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Diction Against Contradiction

Language is a major source of fragmentation. Language difference is one of the essential elements of many national and ethnic conflicts. It is the vehicle of racism.
Peter Ives

Issue #20, April 1995

Every time the question of language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore: the formation and enlargement of the governing class, the need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between the governing groups and the national-popular mass, in other words to reorganize the cultural hegemony.
— Antonio Gramsci, 1935

While in university settings an emphasis on language often means a retreat from politics, language continues to be a focus around which politics is practiced. This is true whether one is looking at the potential separation of Quebec from 'English' Canada and its long history or politics in the State of California. It is true whether one is talking about censorship of gay and lesbian pornography, the gender bias of the English language, or the Inuit rejection of the label 'Eskimo.' It is a banality to point out that all political practice requires language and that it is on the terrain of language that political issues, whether of nationality, race, gender or class, are manifest. While most people fall somewhere between the extreme positions that either language is everything or language is totally unimportant, this middle ground has not been conceptualized in a manner would allow many different social groups to organize and build alliances and create what might be called the 'Left.'

On the contrary, language is a major source of fragmentation. Language difference is one of the essential elements of many national and ethnic conflicts. It is the vehicle of racism. Language is the container of many cultural differences that divide the world whether it leads to violent conflicts or exploitative tourist industries based on a notion of 'the exotic.' Language can place little barriers between people organizing for change in the simplest ways. Bad Subjects' critique of multiculturalism, (see both Manifestos) for example, might stick out to some Canadian readers as odd. As was pointed out to me when I moved from the U.S. to Canada, the word multiculturalism has been the title of an official Canadian government policy for over 20 years and has often been critiqued by the 'Left.' Bad Subjects critique applying only to the U.S. context represents a cultural domination of the U.S. over Canada that is usually practiced in much more commercial ways. And yet, Bad Subjects' point is not altogether out of place in Canada, instead the terms in which it is expressed are the divisive factor (this is a predicament that is impossible to consistently overcome).

A more important example would be the Womens movements around the world that have shown how small, seemingly trivial, language practices such as in English the labels 'chairman' or 'fireman' and the use of 'he' as the universal pronoun have detrimental effects. And in North America, Womens Movements have been quite successful at changing some of these practices. But where non-feminists see these as 'silly' issues, other feminists see them as examples of how superficial such goals are with respect to changing the material conditions of women's lives.

To take another example from Bad Subjects, the original 'Manifesto for Bad Subjects' contends that the appropriation of the term 'queer' by gays and lesbians does little more than avoid the history of stereotypes and what purposes they serve. The example of 'Queer Nation' or the current interest in 'Queer theory' might serve as an example of very effective political uses of terminology. But this dispute needs to be thought about with the help of a few well worn conceptual tools. There is an especially crucial need to confront the issue of the use of language as 'Anti-censorship' and 'Free Speech' are used as rallying cries around which so many political battles are waged. Otherwise, questions of language become cleavages that tear apart what perhaps could roughly be called (or built into) the 'Left.' The tragedy of language being the point of fracture of the Left, while easily comprehensible, is that it is precisely our condition with respect to language production that provides a place of overlap among various groups struggling against the dominant powers.

But in order to attempt to make alliances based on these points of contact, we must recognize a dynamic in the function of language. When we produce language, we do so because we know others will hear us and hopefully understand us. This hope is sometimes realized and sometimes not. The times when we are most easily understood are most often the times that what we have to say is not terribly important to us. Most day to day interactions are easily understood. Even when nearby noise or interference of other kinds means that we have to repeat ourselves, most of these times of misunderstanding can easily be overcome. But when we have something to say that is complex, that is emotionally loaded, or when we are not sure what we are trying to say, then it is much more likely that understanding will not be successful. Or the success may fall somewhere on a large spectrum between understanding and non-understanding. Expressing frustrations to our family members or our feelings to a good friend are often in a much more nebulous realm of communication. Certain things we say become almost mechanical and we see the results when the person we talk with responds appropriately.

