Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Fascism of Language

My title contains an ambiguity. Does it name an attribute, perhaps even an essence, of language? Or does it name an application of language, a domain of fascism? In his 1978 course on "the neutral" at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes clearly intended the first of these senses, which I think most people will also find to be the most natural one. As a way into some reflections on Jordan Peterson's concerns about the legal regulation of pronoun usage, the passage is worth quoting in full:

Language: "this by means of what, wanting, not wanting, I am spoken," strict rules of combination, syntax. These rules are laws, they permit communication (cf. safety, or driving rules for the citizen) but in exchange (or on the other hand) impose a way of being, a subjecthood, a subjectivity on one: under the weight of the syntax, one must be this very subject and not another (for example: one must by necessity determine oneself, as soon as one speaks, in relation to masculine/feminine, to vous/tu): the categories of language are coercive laws, which force one to speak. In this sense, I could speak of a "fascism" of language. (The Neutral, pp. 41-2)

Against this first sense, we can put a second, one that is perhaps more naturally labelled "linguistic fascism". Here we're talking about the coercion of language itself, not language as coercion. This is the sense that would also be implicit in talk about "the fascists of language". What is interesting is that the people who are pushing for linguistic fascism—for laws which do not just censor wrong speech but compel right, i.e, politically correct, speech—probably share Barthes' somewhat paranoid view of language. Indeed, as far as I can tell Barthes is a tutelary spirit in this area of scholarship, informing much of the work on "gender identity". His influence on this question is like that of Foucault and Derrida.

Back in the late 1960s and 1970s the project was to liberate language from its "coercive laws", a phrase that was meant mainly metaphorically, as a way of denouncing the power of official grammar, which, I believe, was an especially coercive force in French academic life. (This is something Bourdieu has written a great deal about. And Deleuze and Guattari say somewhere that schools train students to see language not as something to be believed but to be obeyed.)

But today's "social justice warriors" (who, I think it's fair to say, see themselves as working in the tradition of Paris, 1968, at least on some days) are doing something different. They are taking Barthes' description of the fascism of language literally. They have given up on disobeying language. Instead of refusing to obey the "law" of vous and tu (the distinction between formal address, as one might speak to a professor, and informal address, as one might speak to friends) or, as appears to be the issue of the day, instead of refusing to, as Barthes puts it, "determine [themselves], as soon as [they] speak, in relation to masculine/feminine," today's activists are proposing (with some success) to change the law.

Like I say, they take a literal view of the "laws" of language. They think that the rules of grammar, which have "oppressed" them all this time, can be changed by legislative action. They're not simply going to disobey the unjust law they perceive; they are going to compel you to obey a new law. They are not just insisting on being themselves despite the law. They are not trying to establish a freer relation to usage, but rather trying to establish a new and even more binding one. They are trying to "impose a way of being, a subjecthood, a subjectivity on" everyone. Since "the subject" is indeed constructed where "language takes places" (to use Waldrop's wonderful image), it is appropriate, I think, to call this, precisely, linguistic fascism.

I'll write more about this in the weeks to come. (It's "in my wheelhouse", as they say.) Brenda Cossman emphasized the difference between "the law as it is and the law as you would like it to be". Some people, it seems, need to recognize the distinction between language as it is and language as they would like it to be. Indeed, as Peterson suggests on the basis of his clinical experience, we do well to distinguish our identity as it is from our identity as we would like it to be. As his own current situation suggests, we find ourselves mainly in the way we manage our obedience. And our disobedience.


Phaedrus said...

I have found your reflections on the Peterson controversy extraordinarily illuminating. Thank you.

Thomas said...

Thanks, Phaedrus. I'm glad to help.