Revolution in Style!

If we are bound and conditioned by language—”the metaphors we live by”—what sort of agency or freedom do we possess in transforming the symbolic system we inhabit and, consequently, ourselves. I have picked this topic up elsewhere in broader, more abstract terms and wish to provide a few specific examples here to clarify this trajectory of thought.

As mentioned previously in the aforementioned post, it was suggested that we break out of the constraints imposed by language through using conservative metaphors in innovative new ways. That is, it may be useful “to stretch the limits of a word further than they should perhaps be stretched.” This is the practice of Stanley Fish in polemics. According to him, he imports the word “faith” into the world of liberals “where they don’t think it properly belongs”, thus creating a short-circuit in the cognitive mapping of those who profess to be atheists (“God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, p. 114). The strategy is akin to catachresis: “misuse or strained use of words, as in a mixed metaphor, occurring either in error or for rhetorical effect.” The “effect” is obvious. People must come to terms with a deviant strain of thought internal to their own system of cognition; rather than an external or foreign adumbration that could merely be ignored and rejected straight out. Again, this is an important rhetorical strategy for critical theorists—together with a discourse which has inherited critical theory, postcolonialism—who use conservative concepts in original and subversive ways.

As another example, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a spectacular purveyor of making language “fly off its handle.” According to Julia Kristeva:

…his “work” is a struggle, if not full of hatred at least fascinated and loving, with the mother tongue [French]. With and against, further, through, beneath, or beyond? Céline seeks to loosen the language from itself, to divide it and shift it from itself “but ever so slightly! ever so slightly! because in all that, if you are heavy-handed, you know, it’s putting your foot in it, it’s a howler” (Powers of Horror, p. 188)

Elsewhere Kristeva notes that he probed the hidden inside of language. The point for Céline was “to bring the depths to the surface.” By plunging into the abyss of the language he was able to resurrect new meanings latent to French itself. The surface effect is dizzying for anyone who has read Céline.

As a third and final example I employ the surrelist artist René Magritte. According to his Wikipedia article, a scholarly source to be sure, we read what sort of philosophical gestures Magritte was making in his artwork.

Magritte’s work frequently displays a juxtaposition of ordinary objects in an unusual context, giving new meanings to familiar things. The representational use of objects as other than what they seem is typified in his painting, The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images), which shows a pipe  that looks as though it is a model for a tobacco store advertisement. Magritte painted below the pipe “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), which seems a contradiction, but is actually true: the painting is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. It does not “satisfy emotionally”—when Magritte once was asked about this image, he replied that of course it was not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.

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