Thursday, February 07, 2008

Homo sapiens loquendi

Giorgio Agamben writes:

If everday thought can be classified according to the way in which articulates the question of the limits of language, the concept of infancy is then an attempt to think through these limits in a direction other than that of the vulgarly ineffable. The ineffable, the un-said, are in fact categories which belong exclusively to human language; far from indicating a limit of language, they express its invicincible power of presupposition, the unsayable being precisely what language must presuppose in order to signify. The concept of infancy, on the contrary, is accessible only to a thought which has been purified, in the words of Benjamin writing to Buber, 'by eliminating the unsayable from language'. The singularity which language must signify is not something ineffable but something superlatively sayable: the thing of language.

(Infancy and History, p. 4)

I would separate the unsaid from the unsayable. Consequently, I would challenge the notion that language must presuppose the unsayable in a different way than I would challenge a notion that language must presuppose the unsaid were I to challenge it all. Does language understand the negation of an ability to speak as its own presupposition, and, if so, does it understand correctly? Perhaps "understanding" is too kind a word for the claim that is being made. Against whom might a claim be made? Perhaps a claim is made against a voice, similar to the subject of Agamben's parergon on the human voice and yet dissimilar in that one still might ask "Whose voice?" and that question may contain not only an acknowledgement of the person–I ask you to take the words I write in all their meanings, by the way–at the ribbon of enunciation but also a plea for an ethics that is not grounded upon or shrouded in an ism of the intellectual. In that spirit I ask "Whose ability to speak?" and hope the question sparks a thought about what an ability to speak means to relations between you and me and anybody else me might wish to include in our world. For me at this time the question becomes: How should one live with an ability to speak? And that translates into: How should one give meaning to a balance between the display of one's abilities through speech and the demands of coexistence? Well, I sense that line of questioning may have become a banality at this point, but I'm not finished questioning the ability to speak or its negation. Here are some of Agamben's thoughts on the question of a faculty of speech:

The double articulation of language and speech seems, therefore, to constitute the specific structure of human language. Only from this can be derived the true meaning of that opposition of dynamis and energeia, of potency and act, which Aristotle's thought has bequeathed to philosophy and Western science. Potency–or knowledge–is the specifically human faculty of connectedness as lack; and language, in its split between language and speech, structurally contains this connectedness, is nothing other than this connectedness. Man does not merely know nor merely speak; he is neither Homo sapiens nor Homo loquens, but Homo sapiens loquendi, and this entwinement constitutes the way in which the West has understood itself and laid the foundation for both its knowledge and its skills. The unprecedented violence of human power has its deepest roots in this structure of language. In this sense what is experienced in the experimentum linguae is not merely an impossibility of saying: rather, it is an impossibility of speaking from the basis of a language; it is an experience, via that of infancy which dwells in the margin between language and discourse, of the very faculty or power of speech. Posing the question of the transcendental means, in the final analysis, asking what it means 'to have a faculty', and what is the grammar of the verb 'to be able'. And the only possible answer is an experience of language.

(p. 7, Agamben's emphasis)

The faculty of speech as sovereign ban? Hmm. Well, I am attentive to the apportionments that follow from a division of dynamis from energeia. The thought that sticks in my mind is that they can't be separated in practice. They are entwined. If one approaches the problem as an intellectual, as one must (being urgently tasked at this very moment and all that), the entwinement, or better perhaps, the articulation of dynamis and energeia makes salient a certain fragility of the conceit, a vulnerability of the intellectual point of view. In order to avoid lapsing into narcissism or one of its guises, thought must be able to do its thing beyond its own reflections, and so the question arises, Is transcendence merely a conceit? (If one minds the conjunctive articulation of dynamis and energeia one cannot regard the ability to transcend as the essential conceit, though it may be merely a conceit as well.) How is transcendence articulated?

Look again at the phrase Agamben has emphasized: "an impossibility of speaking from the basis of language." Is it just the way Agamben has presented his argument, or is there a truth here we must acknowledge: the transcendent is in fact all about the possible? One can't question the possibility of a thing without raising a question of transcendence? Well, I am cautious about accepting any apportionments here, and I'm hesitant to cede the faculties in general to the intellect, even the noetic faculty, which, far from being a master faculty, nonetheless might appear to belong the intellect as its own possibility.

It must be obvious by now that I'm nervous about my own thinking. I'm running into and running away from my own thinking at every turn. I'd like to think gingerly but I recognize myself as ungainly. Here I am stumbling through Agamben's thoughts about infancy when perhaps I should be striking out on my own. I will tell you about a kind of infancy that I dread: a state of being unable to say anything unpreprared. Questions prepared by my own style of thinking are not merely inadequate but frightening; they deaden. I am adrift amid a flotilla of dead questions, cold and numb. It is the prepared that is unsayable because it says nothing. The urgency of being able to articulate a transcendence grips my chest, though I have no faith in transcendence. I have no faith that is beyond interrogation. Even the ?-being strikes me as dubious. How is it possible that I could be living an illusion of speaking while at every moment I awake to a new infancy? Who is Homo sapiens loquendi if not me, and how impossible is that?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:06 AM.


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