A Philosophy of Language
Though we are immersed in it constantly, we don’t normally stop to think about language. When we communicate or receive information, we don’t tend to pay much attention to specific words and the order in which they are structured. Even when we do, we don’t tend to ask ourselves how our languages shape who we are and how we think. And yet, language is the medium through which we interact with the world — at the same time as it is the medium through which we change the world. An adequate understanding of what languages are reveals philosophical, political, ideological, social, historical, and cultural realities. Language is how the empire structures its subjects, and it is also how the subjects of the empire resist it.
Today we will explore a philosophy of language that emphasizes the social, the historical, and the material. To do this, we will first look at philosophies of language that, by contrast, do not see the study of language in this light.
The idea of synchrony was first introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure, a founding father of structuralist linguistics. Synchronic studies of language systems look only at the structure of a language in a given time. For this reason, a language is viewed as “temporally immobile.” Think of synchrony as a historical snapshot in time, an infinitesimal slice pulled from the sprawling fabric of history. It is not that languages do not have a history, Saussure would say, rather that the study of their structures in a given time amounted to an important scientific endeavor.
This boiling down of a language to its “essence” is even stronger in the theories of Noam Chomsky. For Chomsky, language “has no history”, or perhaps it has a “quasi-frozen history of the evolution of the [human] species over the very long term and by leaps” (Lecercle 2009, p. 21). Language is essentially innate and its fundamental codes, according to Chomsky, are universal. The individual “acquires” language after being exposed to a certain linguistic environment. For these reasons, Jean-Jacques Lecercle argues that the Chomskyan tradition is “methodologically individualist”: it does not view language as a social and collective process.
“The Dominant Philosophy of Language”
These ideas, among others, constitute what Lecercle calls the “dominant philosophy of language.” He outlines this philosophy with six theses:
- Immanence — language can only be scientifically studied from within. Elements external to language are to be abstracted away.
- Functionality — language has specific functions, the primary of which is exchange of information.
- Transparency — as language’s main function is communication, it must also recede into an autonomic state. We don’t generally think about language, though we use it constantly.
- Ideality — language is a “(re)construction of the mind”
- Systematicity — there is a set structural code for language, it is systematic
- Synchrony — The above code is impervious in the face of history
In contrast to these six points, Lercercle proposes an inverted set of theses:
- Non-immanence — “[…] there is no radical separation between language, the society of speakers, the bodies of individual speakers, and the institutions that interpellate them as subjects. There is, therefore, no separation between language and the rest of human action” (p. 70).
- Dysfunctionality — Language ought not be conceived instrumentally. We don’t merely use it as an object to exchange information. There are other key functions which demonstrate that at times language uses us, or, as Lecercle puts it (in reference to Heidegger), we slip into/inhabit language.
- Opacity — We are constantly and explicitly reminded of the existence of language as we find ourselves bumping into its limits
- Materiality — “[…] a language is not an ideal system but (if it is a system) an embodied one, a material body acting on other bodies and producing affects” (p.71).
- Partial systematicity — Language is not a unitary and coherent system, but rather a heterogeneous agglomeration of subsystems. None of the elements of language are immutable
- Historicity — “Partially systematic, language is also partially chaotic — not because it is naturally disorganised, but because it is the trace of a process of historical sedimentation of rules, conventions, maxims, and meanings” (p. 72).
What is of importance to the Marxist perspective is of course the material qualities of language:
“[…] language serves as an intermediary between real life and the ideas that derive from it. Because it has a material aspect, because it has a ‘sensory nature’, language does not merely represent or express material existence (i.e. is not merely a tool of reference), but participates in this material existence” (p. 94).
Language refracts rather than reflecting — meaning its reference to reality is not only imperfect, but also transformative in some way. Because language is mixed up with the rest of the processes, be they historical, social, political, etc., our speech is always metaphorical. Take, for instance, the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration. It’s become quite fashionable these days to tack on the suffix “-gate” to a controversial or scandalous development (see: Pizzagate or Gamergate). The nature of this construction only makes sense with the cultural and historical knowledge of the origins of its referent — the Watergate scandal.
