Sunday, July 17, 2011

Traffic in words // breaking silence

If I say to you, “I am struck”, as in, “I am struck by the way we speak”, what kind of speech act would I be embroiling you in? Mostly, I want to say (and the very fact of my desire signals my failure), I am struck dumb. How could I possibly SAY this? What locutionary force could possibly be present in an act that cancels itself by its utterance? Entirely infelicitous, you would say.

This is precisely my predicament. And it is my predicament because I suffer it alone, I should properly say. My silence, my inability not just to express my thoughts (as if thinking were ever a purely interior experience, which I’ve never felt to be true), but to contribute generously to the collective conversation, I experience as a meanness on my part. (And if my silence is now marked by the recent outpouring of words concerning the necessary silence of white South Africans, I can do nothing about that except try to register my sense that MY silence is not that silence, that those words miss the mark – miss my mark).

And my mark, my aim, is to register some sense of the conversation, its qualities, textures, tones, excesses, brevities, of the JWTC this year. If the critical question of conversation is one of HOW we enter into it, how we enter the right words, transmit them, receive them, roll in them, then I want to say it should be, must be, mutual. Mutuality, after all, was staked as the vital source of redeeming the human from capital’s tendency to make waste human life – if I can retrieve Achille’s generous thought of 2009. What then of hesitation, accent, tone, unfinished thinking? What then of listening? Of performatively making hearing the critical question of conversation? What then of the question of voice and ear, rather than, or as well as, or alongside, eye and image? Commodity and spectacle and politics routed through image and screen contra voice, register, ear?

I am struck. The speech act again, but not just by accent and style and the profusion of words that trample, strike, drown, but by the queasy discomfort with thinking the ordinary, the everyday. I register the blow in the viscera. How much talk on the limit of the ordinary has turned on the capacities of the various parts of the body amenable to thinking? Those parts seem to stretch at the limit of metaphor, of metaphoricity, precisely because we want to resist the ordinary senses in which we speak with and from those capacities. We want them to perform extraordinarily, perhaps because we’re disappointed with the work they’ve done in the history of philosophy. But beneath, or alongside, our talk of the senses, in particular the eye and the skin in framing image and surface as concepts that labour across domains of thought and local instantiations, we have spoken of the psychoanalytics of teeth and power, of the political economy of evisceration, of the pulse of the archive, of the dialectics of tangibility (and striking and stroking). And yet we want not to take this kind of talk too seriously, as it were, for fear of being simple-minded, of taking it too literally, of missing some profundity. In this regard I am reminded of Stanley Cavell’s response to Derrida’s reading of Austin, in particular of Austin’s criticism of philosophy’s craven desire for profundity. Without developing fully the lines of thought I would otherwise want to, and putting aside the question of “ordinary language” (or at least our telling avoidance of the question of the ordinary as having something to do with fragility of the everyday, that is, the threat of our words missing their mark, of our saying more and less than we meant to, of our failing to recognise ourselves, or our world falling out from underneath our feet, as a condition of life not simply or entirely assimilable to a set of political, economic, psychic, or historical forces), I am tickled, as it were, by a week’s worth of sophisticated words and eloquent theories of the ordinary. We have battled with the question of what it is to enter into the mutuality of thought entirely implicitly – and thus regrettably. Big words up front about not doing Northern performance (by which we were meant to understand something like “showing off for the sake of appearing intelligent”), and self-reminders about “theorising from the South”.

I wager, here and now, late in the day though it is, that something of the form of conversation as we find it here in southern Africa would be useful as a mode through we might seek both theory and mutuality. It is a form that seeks to afford respect as much it seeks to garner it; it greets, enquires, affirms, honours, invites, circles, pauses, waits, deliberates, deflects, returns, and much more. Without descending to the order of proper or clean language, such a form, it seems to me, proceeds, can only proceed, because of some quiet acknowledgement of the capacity of these very words of ours for repudiation, failure, insult, or misdirection. Perhaps those meadows of communication* we all long for must remain just beyond our grasp, ever obscured by scepticism and its irritations. Or perhaps we relax into minor ordinariness.

* See Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 172.

Thomas Cousins, graduate student, Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University