is there linguistic guilt

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Is there linguistic guilt?The I of each is to the I of each a kind of fretful speech which sets a limit on itself Marianne Moore, `Black Earth' 1

A confession. I've long been nursing a shapeless suspicion one I can't make presentable that there's a particular guilt, associated both with writing and with taking on an identification, which is itself partly generated by the workings of language. Might not language itself arouse an anxiety which it must also try, through its other circuits, to assuage? These notes, though, aren't directly to do with the psychology of guilt; while I'm aware that an edge of psychoanalytic theory will want to know to what extent the proximity of `language' to `the unconscious' is being either assumed, or ignored. Perhaps to try to speak about a guilt carried at the level of language will turn out only to feebly parrot those familiar Lacanian accounts of the subject already constituted in division, of the unconscious structured like a language.2 Or to be a weak rehashing of lalangue, but this time as connected to `the remainder of language', Jean-Jacques Lecercle's phrase.3 And `guilt' itself is a notably vague, catch-all, and easy word, one of the few mildly negative emotions which is readily admitted to, as if it's quite innocuous; which is in itself suspicious. Some imaginable maxim along the lines of `the greater the guilt, the more swollen the ego that it masks' snakes into my mind. Nevertheless, I've a sense that there may still be something rather different at work, if also quite modest a surface emotionality of language which is carried, simply and broadly, on that level. And that this is somehow acutely in play when it comes to writing; a literary as well as a linguistic guilt. Perhaps there's not only a grammar of guilt, but also a shamefaced sociology of authorship, although such occasions for unease are persisted in. Unwilled plagiarism is one facet of this, which sparks a second confession: discovering that such murky but insistent intuitions have had a literature of their own since at least the 1950s makes me not only an impostor but an


Critical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1

especially ignorant one, stumbling along forty years after on the tracks of books I should have read, so that taking notes becomes a humiliatingly reassuring act of jettisoning them as I go, finding out that it's all been brilliantly achieved decades earlier. My suggestions in these notes are tentative; and any generalisations about poetry will be taken with the proper dose of salt, since they're made from a partial aesthetic, leaving out other persuasions which wouldn't have an interest in what this is on about. I'm speculating in some hinterland between psychology and linguistics, in a patently amateurish manner. Neither entirely of the psyche nor entirely of the logos, this notion that I'm creeping towards of `a linguistic guilt' fishes up the drowned etymology of psychology. And then this interrogation must painfully bite its own tail. For while I cross-question the first person, I also deploy it heavily. 1 `I' lies

The feeling of not being able to tell the truth, of inauthenticity under certain linguistic circumstances, and, however strenuously one struggles isn't this feeling much commoner than is usually acknowledged? Selfdescription can often be a torment, but its impediments aren't only personal pathologies. If I say `I am an x' or indeed its opposite then I'm confident only that now I am a liar. As an article of rather blind faith, I'm compelled to suppose that this feeling isn't purely idiosyncratic. In the coming pages, I'll have some stabs at why. An obvious way in: the very structure of the language of self-reference seems to demand and indeed to guarantee an authenticity which is closely tied to originality, while simultaneously it cancels this possibility. Any I seems to speak for herself; her utterance comes from her own mouth, and the first person pronoun is hers, if only for just so long as she pronounces it. Yet as a human speaker she must know that it is also everyone's, and that this grammatical offer of uniqueness (which always gets horribly conflated with authenticity) is radically untrue, is always being snatched away. The I which speaks from only one place is simultaneously everyone's everywhere; it's the linguistic marker of rarity but is always democratic. Of course I never does exist except (and critically!) as a momentary site of space-time individuation, and its mocking promise of linguistic originality must be, and always is, thwarted in order for language to exist in its proper communality.4 All this is old hat. Wittgenstein floated the idea of a private language in order to capsize it as oxymoronic; such interiority was impossible because it made for unintelligibility. Derrida, among others, described the emptiness

Is there linguistic guilt?