Language is therefore never simply an abstract system of patterns, rules, and symbols. No one understood the historicity of language better than Lenin.
Lenin (and the Historical Conjuncture)
It’s no accident that Lenin took the time to articulate his thoughts on slogans in a 1917 article. Lenin was a student of historical conjunctures, that is, he was acutely aware of social formations in specific times and places. These moments of history were to be analyzed, described, and acted upon accordingly. Adherence to this method is what compelled Lenin to write that “a good slogan is a correct slogan.” A slogan is a declaration that does not merely reflect the given conjuncture, but intervenes in it and alters the balance of forces. Hence, language is political and material — it carries weight and has the capacity to transform beyond the realm of ideas. Lecercle points out that this is why the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” became, in practice, a historical artifact shortly after 1917 — a new conjuncture had formed, one in which that specific declaration was no longer meaningful in the way it had been. Contemporary communist movements in, say, the United States, will not get much out of the slogan “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”
This historical and social understanding of language was popular among Soviet linguists, and particularly Valentin Voloshinov, whose critique of Saussure insisted that language can never be systematized abstractly. For Voloshinov, language is always an inter-subjective practice, meaning it is a process that occurs in the space between individuals. As one might imagine, the very sociological nature of language suggests that it is highly dynamic. Voloshinov and Mikhail Bakhtin, another Soviet linguist, both firmly believed that language is closely tied with consciousness. Consequently, each language contains in it many languages, reflecting different social groups, classes, life experiences, etc. Insofar as our consciousnesses are unique, our languages are too.
Interpellation and Cultural Hegemony
It follows then, that language can become a weapon of the ruling classes, as means of filtering thoughts and interpellating subjects. Interpellation is a concept that comes from Althusser, who defined it as the process by which an individual encounters and internalizes ideology. In practice interpellation can be very literal. For instance, an immigrant in the United States is requested to present their Alien Registration Number at the airport upon re-entering the country. In the moment of the request, and in responding to it, the person receives and internalizes the so-called A-Number as a marker of their identity. They are indeed this subject, a permanent resident alien of the United States. Lecercle demonstrates interpellation in political communication:
“Thus we see ministers communicating to those for whom they are responsible their latest opuscule, prime ministers ‘writing’ to the French, and ‘dossiers’ being presented to the public on the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That these dossiers are total fabrications, that the ‘sources’ of this ‘information’ are kept secret and, when disclosed, prove to be completely unreliable, is of no importance. The object of ‘political communications’ is not to establish the truth, to convince people of the justice of the actions envisaged, or of their appropriateness in the political conjuncture. It is to interpellate each citizen to a position of recipient of information, and to bring them into a process of communication rather than a common action or decision-making” (p.61).
Similarly, language is the vehicle by which the cultural hegemony of the ruling classes is reproduced. Capitalists are “job creators,” workers are “associates”, invasions are “interventions”, starvation wages are “competitive wages”, economic looting is “structural adjustment”, and so on. Read the news and pay close attention to the way certain things are framed and the words that are chosen to convey a very specific meaning.
Hegemonic aspirations on the part of the ruling class not only muddy real social relations and conditions but also seek to incorporate and homogenize the public. Anti-establishment slogans are chewed up, digested, and spit out in a sanitized variation that claims to reflect popular sentiment but in reality seeks to manufacture a more docile perspective. The ruling classes are always attempting to communicate with the public as part of a “need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between those in government and the ‘national-popular mass’” (Carlucci 2015, p. 192). Remember to “Pokemon Go to the polls” or install a Biden-Harris campaign sign in Animal Crossing.
