Daniel Blanchard: Crisis of words

René Magritte, La clef des songes, 1930

At the social level, when a gigantic corporate, media and political engineering imposes, demands and expropriates at the same time the word, have not the silent majorities been for years an ambivalent black hole that express in their own way resistance against the imperialist occupation of our attention, the imperialist definition of our actuality without us (our problems, our needs)? One has only to listen to how media intellectuals qualify them (their “indifference” can only be a “moral disease”), who would like to see them enlisted on a side, any side rather than none. And how to understand the … revolt, without words, in the French suburbs of November-December 2005? The old spaces of direct communication between presences, composed of proximity, bodies, history and trust, are progressively colonised, mediatised and destroyed (neighborhood, bar, family, union, church). And we know to what extent freedom of speech is indispensable for individual and collective equilibrium. But soon other unnamed spaces open up where “the work of the word” takes its course, where the critical distance between my life and the dominant discourses on the meaning of “life” is elaborated. Breaking the silence can be an outdated slogan when what is fundamental is not the repression of the word and reality, but its total mobilisation in banality, the deafening noise that prevents us from “hearing ourselves speaking, hearing ourselves thinking”.

Amador Fernández-Savater, “Error del Sistema. Notas a Partir de Daniel Blanchard”, Espai en blanc – Tomar la palabra (01/11/2009)

For Daniel Blanchard

1. The word crisis scenario

The world does not allow itself to think because the words we want to use to refer to our reality are those same words that shape us within the space of capital and, in turn, they are those that describe the reality of capital. Capitalism is the scenario and the framework that we cannot erase. Within the space that capital configures, words are used to put this reality to work as if it were obvious, natural, a-historical and eternal. We know all this and we are left without words for two reasons: either the ones we have at our disposal are presented with a given meaning and predetermined by the logic of capital itself (repeating the obvious) or because there are things for which we do not have words.

This means that using them is conforming to the reality of capital, its way of making them available and naturalising them in a certain logic: ‘freedom’, ‘dialogue’, ‘politics’, ‘knowledge’, ‘solidarity’, ‘democracy’, etc. .

Another important factor plays in the crisis of words: the critical thinking that undermined the scenario has been delegitimized. On the one hand, by the resounding affirmation of a factual defeat that prevents words or expressions such as ‘communism’, ‘material conditions’, ‘revolution’ (beyond the only one that is valid: the technological one) or ‘political subject’ from being used, under penalty of being accused of being reactionary or outdated. On the other hand, due to a certain abuse by postmodern discourses when marking words or categories such as ‘subject’, ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ as unpronounceable. Thirdly, the counter-power and internal resistance that some leftist movements supposed to exist have disappeared in the moment that they have begun to speak and think with the categories and words (arranged) by global capitalism. Taken together, it seems that a factual defeat has been confused with the abandonment of critical thinking and the words and categories necessary to express it.

The crisis of words, in a political sense, is the impossibility of thinking about the world outside the scenario of capital. Still, we talk about crisis because conformation is never absolute, because there is always a gap, a displacement: the form never closes and cannot close within itself a reality that breaks out on all sides, escapes, despite appearances. The reality that global capitalism establishes (that productive form of forms, as Franco “Bifo” Berardi expresses it) is a reality that multiplies the differences with glocalisation, while levelling them under a single logic. Outside the perspective of this logic, what is presented as “levelled differences” are the contradictions, antagonisms and cracks of the world in all of its complexity. A world, then, where the scenario can be erased; where the words ‘capital’ and ‘capitalism’ can themselves be relativised. Threatening the stability of the scenario allows us to think in fact outside the identification – today naturalised, both at the level of signifiers and meanings – of ‘world’ and ‘capitalism’; it must, then, allow us to think about the world outside of the reduction of complexity imposed by capitalist logic.

Unmasking, denaturalising the scenario is therefore, today, an urgent task; to make clear how within the space of capital – which appears unique – words decisively shape the subjects, while presenting unjustifiable descriptions and justifications as obvious.

2. The languages ??of the word crisis

As we said, the crisis of words had two sides: either we do not have words available for what we would like to say or those we have at our disposal are presented with a given and pre-determined meaning by the logic of capital itself.

