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.
Is the social determined by individuals, or is it the other way around? This has long been an important question for philosophy. Predominately in the tradition of critical theory it is the latter that is espoused. To that end, individuals are thought to be subjugated and somewhat determined by whatever reigning ideology currently holds sway. The inevitable outcome of such thinking is that individuals have little, if any, freedom to determine their own lives. More crucially, they lack agency to transform the social.
From a popular perspective, we might say the wisdom of structuralism—the linguistic theory that describes language by the differences between signs—fits this deterministic scenario. In other words, it neglects the subjective dimension of reality by creating a universal order of language; a truth that holds true for every symbolic order. Thus, since the speaking subject depends upon a particular language to re-present reality, the speaking subject is always-already implicated in pre-established speech patterns. So how does a speaking subject break out of the constraint imposed by language? This question is not too different from asking how an agent breaks with the status quo and modifies the social order.
The best answer, in my opinion, that critical theory or post-structuralism has to offer—as rudimentary as it may well be—is that individuals always have some room for using the same, conservative language in innovative ways; primarily by combining disparate themes and making different connections. Possible variants are always an option. We might distinguish these two types of social considerations as follows: (1) the synchronic, on the one hand, which is “unchanging” (outside of time) and influences the individual and, on the other hand, (2) the diachronic which is a specific substantiation of language in a specific time and place. So while we are determined by the synchronic implication of language, we have freedom in the diachronic dimension. Kristeva, in her Powers of Horror, exemplifies this distinction between subjective agency and social determination using the very terms described above.
Consequently, when I speak of symbolic order, I shall imply the dependence and articulation of the speaking subject in the order of language, such as they appear diachronically in the advent of each speaking being, and as analytic listening discovers them synchronically in the speech of analysands. I shall consider as an established fact the analytic finding that different subjective structures are possible within that symbolic order, even if the different types presently recorded seem subject to discussion and refinement, if not reevaluation (p. 67)
Confession: I enjoying reading theology and am particularly persuaded by many of its profound arguments. On multiple occasions, however, I have sworn to myself that I’m going to go in other directions that would be more financially rewarding and less burdening but, try as I might, I have continued the dialogue. On the other hand, I consider myself quite the hypocrite when I attend church because, back in my study, I love theology but I abhor its incarnation. It’s not so much that I take myself to be inhabiting a contradiction but more that the speech and practice of Christianity do not align. I cannot admit that this is any original reflection, but even if the hypocritical pattern is universal its particular substantiation in any given time and place is unique. For me, specifically, I hoped in the promise that the church is an anticipation of an eschatological kingdom of perfect community; harmonizing and integrating the differences between individuals and society. As such, the church should be an alternative community in-itself and a witness to the surrounding society of what politics, economics, society could be. In this manner theology would out-narrate secular social theory and the church would out-perform neo-liberal society. But alas, it took a year of travel and withdrawal from intellectual pressure to admit that my own experience did not match how I had been trained to think.
Julia Kristeva makes a similar note on this form of discrepancy in the church’s history. While grace for sinners might be its motto, in practice the situation is much different. The de jure and de facto realities are reversals of each other. It is rare that confession in church will be answered with the glorious counterweight of grace. Grace seems to be in name only.
Little by little, acts of atonement, of contrition, of paying one’s debt to a pitiless, judging God, are eclipsed by the sole act of speech….Acknowledgment and absolution count for everything, sin has no need for actions in order to be remitted….not by virtue of merit….felix culpa is merely a phenomenon of enunciation. The whole black history of the Church shows that condemnation, the fiercest censorship, and punishment are nonetheless the common reality of this practice (Powers of Horror, p. 131)
This comment is apropos of the wisdom shared in recent book put out by ‘The Other Journal’: “God Is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself. Merold Westphal, one of the many contributing authors, notes that it is actually believers who are most responsible for the unbelief of non-Christians. His point is not so much that theologians don’t have good rational arguments for Christianity but that believers present “an unflattering presentation of God and [exhibit] actions that run contrary to the very God they affirm.” This is true of the church body just as much as it is of individual Christians.
As we have looked at before, the bifurcating logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty are simultaneously constituted in a given symbolic system. This is no less true for the religious, especially for peoples of the Book. Only on this account it is logicizing between abomination and the sacred. In the tradition of what I’m calling the “peoples of the Book” impurity is always what departs from the symbolic order, or divine precepts in this case. Of course the anthropologist or psychoanalyst would way that there is nothing impure in itself; “the loathsome is [only] that which disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system” (Powers of Horror, p. 92).