Control can be more explicit as well. We are trained from a young age to employ certain registers in certain spaces. This is demonstrated piercingly in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, where the protagonist achieves success after using his “white voice” in a sales job. Indeed, the “white voice,” as opposed to the voices of minority groups, is expected in most professional, academic, and legal settings in the United States. In the former colonies, this expectation is all the more uncompromising: the language of the colonizers continues to dictate everything from opportunities for the individual to the politics of a nation.
In an episode of the BBC’s Sherlock, we see a perfect example of the imposition of “appropriate” vs. “inappropriate” languages and registers. A person being held in prison for suspected murder requests Sherlock’s investigative services. In the exchange, the individual recounts his version of events leading up to a murder he claims to have not committed. Sherlock, however, is less concerned about the contents of the story so much as the grammatical errors being made by the prisoner.
This linguistic imposition is a direct process of socialization. It is also a strong political statement: “This is the way members of our society communicate, and if you do not communicate in this manner, you are not one of us.” Here the example is quite literal: the prisoner is not only estranged from civil society intellectually, but physically as well.
A Marxist Philosophy of Language
All of the above observations capture what Lecercle describes as a Marxist philosophy of language. Most importantly, this philosophy views language as a form of praxis. The Marxist position holds five key points:
- Language is a historical phenomenon
- Language is a social phenomenon
- Language is a material phenomenon
- Language is a political phenomenon
- Language is the site of subjectivation (creation and reproduction of subjects) through interpellation.
Language is collectively and socially overdetermined. Lecercle writes that,
“People have a natural tendency to speak of ‘language’ or of ‘the English language’ as if they were things, for reification is profoundly inscribed in our common sense. But these ‘things’ are not things: they are processes of social interaction; they are the object of learning processes within social practices, like family life or relations at work. The subject becomes a speaker by appropriating a language that is always-already collective — which means that she is appropriated by it: she is captured by a language that is external and prior to her, and on which she will leave her mark — possibly even a lasting mark — through linguistic or literary creation. Possession here is a transitive relationship, something clearly marked by the ambiguity of the word: I possess the language in as much as I am possessed by it, just as people were once possessed by the devil” (p. 142).
This notion that language, in some capacity, speaks through us, gets at the heart of the philosophy of transindividuality. We won’t discuss the latter here (though we will in the future), but what matters to us is the idea that we are always constrained by the limits of what is possible in a language. We do not individually produce language. Instead, we are born into already-existing historical conditions, and thus, into already-existing languages. Unlike Saussure, the Soviet linguists (among others) believed the constraints of language to be social rather than abstract. In other words, it is not the unchanging grammatical rules that frame what is possible in a language, but the complex set of social forces, cultural practices, political development — in short the historical conjuncture — which determine how we speak and what we say. Within this realm of possibility, our agency allows us, as Lecercle puts it, to leave a lasting mark through some kind of creation. To put it in even simpler terms, we are the products of our times, and the way we speak refracts those times in a real and practical sense.
Let’s finish with yet another block quote from Lecercle:
“To return the process to its correct order is precisely to avoid the concomitant fetishism of language (as an abstract system) and of the subject (as centre and user of words) and to treat the process in its totality — i.e. as a process. It is to put language and the subject back in their place. The place of language is that of historical, social, material, and political praxis. The place of the subject is that of a becoming-subject interpellated by the language that speaks it and counter-interpellating it in order to speak it” (p. 198).
This passage nicely sums up what we’ve been exploring. Language is not an abstract system of grammar, syntax, or vocabulary. If we wish to hold nearly everything else constant for the sake of a supposedly scientific analysis of the innate structure of language, we can certainly treat it as an abstract system. But what we lose in doing so is everything that language really is. Language is dynamic and almost always changing precisely because it is social, historical, political, and material. It often speaks through us and yet our conscious use of it bears real weight in the world. This is what Lecercle means by putting language and the subject back in their place. Instead of pulling language out of the real world, we should study it where it is: amidst the constantly shifting sands of history and society.