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Syntax and ethics: a conversation.
Article Type:
Language and languages (Usage)
Language and languages (Ethical aspects)
Philosophers (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Grammar, Comparative and general (Syntax)
Language and ethics
Anton, Corey
Zhang, Peter
Pub Date:
Name: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics Publisher: Institute of General Semantics Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Languages and linguistics Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Institute of General Semantics ISSN: 0014-164X
Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 68 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 290 Public affairs Advertising Code: 91 Ethics
Product Code: 8524101 Philosophers NAICS Code: 54172 Research and Development in the Social Sciences and Humanities
Named Person: Burke, Kenneth; Certeau, Michel de; Deleuze, Gilles

Accession Number:
Full Text:
PZ: Humans alone struggle over language. In this struggle we realize our JL humanness. As we speak, we invoke history. Put otherwise, we get caught up in a contestation between semantic sedimentations and emergent intentions, between the proper and the appropriated, between mimesis and perversion. Not only do we struggle over semantics, we also refine the way we struggle through syntactical finesse. Since humans are soothed, seduced, swayed, and spellbound by symbolic "form" far more than by mere "information," the struggle over syntax must play a central role in our pursuit of the good life. (1) To put it differently, it constitutes an ethical problematic.

CA: Part of the challenge comes from the way that both popular culture and contemporary common sense talk about (and hence think about) power and dominance. Too often, as Foucault well acknowledged, people assume power as something external to them and which exerts force upon them. In this way, the degree to which language is power itself remains tragically underestimated; most people simply think of power in terms that place it outside the individual, as if power functioned in the fashion of an exterior force or pressure. Common sense somewhat falls in line with popular neo-Darwinian and naturalist accounts of animal territoriality, and people thereby reductively treat power as if it were a process that operates mainly or even exclusively in space, between and across others. They seem not to recognize how power operates within and through individuals over time. Many people seem to either not understand or not care about the ways that they subtly subject themselves to narratives of oppression and self-defeat over a long haul. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that forms of external coercion no longer trouble people today in the United States or throughout the world, but rather, too many U.S. citizens, by misunderstanding the internal relations between power and language, simply ignore their widely available opportunities for empowering themselves. They seem unable to ask the critical questions, such as, From where, exactly, comes the power when individuals feel disempowered? What, exactly, shall we do about it? How might one understand the relationship between language and power to help oneself and others out of the experience of powerlessness?

PZ: Here we face what amounts to an ethical issue. The power that disempowers us resides in the ego, which grows out of internalized discourses, codes, and life scripts. The devil lies in the language we use when we talk to ourselves, the language that speaks us. Language in terms of both lexicon--frames of interpretation--and syntax. As we link words together in a particular style, so we compose our life. In language we find both the problem and the way out. By transforming our language, we are transforming ourselves in the most immediate way imaginable. Foucault rightly invites us to resist who we are. But to operationalize his invitation demands much hard thinking. We always run the risk of being oppressed by a self-defeating understanding of resistance. Instead of seeing construction and creation as its gist, too often do we reduce resistance to mere tearing down. We need to follow Deleuze's suggestion and reimagine power in an affirmative sense: power as receptivity, or affectivity--the capacity to be affected, empowered, and transformed by what affirms life, especially a life-affirming language. This understanding of power invites us to recuperate the stoic art of self-cultivation and self-fashioning. If the ancient stoic treats logos (truthful discourse) as a defensive mechanism, as equipment for living, then, in his philosophical corpus, Deleuze invites us to take a step further and treat (a minorized) syntax as equipment for living, as a pathway toward self-transformation, and as indispensable for ethical being. Put otherwise, he articulates a direct connection between syntax and ethics.

We humans not only symbolically and dramatically manage the world with language, but also materially shape the world and order life in the image of our language. The world we inhabit is a sign of our language. We literally speak relations into being, and fashion the world as per the logic of those articulated relations. We exert our human agency primarily through syntax. Generative, coercive, and transitive instead of merely representational, the "map" is humans' boldest imposition on the "territory." Language leaves humans--oerotten with perfection." (2) With the technology of language, we humans extend, overreach, overwhelm, and imprison ourselves, insofar as we reify our categories and petrify our syntax. On the other hand, as long as we remain "symbol-using animals," we always have the potential to break through into new relations with the world, new relations among ourselves, and new possibilities of life through syntactical metamorphoses. The linkage between syntax and ethics is as old as language itself.

