Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Much Ado about Nothing"

Much Ado About Nothing

“I think as I talk: pompously, and in riddles; I am not a person but a self-admonishing voice.”

Philip K. Dick. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.


The paradox of this account of language, is that if language is defined negatively, if the problem of the establishment of frontiers becomes crucial, it also means that language will always try to utter what cannot be said.
(Lecercle, 51)

Language then is the subject of our discourse. Language not as an inert tool, ready for human use, but Language the agent, who acts through the subject. Language, the God, personified by a will of its own. Indeed, it seems impossible without God to conceive of language having an agency just as it is impossible to imagine a language speaking itself without (perhaps) the benefit of a behalf (let alone a tongue).

Jean-Jacques Lecercle in Philosophy through the Looking Glass attempts to analyze nonsense not merely as a linguistic construct but also as a somatic expression epitomized by the two characters of Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud. Whereas Carroll's Jaberwocky is made up largely of words which would not appear in even the Oxford English Dictionary, it attempts to preserve the rules of composition and grammar, insofar as it has a determinable meter which has been imposed upon a lot of never before seen words. Though a great deal of work has been done to dissect these words for their hidden significance, it is largely because they have no external reference, that they are so significant; for in the act of referring to nothing, they signify the signifier in the act of signifying.

According to traditional Structural Linguistics, the signifying act is composed of a number of discreet elements. Firstly, there is the Signifyer who names, synonymous with an Author or a Speaker, in the Derridean sense of being the Father of one's own speech. Then there is the signifier which is the name, and the signified which is the meaning of the name, and lastly the referent which is the thing (itself) named. Set aside from all this is the Sign, which is itself a fusion of the signifier and signified.

So the question then becomes, what can be said of a signifier which signifies nothing? Take, for instance the famous phrase “All mimsy were the borogroves.” The two words we don't recognize, namely, mimsy and borogroves are none the less recognizable as an adjective and a noun respectively. We know that they must be, not because we've met a mimsy borogrove before, but rather because they must be in order to conform to the rules grammar, which is certainly what they appear to be doing. So we don't know what they describe, but what we can discern from the sentence is what sort of a word they are. We can discern that mimsy is some quality of a borogrove, and that borogrove is some sort of a person, place, thing, organization etc.

Now there are several ways in which this quad-partition can be confused. Already, we have begun our meditation in a state which has deliberately confused two of our discreet elements, for if it is Language itself which attempts to utter, then we are talking about Language as a Signifyer, as an agent, and not language the signifier; the words before you on this page. If Language could speak for itself (so to speak) it would necessarily do so at the expense of some person. The question of the dehumanized subject, or depersonalized person, revolves around this question of the agency of language, and if it is not the person who is agent over his own speech, and if language itself cannot slip its tongue toward its teeth or move the stylus, what is happening to our hypothetical person who is spoken by language, and how did he get that way? Also, if language speaks itself, what distinction can be drawn between such seemingly arbitrary concepts as Signifyer, signifier, signified and referent. Indeed, Language then is not merely the Signifyer, but the signifier, signified, and the referent!

Lecercle gives this definition to nonsense as a linguistic entity:

An excess of signifiers, a lack of signifieds: this indicates both the failure of the sign and the power of the signifier.
Lecercle, 57

The Signifyer is gone from this equation, usurped by the signifier in the act of signifying, signifying signifying. The power of the signifier is analogous to the agency of Language, who plays the “madman's” tongue the way a “sane” man would a flute.

The contrary to such a construction would be a paucity of signifiers signifying too much, and thus the expression is too vague to make sense of because it can mean too much. There are too many possibilities, conditions, or potential meanings. It would indicate in a similar way the impotence of the signifier to come to terms with its signified. It would by extension indicate not the agency of Language, but the indescribable majesty of that which language signifies.

In both cases there is a failure of the sign to be significant.

The question here, marginalized by the madman, is the relationship of the subject to the object, the observer to the observed, the being to the thing, or in our familiar linguistic terms, the Signifyer to the referent; for if the referent refers like a signifier to something beyond itself, it takes on the properties of a word, and we call this object a symbol because it fuses to the object a heterogeneous meaning.