However, far from this crisis appearing as a unique problem for philosophers – something like the limits of language, thought and the world – we are referring to a very concrete and everyday experience. The words we use, those available, “speak” only in a certain sense. It will be said that this is nothing new, that since Wittgenstein we have already spoken of language as the use of words… but yes, it is something different. The crisis comes precisely from the opposite side, because this shared use of language, this common and collective use, expels us from the word. Because when we speak, it seems that we all understand each other from that conformed use to which we subscribe.

The use of these words seems to be inscribed within a sense, common sense, which not only closes the words on themselves but also expels other uses for them, outside of that meaning. Again, this is not a philosophical problem, if by this we understand a debate by language theorists about semiotics or discourse theory. It is a philosophical problem in another sense, in the sense that it mobilises the urgency of thinking, because it needs words to express itself. This common sense is built and shaped in a specific historical moment and under certain conditions. It is a sense that gives meaning to the world in which we live and, that world, in our time, is the world of global capitalism. This applies not only to concrete words, but to repeated arguments and discourses, empty of thought. They reproduce themselves as technique reproduces art; they commodify themselves and, like commodities, they hide their fetishism. Thus, words fully enter the game of capital. The way of speaking, thinking and experiencing is formed in the same framework, in the same scenario in which we all participate. This is the scenario that configures the common uses that appropriate words.

Up to this point, we have exposed how in a given historical moment, in our case, that of global capitalism, words and those uses formed in the logic of this scenario tend to spread, as they organise the meaning of the obvious. This is the framework from which we think, the framework that establishes a first limit to the crisis: the uses of language insert themselves in those shared codes in a social pragmatics, a pragmatics that not only normalises language uses, but also over-determines them in the apparent plurality (by way of normativity) that is established in common sense. In that sense, this is the sign of the crisis of words. Within this scenario, the political battle has also been understood as a battle that is played out in language.

There are certain words that have always been at the centre of political struggle: Freedom, Equality… However, as Laclau points out, these words become “floating signifiers.” To agree to defend freedom, equality, justice, etc. is, as the author points out, to agree absolutely on nothing. All political discourses claim to defend the same universals in their ideology. The question at stake in that struggle is not, then, to claim one or the other, but to give them content, to fight for the particulars that make them concrete, the contents that are given to those universals. However, this is not the crisis we are referring to either, given that this battle is only an apparent battle, the appearance of debate, of the plurality of discourses and perspectives that is nevertheless played out from a fixed and defined pragmatics. Everything can be said because nothing that is said – within the limits preset by the rules of the game – threatens the scenario.

Once the scenario has been set globally, politics is understood as a fight for those signifiers. We can argue about those words but in a fixed and determined way. Precisely the fact that we can discuss them is what adds to the scenario the political model that accompanies us: democracy. Politics in the scenario of democratic capitalism is the discussion about the contents of those words under the premise of “parliament”: the obligation of dialogue and the tolerance of difference of opinion. This means that the setting already determines from the outset what dialogue is and what it is not; what tolerance is and what it is not. It is dialogue to discuss the particulars that give content to the universals on which there is absolute consensus; it is tolerance to allow the other to give you some content different from yours within the possibilities offered by the scenario. We all defend Equality, Freedom, Peace, Justice, as all these signifiers are inscribed in the scenario. We can argue about the particulars, but not about the scenario. Politics boils down, then, to a battle to inscribe our use of the word in common sense, without questioning anything else; to “win” words that do not change anything, that do not say anything, that do not “do anything” because they can do nothing if what they say is limited by a scenario that has robbed them of all strength, of all their pragmatic and material dimension.

The premise of dialogue and tolerance refers to a “horizontality” in which the difference is a mere difference of opinion, but we agree on the main thing. The Habermasian dialogue scenario is nothing more than a theorisation of a game that is already the democratic game. This horizontality of discourse, the presupposed and false premise of equality, requires that all discourse be conceived within a framework of equidistance and equivalence; not in what they say, that is not the important thing. The important thing is that someone says (that there is dialogue) and that the discourses do not enter into an antagonistic relationship (for they are tolerated).