Deleuze precisely has this linkage in mind when he advocates the invention of a foreign language within language. (3) It bears mentioning that the upper classes too often resort to the artificial stylization of language as a power move, as a weapon with which to perform their superiority and to exclude others from their language games. The logic behind such stylization might lead one to accuse Deleuze of elitism. Deleuze's corpus, however, embodies the exact opposite agenda, and speaking position. He seems to suggest that simply avoiding the major language, or escaping into the language of a minority group, never offers a way out. The real line of flight lies in speaking the major language in a new style, or appropriating and wielding it in such a way that it vibrates with a new intensity--depleted and lifeless ("coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal," to use Nietzsche's formulation) as it tends to feel. (4) If the major language has become so petrified that it only induces mindless recognition in people, Deleuze wants us to use it in such a fresh way so it brings about an impactful encounter, perhaps after the fashion of Antonin Artaud's theater of cruelty. (5)

Deleuze presents delirium as a mode of reworking, or a way of slipping the trap of, the major language, in the same way Rabelaisianism offers an antidote against the "petrified narrow seriousness" of official discourse. (6) Drunkenness might equip the drunkard to disclose the world's second truth. If "language as usual" numbs us down, we might need to develop an art of listening to the madman's confounding gibberish, instead of dismissing it as mere gibberish. Deleuze feels especially intrigued by people's asyntactic stutter, stammer, and wordless cries. (7) In syntactical deviation lies a productive energy. We have benefited much from Kenneth Burke's tipsy writing. Interestingly, Burke once fell off a ladder and landed on his head, just like Giambattista Vico. In a similar vein, Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy. Marshall McLuhan's mode of writing suggests a hyperactive right hemisphere. Delirium often becomes a means for a new sobriety. Yet we do not want to conflate delirium Deleuze style and delirium Hitler style.

To invent a foreign language within language means to bring about the minorization, or the becoming Other, of a major language through syntactical innovation, which relies on mastering the language in the first place. A new syntax means a new style, which suggests a new posture, inclination, disposition, and attitude. Put simply, a new syntax coaches and rehearses a new attitude, a new style of thought, a new manner of action, a new mode of being, or simply a new ethics. To default into a major language means to live by an ethics of security, to play it safe. By contrast, linguistic minorization entails and enacts a nonconforming attitude, an ethics of vulnerability, difference, vitalism, and becoming. Vulnerability makes us ethical and human. The capacity to be affected by the utter Otherness of a minor discourse constitutes a measure of our power--the power to differ from a code, to become other than a model, the power of psychic metamorphosis and self-transformation. One impervious to other modes of human enunciation simply degenerates into a sociopath. If the major language domesticates life, then a minor mode of languaging affirms and enhances life, and sees dignity in life's unruliness. It promotes alan vital--the active, vital forces of life.

To minorize a major language means to intervene in a symbolic economy in which a rigid sociotaxonomy, through limiting the range of the possible, the acceptable, and the imaginable, has become a straitjacket for life. If, as Heidegger suggests, "language is the house of being," then such minorization opens up spaces for new subjectivities--ones that do not conform to a model. Compared with the kind of identity politics minority groups tend to engage in, linguistic minorization entails something different entirely. It culminates in the Overman--the overcome, overtaken man, man unhindered by any ego. (8) The new syntax enacts a new, nomadic sensibility. A language minorized means a language violently renewed. The violence belongs to an at once symbolic and existential order. In linguistic minorization lies the root of social and cultural (not just personal) change, or the "becoming" of the culture. Languaging in a minor mode makes a "tactical" operation--the way Michel de Certeau understands the term. (9) It allows one to slip the trap of the culture.

