Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about language.
It’s a funny thing to think about I suppose, but the way we choose to use language has always fascinated me. I could talk about it for hours.
What is it about language that has such intrigue, such force? Public announcements, private confessions, Facebook wall posts, text messages and voicemails; every day we use language, words, names of things, to negotiate our relationships to the people and objects around us. We are interpellated and constituted, enabled and disabled, through speech. Through a process of assigning a slew of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, these people are this, these objects are that, and we feel this way about them. Or do we? Certainly we have all been unable to say something, have said something we didn’t mean, or even quite literally were lost in translation. Is speech always true?
In the opening chapter of Excitable Speech: A Politics of Performativity, “Linguistic Vulnerability,” Judith Butler opens with the statement: “we ascribe an agency to language, a power to injure, and position ourselves as the objects of its injurious trajectory” (Butler, 1). For Butler, speech is always in some way not entirely in our control, which is why she takes up the legal term, “excitable speech,” defined as speech acts made under duress (Butler, 15). But if it’s not in our control, whose control is it under? For this there is a double answer of sorts.
Let us return to my earlier mention of “interpellation.” The idea of interpellation stems from a theory Louise Althusser proposed that draws heavily on Lacan’s “Mirror Stage.” In short, it discusses how we require recognition to exist as subjects. Quoting Butler, “In the famous scene of interpellation that Althusser provides, the policeman hails the passerby with ‘hey you there.’ And the one who recognizes himself and turns around to answer the call does not, strictly speaking, preexist the call” (Butler 24). Through the act of “hailing” we turn to answer an address. Thus, receiving recognition we are interpellated, subjugated. We exist.
So now that we are subjects, we are not subjects free and clear, least we forget the subject-constituting power of ideology. Butler asks in the text, that if power is not to be defined as a strength with which we are endowed, then how are we able to account for instances where it appears in, or is inherent to, a name? Her answer to this is that power is necessarily covert, “it comes to appear as something other than itself, indeed, it comes to appear as a name. (Butler, 36).” Our understanding of names regulates ‘normal’ and eccentric, positive and negative. The ideology that supports these beliefs has of course been repressed as somehow natural, normal, and it is through this process that something like language becomes so quotidian, so benign, so powerful.
Language has power, because language makes us feel in or out of control; it can become a source of confusion, even pain. To be called a name we do not recognize as ourselves, is to take away subjectivity. To tell someone they are not capable of speaking for themselves, is to exercise power by and through language. To tell someone they are being something is to call their subjectivity into question. This is how words can wound, because to take away subjectivity is to take away being. We cease to exist.
So, to carry on existing, we call and respond. We can say things that hurt. Yes, we (try to) say things that escape language itself. And as much as we might stand by, or change our minds about the things that we have said, when we use language we are always negotiating the terms of (my/your/their) existence.