Linguistic Turn Research Paper

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‘The linguistic turn’ generally designates in the social sciences a movement away from positivist or historicist accounts of social and historical phenomena toward analyses of the structures of representation that are understood to have helped shape those phenomena. The phrase is frequently (and sometimes loosely) used to characterize contemporary forms of the critique of ideology and the critical ‘demystification’ or ‘demythologization’ of historical and socio-political representations that offer themselves as transparent or natural accounts. Since such critical work often proceeds by way of attention to the rhetorical and conceptual articulations of representations that tend to efface their very character as representations, and since it frequently draws from philosophical and even literary theories of language and representation, it is understood to participate in a turn from socio-historical ‘realities’ to their linguistic presentation.

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The phrase is used so broadly, however, that its strong meaning for theoretical methodology is frequently lost. Frequently, the critique of representational structures proceeds without a consequent attention to the question of language, and even some of the strongest versions of ‘linguistic constructivism’ fail to interrogate their own presuppositions. Thus, the linguistic turn will be defined here fairly strictly from the basis of its foundations in order to recover its meaning and implications for the social sciences. It will be defined as beginning when language is no longer understood as an instrument in social practice, but rather as the site or ‘ground’ for such practice. It will be understood to have been fully undertaken when such a fundamental understanding of language shapes the procedures of the sciences themselves.

The beginnings of the linguistic turn may easily be traced to the eighteenth century and seen to be lurking in the very rich debate concerning the origins of language. It is clearly occurring in the research of Wilhelm von Humboldt and in the writings of the German Romantics, and then actively recognized— some would say, practiced—in the later works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus, when the official occurrence of a linguistic turn is registered in Vienna for philosophy of language, a more ‘fundamental’ turning is already long underway in the tradition of German philosophy that Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger brought to the fore in their remarkably convergent speculative writings on language. Indeed, if Ludwig Wittgenstein himself was ready to grasp in 1929 the import of Heidegger’s still largely latent meditation on language and the significance of Heidegger’s own linguistic practice, it is because the philosophical ground was well prepared for Heidegger’s subsequent turn (his famous Kehre) from an existential philosophy still marked by the metaphysics of the human subject to a thought of what is given of Being in and by language.

Historians of the social sciences will provide ample testimony of methodological tremors linked to the developments noted here in philosophy of language— in short, a displacement of the human subject or human consciousness as the grounding source of meaning in signifying practice, and the requirement of rethinking the subject object relation and relation itself. However, it may well be argued that the strong turn realized by authors such as Benjamin and Heidegger is not assumed in the social sciences in Europe until the period of the structuralist movement (a movement that explicitly unseated human consciousness from its founding role in favor of broader structures of determination: kinship systems, linguistic structures, and the laws of sexuality or desire). Even here, however, the turn to language remained frequently at no more than the level of analogy, and systems of myth or kinship were shown to be formalized equally effectively with recourse to mathematical logic (another form of appeal to a logos, some would argue). Thus, while structural linguistics functioned as a kind of ‘point science’ for the initiatives throughout the human sciences in Europe for over a decade, only the endeavors of ‘post-structuralist’ authors such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, or Gilles Deleuze actually carried the notion of the linguistic constitution of being to its full import for the social sciences. Only from the time of post-structuralism did it become possible to entertain thinking the social relation from language.

The linguistic turn has thus occurred, for example, when Michel Foucault, in his methodological treatise The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), announces that the fundamental element for his study of discursive formations will be the enonce, the statement. In an effort to displace the governing categories of the history of thought (totalizing categories that establish continuity and that all lead back, in Foucault’s view, to the sovereignty of the human consciousness), Foucault attempts a theoretical elaboration of a discursive ‘object’ that is always relational and always to be thought from its material emergence. ‘Object’ must be left here in quotation marks because the statement, as Foucault understands it, is the ‘modality’ or ‘function’ of existence of discursive facts, what ‘gives’ them or enables them to occur as language and thus as (a) a relation to a domain of objects; (b) a set of possible positions for an enunciative subject; (c) an element in a coexisting discursive field; and (d) a repeatable materiality. A statement, in Foucault’s definition, cannot be understood as a sentence that lends itself to hermeneutic investigation or logical analysis, but must rather be seen as the material, always relational, condition for something like a sentence or a proposition. Historical analyses that seek the ‘signified’ of any group of signs (reading any document for the meaning it bears, any text for its ‘allegorical’ sense), like linguistic studies that seek rules of formation, invariably efface the irruptive, eventful character of the fact of language, returning all linguistic events to their organizing conditions. Thus they participate in what Foucault calls, in his famous Discourse on Language, the ‘ancient elision of the reality of discourse.’ Foucault’s effort in thinking the enonce as the material function of existence of any discursive act or organization is directed at honoring the ‘anarchic’ character of language—a potential for disruption which ‘disciplinary’ and institutional formations seek to channel and control. At the heart of his project is an assumption that the orders of knowledge and the social institutions in which they are embedded are organized by a fear of the undermining, or even violent dimensions of discourse for the orders in which it emerges (undermining for the mere fact that it can reveal the inherent lack of foundations for the social order, violent for the fact that it can carry the irruption of desire):

‘There is undoubtedly in our society, and I would not be surprised to see it in others, though taking different forms and modes, a profound logophobia, a sort of dumb fear of these events, of this mass of spoken things, of everything that could possibly be violent, discontinuous, querulous, disordered even and perilous in it, of the incessant, disorderly buzzing of discourse.’