Linguistic minorization entails a politics of immanence. Such a politics distrusts the governing of a plane of immanence by symbols or forces from above the plane. The plane of immanence implies a mode of living, a way of life, in and of itself. (10) Vital forces of life sustain, animate each other and serve as lines of flight for each other through rhizomatic interconnections. Such a politics sees indignity in speaking for and speaking in the name of others. Collective enunciation results from resonance rather than representation. Identification has its basis in a shared enunciative position rather than a high level of abstraction. The moment of enunciation constitutes a problematic threshold moment that articulates and actualizes the economy of speaking. For speaking always entails its flip side, namely, silence. Subtle power moves, such as addressing to silence, transpire at the moment of enunciation. Thus we need to pause at, dwell on, extend, and defer such threshold moments.

CA: We need a more adequate definition for "minor." Does any non-clicha phrase count as minor? What about a newly coined word that makes useful purchase within a one-time occasion and then falls quickly to oblivion? Or, more broadly, perhaps we could consider Richard Lanigan's distinction between "speech speaking," the originary moment of articulation whereby the intention to thought gropes forward and crystallizes itself (and thus remains an ever-fresh accomplishing), and "speech spoken," whereby people recall, rehearse, and recirculate sayings they already have heard. (11) We can find in the latter, in speech spoken, a temporal and publically motivated dominance, a linguistic inertia that tends to circumscribe thought to movements within the confines of accomplished expressions and routine phraseology; as inseparable from already accomplished and sedimented forms, speech spoken becomes the thought from which we mostly need relief, the form from which we need to break free if only momentarily. Even popular expressions such as "thinking outside of the box" or "avoid a hardening of the categories" come, in due time, to have a certain irony to them. Witty when first uttered, they spread widely and fed so many that they now fail to feed those who would fend for themselves; with their magic now mostly exhausted on all but the dim-witted, they have congealed into a major form.

PZ: Lanigan's notion of "speech speaking" reminds me of Nietzsche's notion of the "liberated intellect" or the intuitive man who treats the "enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts" as "just a scaffolding and plaything for his boldest artifices," who "smashes it apart, scattering it, and then ironically puts it together again, joining the most remote and separating what is closest," who "speaks in sheer forbidden metaphors and unheard of conceptual compounds, in order at least by smashing and scorning the old conceptual barricades to correspond creatively to the impressions of the mighty present intuition." (12) By practicing what he preaches, Nietzsche has inspired Burke to come up with the notion of "perspective by incongruity." If we migrate to the realm of painting, we can find this sense of incongruity or clash in Picasso. In the intuitive man, in Nietzsche and Picasso, we can detect an extraordinary syntax, style, and ethos. Here an impactful syntax and an enriched semantics coincide as a unified event, which extends a powerful ethical and existential invitation. Proust has the same ethos in mind when he says "great literature is written in a sort of foreign language." (13)

"Minor" results from an intense appropriation of a major language. It entails creatively wresting a new life out of a major language through doing violence to it. This ethos we see in Nietzsche's intuitive man feels very much like the one we find in Walker Percy's "The Loss of the Creature," in which he promotes getting off the beaten track, the revisiting of the familiar (with a fresh, self-reflexive pair of eyes so we could see the strange in the familiar), and the accidental encounter. (14) "Language is the house of being" but it may well become a prison house. By wielding a major language and keeping it intact, we end up imprisoning ourselves. A major language never simply is. It does. It works like a crust, to cover up and lock up the vital forces of life. A minor language breaks up this crust by attacking the major language from within. It transforms a naturalized, seemingly transparent medium (the major language) into rich signs, or "hieroglyphics," by means of syntactical mutation. Like real art, minor language "has the capacity to make us nervous," to use Susan Sontag's formulation. (15) By analogy, Arnold Schoenberg, who has introduced a new "syntax" into music, makes an exemplary minor musician. Cormac McCarthy, the novelist, counts as a contemporary example. Take this line from his novel The Road: "each the other's world entire." The haiku quality to his syntax absorbs us and makes us muse.

Alfred Korzybski's formulation "Whatever we say something is, it is not" takes on the copula itself, and constitutes a philosophical critique of languaging in a major mode. (16) The syntax here has an iconic quality to it. In a way, Alan Watts' The Wisdom of Insecurity can be read as Korzybski's formulation writ large. (17) Both extend an invitation for us to extricate life from the prison house of an essentializing major language. "Minor" thus stands for a vitalistic Zen sensibility, in living as well as in languaging. Watts sees Zen Buddhism as a "way of liberation" anyway. (18) Geling Shang rightly calls his comparative study of Zhuangzi and Nietzsche Liberation as Affirmation. Both thinkers display a minor, life-affirming sensibility.

