By tracing a brief history about conceptions of representation and language, this article tries to show that our belief in the possibility of Babel is an ideological question. The way that structuralism and poststructuralism thought about language led to a deadlock that is being challenged by anarchism.

Photographie par Lucie Termignon, série Babel

Photographie par Lucie Termignon, série Babel

TOGETHER with Marx and Freud, Nietzsche is part of the trio that Paul Ricoeur called “the school of suspicion”. They can be considered to have started the period of epistemic doubt, or the period that started to question the validity of consciousness itself. The story of suspicion in linguistics proper, however, started with “the founder of modern structural linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure”. Famously, he pointed out that language is a system of arbitrary signs. In a way, Nietzsche, already hinted at this, and it is above all de Saussure’s idea that signs are meaningful in opposition to other signs that is quite innovative at the time. It is the structure that matters, not what or when something is being said.

Post-structuralism :  we cannot represent the real

Poststructuralism went even further in this by reaching the conclusion that we cannot represent the real. The perfect example of this development is Roland Barthes’ work S/Z: an interpretation the short story “Sarrasine” by Balzac, which ends up being ten times longer than the initial story. Although he determines a set of codes, the work shows above all that interpretations are inexhaustible when it comes to the fragment. A word, or and expression, can mean absolutely anything. To a certain extent it is the refusal of interpretation by the means of interpretation. Indeed, when meaning is understood as “a passing product of words or signifiers, always shifting and unstable, part-present and part-absent, how could there be any determinate truth or meaning at all?”.

Most of the time, when poststructuralism is introduced in higher education, its political underpinnings are forgotten. In the late 1960s the spirit of resistance against authority is in the air. It was no surprise that the authority of the author was also greatly contested in these days (Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”).

However, this general tendency to oppose authority did not only reach the author, it spread out to the text itself, and above all to critique. Jean-François Lyotard even posited that critique was a form of domination. Indeed, the primacy of determinism (historical?) and being determined by structures without being able to act, stands in line with the general popularity of Marxist theory in the academy. Basically, you could say that once arrived at a stage at which even criticism can be no longer practised as it is a form of domination, language is in a deadlock – language itself has become quite meaningless as its linguistic structures make it multi-interpretable. It has become impossible to talk about essence. As has been shown above, the structuralist tradition departed from a quite negative insight: the impossibly of the sign to designate the real.

Paul Goodman and the anarchist stance regarding language

Anarchists, on the other hand, have never really been bothered by this observation. Paul Goodman summarizes the anarchist stance regarding language quite well: “text is not something that exists apart from the world of deeds and consequences, but is itself an act performed in a concrete situation with consequences of its own.” For anarchists, it is quite useless to study language in a fragmentary manner, as isolated signs that are interconnected, whereby coming to the conclusion that each sign is meaningless if not connected to other signs. The interconnectedness of symbols and signs is exactly what makes language meaningful and it should be cherished. And not even the latter is true, but also, as Goodman notes, the situation in which a concrete utterance takes place is of crucial importance.

The simplest of scenarios requires a logic connection between what is being said and the setting. For example, when I ask my philosophy teacher to pass me the salt during a lecture, he will probably think I am not well. When I ask the same question when having a family dinner, I am understood and the salt I will receive will be pretty real. Anarchist linguists, thus, depart from a rather positive observation: people, in the majority of cases, manage to communicate quite well via the faculty of language in connection with the real.

This optimism also underlies Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory of universal grammar (UG). Next to being surprised at how creative young children are when it comes to creating new sentences once they have learned a basic grammatical structure and dispose of some vocabulary, which supports Goodman’s argument that language should be understood as a performed sequence, he was equally astonished at the fact that young infants can learn any language to which they are being exposed. When a Swedish-born infant is being adopted by Spanish-speaking parents, this child will become a native speaker of Spanish without effort. There is nothing that makes this child less likely to speak Spanish as well as any other child born to Spanish-speaking parents, whether the biological parents are Russian or Chinese. Indeed, the latter is quite amazing, so Chomsky concluded that human beings must have some innate universal grammar “hardwired into the brain.

How UG functions

To explain it more technically, this is how UG functions: language, in its vocalized utterances, makes sense because one sound is being preserved as different from another. It is because an [o] does not sound like a [d] or a [g] that I can hear the word /dog/. However, all languages count discriminatory sounds (as they are called) that do not exist in others and vice-versa. In Japanese, for example, no distinction is being made between the [l] and the [r]. Therefore, if I am raised as a monolingual native speaker of Japanese, my brain will select only those discriminatory sounds that are necessary for making my language meaningful. Consequently, I lose the capacity to distinguishing the [l] and [r] sounds as I only need the [r]. UG has been tested many times, using languages with the most intricate discriminatory sounds. Infants all show the same response: all discriminatory sounds are detected.

So, as a conclusion, a quite positive note: if we understand language within a concrete situation of usage and as unique combinations of elements rather than an infinity of arbitrariness, language suddenly becomes a quite astonishing phenomenon that enables humankind to communicate. From an anarchist perspective this would be one way of showing that mankind is not only determined by structures, but that it can use these structures to act creatively and, ultimately, to shape the world according to more desirable principles.

Solange Manche