Language as a marker of power
Language operates in the collective consciousness, engendering notions of right and wrong.
Our colleague Oriol Arilla wrote a short time ago in Psychology and Mind a very interesting article entitled "Language as a regulator of the social". I will take advantage of the fact that the ice has already been broken with one of the most controversial topics and that has been the subject of the most important philosophical and psychoanalytical theories of the last century to delve even deeper into the reflection.
O. Arilla's article begins with a first and very important break with the most conventional analyses of what language is. Namely, that it is not only a means of transmitting information.
A break with the classical paradigm
The writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin warned us almost a century ago that we could not reduce the analysis of language to the language analysis to the always limited bourgeois schema.s, utilitarian, of being a means to an end. In this case, a means to transmit information from one person to another. For Benjamin, and I subscribe to his thesis, language is a pure mediality. That is, it does not enter into the channels of being a means to an end but a means in itself and realized in itself. To defend this position, Benjamin argued that no one can refer to and think about language without recourse to language itself. If we wanted to apply a Cartesian scientific analysis to language we would have to be able to isolate it as an object, the problem is that this operation is impossible. In no way can we separate language from its own object of analysis, for we must use language itself to do so.
This idea ties in with the quotation from Nietzsche that opens and inaugurates Oriol's article: "There is nothing less innocent than words, the most deadly weapons that can exist". It is not that words are only the most deadly weapon that can exist (it is not an innocent means to an end independent of them) but they are, in addition, the first marker of power and structure. Language is the first structure that will teach us to obey.
Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand PlateausLanguage is not even made to be believed in, but to be obeyed and to be made to be obeyed. [...] A rule of grammar is a marker of power before being a syntactic marker. The command is not related to prior meanings, nor to a prior organization of distinctive units". Language always presupposes language and will configure, by means of a hard structure, a certain way of approaching the world, what is seen, what is heard. It will generate, in this way, diverse effects of power, in which enters the construction of our subjectivity and our way of being in the world. Language always goes from something said to something said, not from something seen to something said. Deleuze and Guattari argue then that if animals -in their example, bees- do not have language it is because what they have is the capacity to communicate something seen or perceived, but they do not have the capacity to transmit something unseen or unperceived to other animals that have not seen or perceived it either.
Deleuze and Guattari state deepening this idea: "Language is not content to go from a first to a second, from someone who has seen to someone who has not seen, but necessarily goes from a second to a third, none of whom has seen.....". In this sense, language is the transmission of a word that functions as a slogan and not the communication of a sign as information. Language is a map not a tracing."
The reflections of both Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari pave the way for us to introduce two ideas that seem to me fundamental when confronting our day-to-day political and psychic realities. The first idea is that of the performativity of language, introduced by the philosopher Deleuze and Guattari.introduced by the philosopher John Langshaw Austin and refined by Judith Butler at the end of the twentieth century. The second idea is that of the primacy of signifiers over meanings.. This second idea was extensively developed by Lacan and is the epicenter of contemporary psychoanalytic theory.
Performative language and politics
Austin asserted that "to speak is always to act". Language is often performative to the extent that an utterance can, rather than describing a reality, perform the fact by the very fact of being expressed.. Thus, when I "swear" I am performing the act of swearing insofar as I express the oath. Swearing or getting married -which are the two examples used by Austin- only make sense in the language itself. The utterance is generating a reality, independent of any act external to it, by the simple fact of expressing itself. Through a symbolic authority such as that of a priest, the statement "I pronounce you husband and wife" is a statement that only enters into relation with itself, it is a performative act insofar as the act, the fact, becomes meaningful only to the extent of being within a given community and following certain markers of language power. When the marriage has been constituted, the reality that existed until then changes.
Picking up this idea, Derrida will point out that the performative cannot be intentional - for Austin will argue that the first thing in language will be the will of some subject - and that it is beyond the subject. Language, by itself, will then be able to transform reality without the intentionality of humans. I will take up Derrida's reflections for the section on psychoanalysis..
Judith Butler takes up many of the ideas presented here for her theory of gender. I will not go into her thought in depth in this article for lack of space. What Butler asserts is that law is performatively produced through the coercive repetitions of regulative practices. But the law is not only reduced to the legal, formal, it also extends to the rest of social practices.