Victor Turner shows a good grasp of the minor sensibility when he cites Bergson to talk about liminality and communitas:

"Minor" connotes "openness," "vitality," inexhaustible potentialities, and connections with Otherness, or with an outside. The fact that they operate beyond the narrow parameters of established structures, including symbolic ones, makes prophets and artists minor figures. Their non-clichad language enacts their ethos.

"Minor" presupposes starting with impossibilities to seek to arrive at new possibilities, of expression and especially of life. As Deleuze puts it: "Creation takes place in choked passages." (20) Instead of implying an ethos of escapism, "minor" comes to fruition only with intensive engagement. A meaningful line of flight has to be earned through struggles. It carries one "towards a destination which is unknown, not foreseeable, not pre-existent." (21) A fallacious logic drives the following reasoning: If I belong to a minority group, then I automatically speak a minor language. This reasoning displays a blindness to the hard work involved in developing a minor sensibility. "Minor" has nothing to do with "romantic." Many great writers die in an effort to trace out a minor trajectory. "Minor" has to be achieved. It takes "bold character derived from stubborn patience" to get there, to use a line of wine ad. I can see how this ad itself can become a clicha before we know it. At that point, somebody will have to create a new expression. This tag of war between "excorporation" and "incorporation" never ends, to use Barry Brummett's categories. (22) Interestingly, in our hypertechnologized age, as you blurt out an unheard of thought in front of a group of people, it's immediately twittered away before you even have time to jot it down for yourself. A qualitative difference keeps creation and imitation apart from each other. We don't need more communication. Instead, we need silence, "vacuoles of noncommunication," so creation can take place. (23) Deleuze made this point years ago. What a timely point, though, for today.

As with words, so with life. A minor linguistic practice enacts an ethos of difference. Difference as a value, as a good, as an aesthetic and existential predilection. The fusion between the two constitutes a picture of ethical being, as crystallized by Friedrich Halderlin's words: "poetically, man dwells on this earth." (24) The pursuit of fresh syntactical formulations precisely embodies a minor sensibility. This ethics of difference has a central place in Deleuze's philosophy--a productive perversion of Platonism, an incarnation of the ethics of difference, in terms of both its message and metamessage. (It's no coincidence that Deleuze calls one of his books Difference and Repetition.) Oscar Wilde makes another minor figure. His fictional dialogue entitled "The Decay of Lying" constitutes an unfettered response to and a radical departure from Plato's Gorgias. (25) His capacity to differ indicates a creative energy and affirmative power. Wilde belongs with the precious constellation of untimely figures in his own time. As McLuhan puts it: "oeWhen the Victorian Englishman began to lean toward the pole of seriousness, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton moved in swiftly as countervailing force." (26)

How shall we articulate the gist of "minor" then? The semantic field of "minor" encompasses the following terms: change, becoming, liminality, creativity, vitality, "matter out of place" (a la Lewis Hyde), the untimely, lines of flight, affirmation of life, multiplicity, plurality, virtuality, potentiality, difference, unfinishedness, inexhaustibility, play, rejuvenation, renewal, transformation, and so on. (27) In pursuing security and identity (in the sense of self-identicalness) through categorical thinking, major discourse locks life up, keeps it from what it can do. It domesticates, mutilates, and annihilates life. That's why Alan Watts advocates the wisdom of insecurity. James C. Scott sees the problem of major discourse as a problem of "thin simplification." (28) Major discourse produces what Deleuze calls "the white wall/black hole system." As he points out: "We are always pinned against the wall of dominant significations, we are always sunk in the hole of our subjectivity, the black hole of our Ego." (29) He wants to call into being a minority capable of ego-loss. Ego-loss as a positive move, as a sign of productive energy, as a means of reclaiming one's dignity and sovereignty.

If the self exists by means of inexhaustible virtualities, then minor discourse mediates and catalyzes the actualization of these virtualities. If the self does not have a permutation unless as an actor's self, then minor discourse helps it develop a repertoire of "transient incarnations," thus making it more resourceful. (30) Once we envision the self as necessarily and essentially a certain way, we deprive it of the potential for becoming. Certain stripes of identity politics tend to insulate and hinder themselves precisely on this account. Identity politics at its best assumes the guise of strategic essentialism.

