Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Irigaray, Language and Conservatism

Luce Irigaray has devastated my brain. But as usual, there's a certain sense of a problem that drives home for me. In her criticism of language, language is sexed; it sexuates and prevents the recognition of sexual difference. It has a prefigured intelligibility to it already, and governs the possible articulations and meanings before we even speak. In this way, we might say that "language speaks us" determining the threshold of our ways of being and speaking.

This insight isn't new, but harder to see in English. For Irigaray, language is gendered and that cuts all the way down for her in her native French language. Gender is harder for an English monolinguist to see. Yet, there are certain patterns of cultural norms, what we might call certain intelligible orders that want to prefigure essences of sexuality: there is man and then there is woman. As always, this problem hits home for me--conservatism is entrenched in preserving intelligible orders that constrain the newness of discourse. Let me explain.

If our language affects the possibilities of how we can even talk about sexuality, about being a 'woman', then we determine the limit of what can be said. (I have a similar point in the abortion article I wrote on here some time ago). We would speak in such a intelligible order to only repeat what can be said. We would be closed off from even thinking anew. As Irigaray puts the point,
Nothing new, nothing being born in this universal Word which amounts to the most solipsistic construction, constitution of a subject who would no longer know, or not know, the event. Who, in a certain way from the beginning, in a language that has been determined in this way. Like a present that would move around while remaining the same?...like a machine that puts or sews things together by making a forward stitch bacward and a backward stitch forward, and so on, indefinitely. Without any creation, invention, event, or randomness except for this interminable operation. (The Invisible of the Flesh in An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Cornell University Press, 1993)p. 178)

Conservativism moves within history, or so it claims. It attempts to inscribe a current complaint or violation of tradition within a historical claim or narrative, conceptually a larger part. In order to inscribe the meaning of the words used in such a claim to history, they merely repeat; they re-instantiate an intelligible order of the past/tradition/history. In doing so, they close themselves off from the new, and as I urge the better.

Now, it is foolish for a philosopher to assume all new formations are better. All new formations may create more problems than they are intended to solve. But shouldering history as a sign, a threshold to NOT do the RIGHT thing is something I can never understand. For me, ethical knowledge is realizable; we do it everyday. But the point is to be made aware about how our culture, language and norms inscribe injustice in their very articulation of a problem, in terms of how we speak about it. Allowing the newness of discourse, of speech or a problem, is a way to explore the human condition, not prefigure woman into a home, a black man to the fields or a gay man to the infernos of hell.

We can see this in bigoted non-denominational forms of Christianity. Homosexuality must be a sinful choice in their rhetoric, what I've called their intelligible order of what-can-be-saidness. There's no other way to even talk/think about it. If it is not sinful choice, then God has created by design people condemned to hell from the very outset. Since God is a morally-perfect being, he would not do such a thing, so one inference is that homosexuality is by choice. It is a desire that can be cleansed from someone's behavioral tendency. Now, of course, this doesn't stand for all forms of Christianity, but is one sign of how conservatism in its repetition of the past can never say anything new. Here, Irigaray is writing about sexed language prefiguring what woman is. What I am doing with this insight is reading it back into our American political situation.

Conservatives can never say anything new since they are trapped by a re-enacting of the past, a repetition of language in which nothing new, no new meanings or possibilities can enter as even legitimate. They are the worst forms of politicians constantly re-enacting a past they can't ever get to or know epistemically and doing it at the expense of a solution that could benefit exigent political matters. They are like those weird experiences in which someone realizes they know more than they thought they did about something only to forget they were prefigured in that knowing from the outset. You cannot dissimulate the past as new either. But that's a story for another time.


mark said...

very interesting post; insightful even

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Thanks for your praise. It's a dangerous thing to praise a philosopher.