Whispers of the gods #12
Twelfth in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence2 and Real presences
Continued from last time:
Steiner doesn’t have just the Judaeo-Christian tradition in his sights:
In every other domain [ie in every domain other than that of death], the phenomenology of saying has been, since Sumer and the pre-Socratics, that of indispensable relation to the presence and otherness of being and of the world. Of that indispensability, the concept and reach of the Logos, in religion, in philosophy, in poetics, in the invocation and debating of the law, has been centrally representative. In our beginning, in an entirely rational, concrete sense, lies the word or, more exactly, the sentence. The inception of critical thought, of a philosophic anthropology, is contained in the archaic Greek definition of man as ‘a language animal’, as a being in whom the isolating privilege of speech (isolating in respect of the rest of organic nature) is definitional. It follows that history, where it is human history, is the history of meaning.
I have read this passage over and over again and I am still none the wiser what it means. I keep making the same mistake. I read the first sentence, and I think I sort of understand it. So I think if I read the second sentence it will clarify the first. But it doesn’t happen. With each sentence I get more and more lost and entangled, as I did in the hedge in Whispers of the gods #8.
I am aware of the tradition that ‘saying’ is somehow authenticated by the speaker’s intention, in a way that ‘writing’ isn’t. For example in this extract from the Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction:
Derrida argues that people have historically understood speech as the primary mode of language and understood writing as an inferior derivative of speech. Derrida argues that speech is historically equated with logos, meaning thought, and associated with the presence of the speaker to the listener. It is as if the speaker thinks out loud and the listener hears what the speaker is thinking and if there is any confusion then the speaker’s presence allows them to qualify the meaning of a previous statement.3
Is Steiner alluding to something like this? Certainly the ‘presence’ in the title Real presences seems to have something to do with the ‘speaker’s presence’ in the last sentence quoted above.
Steiner goes on:
Less often observed is the act, the tenor of trust which underlies, which literally underwrites the linguistic-discursive substance of our Western, Hebraic–Attic experience. Often unregarded, because so evidently resistant to formalization, is the core of trust within logic itself, where ‘logic’ is a Logos-derivative and construct.
Where is he going with this? Why restrict it to Western, Hebraic-Attic experience? Trust underlies language use full stop, not just Western, Hebraic-Attic language use. And that trust is between language user and language user – in implicit agreement to use shared meaning and reference.
This is far too simple for Steiner:
There would be no history as we know it, no religion, metaphysics, politics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, more fundamental, more axiomatic by far than any ‘social contract’ or covenant with the postulate of the divine. This instauration of trust, this entrance of man into the city of man, is that between word and world. Only in the light of that confiding can there be a history of meaning which is, by exact counterpart, a meaning of history. … [T]he relationship between word and world, inner and outer, has been held ‘in trust’. … [I]t has been conceived of and existentially enacted as a relation of responsibility.
…To be responsible in respect of the primary motion of semantic trust is, in the full sense, to accept the obligation of response… It is to answer to and to answer for. Responsible response, answering answerability make of the process of understanding a moral act…
Until that mutation of values [ie the ‘fundamental break’ of the 1870s and after] … Logos and cosmos met – though there were provocations to ‘slippage’, to radical inadequacy in their meeting. But via the roots and branchings of syntax… the word was held to be in a large measure of correspondence to the objects of its inference and designation. Truth, in so far as it was deemed accessible to the limited means of mortal supposition, was answerability to the meaning of the world.
This is fantasy, playing with words. It is also an anthropomorphic projection like the creation of the Olympian gods. People trust or do not trust each other. If most of the people most of the time did not trust each other there would be no social life, no civilisation. Arguably if most people most of the time had not trusted each other there may not even be any people as we know ourselves, because the likelihood is that we evolved as social beings. If we had not had, and had not been able to preserve and inherit, the preconditions of social life it is unlikely that we would have survived. One aspect of that trust is that as language users, most of us, most of the time, trust each other to use language with shared meaning and reference, so that we understand each other.
