Posted by: HAT | April 8, 2009

Language Presuppositions

Another good place to think

Another good place to think

I can see that I need to give more attention to questions of method than I have so far. Two of the authors whose utopian discourse I consider in my dissertation, Adorno and Irigaray, have reputations as users of innovative methods. Adorno himself presents his “negative dialectic’ or “immanent method” as an advance. Irigaray makes a great deal out of the specific methods of discourse and analysis needed to begin to articulate, and then understand, feminine experience, consciousness — although this language seems imprecise. As far as I know, so far, Agamben doesn’t advance any innovative methodological claims, but I probably ought to pay more attention to his method as it reveals itself in his texts.

The methodological question arises both with respect to reading and with respect to writing.

I have begun trying to write without using the verb “to be,” in part because I have gotten the impression that that particular verb has come under fire, in part because I have begun to see that its habitual use leads to a kind of monotonous set of syntactical choices. I think some people argue that the verb “to be” presupposes a kind of static, stable structure for reality that doesn’t actually characterize reality in any way. That argument persuades me, some, though I can’t follow it all the way; I can’t quite believe that the language we use actually presupposes anything, though we users of the language might. A lot depends on what we think we mean by this or that word, this or that syntax, this or that grammar. If we find ourselves seduced by a certain apparent correspondence of words and experience, we might begin to believe that the language we use describes reality terribly precisely and accurately, and then to believe that our use of certain words subscribes to certain assertions that the language itself, quite apart from any particular users of that language, makes. But does the use of the language available necessarily entail subscription to certain presuppositions, even where some users actually do carry just those presuppositions about and make use of them? I can’t quite see this. Certainly not on the semantic level.

Does the use of the first person personal pronoun presuppose a particular anthropological structure? A particular understanding of the structure, content, possibilities, whatever of some “I”? Dubious. That something or someone exists that I can so designate? More likely. If recognizing that phenomenon or entity as something less stable, less real, more diffuse, less capable of action or of states seems like a change with respect to the meaning of the term “I,” then, using that term seems less justifiable, perhaps. Maybe then writing without subjects starts to call for practice. Still, the language offers a number of possibilities, even then.

Dewey long ago laughed at the notion that we expect speech “to reproduce that to which it refers.” (Art as Experience, New York: Perigee, 1934/1980, p. 67) Nietzsche, even longer ago, indicted language, the “mobile army of metaphors,” for its mendacity. If language presupposes this or that, we have a blessed difficult time saying what exactly it presupposes.

(Then, too, we might need to think a little bit about what it means to presuppose, how presupposition even works. Does a hammer presuppose nails?)

Thinking about this in the car (let’s face it, very much akin to the shower) I came up with this: Let’s go with Dewey, that language refers to rather than describes. We turn to language to communicate experiences and ideas with other people, and we can use various strategies to accomplish that purpose. The Greeks and the Hebrews adopt really different strategies. The Greeks take the route of parsing out experience, multiplying words with minute distinctions, multiplying verb tenses with precise references to states of being and action in time. Greek seems to try to locate the precision of communication in the words themselves, the language itself, which — note — probably does also enforce a kind of universality or uniformity on the experience of the language users; the language embodies a standard to which the users of the language then need to aspire, expect one another to aspire, to use the language correctly and precisely. That strategy probably does presuppose — or at least, needs to presuppose, and correctly — that the world and the experiences it offers will stay put for the language to depict.

Hebrew operates according to a really different strategy. Those words, relative to the Greek ones, act like loose-fitting garments, more like pointers, or oversize bags, capable of carrying along lots of stuff, not exactly “fuzzier,” but wider, more encompassing, tied up with lots of associated ideas and images, gathered up and flung about, trying to convey the general idea . . . and its various possibilities. We shouldn’t call this imprecise, would only call it that if only the Greek form of precision counted as such; rather, we need to see it as a different form, a different understanding of precision, keyed to a different relationship to the world, or maybe to a different world.

No tenses. Just action that has ended, action that keeps going on, action in different modes. Not much be-ing. Lots of becoming. Time less like a river, more like a canvas, or a landscape.

A world ripe for revelation? Maybe. No coincidence, maybe.


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