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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.) 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,
(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,
(17.) Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (New York: Pantheon,
(18.) Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books,
(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),
(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
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)