For example, at a newsstand I ask to buy a newspaper and when I am given the correct paper and told the price, I know I have been understood. But before the conversation commenced the newspaper seller knew a great deal about what types of things I might be trying to say to her. This type of interaction is not terribly expressive in its essence. Of course, if every day the newspaper that I want is sold out, I might express my feelings to some extent. If there is a friendly relationship developing between us, again expression is more important. Or if we are in a context of ethnic tension, our respective ethnic identities might play out expressively on this transaction, especially if I am buying a paper of a specific political perspective. We can say that all communication is made up of a combination of two components in different proportions. One is the non-expressive, purely mechanical aspect aimed instrumental ends where the listener is more or less fully aware of the meaning of your statements before you utter them. Its just a matter of them recognizing the phrases that they have heard hundreds or thousands of times before. The other is the expressive element which contains the unique nature of what it is that you are trying to say. The more specific or individual or novel your point is, the more difficult it is to be understood. In order to say something new, or something that the listener would never have guessed that you would mean, takes an incredible facility of language use.

Put another way, when we speak we always use words that can be found in a dictionary, that is, words that can be defined by a string of other words. Even new words will eventually be given a definition (or more than one definition) by relating them to other words. But the reason we use specific words and not others is to convey a specific meaning in a specific context. This is why we do not get lost in the problem of definitions using other words that in turn are defined by other words with a seemingly never ending trail of reference. Even though a word can be defined generally, it cannot be defined in a specific context, especially if that context is one of the ones described above where we are trying to say something that is crucially important to us and perhaps unexpected by the people we talk with, that is, if we are attempting to be expressive.

We can then make the comparison with Marx's analysis of commodity production in capitalism (this is a project that the Italian philosopher of language Ferruccio Rossi-Landi has contributed much work towards). Every commodity that enters the market must have both an exchange value and a use-value. The use-value is the unique quality that only that particular commodity has which enables it to be useful for a specific purpose. The exchange value is precisely the general aspect that makes it equatable with another commodity so that the two can be exchanged regardless of what they are used for. Without the use value, there would be no reason to exchange certain goods for other goods. And then, money (or gold, or many other materials) can work as solely a token of exchange.

Similarly, when we speak, we produce words and messages that have both a generic aspect to them that means they can be directly related to other words, that is defined, and which does not change from one situation to another when they are spoken. That is, every time we use a word, in one sense we are repeating the same word that we and others have used countless times before. But there is also the specific, non-repeatable, unique quality of the message which only makes sense in the context in which it is produced. It is the dynamic interplay of these two aspects of messages which enables communication. Of course, there is nothing contained in the words themselves, both the exchange value and the use-value of words, as with commodities, are functions of the qualities that humans imbue them with.

I will not follow through with this parallel between language and Marxs analysis of commodities to all its specifics (see Rossi-Landi, the Russian linguist; V.N. Volosinov, is also very useful in this regard), but it ultimately provides us with the tools to understand how it is that we are often alienated in our production of language because the exchange value, the obvious, readily apparent and infinitely repeatable meanings to our words, dictates over any ability to express ourselves and all the particulars that ourselves include. This is the dynamic of how people are forced to speak but can never say what they want. They are prevented from expressing themselves at the very time when they are made to produce something (material objects, services, or even words and symbolic figures). It is a dynamic of how people are separated from themselves in that their own 'labour,' their activity, their identities are taken from them and used for the benefit of others. (And just as the bourgeoisie cannot escape the alienation of capitalism, these others who think they are benefiting are also separated from themselves.)

This is not to oppose analyses of class exploitation, women's oppression, racism, heterosexism, and other systematic ways in which power is exercised over people. And it is certainly not to reduce these very different phenomena to language. Every specific form of exploitation and oppression requires its own analysis by the people involved and nothing can preclude that. But all human exploitation involves the use of language at the level of communication and co-operation between the oppressors and the demand of response and activity of the oppressed. This also involves the level of how the subjectivities that are involved are produced and produce themselves.