CA: Richard Mitchell, the well-known "Underground Grammarian," has a wonderful little book Less Than Words Can Say, which offers highly useful examples of attacking the language from within. Specifically, the opening two chapters, respectively titled, "The Worm in the Brain" and "The Two Tribes," well exemplify different types of syntactical maneuvers and further help to illustrate the subtle but vital impact that such syntactical moves ultimately have. (31) Both chapters address the role of syntax and grammar in creating a sense of (and accounting for the role of) human agency and personal responsibility, but the juxtaposition of the chapters brings out the larger part that contexts have in framing such maneuvers. For example, in "The Worm in the Brain," Mitchell outlines how one of his friends, in becoming an associate dean of some sort, slowly loses the ability to use active verbs in the first-person singular. Mitchell suggests that a worm must have started to eat just those parts of the brain that would use active verbs, leaving the poor administrator with nothing but the ability to use passive utterances. The dean now writes memos that start, "It has been decided ...," which, as Mitchell comically suggests, comes off a little bit like a "verbal shoulder shrug." Indeed, what can one do in the face of such passively imposed changes? But then, in the following chapter, Mitchell gives a delightful contrast by considering a case of two fictional tribes, the Jiukiukwe and the Manhassetite. The former's natural way of speaking would be, "As for me, there is hunger," whereas the latter would find it more natural to say, "I am hungry." This tiny difference, in microcosm, represents the basic difference between their cultures, and through this juxtaposition of chapters, we can see how grammar and syntax, as well as active and passive voices, have their effects only as they concretely play out within larger cultural contexts. This means, for example, that in some cultures the use of first-person singular active verbs comes off as a sign of aggressiveness or even mind insanity, whereas in other cultures those who refrain from using first-person singular active verbs basically seek to deny their responsibility, agency, or perhaps their complicity. Mitchell powerfully and lucidly impresses upon readers how little changes in syntax can make all the difference, but once again, we must attend to how those differences always play out within a larger sociopolitical context.

PZ: The worm performs a lobotomy to the dean's brain. But for real no worm is eating away part of his brain. It's language that performs the operation. The mind grows out of language use. By using a different syntax, namely, a different style of language, we end up rewiring and refashioning our brains. I totally agree with you: context makes the whole difference. I'd say the dean's use of the passive voice constitutes the strategic adoption of a major language, and amounts to a pedestrian power move. Something radically different would happen if the absence of the active voice in the Jiukiukwe Indians' language were to be imported into American English on a categorical basis. American English would undergo a wholesale minorization, a becoming Other. So would the American consciousness. Americans would end up having a different relationship with nature, with people from other nations, and with each other. The America as we know it would cease to exist.

CA: Between "power" and "empowerment," I find the latter term a bit more useful. As new media increasingly invite people to grow ever more visual, they tend to ease into right hemisphere thinking, neglect literary traditions, and let their literate sensibilities atrophy. They also tend to downplay the kinds of empowerment fostered by the simple fact of learning new words, of mere vocabulary building. This empowerment, as a freedom that comes from self-discipline and willingly encumbering oneself with one's tradition, liberates thought by offering a wider range of analytic and synthetic resources to draw upon. And words, as Malcolm X well learned, are not only absolutely free, they can be utterly freeing! (32) Admittedly, serious study takes time and effort and can bring out great frustration, and, it may even result in the very humbling experience of facing one's own limitations, a facing that can spur deep personal growth. But some of today's students, maybe more than we'd want to admit, too quickly slip into a self-defeating narrative without realizing how to get out of it. That is, rather than approach university as a privilege and an opportunity for self-cultivation, many see it as a burden or chore, or at the very least, something that is applied to them, externally. Some even prefer to talk of universities as prisons and teachers as guard-like authority figures, "slave drivers," who get perverse pleasure by demanding that students study and hand in homework. Can anyone really, honestly, take seriously such a narrow and self-defeating account of university education and self-development? Might we, on the contrary, just as equally imagine students as devoted athletes preparing for the big games of life, persons who train and use the facilities and resources as the way to aspire and grow themselves? Or better still, might we see them as needing to recover the pasts to become themselves and give themselves a future? Said summarily, so much of the felt subjection experienced by contemporary students lies in the narratives that they tell to themselves and about themselves, most of which assume that power comes in the form of external constraints, and that significant or fundamental change remains impossible. Most people, as Lee Thayer would sometimes say to his students in class, prefer problems they just can't solve to solutions they just don't like.

We perhaps, at this point, need to address how the contemporary information explosion and recent proliferation of contacts between distant strangers globally entails a destabilization of meaning, and how this further leads to various contestations over the kinds of intelligibility that public discourse needs to maintain. More and more expressions, to avoid the label of "B.S." or escape being deemed as overly obscurantist, will need to fall into direct alignment with the threadbare, the hackneyed, the clichad, or, at the very least, the dominant modes of discourse. Public debates and discussions will likely become less and less nuanced and precise or even degenerate into mere pabulum meant for the lexically impoverished. Without reading, reading often, and reading widely across diverse genres, people's vocabularies shrink and narrow, and people increasingly lose appreciation for the range of syntactical gymnastics possible. Learning how to engage in serious study (and even studying the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]) liberates us, frees us up, in wonderful ways. This directly leads into the issue of power and empowerment over time.

Studying for the GRE has come to represent one of the more grueling parts of applying to graduate school, and of the many preparation guides, The Princeton Review to Cracking the GRE stands out among even the best. In helping students learn how to build their vocabulary, the book offers the term "Joe Bloggs" to refer to the average person, the person you don't want as your aspirant respondent. You see, Joe Bloggs has a rather pernicious problem. He has only a vague sense of things, and, even when he thinks he knows a word's meaning, he really doesn't know the exact one but rather the general and popular one. The Princeton Review then illustrates what they call "Joe Bloggs attractors," meaning answers that will attract Joe Bloggs but will serve to effectively discriminate those who know from those who simply think they know. Examples of "Joe Bloggs attractors" include the words, "remedial," "peruse," and "condone." Right now, if just for fun, guess what each word means and then go check the dictionary for yourself. In these simple cases, the average person on the street gets these words wrong even though they might likely think they would get them correct.

I have gone into this rather long digression to raise a rather specific point about language, literacy, empowerment, and the modern individual: a group of average folks can have a town-hall meeting and use the word "condone" in a way that reveals a generally agreed upon meaning--and which also seems to give them the power to make words mean whatever they agree upon--and yet nevertheless many if not most town-hall members would have answered "incorrectly" on the GRE. Here, then, we can recognize a particular kind of power that gate-keeping elites assume when and where they take the prerogative to determine what a word means despite how most people use it, but seriously and in all honesty, other than studying the OED what can one do about that? Sadly, many people, perhaps most, would rather disempower themselves by telling some kind of personal narrative pertaining to their own disadvantages in this regard rather than just get to studying. Perhaps most adults look around, see themselves as objects in space, and then conclude that deep genuine self-transformation remains possible only in youth.

One final difficulty needing address here ties back to the history of literacy and the ways that Western culture, broadly speaking, evolved away from an oral noetic economy, which drew largely upon clicha, rhythmic oral formula, and symbolic forms for which the "multilexical idea unit" was the smallest item that could be consciously managed (i.e., meaningfully identified, selected, and combined with other verbal units). Slowly, alphabetic writing replaced syllabic and consonantal writing, and the dominant written forms themselves moved from "scriptura continua" to the kinds of chirographically controlled printed word that we, today's modern dictionary-using and computer-using-word-searching individuals, know and enjoy in the contemporary world. (33) In today's highly literate world, a world where many if not most people think of language as some kind of collection of "word-things," we should not underappreciate how dictionaries have pulverized oral formula, torn asunder multilexical expressions, and rendered clichas into their subcomponents. In fact, dictionaries give reality to the sense that words such as "such" or "as" or "are" are meaningful in the abstract and in their own right, and as such, they now have become part of the living accoutrements by which literate individuals can enable the most subtle and delicate of syntactical maneuvers, accomplishing along the way a minor rhetoric of personal autonomy.

