since language is destroyed and no longer expresses anything, there is nothing left to fear! And what insane foolishness to believe that by destroying language, by destructuring it and denuding it of meaning, something revolutionary is accomplished! Propaganda, in fact, can work only when language lacks clear concrete referents.(Cf. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner [New York: Knopf, 1965; Random House, 1973].) The sort of "revolutionary" we have been discussing accomplishes the one thing required to make him as susceptible as possible to the influences of the dominant propaganda!
Can utterly incoherent, meaningless discourse, stammering, or intestinal rumbling do revolutionary deeds? Unfortunately the notion that language is the enemy only conveys the absolute poverty and helplessness of its zealous advocates. They can accomplish nothing against this society (which they fail utterly to understand), so they wreak their vengeance where they can, attacking something defenseless (words!). They misdirect their revolutionary energy against an imagined foe, achieving great victories against a weak construction. They pride themselves on their profundity, while the oppressor rejoices to see his adversary destroy what is potentially his own most faithful ally! Hatred of language and the word only manifests the impotence and vanity of conformist pseudorevolutionaries, the likes of which abound among the intelligentsia.
At this point we must virtually exegete from Goux’s book (Les Iconoclastes, p. 67), since it presents itself as philosophically and scientifically neutral. Goux tries to show that while abstract painters spiritualize painting, the invention of perspective betrays an individualistic, egocentric, and bourgeois point of view. Perspective involves the representation of reality and the reification of the sign.
Then Goux tells us that "if the theory of the sign conceived of meaning as intrinsic, as attached to the material signifier, that would be a fetishist and reifying illusion." "There is no signifier that signifies in itself. The reification of the sign(that is, the sign considered in itself and having meaning on its own) could appear to be metaphysically naive unless one understood its foundations, which are a result of the "bourgeois capitalist" manner of signifying."
By no means. For Goux, the forms of consciousness related to primitive modes of production and exchange cause every people, every act to be charged and overcharged with meaning (therefore the visual and the auditory are identical).
But later on, "there is a movement that results in tendentiously eliminating meaning from reality as consciously perceived, except for a limited sector, (Words in italics are Goux’s emphasis, those in boldface are my emphasis.) that of the signs of language and writing. These, on the contrary, are overcharged with meaning. It is as if the linguistic type of signifiers and their abstract semantic articulation absorbed all the loose meaning (the abundant and unattached meaning), granting themselves the exclusive right, the monopoly, of meaning. As a result, nonlinguistic reality was deprived of immediately perceived meaning.... Now this monopolizing action by the signifiers must necessarily be accompanied by a putting of the world into perspective, from the point of view of an egocentric subject.... One might expect the object of perception to be overloaded with meaning by the constant projection of a subject who does not situate himself reflexively and for whom everything in perceived reality is profoundly symbolical (i.e., signifies in an immediate sense). But in reality there is a tendency toward deprojection in the course of which the linguistic signs alone are charged with the totality of available meaning.... "
Thus the problem is that language and the word are overcharged with meaning and are true bearers of meaning. This is presented as an impoverishment, a loss of the meaning that should be superabundandy present in everything. It is seen as a monopolistic (a loaded word!) process. Language is called a "limited [symbolic] sector"! But this attitude results from hatred of the subject, of everything personal or living, and preference for the diffuse, the inextricable forest of symbols, the impersonal, and the collective. And in one sense Goux is right. Language and person or subject are indeed related, and conflict exists between language and the forest of symbols with unattached meaning. That much is true, and corresponds exactly to what the Word of God describes for us when it condemns idols. And in the opposite sense, this conflict, reflected by Goux, is what we experience because of the loss of the speaking individual.
Last of all, this hatred for the word is expressed in another tendency. Not only must we demolish organized, meaningful language, but furthermore, reasoning individuals cannot accomplish the task. On the contrary, the true reference point must be sought in the individual who speaks this language spontaneously: without reasoning, without content, without logical order or clarity. When the "lunatic" speaks, the underlying meaning is completely different from what his words signify. The language of the schizo or the neurotic (rather than the paranoid individual, who smells badly of fascism!) becomes the model and the ideal. What we have here is a determination to set aside reason, to cut the connecting thread between word and reason, by destroying coherence.
And in this connection we observe strange magic at work: the lunatic destroys communication, meaning, and continuity -- and he is admired for it, People swoon over such great originality! But what does this have to do with language? Pompously calling it "the language of breakdown’’(Michel Thevoz has increased his efforts since his Le Langage de la ruputre [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1978]. In Ecrits bruts [Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1979], he publishes sample texts by lunatics. These people have distinguished themselves by breaking with society, its established values, and, of course, its conventional language. All have been hospitalized [hardly a criterion, of course!], and one of them [Laure] claimed to have been St. Peter’s wife. I am by no means judging here. But these poor texts are only stammerings, distortions of words, combinations of sounds, utterly without content or reference -- mere alliterations. And when intellectuals seize such texts and declare that they constitute "revolt," a break with the established order, an argument against the repression of language, acts of resistance to academic culture, I say that these intellectuals are gutless, impotent voyeurs. Trying to proclaim the "freshness" of these aimless texts, or their "primary’, character, is pointless. Instead they are texts that betray an inexpressible poverty, impotence, and misfortune. For that reason the people who wrote them should be loved and understood. But to exalt these texts and consider them powerful is nothing but an indication of the death of the word among intellectuals.) does not help any, since this name serves to indicate that language has ceased to exist! Without either meaning or communication, everything is reduced to an emission of sounds, which could be replaced by other sounds or by anything at all!
