Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself.

That is, Rancière’s argument for the equality of speaking beings is phonocentric in Derrida’s sense. Phonocentrism is the belief that spoken language is more authentic or primary than written language. The two features that are supposed to give spoken language this primacy are the presence and synchronicity it is supposed to require; through this presence, the speaker retains the ability to directly authenticate the meaning of their words. Writing, on this theory, is a poor copy of speech, where, in the absence of the author, the written text is parasitic on the authority which the primary speech situation provides. Derrida points out, however, that the asynchrony and absence which characterize writing are features that are inherent to all language, and are present as possibilities in spoken language as well. The absence of language is the condition of possibility of its presence.

This isn’t just a philosophical position for Derrida; rather, the prioritization of spoken language in philosophy supports the prioritization of those authorized to speak, particularly white men. Irigaray makes a somewhat similar argument, that philosophical accounts of meaning in language depend on excluding the non-meaningful in a gendered way, constructing the category of femaleness through this exclusion from language. What differentiates Derrida’s and Irigraray’s positions from Rancière’s is that, for Rancière, exclusion from language is a ruse of the powerful (slaves are persuaded of their inability to speak, and thus their inequality, but this is a false belief, the falsehood of which they can realize), whereas for Derrida and Irigaray exclusion from language is a result of the operation of language itself.

This suggests an alternative to Rancière’s idea of the equality of all speaking beings: where we are equal, rather, is in our status as non-speaking beings, in that moment of faltering hesitation that may (or may not) precede speech. This idea of a community of non-speaking beings is part of Adam’s idea of “radical awkwardness,” although this awkwardness may be a more general sociality than just the linguistic; nevertheless, I think a specifically linguistic inarticulacy is an important part of the phenomenology of awkwardness. Thinking about awkwardness primarily in terms of language also allows us to use a whole history of thinking about the relationship between women and language to think about the relationship between awkwardness and gender.

A number of  reviews of Awkwardness pointed out that all the awkward characters discussed in the book are male, and this somewhat blunts the potentially radical force of awkwardness. Judith Halberstam has a useful analysis of a related phenomenon, the difference between male and female stupidity (using as examples Dude, Where’s My Car? and 50 First Dates, respectively). Although stupidity is the opposite of the intellectual competence traditionally assigned to men, male stupidity isn’t opposed to this stereotype; “though we punish and naturalize female stupidity,” a man’s stupidity “is quickly folded back into his general appeal as a winning form of vulnerability…. Male stupidity masks the will to power that lies just behind the goofy grin, and it masquerades as some kind of internalization of feminist critiques” (The Queer Art of Failure, 55-7). So too with male awkwardness, which, as in the Apatow comedies Adam discusses (and as Adam points out) raises the possibility of a critique of articulacy only in order to resolve the problem in a new and non-awkward male homosociality. Embracing female awkwardness would be more radical, because it would involve an upending of the standards which exclude women by privileging the possession of language.

This is particularly relevant in the post-Fordist context that Adam discusses, because of the increasing economic importance of articulacy, an articulacy which is increasingly feminized. Just as Apatovian male awkwardness is ironic, a mask for continued male power, so too is post-Fordist female articulacy; this image of the sorted, omnicompetent woman is produced at the same time that possession of language is increasingly tightly integrated with the forms of control involved in wage labor, which means that language is increasingly experienced not as a capability but as a demand. In One Dimensional Woman, Nina discusses the way in which post-Fordism feminizes labor, and connects this in particular to “the demand to be an ‘adaptable’ worker, to be constantly ‘networking,’ ‘selling yourself,’ in effect to become a kind of walking CV” (21). Linguistic labor requires a compulsory sociality, which repurposes earlier ideas about women’s work and women’s greater social skills as a paradigm of labor.

This shows how post-operaismo discussions of linguistic labor as the basis for the construction of the multitude may be overly optimistic. Virno does recognize that the rise of linguistic labor in post-Fordism  is “ambivalent,” in that it can give rise to forms of domination as well as forms of liberation. However, there is still an underlying optimism in the idea that post-Fordist linguistic labor involves a “fundamental mode of being,” as Virno says (A Grammer of the Multitude, 84), because the suggestion is that the communication involved in post-Fordist labor involves a kind of fundamental human universality, which is liberated, or produced in a more direct form (and so in principle at least available for re-appropriation) in these new forms of capitalism.

But what if it is not speech, but non-speaking, which is the fundamental human universality? Then awkwardness would not only be, as Adam argues, the potential grounds for a radical politics, it could also be a mode of resistance. Discussing an earlier form of compulsory sociality, Shulamith Firestone describes a kind of weaponized awkwardness:

My ‘dream’ action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their ‘pleasing’ smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them (The Dialectic of Sex).

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2 Responses to “Non-speaking beings”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad you found my book useful. My failure to engage with female awkwardness remains an enduring source of embarrassment for me — perhaps someday I can give the topic another go.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Meant to comment on this yesterday. I’ve long been more sympathetic to Rancière’s cause than Voyou (if I recall, you’ve discussed flinging at least one of his books away in disgust), but your critique here is quite provocative. I don’t have anything particularly substantive to add to what you’ve said other than that. Thanks.


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