What has been expelled from the scenario and the political game is precisely its “vertical” dimension. Fear, coercion, relations of dominance is what cannot be talked about. This is part of the totalitarian systems from which democracy has come to save us once and for all. In democracy it is not conceivable that someone is “afraid to speak” because we supposedly have the freedom to do so. However, fear exists and it is not that different from what is supposed to be the opposite of democracy: the fear of speaking for fear of losing what I call “my life.” Talking about one’s own fear of speaking seems impossible. From this point, we can return to the crisis of words in the senses in which we previously presented it.

1) The crisis of words in the sense of words marked by the rules of use that determine the scenario: the crushing, the horizontality that confuses equality and the right to give an opinion with the equivalence of all arguments. Every discordant point is reduced to the realm of opinion: “it is your point of view”, that is, a point in an isomorphic flat space in which the totality always escapes the gaze. Critical thinking dissolves in this scenario: it is tolerated, like all else, on the same plane of horizontality. There are no words available for dissent, since they are drowned in tolerance, because those words “cannot”, they have no pragmatic force.

2) The crisis of words in the sense of not having words to express our malaise in this scenario. On the one hand, because we do not know exactly how and when this malaise appears, because it lacks a name, because it is always lived in solitude. On the other hand, because we do not have words to express the malaise, given that this malaise can never be expressed as oppression, as fear of speaking. Because in a scenario that presupposes pragmatic freedom, it is impossible for any feeling of oppression to be stated as coming from it. However, there is another dimension to this impossibility of speaking that does not mean that we do not have words to express this malaise but rather that certain words are prohibited from the moment their use is beyond what is conceivable. It is not censorship, but self-censorship of common sense itself that shapes their uses arising from the logic of democracy/capitalism: fear, oppression, censorship, lack of freedom, coercion, none of this can be said meaningfully within the democratic game, unless it is to look inwards, towards democracy’s own “tolerable structural democratic deficit”, or outwards, towards the non-democratic world.

Convincing ourselves that we live in the best of all possible systems (or at most, convincing ourselves that it is worth fighting to optimise it) – a belief absolutely installed in common sense – is to point to the capitalism-democracy couple as the ultimate system possible for organising ourselves politically, economically and socially: the “end of history.” But that means taking away from us what is most profoundly political, the political moment par excellence, the moment in which a we raises its voice, takes the floor and says: Enough! To convince ourselves that we have already reached the best of systems is to prohibit dissidence, to condemn ourselves to thinking that there is nothing better to think, that any idea of ??what is common is unnecessary. Given this, the most dangerous, the most fearsome de-politicisation (which is not participation or not in the electoral feast) is to rob us of the possibility of the emergence of the political, the possibility of revolution. “Revolution” is the word prohibited by the “end of history.” The end of history means affirming that revolutions are no longer necessary, since nothing better than the present can be conceived.

3. A materialisation: press the ESC key

Rafael Reig wrote the other day (in the daily newspaper, Público, 14/10/2009), in response to a reader, that declaring yourself an Ecologist – in Solidarity – Committed (ESC) today is nothing more, precisely, than signing up for a business and politically correct ethics. There is no contradiction: it is an empty ethic. Reig is right: what sense is there to being scandalised today, as a right-thinking individual, at certain actions by businessmen or politicians who declare themselves supportive and committed environmentalists? Decades ago, we want to add here, Walter Benjamin asked himself what was the point of being scandalised by the atrocities that were committed in his own time; and we must remember that he, a Jew, died in the year 1940 fleeing the Nazi machine. In a certain way, Benjamin’s lucidity called into question, avant la lettre, that Adorno-inspired question about whether it was possible to continue thinking after Auschwitz.

In short, what could be missing from Reig’s brief column is the game to which the expression he uses invites us: ESC. It is precisely this empty ethic, conformed to an absolutised logic of capital that gives it an unequivocal character of obviousness, that allows us to justify ourselves full time and in all circumstances. When faced with things that could cause us horror, things that question us or, at the very least, disturb us, we can always press the ESC key: “but I am a supportive and committed environmentalist.” Empty words that apply to everything. Escape from reality. On the one hand, the logic of capital is presented today, when appropriate, as an eco-logic. For its part, solidarity is a consumer product that can be deposited into our current account. And as for commitment… You just have to think that today such an expression is contained within itself, in the very (commercial) brand that each of us wants to be: a committed person, although it is not necessary to specify to what and, above all, to whom. It is understood that one is committed to her/his company: to what s/he undertakes from a private perspective.

