Volume One, No. 4 January 2003

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842



Kathy Walker


Call: While the nature, operation, and possibilities of language have been of concern to philosophy since its very beginnings, the latter half of the twentieth century has witnessed an unprecedented interest in questions of discourse, communication, and speech. Drawing sustenance from a diversity of critical approaches, social theory in particular continues to develop the political, philosophical, and cultural implications arising out of the 'linguistic turn.'

What are the critical potentials that have been simultaneously unleashed and submerged in this turn to language? What are the political stakes involved here? What is left to be done? Has the time indeed come where we can begin to speak of a 'post-linguistic turn?' If so, what forms might such a line of inquiry take?

Our call for issue 4 raised the question of the linguistic nature of contemporary theory. Here we identified a "linguistic turn" in twentieth century thought, i.e., an overwhelming tendency to understand social and political structures in linguistic terms, for example, as a social text, a cultural narrative, or a political discourse. We asked whether this linguistic turn is confining; in thinking about society and politics as linguistic is our analysis bound or limited, or is it fecund with possibility?

In this manner our call asked a metatheoretical question. The articles of issue 4 of j_spot: journal of social and political thought, engaging with a multidisciplinary collection of texts, Samuel Beckett's Endgame, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, and Pal Sletaune's 1996 film Budbringeren, lodge this question within specific texts. In this manner, the articles focus on the problem of the nature of the linguistic. In this re-positioning of the linguistic, the very question of the linguistic theoretical paradigm is raised. To our question, is the linguistic paradigm confining or liberating, the collected articles respond by rethinking the linguistic itself.

Our call also asked of the possibility of a theoretical paradigm beyond the linguistic, i.e., can there be a site of a "post-linguistic turn?" The articles in this issue suggest that the very possibility of a "post" depends on a conception of language that must be challenged. Thus the articles suggest that beyond the linguistic as-such the very possibility of a beyond is belied.

The articles of this issue broach our metatheoretic question regarding the possibilities of linguistic analysis, via a textual questioning into the possibility of language. Questions emerge: Does language secure meaning and offer safe reliable units for communication? Or is language inherently unstable? Does language provide closed, fixed, uni-semantic representation or does it open onto undecidability and a semantic wilderness? Sic., is language a cage, or is it a frontier?

Essential to this line of questioning is an assumption regarding the teleological structure of language. Here language is understood to be directed at the goal of communication and the transmission of meaning. However whether this linguistic telos is actually attainable is contestable. In positing the metaphors of "cage" and "frontier" the assumption is made that language can have an ending—the bars of the cage--and/or a beginning—the frontier border. We must ask: Is this assumption sound? Is there an end to language? Can a linguistic gesture complete itself?

In various ways the three articles challenge the very assumption of a linguistic telos. Each calls into question the very possibility of an end, and in so doing subverts any conception of a limit, a border, a beyond, an arrival, or an origin. In this manner the oppositions inside/outside, here/beyond, cage/frontier are destabilized.

The a-teleological nature of language suggested by the collected articles, is such that the linguistic paradigm is understood to be structured around a fundamental impossibility. There is a constant failure on the part of language, i.e., a failure to transmit meaning. This failure, as a failure to achieve completion, insists that there is no way to disengage from language. The game is at stalemate; the autobiography can never be completed and the letter remains undelivered. Without linguistic end, there is no point when language stops and hence there is no silence. We are compelled to speak, to write, to send letters and faxes and emails; however our linguistic endeavours are all characterized by a failure of meaning. Thus the foundational impossibility of language is a double impossiblity: the impossibility of silence, and the impossibility of the linguistic gesture.

The three articles, in challenging the possibility of an an attainable end, engage with this failure of meaning. Sandra Raponi's "Meaning and Melancholia in Beckett's Endgame" suggests a situation in which meaning is completely elusive, such that at best we can "claw at meaning." D.G. Wright's "Rousseau's Confessions: The Tragedy of Teleology" presents the Zeno's paradox of communication, i.e., the linguistic referent—the life to be recounted—is fundamentally unapproachable. And similarly, Karen Engle's "The Post of the Post" via the metaphoric figure of the rogue post-man claims our trust in communication to be mythic.

The situation seems bleak. However, once language is no longer taken to be teleological, once the possibility of completion or success is thoroughly abandoned, the "why-for" of linguistic endeavour must be re-thought. The collected articles suggest that beyond the possibility of the transmission of meaning, language becomes defined not by what is communicated but rather by the process of communication itself. In Endgame what is essential is not the elusiveness of language but rather the very engagement of our clawing at meaning. Likewise in Rousseau's Confessions, Rousseau's compulsion to keep writing is a central question. And, once we acknowledge the mythic character of our trust in the postal system, what is definitive is not that the linguistic trust-contract fails, but rather that the contract as noun is replaced by contract as verb, i.e., the linguistic activity to contract.

It is in this sense that the articles of issue 4 respond to the metatheoretical question regarding the possibilities, or lack of possibilities, of the linguistic nature of contemporary social and political analysis. The articles, in subverting the teleological structure of language, and in suggesting that language is more about a process than about a successful or complete transmission of meaning, implicitly suggest that our theoretical work is not so much about finding the right answers but more about the questioning itself. We may never find success or completion in our theoretical tasks, but we cannot withdraw. Questioning is critical. We invite your critical questions about this issue of j_spot: j_spot@yorku.ca.