We must realize that the ownership of linguistic capital (the power to control and arrange linguistic production) is often congruous with the ownership of non-linguistic capital. But they are not identical. And at certain times in certain places it is their distinction which is very important. One could say that it is the commonality in the ownership of certain linguistic capital that was used to unite the white working-class of Nazi Germany with the financiers and the State. And this coalition ran counter to these groups relationship to the means of production (i.e. non-linguistic capital).

One of the obvious advantages of such an analysis of language is that it expands some of the Marxist categories to make them appropriate to the so-called 'information age' or the post-industrial economies of many countries where commodity production per se is no longer the single most important sector of the economy. Advertizing is an obvious part of the economy where the products are messages, not commodities. But the only real content of the message of any advertisement is 'buy me.' Thus, the use-value (or expressiveness) of all those words and jingles that workers of various advertising firms produce is superseded by the exchange value whose only expression is 'buy me.' Whatever political point the latest Benetton ad campaign might seem to be making, its success in Benetton's eyes is based upon the bottom line of sales.

Computer technology and the vast numbers of jobs that it creates (or destroys and the few it transforms) is another area where the concept of 'linguistic commodities' is crucial. But perhaps less apparent is the manner in which (American) English as the language of infinite exchangeability throughout the world on the Internet among other media including movies, television and radio, becomes a primary hegemonic force.

As already mentioned, it would be ridiculous to lament the existence of exchange values in messages — communication would be impossible without them. But it is the dynamic between use and exchange values in our current historical epoch which allows surplus value to be extracted by those who control the production of language and how other individuals are able to relate to it. This analysis is just as pertinent to the reappropriation of the term queer by gays and lesbians or feminist projects of changing gender bias in language as it is to the political economy of the mass media. On one hand, it is crucial that specific social groups control the terms that are used to identify them. Taking what had been a derogatory word and creating a new meaning out of it can not only be liberating but can also be politically pragmatic. Of course, this one word still has to be used within a language system that is fundamentally one of alienation. Success on this front cannot lead to complacency.

Perhaps the most important implication of this way of looking at language is its critique of the idea of 'free speech' and 'anti- censorship.' Just as Marx showed that a 'free market' is a contradiction in terms, the notion of 'free speech' makes no sense. Speech is never free. Language is structured and without those structures it would not make sense. The crucial point that a vast number of people are gravely mistaken about (especially many on the 'Left' who look to the potentials of language for its political purposes), is that it is not language itself that holds any potential. There is not something contained in every language, some essence, that holds a certain potential that is universal to humanity and with which we can improve society. On the contrary, it is the condition of alienation in producing language that possesses the commonality that is important. That all humans possess language is a trivial insight with no historic specificity (and moreover it may be seen as an unethical position vis-a-vis labeling those who are deemed not to possess language as 'in-human' or 'un-human'). The important historical dynamic which is crucial is the manner in which our linguistic production is alienated, not unlike the way in which Marx's focus on labour was subordinate to his analysis that it is the alienated nature of this labour which has political implications.

This does not mean that the rhetoric of 'free speech' should never be used in political battles. On the contrary, when it is used it must be realized that it is the exchange value of the term, its strategic position in the place of the psyche of U.S. politics that is important, not the real content of its meaning. It is the fact that no one really disagrees with 'free speech' which not only empties the notion of 'free speech' of any meaning but also makes it a useful weapon. But we will be deceived if we start believing that there is such a thing as free speech. And this deception will come back to haunt us. What non-alienated speech is and how we produce it is a question for the future. For now it must serve as a Utopian myth and not a well defined goal. But it is a myth that we have all glimpsed at different moments in our attempts to express ourselves and felt successful and empowered. This myth of non-alienated language compels us to adopt an ethical stance. It forces us to look beyond the exchangeability of language and to see the use of language that gave rise to a particular utterance.

Peter Ives is a Ph.D. student in the program in Social and Political Thought (SPT) at York University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached via e-mail at: