Reinforced Prohibitions: Foucault and Pre-tensions in Speaking

Foucault opens his 1970 lecture at the Collège de France, entitled L’ordre du discours, translated by Rupert Swyer as The Discourse on Language, by noting his own desire to participate in a discourse without beginnings, for such would surely be the safer prospect.

A good many people, I imagine, harbour a similar desire to be freed from the obligation to begin, a similar desire to find themselves, right from the outside, on the other side of discourse, without having to stand outside it, pondering its particular, fearsome, and even devilish features…

Inclination speaks out: ‘I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations, and truth emerging, one by one.’

~Discourse, pp. 215-216 (published as an Appendix to The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) by Pantheon Books, New York)

Similarly any time I begin to deliver a speech or lecture, I find it most difficult to make a beginning – to step into discourse for fear of speaking out unwittingly.  I should like far better to immediately have my terms understood with the proximal definitions I have accepted, at least within the space of my own participation in that discourse.  But such is not the case; our entrance into discourse is rightly the cause of considerable anxiety, and Foucault hones in on those items in society, operable by language, which are experienced as ‘rules of exclusion’.  The first of these is encased simply in the right afforded by or excluded from society to speak of a particular subject:

[T]hese prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.  I will note simply that the areas where this web is most tightly woven today, where the danger spots are most numerous, are those dealing with politics and sexuality.  It is as though discussion, far from being a transparent, neutral element, allowing us to disarm sexuality and to pacify politics, were one of those privileged areas in which they exercised some of their more awesome powers.

~ibidem, p. 216

Seriously.  I have been taught implicitly by society not to allow my mis-takes to cross either of these arenas.  I far prefer to note another’s gaffe, rather than to venture a full-blooded response.  Better to make our remarks quickly of the slip-tongued and move along quickly.  My treatment, therefore, shall be short.

Recall his embodiment of inclination through whom Foucault describes the desire to speak with no voice; to communicate purely on a plain of ideas where such ideas are not perceived to be final.  It has particularly occurred to me what place death is afforded in the nature of discourse.  To speak or to publish is to release hold of; as our thoughts, fed by and bred in discourse, enter the arena they are given a chance to speak or silenced on the basis of whether they are pronounced ‘within the true’ (p. 224).  So, if one is to communicate, one must step into the realm of discourse, in which being within the true is something of a moving series of dispersions; shifting in the discursive formations continues even as the systems of exclusion are modified.

Taking the tightly woven points of contact with sexuality and politics, my instinct is to refuse to treat of either subject.  If you doubt the verity of what Foucault is saying on other points, that is well enough but even a mild transgression against another’s political or sexual framework is enough to incur the wrath of exclusion; either active in the form of entering a closed discourse (where neither speaker can establish any means by which to communicate their stances with the other) or in the more active exclusion of being summarily ignored.  I so rarely treat of either subject because, like Foucault’s ‘inclination’ I would wish to speak without closing myself into one of these closed discursive loops or incurring the wrath of one in such loops whose language does not extend away from the center of such discourses.

In this address, late in 1970, he surmised that we “are a very long way from having constituted a unitary, regular discourse concerning sexuality; it may be that we never will, and that we are not even travelling in that direction. (pp. 233-234)”  Though a more generic project, the same could be said of political discourse; and therefore I find myself resisting all urges to enter such conversations because the outcomes are largely decided before a beginning can be made.  Instead I limit myself to observing those particular problems which catch my attention and wish that I had to make no beginning at all.


While I desire that we should be able to exercise discourse freely, the very nature of speaking out requires that we speak by means of form; and the forms provided are discursive, and therefore limiting.  I do not possess the energy to engage in the necessary discourse about our discourse because in uttering such a desire, my energies are soon spent in defining everything I am not trying to say.  In such cases, it is far more prudent to choose to be misunderstood so that another is unsure of precisely from which discursive practice my thoughts originate.  When this is achieved, the result is to nudge the respondent unwittingly toward the discourse about discourse; that which might yet prove productive if only we might step a little away from our current definitions.  Misunderstanding therefore may serve as a tool in discourse, not to escape it, but to step to the periphery while evading the defense mechanisms inherent therein and thus lean towards that conversation really worth being had, particularly about subjects so central to our cultures as sexuality and politics.

