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Language as a marker of power

Language as a marker of power

May 4, 2024

Comrade Oriol Arilla wrote recently in Psychology and Mind an interesting article entitled "Language as a regulator of the social". I will take advantage of the fact that the ice has already been broken with one of the most controversial topics that has arisen and that has been the subject of the most important philosophical and psychoanalytic theories of the last century to delve even further into reflection.

The article by O. Arilla begins with a first and very important break with the more conventional analyzes of what language is. Namely, that is not only a means of transmitting information.

Rupture with the classical paradigm

The writer and philosopher Walter Benjamín warned us almost a century ago that we could not reduce the analysis of the language to the always limited scheme burgué s, utilitarian, to be a means to an end. In this case, a means to transmit information from one person to another. For Benjamin, and I subscribe to his thesis, the language is a pure mediality. That is, it does not enter the channels of being a means to an end but a means in itself and realized in itself. To defend this position, Benjamin argued that no one can refer and think about language without resorting to language itself. If we wanted to apply a Cartesian scientific analysis to language we would have to be able to isolate it as an object, the problem is that this operation is impossible. In no way can we separate language from its own object of analysis because we must use language itself to do so.


This idea connects with the appointment of Nietzsche that opens, inaugurates, Oriol's article: "There is nothing less innocent than words, the most deadly weapons that can exist". It is not that words are only the most deadly weapon that can exist (it is not an innocent means for an independent end of them) but that they are also the first marker of power and structure. Language is the first structure that will teach us to obey.

Deleuze and Guattari they write in Thousand Plateaus: "Language is not even made to be believed in, but to obey and make it obey. [...] A grammar rule is a power marker before it is a syntactic marker. The order is not related to previous significations, nor to a previous organization of distinctive units "[1]. The language always presupposes the language and will configure through a hard structure a certain way of approaching the world, the seen, the heard. It will generate, in this way, various effects of power, in which enters the construction of our subjectivity and our way of being in the world. The language always goes from something said to something that is said, it does not go from something seen to something that is said. Deleuze and Guattari then argue that if animals -in their example, bees- do not have language it is because they have the ability to communicate something seen or perceived, but they do not have the capacity to transmit something unseen or not perceived to others. animals that have not seen or perceived it either.


Deleuze and Guattari affirm this idea: "Language is not content to go from a first to a second, from someone who has seen someone who has not seen, but necessarily goes from a second to a third, none of whom has seen " In that sense, language is a word transmission that works as a slogan and not communication of a sign as information. The language is a map, not a carbon copy. "

The reflections of both Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari pave the way for introducing two ideas that seem fundamental to us when facing our political and psychic realities of everyday life. The first idea is that of the performativity of language , introduced by the philosopher John Langshaw Austin and perfected by Judith Butler at the end of the 20th century. The second idea is that of the primacy of signifiers over meanings . This second idea was widely developed by Lacan and is the epicenter of contemporary psychoanalytic theory.


Performative language and politics

Austin affirmed that "to speak always is to act". The language is often performative to the extent that a statement can, rather than describing a reality, perform the act by the very fact of being expressed . In this way, when I "swear" I am making the act of swearing to the extent that I express the oath. Swearing or marrying - which are the two examples used by Austin - only make sense in the language itself. The statement is generating a reality, independent of any act external to it, by the simple act of expressing itself.Through a symbolic authority such as that of a priest, the statement "I declare you husband and wife" is a statement that only comes into relation with himself, is a performative act to the extent that the act, the fact , it makes sense only to the extent of being within a given community and following certain markers of language power. When the marriage has been constituted, the reality that existed until then changes.

Picking up this idea, Derrida it will point out that the performative can not be intentional -for Austin will argue that the first in language will be the will of some subject- and that it is beyond the subject. Language, by itself, can then transform reality without the intentionality of humans. I will return to Derrida's reflections for the section on psychoanalysis .

Judith Butler He takes up many of the ideas presented here for his theory of gender. I will not go into this article in depth in your thinking for lack of space. What Butler claims is that the law is produced performatively by the coercive repetitions of regulatory practices. But the law is not limited only to the legal, formal, it also extends to other social practices.

