Sep 18, 2011

What is language, after all? (+ a short review of "The Sensible Life")

Recently I've been attempting to think of language as having no inherent relationship to communication. I believe it could be argued that communication and transmission of information are purely accidental and contingent to certain kinds of language (such as so-called natural human languages). Language is, in this tentative opinion of mine, ultimately an issue of relating to alterity, environment, specularity, spacement, death, etc. In this sense, every living being - down to single-cell organisms - would have a linguistic relationship to their (or "the") world. Chemical reactions would eventually be identified as the model linguistic phenomenon. To a molecule or a bacteria, a chemical connection would effect linguistic meaning (I refuse to employ the expression "carry linguistic meaning"), rendering this interaction as a instance of language.

From the little I know about second order systems theory via Cary Wolfe, this formulation does indeed resemble language viewed from such perspective - systems in general would "communicate" to their environments (or constituent parts) via effects of meaning. I like how it seems that Cary Wolfe has finally convinced me that systems theory does resemble Derridean philosophy of language. Derrida's defense of writing as the ultimate model of grammaticality and diacriticity (the conditions of possibility for language, since all language must be built upon schematic differences) reflects precisely this idea that language is, after all, nothing but a relationship to a differential and "grammatical" alterity. Only specific instances of "messages" (we could call them "grammatical") trigger the effects of meaning in chemical compounds, paramecia, systems in general, or in human language. This leads me to the exciting book I'm currently reading - Emanuele Coccia's La Vita Sensibile ("The Sensible Life," or "The Sentient Life").

I first heard of Coccia when he gave a talk at my grad program on his then recent book on theology and angels. He was introduced as being Agamben's TA and disciple. From what I could gather from Google, he is not as well-known and respected in the English-speaking Internet world Internet as he is in my campus and I'm guessing that this book was probably published here in Brazil even before the Italian and French editions came out. Which is a pity, because he engages most of the issues which seem to me to be so dear and problematic to the current question of the animal, biopolitics, posthumanism, feminism and philosophy of language.

In this book, he attempts to determine that the sensible (i.e. images) is not really reducible to the Platonic diagram of intelligible intellect/soul/ideal and corporeal body/sensations. Images are, in his opinion, essentially ultra-objective and infra-psychic, that is, they are beyond mere corporeality and not yet only products of the mind. His privileged example is the mirror, in which an image can form irrespective of the "original" object (in that the image is not an object and does not transform objective reality) and does not necessarily need a mind beholding it to actually be an image. He does a way better job than I can in explaining how this is not a step back to an ancient belief in an objective reality totally independent of any subjectivity. But believe me, he is very convincing.

What I find particularly useful is how he stresses the fact that the sensible is what ultimately grounds and founds animal life (in the sense of all life that is animate). "Animal" quickly becomes a synonym for "sensibility" and for any life that is open to mediality (the mode of being of the register in which images are formed, i.e. any kind of medium, such as a mirror, the air, polished wood, a piece of paper, or words). When he eventually talks about actual non-human animal life, it never sounds contrived when he is apparently defending human-animal continuity, or when he stresses that there is a difference in degree between human and animal sensibilities. Usually both these stances feel forced and problematic, but Coccia makes them both sound like simple conclusions to his theory of images.

Another thing that I love is how he stresses that images (and the medium) are always neither objective nor psychological - that is, they are neither natural nor cultural. He employs expressions such as "supplementary capacity" and "supplementary life" (when talking about all objects or forms) too many times for me to ignore the obvious Derridean overtones. Coccia's medium works exactly as Derrida's supplement in regard to the complex connections between nature and culture, human and animal, language and world. The supplement is also neither natural nor culture, but it is what makes possible such distinction and passage. Also, the human and the animal are only thinkable in supplementary terms, just as are signification and "reality", which is exactly what led me to the main argument of my dissertation that "the animal" is essentially a linguistic, supplementary, grammatological concept. Coccia seems to be saying the same thing as I am (and as Derrida implied in Of Grammatology), but in a new and refreshing register. His articulations of classical philosophy (it's amusing when he quotes Latin to explain how broken mirrors work), posthumanist continental thought and a theory of images (which discusses Lacan and comes close to systems theory) should have many, many people excited.

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