For the religious, impurity generally becomes a metaphor for idolatry and immorality. Therefore, whatever has no immediate relation to the sacred is excluded from the given symbolic order. Holiness then is the struggle individuals face in attempting to become subjects to the Law. By logically conforming with the established taxonomy of pure/impure distinctions the subject is protected from falling outside the bounds of religious orthodoxy.
The great threat to identity is intermixture. If we might think of purity as a symbolic oneness then defilement is that which unsettles boundaries between the pure and impure. Therefore idols in particular are those objects that erase the differences between strict identities and introduce confusion and disorder to the prevailing symbolic establishment.
However, the prophets of the Hebraic tradition revealed the inescapable and inseparable abjection of our selves. “The impure is neither banished nor cut off, it is thrust away but within—right there, working, constitutive” (p. 106). To put it otherwise, the abject is interiorized. This logical complicity with abjection in fact permeates the entire Bible and is found in such notions as “leaven” in the Old Testament and “tears” in the New. What happens in Christianity is precisely a new arrangement of differences; the impure/pure topological demarcation remains but is reversed from being an external logic to an internal one. As Kristeva puts it, “Christian religion is a compromise between paganism and Judaic monotheism. Biblical logic remains nevertheless, even though it is inverted (the inside is to blame, no longer the outside): one uncovers it in the persistence of processes of division, separation, and differentiation (116-7). In other words, “the threat comes no longer from outside but from within” (p. 114). The internal danger, which was previously an external threat, is a heterogeneous and a potentially condemnable self. The self no longer is characterized by unity but is internally, contradictorily split. He is tormented from within rather than from without. Jesus’ pronouncement, following those of the prophets, is that man is defiled by what comes from within, rather than by what surrounds or enters him. This means for Christians that they are always divided, incomplete and lapsing in respect to the ideal Christ sets forth. In this internalizing move the boundaries between pure and impure become much more porous and an unsurpassable heterogeneity arises.
The sort of ambiguity is further confounded in another insight of Christianity, the origin of sin. The fall of man [sic] usually belongs to the feminine temptation to eat the fruit of a particular tree in the Garden of Eden which promised an epiphany of knowledge. It was Eve’s enticement of Adam that implanted the power of sin within the flesh.
And yet, the tale of Adam’s fall opens up two additional channels of interpretation throwing light on the ambivalence of sin….Man would thus accede to divine perfection only by sinning, that is, by carrying out the forbidden act of knowledge….It takes only one further step to suppose that the invitation to perfection is also an invitation to sin….In that instance, the fall is the work of God; founding knowledge and the quest for consciousness, it opens the way to spirituality (pp. 126-7)
These two currents on the ambiguity of the flesh engender a hermeneutical plurality on the constitution of sin. Furthermore, it also seems as though defiling sin is the proper condition for remission. Sin appears with law which appears with grace.
By the same token, abjection will not be designated as such, that is, as other, as something to be ejected, or separated, but as the most propitious place for communication—as the point where the scales are tipped towards pure spirituality….abjection becomes the requisite for a reconciliation… (p. 127)
As a final example, blood carries a particular ambiguity when it comes to pure/impure demarcating strategies. Menstruation was clearly a defiling element that targeted women in Hebraic societies. But while it indicated the impure, blood also signified a vital element to life. Not only did blood represent death, but it also referred to the assurance of life and fecundation. “It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together” (p. 96).
In lieu of my previous post on the ambivalence between demarcating the categories of saint and sinner I thought a psychoanalytic example would further clarify the blurring of complimentary opposites. In psychoanalysis, as in anthropology, it is generally taken for granted that the sacred and the profane are inextricably linked with the establishment of a symbolic system. Necessarily, the logic of prohibition founds the abject and constitutes the social order in a binary logic of proper-clean and improper-dirty. Although this demarcating imperative varies between cultures, the pattern is universal. Once the social has been classified and organized in this way defilement is taken as a threat to one’s own clean self. In other words, “the danger of filth represents for the subject the risk to which the very symbolic order is permanently exposed, to the extent that it is a device of discriminations, of differences” (Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, 69). Without this differentiation of inner and outer borders the subject is at risk of falling outside the symbolic order. To safeguard from such defiling elements primitive societies would hold rites of purification which would excluded and jettison the danger of filth to the margins of society. Furthermore, this hierarchical establishment was vigorously defended against the threat of “outsiders”.