PZ: In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau invites us to practice tactical maneuvering and pull off tricks on a discursive terrain which we do not necessarily own. For him, the art of troping and (syn)tactical maneuvering constitutes the linguistic equivalent of "an art of living in the other's field." (34) He indicates an intrinsic connection between the linguistic and the ethical, and sees in linguistic turns "a style of thought and action - that is, models of practice" (emphasis added). (35) Deleuze echoes this sentiment by articulating a unity of life and thought--"a unity that turns an anecdote of life into an aphorism of thought, and an evaluation of thought into a new perspective on life." (36) According to Deleuze, "Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life." (37) It needs to be emphasized here that it is syntax that gives a style to thought and action, thinking, and living. The affirmation of life rests on an intense appropriation of syntactical potentialities, which in turn rests on mastering the language in the first place.

In syntactical innovation resides an ethics of uncertainty. The innovated syntax enacts a metamessage: things can be otherwise, the world can be otherwise, and human relations can be otherwise. After all, we humans use language as a prototype in the image of which we make and remake the world. The GRE has its metamessage, too. It cultivates an ethos, a responsible attitude toward history. At a basic level, we want to make sure that our researchers, and by the same token, our medical doctors and lawyers, know what they are talking about. But I see a more significant stake in what you are saying. Those town-hall members who have the power to take the meaning of "condone" into their own hands literally appropriate the word at the level of "average intelligibility," or even worse. (38) Atrophy is not to be passed off as creation, though. At the point where we feel straitjacketed by the social order fashioned on the basis of this average intelligibility, we want to make sure the etymology of "condone" is well preserved somehow. Therein lies a line of flight from an unfulfilling present, or a potentiality for renewing the social order. I have Foucault's sense of genealogy in mind when I think of etymology. (39) Repression too often takes the form of oversimplification. Resistance then becomes a matter of affirmatively recuperating what gets left out or left to oblivion--a matter of reintroducing complexities.

Conservation and creation make such close allies; innovation had better be informed by a rigorous command of tradition, so to speak. People without a history are also deprived of a future. The history lies primarily in the language. What seems old becomes new again. A people's history is never to be treated as a fossilized given. It does not exist unless as a vital memory in vital dialogue with the present; on the other hand, it can be erased with the erasure of their language. Such erasure happens as we speak. At one point, a fine scholar none other than John de Francis advocated the Romanization of the Chinese language on the basis that the language feels either too backward or too elitist, or both. (40) Ironically, many Westerners nowadays are studying the Chinese language for the sake of business. I'd rather they studied it for the sake of recovering an alternative ethical imaginary. A major language too often results from a reductive appropriation of a people's language. As a deterritorialized major language, the language of global business rules the world today. A major language has an interest in passing itself off as transparent, neutral, and natural. It is precisely such pretensions that make it "major."

CA: Ellen Langer, in a wonderful little essay "Interpersonal Mindlessness and Language," suggests that mindfulness arises as people become more aware of the distinctions that they are making and that people can become more mindful of both language and the world around them as they hear people using different ways of talking about the same thing. (41) The more that people use one and only one word to talk about a thing, the more they forget that they are interpreting. If people learn another language, for example, they gain the value of seeing the world afresh and also gain a perspective on their own language. Although we likely find no exact substitute for this, as a lesser though arguably equal-in-value strategy for becoming aware of the language, we can attack language from within, and much new insight can come from playing around with tiny prepositions. For example, what word do you think best characterizes the human/environment relationship: Are humans IN the world, ON the world, or OF the world? As we mediate upon these--trace out their implications, ramifications and leadings--we can't help but wonder about the rise of a monolingual world culture with an increasingly unified monetary system.

PZ: Minor language feels like a foreign language. It heightens people's awareness, and coaches an ethics of uncertainty. It extends an invitation for people to inhabit the space of translation. The more we see that people talk about the same thing differently, the more we realize that the talking says more about the talker--the speaking position of the talker--than about the talked about. Instead of a community of consensus, minor language invites people to entertain the idea of a community of dissensus.

On the ship of language, some can invent their own rudder and sails, but many simply feel adrift on it. A note of caution is in order here, though, since we can find instances of syntactical play in Jacques Derrida, in Dr. Seuss, but also in Donald Rumsfeld. It takes unusual perceptiveness to decide what kind of "play" we are encountering. The task demands critical resourcefulness, as displayed by Slavoj Zizek:

Again, to struggle over language means to struggle over ethics. We can only earn the good life through the struggle. Never can we simply have it without the struggle.