of linguistic ownership: `The structure of theft already lodges (itself in) the relation of speech to language [. . .] The speaking subject discusses his irreducible secondarity, his origin that is always already eluded; for the origin is always already eluded on the basis of an organised field of speech in which the speaking subject vainly seeks a place that is always missing'.5 My autobiography always arrives from somewhere outside me; my narrating I is really anybody's, promiscuously. Never mind the coming story of my life; simply to enunciate that initial `I' makes me slow down in confusion. But maybe the `structure of theft' is still closer to home than `in the relation of speech to language', perhaps it's waiting in the language itself and, a bold burglar, has put its feet up there, long before the unsuspecting speaker strolls into it. To be stripped bare isn't the only kind of linguistic dispossession, which can also come about through plenitude. Sheer proliferation bewilders. Artaud writes desperately of forgetting how to be able to think, of interruptions and `fissures' which fail his articulation and which can never be mended. Often this is because he is rushed down diversions which branch out unstoppably: `There is therefore one single thing which destroys my ideas [. . .]. Something furtive which robs me of the words I have found, which reduces my terseness of mind, progressively destroying the bulk of my ideas within its own matter.' 6 He insists that this broken thought is `terribly abnormal', radically destructive, not merely what happens to everyone. `In a way, we might consider the impossibility of formulating and prolonging thought on the same level as the stammering which overcomes my external utterances just about every time I want to speak. Then it is as if my thought shrinks every time it wants to manifest itself and this is the contradiction which slaps my inner thought down inwardly, compresses it like a spasm. The thought, the expression stops because the flow is too powerful, the brain wants to say too many things, it thinks all at once, ten thoughts instead of one rush towards the exit, the brain sees thought as a unit in full detail and it also sees all the multiple points of view with which it could ally itself and the forms with which it could endow them. A vast conceptual juxtaposition, all seemingly more essential and also more dubious than the next and which all the syntactic brackets in the world would never be able to express and explain.' 7 His readers, filled with the empathy of recognition, may want to challenge his assertion of the abnormality of this experience. With due respect to Artaud's conviction of the uniqueness of his misery, I've quoted him as voicing a familiar chaos which cannot be tidied away by the concept of the I 's shortcomings. The false feeling of an I-pronouncement can't simply be to do with its air of claiming to originate while one senses that


Critical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1

one's first being spoken to by language, and that `I' is a pretender to an impossible throne. So Heidegger describes language as an invocation to which man, although its ostensible `speaker', must resonate; or as The Platters less gloriously had it, `Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.' Yet it would be absurd to attach so much blame to the grammar of `I', which is, after all, necessarily everyone's for language to be possible; as if secretly you longed for a marker, like that private language Wittgenstein mocked, all of your own. The concept of the I 's linguistic alienation can only get so much done, and an unhappy mess soon overwhelms its efforts at housework. Despite Wittgenstein's notion of philosophy as a broom and its task as sweepingup, I'd prefer to stand by this stubborn heaped untidiness of unease attached to writing in the first person. 2 A liar writes

When I for I daren't speak for anyone else, and yet probably this emotion is very widespread when I write I and follow up the pronoun with a selfdescription, feelings of fraud grip me. Not always, of course. I can easily say `I'm worn out, I've just got the shopping back on the bus from Sainsbury's' but certainly can't say, for instance, `I'm a writer' and only under baroque circumstances would I wish to utter `I'm a woman'. Steering clear of the great sociological or sexual categories of identity, which are almost easier to analyse in their historical discomfiture, just what is the awkwardness of the self-description `I'm a writer'? Is it the halo of self-regarding leisure alone or my dread of the demand that I should prove it by coming up with the goods? Is it the incongruence of the ostensible stamp of originality, the authorial I, with the cultural capital, always derived and borrowed, on which I draw? Is it that the only novelty of anyone's I resides not in its utterance but in its accidents its style unwilled and incriminating as a fingerprint, its lingering cadences, its flavour or its smell, almost