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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.

Subjective Agency and Social Determination

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)

Critical Theory and Dialectical Thought

In his preface to the second edition of Reason and Revolution Herbert Marcuse gives a penetrating analysis into the social consequences of Hegel’s dialectical thought. For starters, established reality is pretty entrenched. It even has a proven track record of repelling or absorbing reasonable alternatives. As Marcuse points out, neither criticism nor change makes itpast the status quo. This precludes dialectic or negative thinking in our technocratic world; acceptance and affirmation are the reign of the day instead.

To summarize Hegel, the struggle of humanity with the situations and conditions of each epoch defines existence. Thought corresponds to the make-up of each of these time periods and, as a result of this reflecting, humanity “progresses” through definitive stages in history, transforming reality in the process. Reality for Hegel is the constant and dynamic renewal of existence throughout the history of humanity. The primary way this history is animated is the dialectic of freedom. At each stage in history humanity recognizes some aspect of the world that is unfree and in turn rejects whatever object is the cause of that bondage. Therefore, the negation of all that threatens or denies freedom is essentially a “negative” task. Oftentimes, however, the object of negation is wrapped up in the established state of affairs. This means for dialectical thought that it usually must oppose the self-assurance and self-contentment of the masses and is seldom popular for doing so.

Although I mentioned that this process is essentially negative, it is only so in appearance. From an idealist perspective the true task of dialectics is merely to aright what has been inverted. For instance, opposing that which denies freedom is clearly a positive act and liberates inherent potentialities to become realized that were previously held back. As Marcuse says, “Reason is the negation of the negative.” A dialectic interpretation of existence, therefore, is to discover truth in that which was made absent by exclusion. This task is often done by shedding light on the inherent contraditions of existence in the anticipation that they will unravel themselves out as a result. Those who would wish to engage in such a project must be warned, however, that they will seem false to the powers that be. But that is only because the police and managers of the status quo are the real ones whose logic and speech is a multilation and contradiction of reality on the whole. To be authentic is to contradict those who contradict, to negate the negative, counterfeit the counterfeiters, and deceive the deceivers. Critical theory, in a nutshell, is the refusal to play games with a loaded dice.

Unfortuantely, Marcusse is well aware that this authentic dialectical contadiction is often poorly imitated in pseudo-oppositions. Even in 1960 he singled out “hipsterism” as a crackpot opposition that was unable to transcend codified patterns of thought and validation. (Look here for a good smashing of hipsters). What Marcusse is really looking for are movements that are able to destory the established state of affairs and provide alternatives beyond the irrationality of the status quo. This does not mean an invention of contents for dialectical thought but a freeing of latent possibilities. According to Marcuse, “Dialectical analysis merely assembles and reactivates [tradition]; it recovers tabooed meanings and thus appears almost as a return, or rather a conscious liberation, of the repressed!”