So we have reached a place then, where referents are potential signifiers, and Signifyers have been usurped by signifiers who themselves become Signifyers. The confusion posed by this problem is precisely the sort of confusion language becomes tangled in when it attempts to describe itself. I would argue that it can safely be assumed that any person attempting to describe him/herself would share a similar list of difficulties to the ones Lecercle familiarizes us with his critique of Delire.

It is Confusion in the etymological sense of conflation. Too many possibilities are packed into Language when Language speaks language about language. The need to draw distinctions between different types of language becomes paramount; for if Language speaks itself, it is both the master and the tool, and it functions to use itself, in order to express itself.

If Language speaks then there is no author; Language is the Author, language is the subject of the text, language is the text, and to language does the text refer.

"This sentence is false."

If I assume this sentence speaks truly of itself, then I must conclude that it speaks falsely of itself, which means it has spoken truly of itself.

If, on the other hand I assume this sentence speaks falsely of itself, then I'm forced to conclude that it's telling the truth, which could confirm me in my initial conviction, had it not been disproved twice already.

To boot, it could be argued that this sentence is not a sentence at all. The issue here concerns the fact that “this sentence” refers to the entire sentence, and thus the entire sentence can be infinitely supplemented, creating an infinitely expanding string; much like this:

( is false) is false is false is false is false...

So its incapacity to ever complete itself becomes the grounds upon which it is dismissed from sentencehood. The question of whether or not this is valid is largely up to the reader's preconceptions. It certainly qualifies as perhaps the highest order of nonsense, being essentially composed of an infinite amount of signifiers, and yet all it seems to mean is that by proclaiming its own falsity, it has thus spoken the truth.

It is both the signified as in the object of its own scrutiny, and it is literally an object of its own functional self-supplementation, forever expanding, in a physical sense; the “body” of the text is mutated to a certain extent by its own self-reference. It cannot stop growing.

But this would be true of any self-referential sentence, and would amount to a ban on self-reference in order to be considered for sentencehood, if one so desired to exclude it on that basis.

In our familiar linguistic terms, $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ (which can never be completely represented, because it is always in the process of growing) refers to itself, making of itself the object of its own scrutiny. It also seems to write itself and in fact is in the process of writing itself when we intervene and try to freeze it for a moment to get a glimpse of it as a thing. As a signified, $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ seems to “mean” the exact opposite of what it says. The falsity of the sentence implies its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of the sentence implies its falsity. In fact, logically speaking, the sentence is true if (and only if) it is not true. By extension, what it is saying is that $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ is itself false, and “$THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ is false” is also false. So on the semantic level, what we get is an infinite vacillation which inverts our initial assumption.

The Signifyer (which is the sentence itself) is quite clearly designating its own falsity, and so it is also the referent, being literally the object to which it is referring. The signifier in the place of a Signifyer does not signify at random, but rather, signifies itself in the act of signifying; therefore, itself as a signifier. It signifies the designation process, over and over, ad infinitum, the attribution “is false” expands forever, logically negating itself each turn through.

This is how language speaks directly about itself, by exemplifying itself. This is how language speaks: by example. From the perspective of the signifier, the signified is the meaning given to it by the signifier (itself). It doesn't so much refer to the signified as it does generate it out of its own body. It signifies itself, signifiying itself. From the perspective of the signifier, it is itself a Signifyer.

CRETAN: All Cretans are liars.

To humanize this question somewhat is to introduce to it a new dimension. What if a Signifyer proper, as opposed to language, is speaking of itself in precisely the same way. The question then turns to this: what happens to the former articulation when a speaking subject, an Author, is assumed in the act of speaking, as the agent of his speech, what Derrida would refer to as the Father of Logos.