This social mapping, however, becomes highly problematic when the outside/inside boundary is internal. Just like the Saint/Sinner paradox, the outcome is a frail identity. No longer is the abject foreign or external to the individual but internal to his ego. In sum,
…the non-constitution of the (out-side) object as such renders unstable the ego’s identity, which could not be precisely established without having been differentiated from an other, from its object. The ego of primary narcissism is thus uncertain, fragile, threatened, subjected just as much as its non-object to spatial ambivalence (inside/outside uncertainty) and to ambiguity of perception (pleasure/pain) (Powers of Horror, 62)
In lieu of my recent post on the transvaluation of the abject in Kristeva (here) I thought I’d provide some further background and examples to this approach to overturning moral idiosyncrasies of the status quo. The term ‘transvaluation,’ of course, was popularized by Nietzsche’s revolutionizing of ethics. Rather than take for granted preestablished judgments of what counted as good and evil Nietzsche began by asking new questions about assumptions that preceding philosophers had accepted as incontrovertible facts. His most famous and enduring example of this was in On The Genealogy of Morals, the resentment attitude of Christian morality. Nietzsche believed that religion on the whole, but Christianity in particular, resented excellence and had a strong antagonism against greatness. He attributed this predisposition for mediocrity to the conviction of priests that a certain leveling of human desires and passions was the equivalent of holiness. This happened historically, according to Nietzsche, by way of the weak resenting the powerful and subsequently interpreting meekness as a virtue in order to justify their lowly position rather than strive for greatness themselves. In other words, religion inverted traditional values of excellence and creativity since they couldn’t achieve such ends themselves. Therefore, what Nietzsche’s “transvaluation” of morality does, in a sense, is aright what has been previously been turned upside-down by malicious means.
Nietzsche’s example is perhaps the most abstract judgment of morality but serves as a useful tool in applying to more specific examples. Take Žižek’s example for instance. The penis performs the most base function, that of urination. Such expulsion of defiling fluids is as close as you get to the abject of human existence. On the other hand, the penis also functions as the most pleasurable organ in the body; the site of orgasm. Žižek’s point is that the same object in consideration is simultaneously valued and deplored in two extreme limits. (Although I cannot locate the exact quote in The Parallax View that I’m thinking of, his example is pretty simple—even if a bit obscene). Theologically this is akin to the cross of Christ. The hanging corpse of God from a tree is perhaps the most ignoble image imaginable, but for Christians it is paradoxically the most redemptive. The death of God enigmatically means the salvation of humanity. The point of both examples is to show how abject objects can simultaneously be exalted.
In one of my more favorite quotes by Deleuze and Guattari from A Thousand Plateaus F. Scott Fitzgerald is evoked as a figure who revalues morals.
Fitzgerald: Perhaps fifty percent of our friends and relations will tell you in good faith that it was my drinking that drove Zelda mad, and the other half would assure you that it was her madness that drove me to drink. Neither of these judgments means much of anything. These two groups of friends and relations would be unanimous in saying that each of us would have been much better off without the other. The irony is that we have never been more in love with each other in all of our lives. She loves the alcohol on my lips. I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations (pp. 206)
In this passage and the surrounding text Deleuze and Guattari argue for a simulacrum of Nietzsche’s “transvaluation”: what they name as “a new acceptance” and “a new happiness.” For them, what Fitzgerald undertakes in his opposition to the judgments of his friends and friends is an entirely different value criterion about his relation with Zelda. He cherishes the strain, and supposedly she does too. In other sections Deleuze and Guattari go so far as to measure despair, morose and breaking as successes. In all examples they are revaluing what is generally taken as contemptible.
For most, the abject–the despicable, impure, loathsome, defiled–is that which crushes and gags us. The abject is what we balk at, but it is also what we jettison, expel and separate from ourselves . Vomit, feces, blood, the Other. It includes all that infects life with filth and interferes with our routine narcissism. For the pyschoanalytic, it is that which we repress. But what is philosophy’s role in insuring purity? For Julia Kristeva, passing on the lesson of Aristotle, it is a transvaluation by rhythm and song (see the Poetics).
What is involved is a purification of body and soul by means of a heterogeneous and complex circuit, going from “bile” to “fire,” from “manly warmth” to the “enthusiasm” of the “mind.” Rhythm and song hence arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it, arrange it differently than the wise man’s knowledge does. They thus soothe frenzied outbursts… (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 28)
Kristeva is not the most easily read I will be the first to admit, but the content of the work makes up for the obscurity. Kristeva’s “poetic purification“, so to speak, is not an act of ridding the impure of the self–an impossible task that nonetheless makes up culture–but rather of rearranging it in repetition and harmonizing the abject through refrain. In other words, difference does not constitute lack but can be unified in a greater whole from its “original impurity.” It is re-evaluated a second time. Her analogy of music is especially poignant in that individual notes in a melody, while aberrant stand-alone, form a “heterogeneous and complex circuit” that smooths the frenzied. The cathartic process of Kristeva is certainly more harmonious wisdom than the run-of-the-mill abject phobic.