Of course, Foucault’s own study, fiercely abstract in its unfolding design, is not without its own violence. Indeed, his Archaeology sometimes reads as a veritable storm of theoretical elaboration; its winds tear unrelentingly at the foundations of the history of thought. But a glimpse at the virulence of reaction on the part of proponents of rational norms of ‘communicative transparency’ and/or pragmatic ‘consensus’ provide a clue to the explosive potential of Foucault’s effort to honor the disruptive dimensions of language.

Numerous authors have pursued Foucault’s ‘archeological’ analyses of discursive formations; in fact, significant currents in the growing field of cultural and ‘post-colonial’ studies principally draw upon Foucault for their understanding of the discursive constitution of social reality. Theories of social construction are deeply indebted to his analyses of ‘disciplinary’ knowledge and mechanisms of control. Far fewer authors have carried forward his understanding of the subversive dimensions of the enunciative act, though one sees its impact in the fields of gender studies and sexuality or in a topic such as the study of ‘the practices of the everyday’ by Michel de Certeau. It is for this reason that one might regard the ‘linguistic turn’—which many would undoubtedly anchor in the widespread acceptance of the theory of linguistic or social ‘constructionism’—as incomplete and even faltering. Theories of social construction, and even theories that stress the necessary ‘performative iteration’ of social norms, almost inevitably turn short of the engagement with language that marks Foucault’s work (or that of the other ‘post-structuralist’ authors to which I referred). They fail, in particular, to attend to the materiality of discursive usage in that dimension that involves what I might term an enunciative experience with language. This avoidance is easily attributable to Foucault’s own wariness regarding the ‘ontologizing’ and ‘transcendentalizing’ sources upon which he silently draws (principally Heidegger), not to speak of his strictures against anthropomorphism and humanism. But Foucault’s own turn to ethical questions in his late work point firmly to the necessity of an exploration of the subject’s engagement with the fact of language at the fundamental level evoked in the Archaeology—with the fact and manner of the way the enonce is given in its material singularity. What dimension of experience is engaged with this ‘gift,’ and what engagements (to evoke a motif pursued throughout Jacques Derrida’s late work) does it presuppose if the relations offered by the enonce must be thought from the way they are brought into existence in singular instances of usage?

Heidegger had attempted in his later meditations on language to name with precisely the term ‘usage’ the human relation to the fact of language. To avoid turning language into a kind of transcendental horizon (a trap into which many ‘linguistic constructionists’ inevitably fall), and to hold to a thought of its finitude, Heidegger attempted to think through the necessity of a human ‘accession’ to language—i.e., the conditions for any ‘interpellation’ of the human subject by language, and any human response. He did not avoid a certain anthropocentrism in this undertaking, but he also pointed beyond the purview of the metaphysics of the human subject. Unfortunately, few authors have followed through Heidegger’s thinking on this crucial point, though among them we may count the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (whose thought of the category of the ‘real’ presupposes this understanding of the ‘human relation to the signifier’) and the French writer Maurice Blanchot, whose enormous influence on ‘post-structuralist’ thought still remains to be measured. But their work, taken together with that of the distinguished Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the more recent work of authors such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Luc Nancy, make it possible to pursue a thought of the manner in which the social relation opens in and with language. From a notion of the human engagement with language, they elaborate an understanding of the event by which human speech communicates a form of ‘finite transcendence’: a transcendence of determined orders of meaning that is first of all an exposure to the other human being. They thus make it possible, in effect, to return to a thought of the social relation like that approached by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1998) in her effort to rethink the notion of public space and the political act itself.

This latter thought of ‘communication’ (not a transparent communication of signified meaning, but rather, as Walter Benjamin argued so powerfully, a communication of the very possibility of relation) clearly carries with it the obligation of defining the conditions for its engagement in critical or theoretical practice. For it is clear that the pertinence of a traditionally ‘theoretical’ mode of inquiry must come into question once language is engaged at levels that exceed that of its representational or instrumental function. Once a ‘saying’ that bespeaks the irreducible presence of an enunciating subject becomes the object of a meditation on the grounds and possibility of community (but this can be no ‘object’ for description), theory can no longer claim an exclusive purchase on the question of the social relation. Or it must rethink its own discursive modality and its relation to others (to the language of literature, for example). The challenge of the linguistic turn for the social sciences thus bears upon the discursive practices of the sciences themselves. It is not a challenge that requires the social sciences to abjure their commitment to clarity and rigor in analysis, but it does require them to entertain the question of their own discursive usage and the possibility of translation between discursive modes or between their own usage and that of a singular event of language. Here, it becomes clear that a fundamental reflection on linguistic usage is the very condition for a consequent engagement of the social relation—a relation that is not reducible to its linguistic determinations, but also not thinkable apart from the site of its emergence and articulation. The ‘linguistic turn’ is not a methodological ‘given,’ a path already secured; it is a required turn to the grounds of meaning that must be repeatedly undertaken if social analysis is to achieve concreteness in its effort to regain the social itself.


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