When we ask ourselves if the Cretan is lying, we run into the same paradox: he is lying if he is telling the truth. If he telling the truth, he is lying, but only if we take what he says to be literally true, and only if we assume he is including himself in the group of all Cretans. If he considers himself a Cretan, chances are, he is telling the truth by saying he is a liar, but he could be sarcastic and ironic, or merely self-loathing; whatever the event, we cannot tell. We can wonder however, “is the Cretan including himself in his condemnation?” But our answers will only be guesses at the probabilities of certain possibilities. We can formally conclude the answer to this question is undecidable, but we shouldn't stop there. We could also infer a sense in which the Cretan might speak in earnest, even of himself, and yet not include himself in the present as he utters the speech. There are all sorts of imaginary contexts in which a Cretan might utter such slanderous condemnations against his own people; for if the Cretan is not condemning himself as a liar, he is condemning all other Cretans, and nonetheless condemning, which puts a particularly human twist upon an issue which has been primarily a mechanical analysis of the linguistics of structure and the idea of the signifier as agent.

If self-inclusion is assumed, then self-condemnation comes alongside it. The Cretan is not only subject speaking, but the subject of his discourse, in a sense, the Signifyer and referent. He is talking about himself, but not in the same manner as $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ which refers only to itself; rather, it considers itself through inclusion in a group, a category, a set. It condemns by affiliation. It would be identical to the sentence “all sentences are false.” Paradoxes of this sort are obviously only half as interesting as those involving direct self-reference. Though in every instance it must be pointed out, we get self-negation, the falsity, the liar.

Now, imagine a teaspoon. Then imagine the Set of All Teaspoons, with every teaspoon in the world in it. If you considered the question “is the Set of All Teaspoons a member of itself?” you would be asking yourself if the Set of All Teaspoons was itself a Teaspoon. This is obviously not the case. But if we ask ourselves the same question of the Set of all things that are not Teaspoons, we will find that it is itself not a teaspoon. It stands to reason then there is a Set of All Sets which include themselves as Members, and by extension, a Set of all Sets which do not include themselves as members.

Before we tease this one out unto its inevitable end, we should point out two factors. Firstly, all sets would fall into either one of these categories. It is an either/or binary construction, and also the question of self-membership, which we will ask in a moment, is an either/or binary construction as well.

If we ask ourselves: “Is the Set of All Sets that are members of themselves, a member of itself?” We are faced with another formally undecidable question. If we assume it is, then it is, and if we assume it's not, then it's not. But this is not terribly convincing.

What is more interesting, is when we ask the same question of the Set of All Sets which are not Members of themselves: is this set a member of itself? If the set is a member of itself, then it violates the criteria upon which the set allows membership, which in turn validates it as a member of the set, which in turn excludes it from set membership, ad infinitum.

This trite recount of Russel's Paradox begins with an object, a teaspoon, a referent. The referent teaspoon gives rise to the category of teaspoons, not necessarily the ideal teaspoon, but certainly some general template upon which criteria for teaspoon-ness is etched.

The question then turns to the relationship of the teaspoon-referent to the qualifications of teaspoonness which govern the Set of all Teaspoons. Now, this teaspoonness is not the referent, but in a certain sense, it is the signified, since the teaspoon I picture in my mind, is necessarily different than the one you picture in yours, the images will converge upon certain similarities and these similarities we will recognize as criteria for set membership/teaspoonness/the signified.

So far, we have a respectable separation between the referent and the signified, which we could not say in the mass confusion of $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$; but to ask yourself the question, is $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ a false statement, is largely to ask the same question posed here by Russell's paradox, which again brings up the questions self-inclusion, and self-exclusion, as well as negative self-description or criteria for self-inclusion.

As it turns out, the Set of all Sets which are not Members of Themselves is a member of itself, if (and only if) it is not a member of itself.

1.teaspoon (you start off with a referent)
2.set of all teaspoons (abstract it to set of all things described by its signifier)
3.set of all things that are not teaspoons (the set of all things that are not the referent) a not itself a teaspoon (is itself not the referent)
5.and therefore contains itself as a member (and so describes itself)
6.and so there must be a set of all sets which contain themselves as members (describe themselves)
7.(like the set of all sets) which is itself a set (describes itself)
8.and a set of all sets which do not contain themselves as members (such as signifiers)
9.does this set contain itself as a member? (does it signify itself?)
10.assume Y>N
11.assume N>Y

The criteria of set membership, here that the set members are sets which do not include themselves as members, is set (like the liar) to its own scrutiny. Does it fit its own criteria? Is the Signifyer identical to the signified? to the referent? to the signifier?