In this way, and taking up an idea launched by Marx ("these believe themselves to be subjects because he is king") will claim that gender is completely performative, in the sense that when we think that by saying "man" or "woman" we are describing a reality we are actually creating it. we are describing a reality, we are actually creating it.. In this way, our bodies cease to be bodies and become techno-living fictions which, through the repetitive coercive practices of the roles assigned to men and women, will conform to mechanisms of power. Gender identity, being male or female, does not exist autonomously from these same preformative practices that adjust us to be what the social structure expects us to be. We are assigned roles -when we are born with a bio-man's body we will be assigned the role of masculinity- that we will have to repeat in order to naturalize them, to make them as if they were natural identities. This masks the social struggle that lies behind it and obviates the performative character of being a man or a woman.
Beatriz Preciado points out a very important issue to understand the magnitude of this coercive practice on bodies: at birth, the doctor never performs a chromosomal analysis but, even so, and simply through sight (observing whether there is a penis or a vagina) our social role will be determined (being a man or a woman). In this way, politics becomes an aesthetic. Through our aesthetics we will be assigned a social role of masculinity or femininity. Preciado states, "Science produces performative metaphors, that is, it produces that which it attempts to describe through political and cultural markers prior to it."
With all that I have stated here I simply wanted to enter into the complexity and importance that the philosophy of language has as well as its impact on our daily political struggles. The deconstruction of all the concepts imposed on us from birth must be a constant liberating practice. And we must never forget the ultra-political dimension of language and performativity in the construction of our subjectivity, our resistance and power.
Language in Lacan, a few brushstrokes
In contemporary psychoanalytic theory, and particularly in Lacan, language is a hard structure that determines almost entirely the production of our subjectivity. Lacan argues through the primacy of signifiers (S1) over signifieds (s1). To demonstrate this operation, Lacan resorts to metaphor and metonymy. Both figures are the ones that fortify and demonstrate that signifiers are always above signifieds, for in a metaphor there is a displacement of the signifier (of the word itself) while the signified is maintained. With different words we can convey the same meaning. This is why Lacan -and psychoanalysis- focuses and pays attention to master signifiers and chains of signifiers. focuses on master signifiers and chains of signifiers, rather than on meanings.rather than on the signifieds. Here we could add Derrida's reflections, in which he speaks of the fact that the same sign can have several meanings (polysemy) as a complement to Lacanian theory.
Signifiers always refer us to other signifiers, they cannot exist by themselves. Hence, classical psychoanalysis has also received much criticism, since we should not look for the hidden meaning behind the words we say. For Lacan, however, narration arises to resolve a fundamental antagonism, in Zizek's words, "through the rearrangement of the words we say.by rearranging its parts in a temporal succession". There is a traumatic fact that is constitutive of being thus, a fact, a sphere, which is the Real that can never enter the channels of the Symbolic (the Lacanian triad is the Real-the Symbolic and the Imaginary, at the center of which is jouissance). That which in the object is positively perceived as more than the object itself and which is the force that drives my desire would be the objet petit a, which can sometimes be confused with the real and the surplus of jouissance. I do not want to dwell too long on this theory in this brief article. What must be retained for what concerns us here is the primacy of the signifier, which could be added to that of the sign and form, and which brings us somewhat to fetishism and contemporary communicative theory.
Sign, form and language in the construction of hegemonies and political frameworks.
We are fascinated by the sign. It is the form that determines, and not the content. And here, to conclude, I would like to try to establish a relationship with Marxist theory. Zizek citing Marxcan help us to link and clearly express the relation between fetish and forms. Zizek writes: "classical political economy is interested only in the contents concealed behind the commodity-form, and this is the reason why it cannot explain the real mystery behind the form, but the mystery of this form itself [...] From where then springs the enigmatic character that distinguishes the product of labor as soon as it assumes the commodity form.
Obviously from this form itself.". It is necessary to elude a little the meanings and the contents to center our reflections on the forms and the signs. We live in a system of semio-capitalism (capitalism of signs) that generates its own oppressive frameworks and creates reality through signs and languages.. To combat it, we must be intelligent and create and generate our own signs as well as deconstruct our language, which is still our first marker of power and authoritarian structure.
-  Deleuze and Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2: Thousand Plateaus, 1990:82.
-  Marx quoted by Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 2010: 40.