The question of language's relationship to death is vexed, vexed, vexed. I'm starting to think it can't be done without mirrors, or at least reflective surfaces of some kind. Like the shiny skin of an apple, or the sun's gleam in an upturned eyeball. Which makes it sound appealing, right? All sweet and positive and erotic? Wär nicht das Auge sonnenhaft/Die Sonne könnt es nie erblicken?

Well, no --at least not to hear Giorgio Agamben tell it. Yes friends, I had to enter the purple gloom of Language and Death (1982, U. Minn 1991) to bring this to you. If language is the reflection of anything (and thus its simulacrum and its double), it turns out to be a reflection of death, insofar as death is what language developed in reaction to and is essentially keyed to avoiding. This is the sense in which language is death's reflection or "mirror image," best expressed in a witchy-sounding maxim: If it is the Face of Death you would discover, seek its outlines in that system of behavior which arose out of the age-old imperative of death-avoidance. Or so I understand the argument to run.

All week now I've been wrestling with it, and at this rate it would take another week to tell the tale. So this morning I'll go long, beginning with the wobble in Foucault's mirror analogy. This comes right where writing is introduced into the argument: "Not only since the invention of writing has language presumed [prétend > "pretended" in Bouchard & Simon] to pursue itself to infinity; but neither is it because of its fear of death that it decided one day to assume a body in the form of visible and permanent signs." Writing as language's copy, and its body in a metaphor where language gets to be the soul: is Foucault citing the heroic narrative of alphabetic writing critiqued in Derrida's Of Grammatology or transmitting it? Hard to tell. He footnotes Of Grammatology (the whole book, no page number) without appearing to have read it--but then you realize he couldn't have at the time "Le langage à l'infini" first appeared in Tel quel no. 15(Fall 1963), because De la grammatologie didn't even come out until 1967. I mean they must have partied together, and I find it hard to believe Foucault didn't know Derrida's first book backwards and forwards. And yet what do you make of this passage:

"Writing, in Western culture, automatically dictates that we place ourselves in the virtual space of self-representation and reduplication; since writing refers not to a thing but to speech, a work of language only advances more deeply into the intangible density of the mirror, calls forth the double of this already doubled writing, discovers in this way the possible and impossible infinity, ceaselessly strives after speech, maintains it beyond the death which condemns it, and frees a murmuring stream." I love that murmuring stream. But the citation of "Western" grammatological norms is hard to judge. The whole point in Of Grammatology is that inscription has intruded into speech from the beginning, and that--even in the West--language is not demonstrably prior to inscription. Remember that it's not child development we're talking about here, but cavemen. Derrida's actual remarks on the Neolithic period (p. 129) are only in passing, but whatever: the question of writing's origin is by definition a prehistoric question, given that inscriptive evidence is a precondition for what's called "history" in (where else) the modern West. Or at least that's what I got out of it. Note that the penciled marks in my copy end mysteriously after page 147.

Even so? I saw where Ron Silliman recently had the wagging finger out for Derrida over an alleged malappropriation of the work of Roman Jakobson, and I have to say I'm not feeling his outrage. The one Jakobson footnote from Of Grammatology I ever followed up on (326n8) was for "Quest for the Essence of Language" (in Waugh & Monville-Burston, eds. On Language: Roman Jakobson, Harvard 1990), and overall I'd say it was a helpful and ethical citation. Again, note that I haven't finished reading Of Grammatology. I may yet find that he has misled me disgracefully! But if it's anything like Foucault's retroleptic meld of Derrida and Saussure that Ron has in mind, I'm not too troubled. I enjoy the uncanny, at least in literature. And where Foucault goes with it makes it all worthwhile: "The presence of repeated speech in writing undeniably gives to what we call a work of language an ontological status unknown in those cultures where the act of writing designates the thing itself, in its proper and visible body, stubbornly inaccessible to time." The difference between "making an inscription" and "being a writer" is sort of like the distinction Foucault will go on to make between "sodomy" and "homosexuality": where the earlier term connotes an (always-fluctuating) set of proscribed activities, the latter category names an interiority and an identity peculiar to our modernity. Or am I the only one of Alli's readers to find it so?

"Writing, in our day, has moved infinitely closer to its source, to this disquieting sound which announces from the depths of language--once we attend to it--the source against which we seek refuge and toward which we address ourselves." By this "source" he again means death, in the sense that fear of death is in all events the generative spur of language. Now I sure wish someone else besides me would say how Darwinian all this sounds. We're way past cavemen now. Everyone, meet this gentle giant of the Permian Age:

I am the poet of not being ashamed to read to you from my beloved Golden Treasury of Natural History by Bertha Morris Parker (1952): "Although Eryops had a big skull, there was not much room inside it for brains. We can be sure this big fellow, as it sunned itself, did not do any thinking about the changes that were taking place on the earth." Such as the fossilization of their own carcasses over future eons? I think Hegel would agree. But check it out: "Eryops could boast of something which no animal before the days of the amphibians had had--a voice. Probably, however, the only sound it could make was a hoarse croak." What Parker doesn't go on to point out is how helpful that croak would be in locating a mate in the misty swamps of the Coal Age, and continuing to populate them with future generations of Eryopes. But sadly, "In the end, size did not mean success. The largest amphibians now are only about half the size of this early giant."

I wasn't kidding about Hegel, who in his Jena lectures of 1803-4 gave long and careful thought to the subject of animals and their cries. It's all to be found in Agamben (pp. 41-8), rendered into English by his translators Karen E. Pinkus and Michael Hardt: "The empty voice of the animal acquires a meaning that is infinitely determinate in itself... Language, inasmuch as it is sonorous and articulated, is the voice of consciousness because of the fact that every sound has a meaning; that is, that in language there exists a name, the ideality of something existing, the immediate nonexistence of this." In 1805-6 he was even more brutal: "The voice is active hearing, purely in itself, which is posited as universal; [expressing] pain, desire, joy, satisfaction, [it is] Aufheben of the single itself, the consciousness of contradiction. Every animal finds a voice in violent death; it expresses itself as a removed self [als aufgehobnes Selbst]." Now that's gangster.

The point here is that language is a system of symbolic behavior that arose from the need to escape whatever it is that threatens the speaking subject, usually conceived as a punishment of some kind. Language's persistence and development beyond the individual organism's lifespan are decisive proofs of its own resistance to oblivion. So now finally: what is the role of the mise en abime in all this? That's still a tough one, but I'll try to get back to Alli's readers with an answer soon.


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