Giorgio Agamben: The experience of language is a political experience

From Quodlibet (16/02/2024) …

How would it be possible to really change the society and culture in which we live? Reforms and even revolutions, although they transform institutions and laws, relations of production and objects, do not question those deeper strata that shape our vision of the world and which would have to be reached for the change to be truly radical. However, we have daily experience of something that exists differently from all the things and institutions that surround us and that conditions and determines them: language. We are primarily concerned with named things and, yet, we continue to talk in vain and, as is often the case, without ever questioning what we are doing when we speak. In this way, it is precisely our original experience of language that remains stubbornly hidden from us and, without us realising it, it is this opaque zone inside and outside us that determines our way of thinking and acting.

Western philosophy and knowledge, faced with this problem, have thought to solve it by assuming that what we do when we speak is to put a language into action, that the way in which language exists is, in short, through a grammar, a lexicon and a set of rules for composing names and words in a speech. Needless to say, everyone knows that if we had to consciously choose words from a lexicon each time and put them together with the same consciousness in a sentence, we would not be able to speak at all. However, in the course of a secular process of development and teaching, language-grammar has penetrated us and has become the powerful apparatus through which the West has imposed its knowledge and science on the entire planet. A great linguist once wrote that each century has the grammar of its philosophy: the opposite would be just as true and perhaps even more so, namely, that each century has the philosophy of its grammar, that the way in which we have articulated our experience of language in a language and in a grammar also fatally determines the whole of our thinking. It is no coincidence that grammar is taught in primary school: the first thing a child must learn is that what he does when speaking has a certain structure and that he must conform his reason to that order.

Therefore, only to the extent that we manage to question this fundamental assumption will a true transformation of our culture be possible. We have to try to rethink what we do when we speak, to place ourselves in that opaque zone and ask ourselves not about grammar and the lexicon, but about the use we make of our body and our voice when words seem to come forth almost alone from our lips. We would then see that what this experience entails is the opening up of a world and of our relationships with our fellow human beings, and that, therefore, the experience of language is, in this sense, the most radical political experience.

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