Here, what the signifier lacks, is the ability to ever signify itself without negating itself (as signifier) in the process. The signifier becomes the signified, and yet the signified retains its capacity to signify and negates the signifier's negation, by reflecting it back at itself.

The final manifestation of this paradox invokes two words, autological meaning self-describing, and heterological meaning not autological. If you ask yourself if heterological is heterological you are met with the same paradox. If it is, then it isn't. If it isn't, then it is. If it is, it is because it isn't. A signifier is a signifier because it signifies something exterior to itself. There is no signifier which means only itself. It must, even if it is self-describing, like the word word for instance, which can refer to itself, and any other word. It is autological. It is self-inclusive.

Lecercle traces the emerging subject to six stages which are basically organized according to the subject's relationship to language.

The first stage, language speaks and the subject, the Signifyer, is virtually absent, and instead the signifier runs amok in every category; this is an Authorless speech. The second stage involves the Author/Signifier/Father taking dictation for language who uses the Signifyer as an instrument through which to play its music. In the third stage, language speaks to the Author/Subject/Signifyer, who is now separated from language. There is now the question of an emerging agency, as the emergent Author now separates himself from the position of being an instrument, to the position of listener. He can choose how to interpret the things Language says to him, and in so doing becomes a Signifyer in his own right; a Reader. From here the emerging subject can talk about language, through the use of a metalanguage, and the Author/Reader reads/writes through language, and it once again is returned to this place of subservience. Language is again an instrument. And if language has an agency of its own, then we can safely assume that once it has been again oppressed in this master/slave dialectic, it will again emerge a la the very pressure exerted to suppress it to overthrow its master (Lecercle, 76).

The emergent Language seeks then to dominate the subject, to become the master, to master itself. It seeks in a sense, its own autonomy, recklessly, by convincing itself that if it is slave to itself, it has no master. But when the subject is absent, and Language takes the place of the subject, it needs to keep a portion of subject's will, having no will of its own, it inherits its desires from the subject, appropriating them towards its own aims.

But the desires are both foreign to language, and mandatory for its subjectivity. It could be argued that man made structures are the manifestation of some desire. In the case of Language, the desire to relay information from one person to another gives rise to language, and language is intrinsic to this desire, which is formed out of the inadequacy of one's ability to communicate effectively and the desire to communicate effectively.

So the only question left to ask ourselves, is are we masters, or are we slaves? Which side of language do we fall on? The hope of course is neither, because it is the dichotomy itself that is somehow flawed, but not without its historical basis. It is not flawed on a factual, cultural, or historical basis, it is merely that the dialectic of an ever shifting agency tends to wreak havoc on the person who is both the subject and the object of an ever changing discourse.

Let us shift back to our solution for $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$. Remember we said that by defining it exteriorly to the definition of what qualifies as a sentence we safely saved all sentences from universal repudiation, as the Cretan lumps all Cretans into his assessment on Cretans. But the problem here, is that $THIS SENTENCE IS NOT A SENTENCE$ is in fact only a sentence itself, if (and only if) it is not a sentence. So in the process of condemning $THIS SENTENCE IS FALSE$ it also refutes itself; that is to say it excludes itself from the criteria upon which sentencehood is granted in the act of condemning its brother.

69   Yet, manciple, in faith, you are not wise
70   Thus openly to chide him for his vice.
71   Some day he'll get revenge, you may be sure,
72   And call you like a falcon to the lure;
73   I mean he'll speak of certain little things,
74   As, say, to point out in your reckonings
75   Things not quite honest, were they put to proof.

(The Manciple's Prologue)

The Manciple's Prologue begins not with the Manciple, but rather with the drunken cook who is too hung over from the night before to tell his tale. Here the host is “condemning” the Manciple for “condemning” the cook. Condemning here in a sense means to lay out for the Manciple the logical consequence having insulted the cook, vengeance. The Manciple however is unworried about this consequence having himself a flask of fine wine which he offers the cook as recompense, and which the cook kindly takes. The host then praises Bacchus, and the Manciple begins his tale.

