Language as Power

Postmodernism would argue that language is power. On the surface this is just as ludicrous as suggesting that money is speech. However, what they mean is that any use of language is a use of power. Language always aims at ends such as influence, persuasion, domination. When a bird tweets it may be to effect some form of power in their own environment (or perhaps not) but for us power is a meaningless concept in the case of a bird tweeting. When postmodernism thinks of language as power they mean that the dynamics of power and powerlessness are always at work in the use of language. Power must preserve itself through powerlessness. Power is symbiotic. If power could destroy everything not deemed powerful, power itself could not exist. Powerlessness must be in order for power to be. Any philosophy of power is just as indebted to its negative content as its positive content. As such, power is essentially indebted to its nemesis. Even more, power is itself produced by what it isn’t. If language is power this does not only refer to its positive content but to what it is not as well. In a similar manner, morality is also inseparable from immorality as Nietzsche points out in “Beyond Good and Evil”. This is the source of neutrality in the thought of power.

Language as power focuses on force. Force cannot be thought about without equal and opposite forces. There is no pure, singular force that can be thought in some hermetically sealed environment – force always occurs with other forces. Other forces can work against or for another force or have no relevance to each other. Likewise, language as force will always contain themes that work against or for the dominant theme or have no relevance to the dominant theme. An obvious example of this for many non-academic philosophers is the Bible. The Bible is full of themes. Religious denominations are all about how these themes can be refashioned, contradictory and complementary. Postmodernists do not see this as a problem with certain people not understanding the Bible correctly or not knowing God but they see this as a problem intrinsic to any use of language. Truth itself as a construct of language necessarily contains all the themes that overturn it.

However, the subtleties many postmodernists get trapped by seem to be:
1) Identification of power with a metaphysic of individualism or community
2) Identification of power as essence or origin
3) Identification of power as neutrality; in the order of ‘thingness’
4) Identification of power with presence and absence

I am not going to delve into these issues here but many have and I have to some extent. What I would suggest is that postmodernism is not about making positive statements or about answers but about the ‘nots’ of any statement and raising questions to the level of disturbing and strange. If postmodernism stops before any and every possible thematic disturbance, postmodernism falls back into historical metaphysics. This does not suggest that historical metaphysics is the ‘not’ of postmodernism but that if postmodernism sets up or establishes dominant narratives whether intentional or not, it has effectively repelled and attracted disparate themes. This attraction and repulsion is a leveling off of thematic differences. When difference is sorted according to similarity and dissimilarity a simulacra of difference is preserved but difference itself is lost. The simulacrum is sameness. Sameness here is not meant as identity as that would be pure nonsense. Sameness has to do with reversibility as opposed to rupture. Sameness brings with it a predisposition, a working agenda that is not explicitly thought out but guides the agenda nonetheless. While sameness certainly allows comparison it also misses differences that it deems irrelevant. What gets lost is difference itself in the service of thematic preference.

Certainly difference can be thought as reversible where themes are held apart in the tension of valuations (i.e., true or false, relevant of irrelevant, good or bad, etc.). However, this difference is for the sake of leveling off and sameness. This difference holds together variants, moments of dissimilars. Moments of dissimilars already holds fast to the notion of presence. It prefers reduction to kind and necessarily pushes rupture to absence. Derrida uses the misspelled word ‘differance’ to indicate rupture. Rupture is nonsense for difference. Difference totalizes. It makes sense of, takes hold of, finds form and limit (peros). Differance tears apart in its not able to, its absolute passivity in the face of, incommensurate to the point of disturbing, formless and limitless (aperion).

However, differance as postmodernists tend to think it, stills holds together the theme of neutrality, a play of forces, an ‘itness’. If differance is thought in terms of neutrality, its other must be the other, the ‘he’ or ‘she’. This moves into the thought of Levinas. If the he or she is retained as the opposite of neutrality then rupture is once again leveled off as the same. Radical alterity (otherness) is:

“The Other is radical only if the desire for it is not the possibility for anticipating it as the desirable or of thinking it out beforehand but if it comes aimlessly as an absolute alterity, like death.”
John Heaton ‘The Other and Psychotherapy’ in Provocation of Levinas

Radical alterity does not lift up or transform. It is all too easy to reject it as nonsense and actually it is – it evades but not defies sense. It is not nonsense in the typical meaning of the word as it tangentially returns. For Levinas, metaphysics is the tangential return of the radical alterity of the other. It is as waves that wash up on the beach breaking through every notion of a ‘setting’. It reoccurs but not as the same; the river that cannot be stepped into twice. The same, as our notion of death, intensifies the strangeness of the thought of my death. Somehow the two do not link up – they fall apart. This is what radical alterity does. It is incommensurate in a way that resists measure and boundary. It always returns as exceeding itself; as not resting in an ‘it’ as ‘he’ or ‘she’ resists ‘it’. This resistance is not of kind but of radical otherness.

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