Lunatics, of course, have a language. But can it be a model? Can it signify liberation in a more authentic sense, going beyond dreadful rationalisms and rationality? We are dealing with the magic and fascination associated with a radically different world. The lunatic has always held this fascination for those who were looking for truth beyond simple human truth. They gave us a god "astride" the lunatic, the lunatic "possessed" by a demon, in communication with the beyond, or the lunatic as bearer of illumination, of direct knowledge not filtered through the human brain. Now we have the search for a language beyond language, sought in the lunatic’s destructuring of it.
These senseless phrases are praised, and it is declared that they constitute an attack on organized language, on language as a norm. This language supposedly reveals to us the reverse side of the language of oppression and a refusal of social conventions. The break with ordinary language and "its basic axioms: linear progression, the primacy of meaning, concern for communication," is admired, along with the devaluation of the meaning of words.
In the face of all this, we should perhaps wonder for whom this madness has meaning. And how is the meaning of such a profound destructuring expressed? The answer is that it has meaning only for someone with a well-developed hermeneutical skill; that is, a very able interpreter. As for how, the meaning of the destructuring is expressed only by means of the most rigorous and expressive language! Michel Thevoz involuntarily demonstrates this. His work consists of restoring meaning to something devoid of meaning -- establishing communication between people who utter these senseless words and the listener or reader! Thus by means of the very best language -- language filled with meaning and communication -- these inaudible verbal explosions take on some sort of value! Such utterances contain no more "attack on the very foundation of language," no more destruction of the word, than when someone from China speaks Chinese to me, and I understand not a bit of it!
In the case of the lunatic, however, we have an interpreter. But the situation is somewhat different. When it is claimed that the lunatic expresses his refusal of social conventions when he speaks, I accept this as the understanding that the interpreter offers me. But naturally I ask: if there is no meaning in the lunatic’s words, why try to find one? If the words and structures of language have absolutely no value, how can we try to find a message in them?
I fully agree that these lunatic discourses should be studied in order to diagnose the patient who pronounces them. At the same time, I agree that such texts can have in their lack of meaning a great power of poetic suggestion, that some are genuine poems (at least within the post-surrealist concept of poetry). But again, the only person who understands, feels, and interprets is the one who speaks the coherent language of "reason"!
As for being charmed by the fact that these writings ridicule "established discourse," and by the way they "remove us from the realm of language,"(C. Delacampagne, "Des fous de genie," Le Monde [26 May 1978].) such joy depends on the simplistic notion that there exists an established discourse and that "being removed from the realm of language" constitutes progress. But if this is so, one wonders why these authors continue to write perfectly understandable sentences, taking care to communicate! Ridiculing the word, which they revel in so much, really amounts to contributing to the victory of the mobs’ power, and that of shadows and murders. And social agitation is never innocent!
* * * * * *
But we are left with a nagging question: however did these things manage to come into being -- this collection of cliches (hollow but thought to be profound!), this hatred of language, and this simplistic equation: "established discourse = ruling-class = language"? In particular, how were such ideas able to spread to the degree that they are now commonplace? There exists of course a whole trend in favor of the irrational, which places value on antireason, and I have criticized it elsewhere.(The Betrayal of the West, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell [New York: Seabury, 1978].) I’ll not repeat myself here. But I believe two themes can help explain this situation. The antilanguage attitude expresses sociological conformity to the development of visual images and the concentration on the visual. The lunatic’s language suddenly seems fascinating because it fails to transmit any idea or continuity. It evokes images and ushers us into a world of unusual, baroque visions. In other words, such language constitutes the victory of visual images over the reasonable or proclaiming word. This victory is expressed through hatred of discourse and language.
Such an attitude constitutes simple obedience to the dominant "social-technical" trend -- simple conformity to what is going on at all levels of our society. In this case we have a refined expression, produced by consciousness raising, of something utterly trite: the reaction of the most ordinary comic strip reader or television watcher.
As we have often noted, the more insipid the reality expressed, the more violently revolutionary and explosive it sounds. The more commonplace the conformity to society’s underlying tendency, if that tendency is active but has not yet been exposed, the more nonconformist it appears.(See Jacques Ellul, A Critique of the New Commonplaces, trans. Helen Weaver [New York: Knopf, 1968)].) In all such cases, people are adopting a pseudorevolutionary stance, in exact conformity to the normal, logical consequences of the invasion of visual images. This is true whether one proclaims the decisive importance of corporal expression, the devaluation of the word as compared with mime, the renewal of institutional instruction, or liberation through "rough" art or nudism (I have purposely chosen an apparently incongruous mixture!).
But we must recognize that after all something more is going on than just simple conformity or automatic reaction, which is just the reflex conditioned by the triumphant visual image. The hatred, fury, and accusation which are expressed against the word are not merely the product of sociological conformity. Something else is at work here. I believe that this rage takes its root in the conflict between truth and reality. Between a potential openness on the one hand -- to truth which could come from inaccessible depths or the beyond -- and on the other hand the right to retreat within oneself. Between "we are not alone in the world" and "me, only me."
Hatred of the word expresses the refusal of a given truth to be read between the lines or heard in the silent moments of discourse. This truth vanishes when we concentrate exclusively on reality and the concrete, on what humanity has accomplished. All modern thought tries to imprison us within this reality and nothing else. Modern thought tries to make us consider reality as truth -- the only truth, truth itself. Truth verifiable by science. Truth constructed within reality. The truth of Marxism founded on reality alone. Reality as the criterion of the true, the good, the just. Language continually casts doubt on this claim. This idea must be endlessly reaffirmed, and therefore meaning, openness, and the uncertainty of oral and written language must be destroyed. Only this can explain the hatred and the triumphal chord struck by those who claim to have disintegrated discourse and meaning. But in the final analysis the conflict is religious.
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