So what is this ‘covenant between word and object’ – this ‘presumption that… the raw material of existentiality has its analogue in the structure of narrative’? Words and objects are not the kind of entities which can trust each other – they cannot have covenants between themselves. The covenants are implicit between language users.
Granted there have been many philosophies of language, ‘theories of meaning’. So it is quite possible that people might have assumed the relationship between words and the things, thoughts, actions, feelings, qualities and so on which words are used to refer to and describe is something other than what it is. That relationship may be extremely difficult to define – perhaps even impossible. But we have no justification in describing that relationship as a ‘covenant’, as something which can be ‘broken’. To do so is to introduce mystification.
Steiner tries to back this up with references to Genesis; and to Plato, Descartes and Hegel. But these only demonstrate the common assumption that there is a relationship between words and what words refer to, not that the relationship is a covenant.
He brings in sceptical traditions:
A fully consequent scepticism will make of language a primarily internalized, conventional shadow-system whose autistic rules and figurations have nothing verifiable to do with what is ‘out there’…
But… until the crisis of the meaning of meaning which began in the late nineteenth century, even the most stringent scepticism, even the most subversive of anti-rhetorics, remained committed to language. It knew itself to be ‘in trust’ to language… [It did] not question its own right, its own capacity, to put its case in the form of articulate, grammatically organized propositions.
We have come to the crunch at last:
It is my belief that this contract is broken for the first time, in any thorough and consequent sense, in European, Central European and Russian culture and speculative consciousness during the decades from the 1870s to the 1930s. It is the break of this covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.
But we must bring this down to earth. No contract or covenant has been broken. The most we can say is that we can no longer take the relationship ‘between word and world’ for granted. But in Steiner’s world we have a major phase of history giving way to another one:
…[T]he first, which extended from the beginnings of recorded history and propositional utterance (in the pre-Socratics) to the later nineteenth century, is that of the Logos, of the saying of being. The second phase is that which comes after.
In moral, philosophical, psychological, aesthetic, cerebral, intellectual, sociological and political terms we now come ‘after the Word’. (Yes it is possible to read too much Hegel, and certainly too much Heidegger.)
Steiner doubts if we can confidently
determine the deep-lying forces which brought on the crisis of the word… [but we can] identify some of the actual moments and pronouncements, some of the attitudes and texts and works of art, at which, in which, the crisis became a fact of awareness.
The first declarations are in
He then claims that these two language acts (or meta-language acts, or language meta-acts…?) by two nineteenth-century French poets
splinter the foundations of the Hebraic-Hellenic-Cartesian edifice in which the ratio and psychology of the Western communicative tradition had lodged. Compared to this fragmentation, even the political revolutions and great wars in modern European history are, I would venture, of the surface.
I kid you not – this is verbatim.
I will restrict myself to the Mallarmé example, because it is enough.
The word rose, says Steiner, does not have a stem or a leaf. It has no thorns. It has no colour or scent. It is
a wholly arbitrary phonetic marker, an empty sign.
Nothing in its sound, or written shape, or etymological history, or grammar corresponds to
what we believe or imagine to be the object of its purely conventional reference. Of that object ‘in itself’, of its ‘true’ existence or essence, we can, as Kant has taught us, know strictly nothing. A fortiori, the word rose cannot instruct us.
Steiner seems once again to be confusing two very different things. One is the fact that, whether it is a sound or a pattern on paper, a word like ‘rose’ is different from a brightly coloured flower with thorns. The other is the issue in the philosophy of perception as to whether a rose as we experience it (or our experience of the rose) is the same as the rose which actually exists, the ‘rose in itself’; or whether the ‘rose in itself’ somehow causes or gives rise to our experience of the rose. There is a link between the two in that, assuming there is a distinction between the rose as it really is (rose as noumenon, Kant’s ‘thing in itself’ [Ding an sich]) and our experience of the rose (rose as phenomenon, object of the senses), one can then ask whether the word ‘rose’ refers to the noumenon or the phenomenon or both. But the two issues are not the same.