In this way and picking up an idea launched by Marx ("These are considered subjects because he is king") will ensure that gender is completely performative, in the sense that when we think that by saying "man" or "woman" we are describing a reality we are actually creating it . In this way, our bodies cease to be bodies to become techno-living fictions which, through the repetitive coercive practices of the roles assigned to men and women, will adjust to mechanisms of power. Gender identity, being male or female, does not exist autonomously to these same preformative practices that adjust us to be what the social structure expects us to be. We are assigned roles -at birth with a body of bio-man we will be assigned the role of masculinity - that we will have to repeat to naturalize them, to make them as if they were natural identities. This masks the social struggle that hides behind and obviates the performative character of being male or female.

Beatriz Preciado points out a very important issue to understand the magnitude of this coercive practice on bodies: at birth, the doctor never performs a chromosomal analysis but, even so, and simply through the view (see if there is a penis or a vagina) is will determine our social role (being male or female). In this way, an aesthetic is made of politics. For our aesthetics we will be assigned a social role of masculinity or femininity. Preciado affirms: "Science produces performative metaphors, that is, it produces what it tries to describe through political and cultural markers prior to it."

With everything I have stated here, I simply wanted to enter into the complexity and importance of the philosophy of language as well as its impact on our daily political struggles. The deconstruction of all the concepts that impose on us from birth must be a constant liberating practice. And we must never forget the ultra-political dimension of language as well as the performativity in the construction of our subjectivity, our resistances and power.

The language in Lacan, some brush strokes

In contemporary psychoanalytic theory and, particularly, in Lacan, language is a hard structure that determines almost entirely the production of our subjectivity. Lacan argues through the primacy of the signifiers (S1) versus the meanings (s1). To demonstrate this operation, Lacan resorts to metaphor and metonymy. Both figures are those that fortify and demonstrate that the signifiers are always above the meanings, because in a metaphor there is a displacement of the signifier (of the word itself) while the meaning remains. With different words we can convey the same meaning. Hence, Lacan -and psychoanalysis- fix and pay attention to the signifiers masters and chains of signifiers , more than in the meanings. Here we could add the reflections of Derrida, in which it is said that the same sign can have several meanings (polysemy) as a complement to the Lacanian theory.

The signifiers always refer us to other signifiers, they can not exist by themselves. Hence, classical psychoanalysis has also received many criticisms, because we should not look for the meaning hidden behind the words we say. For Lacan, however, the narrative arises to solve a fundamental antagonism, in the words of Zizek , "By rearranging its parts in a temporary succession". There is a traumatic fact that is constitutive of the being thus, a fact, a sphere, which is the Real that can never enter the channels of the Symbolic (the Lacanian triad is the Real-the Symbolic and the Imaginary, in the center of which there is the jouissance).That which in the object is positively perceived as more than the object itself and that is the force that drives my desire would be the objet petit a, which can sometimes be confused with the real and the surplus of jouissance. I do not want to dwell on this theory much in this short article. What must be retained for what concerns us is the primacy of the signifier that could be added to that of the sign and the form and that leads us to something to fetishism and contemporary communicative theory.

Sign, form and language in the construction of hegemonies and political frameworks

We love the sign. The form determines, and not the content. And here, to conclude, I would like to try to establish a relationship with Marxist theory. Zizek quoting Marx , can serve us to link and clearly express the relationship of the fetish and forms. Zizek writes: "classical political economy is only interested in the hidden contents behind the commodity-form and this is the reason why it can not explain the true mystery behind the form, but the mystery of this very form [...] Where did then, the enigmatic character that distinguishes the product from work emerges as soon as it assumes the form of merchandise.

Obviously in this same way. "[two]. It is necessary to elude a little the meanings and the contents to center our reflections on the forms and on the signs. We live in a system of semio-capitalism (capitalism of the signs) that generates its own oppressive frameworks and that creates reality through signs and languages . To combat it, we must be intelligent and create and generate our own signs as well as deconstruct our language, which does not cease to be our first marker of power and authoritarian structure.

Bibliographic references

  • [1] Deleuze and Guattari, Capitalism and schizophrenia 2: A Thousand Plateaus, 1990: 82
  • [2] Marx quoted by Zizek, The sublime object of ideology, 2010: 40

Try Not To Laugh Challenge #15 (May 2024).


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