(1.) Kenneth Burke, Perspectives by Incongruity, ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), 20-33.

(2.) Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 3-24.

(3.) Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life," Critical Inquiry 23 (1997): 225-230.

(4.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language, ed. Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, & David J. Parent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 246-257.

(5.) Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958).

(6.) Deleuze, "Literature and Life."

(7.) Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Creco (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 107-114.

(8.) Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 94.

(9.) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 29-42.

(10.) Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), 122.

(11.) Richard L. Lanigan, "Foucault's Science of Rhetoric: The Contest Between Practical Discourse and Discursive Practice," Symploke 4 (1996): 189-202.

(12.) Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)," in Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language, ed. Sander L. Gilman, Carole Blair, & David J. Parent (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 255-256.

(13.) Gilles Deleuze & Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 5.

(14.) Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1954), 46-63.

(15.) Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Anchor, 1966), 8.

(16.) Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 141.

(17.) Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (New York: Pantheon, 1951)..

(18.) Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), 3.

(19.) Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), 128.

(20.) Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 133.

(21.) Deleuze & Parnet, Dialogues, 125.

(22.) Barry Brummett, A Rhetoric of Style (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 74-115.

(23.) Deleuze, Negotiations, 175.

(24.) Martin Heigegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 216.

(25.) Oscar Wilde, Intentions (New York: Brentanos, 1905), 1-55. Plato, Gorgias, trans. Terrence Irwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979).

(26.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 244.

(27.) Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 173-199.

(28.) James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 309-341.

(29.) Deleuze & Parnet, Dialogues, 45.

(30.) Mark Backman, Sophistication: Rhetoric and the Rise of Self-Consciousness (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press, 1991), 156.

(31.) Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can Say (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1979), 7-19; 20-35.

(32.) Malcolm X, "Testimonies about the Value of Imitation," in Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, ed. Edward P. J. Corbett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 487-498.

(33.) Corey Anton, "Early Western Writing, Sensory Modalities, and Modern Alphabetic Literacy: On the Origins of Representational Theorizing," in Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2011), 93-112.

(34.) de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 24.

(35.) de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 24.

(36.) Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), 67.

(37.) Deleuze, Pure Immanence, 66.

(38.) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 157-159.

(39.) Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76-100.

(40.) John de Francis, "The Alphabetization of Chinese," Journal of the American Oriental Society 63 (1943): 225-240.

(41.) Ellen Langer, "Interpersonal Mindlessness and Language," Communication Monographs 59 (1992): 324-327.

(42.) Slavoj Zizek, "What Rumsfeld Doesn't Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib," In These Times (May 21, 2004), available at

Corey Anton is a professor of communication studies at Grand Valley State University and a fellow of the International Communicology Institute. His publications include Selfhood and Authenticity, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism, Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology, and the edited collection Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals and Laws. Anton currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Institute of General Semantics and on the editorial boards of both The Atlantic Journal of Communication and Explorations in Media Ecology.

Peter/Xianguang Zhang is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. His favorite authors include Deleuze, Burke. McLuhan, de Certeau, Bakhtin, Turner, and Watts. Zhang currently serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. He is also a board member of the Grand Rapids Chinese Language School.
Bergson saw in the words and writings of prophets and great artists
  the creation of an "open morality," which was itself an expression of
  what he called the elan vital, or evolutionary "life-force." Prophets
  and artists tend to be liminal and marginal people, "edgemen," who
  strive with a passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the cliches
  associated with status incumbency and role-playing and to enter into
  vital relations with other men in fact or imagination. In their
  productions we may catch glimpses of that unused evolutionary
  potential in mankind which has not yet been externalized
  and fixed in structure. (19)

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur
  philosophizing about the relationship between the known ands the
  unknown: "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we
  know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things
  that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns.
  There are things we don't know we don't know." What he forgot to
  add was the crucial fourth term: the "unknown knowns," the things
  we don't know that we know - which is precisely, the Freudian
  unconscious, the "knowledge which doesn't know itself," as
  Lacan used to say. (42)
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