Let us get closer to Mallarmé’s ‘ontologically critical step’:
To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. To use the word rose as if it was, in any way, like what we conceive to be some botanical phenomenon, to ask of any word that it stands in lieu of, as a surrogate for, the perfectly inaccessible ‘truths’ of substance, is to abuse and demean it.
Excuse me? Who is claiming that the relationship between the word ‘rose’ and any actual rose, or roses in general, is based on any similarity between the word and the thing? This will be true of a very few examples, like ‘word’ and perhaps ‘sign’, but not generally.
Steiner goes on:
That which endows the word rose, that arbitrary assemblage of two vowels and two consonants, with its sole legitimacy and life force is, states Mallarmé, “l’absence de toute rose”. Unless I am mistaken, we stand here at the precise source of philosophic and aesthetic modernity, at the breakpoint with the Logos-order as Western thought and feeling had known it since, at the least, the tautology spoken from the Burning Bush.
More playing with words. As far as I know a fair translation is ‘the absence of any rose’. (In passing: the only readers this ‘polyglot’ seems to care about are those who happen to know the same set of European languages he himself is at home with.) So what gives the word ‘rose’ the ability to do what it does, and be used the way it is, is the absence of any rose? And why not the absence of any cow, or the absence of any fork-lift truck? Of course there isn’t necessarily anything like a real rose, or part of a rose, or a shape of a rose, or a trace of a rose, anywhere around the place when someone says or writes or reads or thinks the word ‘rose’. But this will also be true of zillions of other objects, movements, actions, qualities etc in the universe. Why should Mallarmé single out the absence of any rose to be significant, rather than the absence of any cow? The answer is trivial and obvious: Mallarmé knows what a rose is and he knows what a cow is. And this revelation is the ‘precise source of philosophic and aesthetic modernity, at the breakpoint with the Logos-order’?
Pull the other one, George. Which he obligingly does:
…A Logos-order entails… a central supposition of ‘real presence’. Mallarmé’s repudiation of the covenant of reference, and his insistence that non-reference constitutes the true genius and purity of language, entail a central supposition of ‘real absence’. …Between the four arbitrary signs which make up … the verbal or graphic object rose, within the syntactic rules of the particular language-game in which this object has relational legitimacy (it relates to other verbal and graphic markers) and the putative flower, there is now a gap which is, strictly considered, infinite. The truth of the word is the absence of the world.
This is ‘Mallarmé’s finding’,
…that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always ‘a saying in other words’…
Because his words seem to say something, they might seem to say something profound and disturbing. But they don’t really say much that is actually true and sound. We use the word ‘rose’ to refer to roses. That doesn’t mean we stupidly assume some physical continuity or contiguity between the word ‘rose’ and any rose which exists, used to exist, will exist, does not exist, did not exist, will not exist, or may or may not exist. To realise there is no continuity or contiguity does not imply there must be a ‘gap’, of either finite or infinite dimension.
It is simply not true to generalise that ‘what words refer to are other words’. We know what it means for a word to refer to other words. Words like ‘sentence’, ‘clause’ and ‘verb’ refer to other words. Words like ‘rose’, ‘cow’ and ‘truck’ do not. The word ‘cow’ does not refer to a phrase like ‘large domesticated ungulate farmed for milk and beef’ but it may in certain circumstances be replaced by it.
There is little point considering whether Steiner’s thesis about ‘real presences’ is a sound response or corrective to any modernist crisis of ‘real absence’, because this idea of ‘real absence’ seems a completely confused non-problem. Theory of meaning is a tricky philosophical area but Steiner stirs it into a quagmire.
3 Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction, retrieved 23 January 2010.
© Chris Lawrence 2010.