Pressing the ESC key is one of the faces of de-politicisation. The ESC key occupies the centre of the keyboard that allows us to negotiate with the world today. Let us leave ecology aside and go for a moment to the other two words, whose political character has been expropriated. The solidum of Roman law was an agreement (in solidum) that implied something – a cause, a solid thing – that temporarily linked the parties in such a way that each was fully responsible at all times while the alliance was in force. Solidarity, in this sense, contains an element of reciprocity and commitment – ??precisely! – which is something that market solidarity does not have. Establishing a bond of solidarity between persons should therefore presuppose a political condition. With the expression “being a committed person” something similar happens to what happens with “being supportive”: commitment and solidarity have been reduced to their function as adjectives, to a brand that is exhausted in its intransitivity. The com-pro-mise has also lost all political conditions: the com indicates something common; the pro, a provision; the mise, a mission, a thing to do. An us willing to do one thing: that commitment should be thinkable beyond the business world (a world that includes the management of the private project that is my life), although today it seems almost inconceivable. There resides a political condition.

Having the ESC key available has to do with the expropriation of all conditions for politics. It has to do with the justification of what there is. And it does not just have to do with what happens to words. It is we who exercise the reigning de-politicization and conformism. The inability to expose ourselves is the inability to create common experience, an experience capable of unmasking the naturalised scenario of global capitalism; it is the inability to struggle with thought; it is the inability to appropriate words.

4. The triangle, experience – thought – language

So, in some way, the political knot of the word crisis puts us in the centre of the triangle, experience – thought – language. The de-politicisation and privatisation of existence would involve the autonomy of the vertices, in such a way that what is at stake is:

  • A language without thought: the repetition of a discourse justifying reality.
  • A thought without language: a critical thought that does not have words to express itself.
  • A language without experience: with which we repeat over and over again empty definitions about ourselves; with which we limit ourselves to choosing and reproducing canned and available opinions; with which we can no longer generate experience.
  • An experience without language: we have no words to express our malaise in the scenario of capital.
  • A thought without experience: that moves in abstractions, in categories, and not in a situated way, from reality itself and that, therefore, cannot transform it.
  • An experience without thought: we live a broken reality that we cannot think of in any other way; we have no words to speak the reality of capital, other than those it itself provides.

In the face of these fractures, there are still small alliances: the language of aesthetic experience, poetic language, literary – as well as philosophical -, as language that, pregnant with experience, is capable of “speaking” beyond words; the language that “does/makes with words.” There is also thinking as an experience, as an encounter, as a gap that opens, breaks, that generates a void that allows “something to happen”.

However, small individual refuges most of the time, even though little shared, always point to something beyond themselves, always point to insufficiency.

So can we say that, in a political sense, the crises of words, the crises of thought and the crises of experience name something common?

Would there then be a political solution to the crisis that silences us for thinking about the area of ??the triangle, and not its vertices autonomously? Would not the truth of the words that matter to us lie in the materiality of practices, uses and concrete experiences in which they are said and thought? In the combat that combats to prevent the universality of democratic consensus from becoming meaningless? Has not the revolution always been more than a horizon (more than a place or a time to go); has it not been the urgency, the imperative, the need to escape from one’s own present (get out of here, simply because one cannot live)? Is not the true political moment the one in which the word, experience and thought emerge from a we as something barely distinguishable?

Espai en blanc – Tomar la palabra: “Crisis de Palabras”, Daniel Blanchard, (01/11/2009). This essay is followed by a second, entitled “Regarding what poetry does”. (See here)

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1 Response to Daniel Blanchard: Crisis of words

  1. les online says:

    In this country we speak Marketing…
    It’s an eerie feeling when, taking to another
    you feel they’re a TV talking to you…

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