Language as Game: Chess et de Sausseure

There are certain sociological expectations accompanying the classification of one as a nerd.  I ‘ve never quite lived up to many of these expectations.  Never have I solved a Rubik’s Cube, or owned a pocket protector, or learned to speak in Klingon (Quenya is far more of a worthy pursuit…and perhaps it will be tackled whenever I get around to learning Old Welsh), or religiously followed Star Trek, or radically altered my computer.

In terms of games, my sudoku and crossword puzzle times are acceptable but not exceptional.  Boggle is more my style than Scrabble.  But, perhaps most uncharacteristically, I never became a master chess player (I can still be unpredictable enough at Stratego to be dangerous).

This is about where I level out in most games – I ‘ll surprise you if you are n’t careful, but if you play any single game enough that you know the rhythms of the games (memorize all the two letter words for Scrabble or the algorithms to the Rubik’s cube or memorize the cards played during a hand of Rummy).  In almost any game, I quickly learn to be serviceable – interpreting the flow generally comes naturally to me.  But I can’t say that any game in particular is my game.  Intuition fills in some of the gaps instinctively that a knowledge of the game’s algorithms, or strategies for winning within the framework of the rules, but it can only do so to a certain extent.


The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Sausseure (1857-1913) is known to have compared languages to chess.  While this was useful to illustrate several points about language, I mean only to consider the roles of ‘convention’ and ‘form’ as they relate to how the game is played.

Concerning the role of convention in language, we can easily see that whatever the manner in which one communicates could be achieved in another, perhaps equally effectual way.  We could amend the rules of chess, or institute ‘house rules’, so that the knight may not cross over another piece or the bishop may move from the dark square to the light following a successful en passante.  But we will only be playing the same game effectually when the conventions are agreed upon.  So too in the exercise of language, particular shades of meaning come to color certain phrases for classmates, teammates, co-workers, or fraternity members.  One best understands and is understood, i.e. plays the game well, when one operates according to the rules established by that community – its conventional way of doing things.  (This illustrates to some extent the manner in which language and culture mirror games – we are quick to notice both when one ‘plays’ exceptionally well and when another violates the established conventions.

In terms of chess, I take ‘form’ to be that which distinguishes one item from another.  Chess pieces may look very different, but their function will provide enough context to tell us what form they are taking.  I.e., if we see a piece moving only horizontally and vertically we may assume it to be a castle or rook.  If we know its initial position to have been on the corner of the board, we can confirm that, if general convention is being followed, it is in fact a rook.  I will repeat, the form tells us the function and the function expresses the form.  This role is determined, arbitrarily, according to convention (for it certainly could have been otherwise) but the piece will follow the expected rules if we are to be playing the same game.


What is most fascinating to me in this analogy though, is realizing that not all languages are playing the same game, for the forms and functions of language are established by conventions (and quite often, our way of thinking is ‘unconventional’ in another linguistic context).  Whereas the pawns set the landscape of the battlefield, the knights are then able to counter and flank while the bishops, queen, and rooks unleash deadly arrows from safe vantage points.  A good chess player knows how to attack and pressure effectively so that her opponent will defeat himself.

I suppose this brings up a potential weakness in the analogy.  While it serves many uses, I have made no mention of de Sausseure’s distinction between synchronic and diachronic ways of viewing linguistics, the purpose of chess is clearly to win.  Whatever sacrifices and calculated moves one must make to attain this goal, one is justified in doing so to achieve the win.  But the goal of language is, in most cases, not to win a battle on an even playing field.  Like a game, if one does not play according to convention, i.e. misuses the available forms, he will not achieve his aims.  But in language, the goal is mutual.  One cannot ‘communicate’without the other playing at an adequate level.

Further, language is always shifting so long as the language is ‘alive’ (i.e. so long as there are communicators).  While certain conventions are more strongly enforced than others (as some are more central to the cultural viewpoint expressed by the linguistic system), we can certainly see that the rules are in a state of flux.  ‘Google’ is now a verb, for instance.  When was that vote?  If one insists on playing the language game as it existed at one particular point in time, she will be able to communicate with fewer and fewer people as time progresses.