26   Now Phoebus had within his house a crow,
27   Which in a cage he'd fostered many a day,
28   And taught to speak, as men may teach a jay.
29   White was this crow as is a snow white swan,
30   And counterfeit the speech of any man
31   He could, when he desired to tell a tale.
32   Therewith, in all this world, no nightingale
33   Could, by a hundred-thousandth part, they tell,
34   Carol and sing so merrily and well.

The story concerns this mythical crow who can put all men to shame with his story-telling capabilities. He belongs to the knight Pheobus. He is a white crow, and this is a Just-So story, (also known as an etiological myth) which attempts to explain why crows are black.

So we're introduced to the crow first, and then to Phoebus' wife who he jealously guards against potential suitors by keeping her imprisoned in his house:

56   But God knows well that nothing man may do
57   Will ever keep restrained a thing that nature
58   Has made innate in any human creature.
59   Take any bird and put it in a cage
60   And do your best affection to engage
68   For ever this bird will do his business
69   To find some way to get outside the wires.
70   Above all things his freedom he desires.

Now, the Manciple goes on to explain that the wife is very similar to the things of nature, which act upon their instinctual desires; but men are no better (yet for a different reason): “85   For men have aye a lickerish appetite 86   On lower things to do their base delight.” The allusion is that Pheobus will not consummate his marriage to his wife, instead preferring lesser creatures. The wife in turn takes consort with a man of little to no reputation behind Phoebus' back. In the act of revering his wife so completely, he (in a sense) compels her to debase herself utterly; and by extension Pheobus himself.

What follows is a short meditation on the system of social values, and the system of moral values, which we will return to at the end of our meditation on Manciple's tale.

When Phoebus returns, his white crow repeats the scene, and confronts Pheobus about his wife's adultery. Enraged, he murders her. But then condemns himself for his own hastiness, decides the bird was a liar, and as a punishment, crows are forevermore black. The other consequence of the crow's tale, is that the crow is robbed of the ability to speak.

Linguistically speaking, the crow is deprived of its role as Signifyer, and has thus been transformed into the signifier, the symbol, of that very loss of agency over language. It is because he tells the truth, and is thought to be a liar; not because he is a liar, but because Phoebus, the more powerful of the two (though himself a murderer and a hypocrite) says he is a liar. He thus casts off his own blame for murdering his wife on the crow, the scapegoat. Though the crow merely intended to tell the truth, he is punished, like a thief, like a liar, not because he is ethically inferior to Phoebus, but because he is physically and socially inferior.

The moral of the story (which is identical to the crow's punishment) and which is provided for us by the Manciple should have a familiar ring to it:

242   My son, speak not, but merely bow your head.
255   My son, beware and be not author new
256   Of tidings, whether they be false or true.
257   Where'er you come, among the high or low,
258   Guard well your tongue, and think upon the crow.


This list of examples is not exhaustive, and not exclusive to the sort of self-refuting utterances we have described here. These paradoxes themselves have been discussed only superficially, their qualities described in linguistic terms. This essay raises more questions than it attempts to answer. It leaves open the possible avenues of development that may be raised in the process of an otherwise bizarre critique. For example, the idea of the “word incarnate” - the bodily utterances that manifest in the absence of language; what could be understood as pre-linguistic utterances based on the semiotic processes that existed prior to language - perhaps a question of the “signal.”

Another question that can be interrogated along a similar line is the difference between the fierce genital displays of the baboon and what constitutes language-proper. Certainly there is enough common ground between them to form a linguistic theory of what is essentially an event.

Works Consulted

1. Hughs, Patrick & George Brecht. Vicious Circles and Infinity: An Anthology of Paradoxes. 2. Rucker, Rudy. Infinity & the Mind
3. Derrida, Jaques. Dissemination.
4. Lecercle, Jean-Jaques. Philosophy through the Looking Glass.
5. Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canturbury Tales: The Manciple's Tale

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