With this awareness of the natural flux in language, we can understand why John Lyons insists that the only way to determine whether one ‘knows’ the language is to find if she “is capable of constructing new utterances which are recognized as normal and can be understood by other speakers of the language. (John Lyons, Introductionto Theoretical Linguistics, 1971, Cambridge: p. 36)”  The measure of fluency, then, is when one can communicate new thoughts in line with conventions independently.  That is, the person who has mastered the language has internalized enough of the forms and functions of the linguistic community that her voice would be recognizable.  Likewise, we measure the mastery of a chess player by the wisdom with which he functions as dictated by the available forms.  But the nature of the chess board is essentially static – if we change the rules it is n’t chess, and mastery is displayed not by independently thinking conventionally but by who you bested and how often.

Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever – I

Paul…Paul, Paul, Paul… I really do n’t think you understand what constitutes an adverb – at least, not on this occasion.  Your description: “In a basic sense, adverbs are words that answer the questions How?, When?, Where?, How much?, Why?, and to What extent? (Yeager, Best Language Book: p. 3)”  Yes, an adverb will usually answer such questions, but the core understanding of adverbs is that they modify verbs or other modifiers (adjectives and other adverbs).  I ‘m honing in on how what they do distinguishes them.

You take this to mean that ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, and ‘lastly’ are poor form.  You may not like the sound of it, but your argument that ‘first’, ‘second’, and ‘last’ are adverbs is a bit unsound (to your credit, the likes of ‘Grammar Girl’ agrees with you).  In sequencing, I can nearly agree with your point; it ‘s superfluous and I ‘d be unlikely to use them in such a context.  Her argument, however, diverges from yours in that she sees ‘First’ at the beginning of a sequence referring to ‘the first point is’ ,in which case, we are dealing with an adjective.

I know I ‘m sifting too finely…but so are you.  It should be easy to recognize that ‘first’ and its counterparts function primarily as adjectives, but may be used as adverbs also without the need to add -ly.  I would much rather see you criticizing errors concerning function – you are n’t displaying much imagination in this aspect.

Finally, or the final point is, both you and Grammar girl bemoan where ‘common parlance supercedes proper usage’ as though written grammar is primary and spoken is derivative.  Again, language serves communication – communication may be constrained by linguistic norms, but grammar should serve us – not the other way around.  Your idea that common acceptance crystallizes errors is fair, but should n’t we primarily concern ourselves with that which blocks communication?

Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

Congratulations Paul Yeager for catching my eye with Literally, the Best Language Book Ever (Perigee, NY: 2008).  I have merely waded through the introduction to your humorous work.  I share your disdain for the trite and despise a certain subset of redundancies.  But before I give you any glowing marks, there ‘s a matter or two we should see to (I hope you are n’t one of those who think the split infinitive confuses communication in the slightest, or we ‘re going to have issues).

You bring up the verbifying of nouns with the examples of ‘tasking’ instead of ‘assigning a task’, ‘dialoguing’ instead of ‘having a dialogue’, and ‘transitioning’ instead of ‘making a transition’.  I ‘m nearly convinced that you think language is static and that there persists a right and wrong in lingual (or written) communication.  Are you well aware that language serves us, not we it?   Certainly there are better and worse normalcies in communication by means of language, but until all communicants die out any specific tongue will continue to change.  There is enough of a grand return that you should n’t be distressed — ‘breakfast’ is the nounified form of ‘to break (one’s) fast’ (and we still pay homage to this when we employ ‘breakfast’ as a verb).

Further, redundancies naturally creep into language.  Sure ‘completely finished’ and ‘absolutely essential’ are unnecessary – especially for those liberally applying Ockham’s razor.  You ‘re right to note that our speech has become overly dramatic (with the profusion of an absolute like ‘ever’), but I ‘m afraid here you ‘re picking one nit too many.  One might display mental laziness by choosing one’s words poorly (and so be passed over for promotions) – but we should more clearly define when errors are truly leading to communication distress.  So, let ‘s be a bit more careful what errors we spend energy pushing back against.

Let me finally agree that ‘I could care less’ is an unhelpful statement.  I do sincerely hope that those items you have chosen to pick at are actually helpful ones.  I must say I ‘m a bit put off at the beginning – shall we redeem what is left of your work?  Otherwise, I might take issue with your title selection.


*update: this is the only book both picked up and completely put aside in twenty-twelve.  I feel I ‘ve forgotten more useful concepts and insights than were available herein.  Of course, it ‘s difficult to keep up the false self-righteous reading for diatribe’s sake and this was a necessary casualty.  But am I the casualty of myself in this case? that is, am I merely exercising my own pretentiousness without stepping towards exorcism?

Feedback, Update Culture, and Communicative Distress

This article (by Timothy Dalrymple: 14 Feb, 2012) caught my eye this past day.  My first impulse was to give pause to consider why it is I blog (as opposed or congruent to why others do).  But first, a digression (which is n’t really a digression):

Whatever practicalities have lent themselves to checking my phone and e-mail inbox for messages, maintaining a facebook account (and ignoring a myspace one), and, when the iron is hot; blogging, I find myself spending more time checking for updates than meaningfully communicating.  I can pretend to ignore the psychological effects of this with the best of them, but it calls into question whether the returns reflect what I intend.  I can ill afford to fail to define meaningfulcommunication – so I ‘ll choose here communication which either gives rise to right action (orthopraxy) or which leads to a dialogue worth having (the grand pursuit of truth and good together).

In my interactions, those which fall outside the lines of necessary business of course, my attention is more easily captured by the quantitative than the qualitative.  How do I mean?  E.g. on social media I am most apt to notice, amidst the long stream of data, whatever items are ‘getting play’ or getting a lot of feedback.  On facebook and in blogging, feedback can be interpreted by ‘likes’, ‘shares’ (or pingbacks), and ‘comments’ (as well we know).  In blogging we also measure traffic by views.

I believe that in choosing to maintain social interactions through these various mediums we intend to receive feedback.  This is the agony of media in general: we want quick and appropriate responses.  This extends even to conversations where language serves as the only medium — if we are not answered in kind, there is a natural communicative distress.  There is a certain validation in being answered in kind – in communicating meaningfully.


But when these are mediated by way of the internet, our expectations take on a quantitative aspect.  We can see displayed for us the gap in minutes since last our communication was answered.  Who has n’t experienced that awkward silence in texting or instant messaging.  In wordpress we can see how many hours it has been since the last visit to our site, which has been the most popular day, week, or month of traffic, and which has been the best trafficked or best ‘like’d post.  Does n’t this lead to a compounded distress?

Please do n’t misunderstand me (at least not too much), I see value in observing these statistics.  But I wonder if, when I ‘m either too high or too low due to the statistics, I ‘m measuring properly.


In terms of this blog, I ‘ve carved out my niche and have set in my own mind the measure of success (self-pingbacks make me feel a bit queasy, but narcissism versus nausea leaves no one a winner).  I can’t accurately measure success by traffic, followers, or comments because what I ‘m really seeking to do is consider things from the perspective where the various distresses of communication (not being answered in kind as only one example) are acknowledged and a fruitful dialogue ensues.  Few will find my insights interesting (of those who misunderstand me well enough) and perhaps fewer will find them helpful.  But for those who are open to a journey where we grow through miscommunicating well, there will hopefully be a space for meaningful communication.

I think other bloggers should carefully consider what it is they seek to accomplish because, as Dalrymple well notes, one may lend undue credit to one’s opposing philosophies by giving them voice where answering them with silence would better demonstrate how one answers such items.  The wise choice is, according to Proverbs 26:4&5, either to answer a fool according to his follyorto not.  Wisdom is demonstrated both in the choice (of answering in like or choosing not to) and in the manner with which one carries out her decision.


Asking oneself a few questions first is prudent and the article lists a few suggestions: decide if you are (or should be) addressing a controversy, if you have adequately digested the issues and if you are adding something meaningful, assess your motives, and do n’t forget you ‘re addressing people – so be compassionate.

As pertains to the article specifically, I appreciated Dalrymple’s honesty when he described how he enjoyed the thrill of success.  I can’t pretend (at least not well) that I do n’t get excited when the quantitative feedback suggests an upsurge of interest, but I ‘m mostly looking for feedback of a different sort and I ‘d do well to be distressed or thrilled with a more to-scale measure.  To my fellows distressed at the feedback you ‘re receiving, I recommend considering how your communication should be addressed.


Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him.  And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.  For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.  Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])


Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague.  The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’.  In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart.  It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town.  One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.

But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words.  In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation.  The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner.  The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.


To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving.  It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach.  But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing.  In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced.  Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor.  It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.

This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction.  We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete.  Is the isolation then abstract or concrete?  It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail.  The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced.  In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.


It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable.  This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed.  In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.