ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 26

 - Reflections; Who Doesn't Hate Theory Now?


In this final lecture on literary theory, Professor Paul Fry revisits the relationship between language and speech, language and intention, and language and communication. Over the course of this discussion, he retrospectively defines theory as a means of establishing the extent to which “it is legitimate to be suspicious of communication.” Along the way, he reconnects with New Criticism, Jakobson, Bakhtin, Saussure, de Man, Fish, and Knapp and Michaels. Through an analysis of epitaphs and a final tour through Tony the Tow Truck, he underscores the central role of language in the variety of literary theories presented in the course.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 26 - Reflections; Who Doesn't Hate Theory Now?

Chapter 1. What Is Theory? [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Well, last time we saved theory from the clutches of Knapp and Michaels, and we did so by saying that there really is a difference between language and speech. That’s a claim that I want to continue investigating in today’s concluding lecture, but in the meantime when I say we saved theory, you may well be asking by this time, “Well, okay, so you saved it, but for what? Why?” We began to suggest last time that in a certain sense, especially in view of neo-pragmatists’ claims about the agency of language and speech–understood to be one and the same thing–in view of claims of this kind, do we have to conclude that theory is impractical? That is, that it can’t have anything to do with pragmatist objectives? That, too, is something I want to worry a little bit about today. Why do we bother to save literary theory? Well, it has something to do plainly with communication.

Speech, as we said last time, is unquestionably for–that is to say we have made it for–communication. So the old, frankly incredibly tired question, “How well do we communicate with each other?” is unfortunately, in a way, not irrelevant to what we’re trying to get at here. I want to say a couple of things about what the French during the existentialist period called la manque de la communication. In a way, they’re not really connected. First of all, I want to say that we actually communicate rather well. Congratulations to us, in other words! I think that many of the conventional ways in which people worry about whether or not we can understand each other–many of those ways of thinking about the problem are actually exaggerated. My own feeling is that perhaps a good deal of the time we understand each other all too well, and [laughs] that it might be better, in a way, if we didn’t have quite such an acute sense of where each of us are coming from. It probably would improve human relations rather than otherwise, and this may have something to do with what I take to be a certain measure of bad faith in the ways in which we try to get together and raise each other’s consciousness. Our supposition is that the whole problem is that we don’t communicate well enough, and we don’t understand each other’s subject positions well enough.

As I say, I’m not completely convinced of that, so there’s a certain sense in which I say, “Hey, speech is great. It’s doing just fine. Don’t worry. We’re communicating perfectly well, possibly too well.” So why on earth should theory come along and say, “Well, there’s sort of a problem with communication”? The problem is this nagging entity called language which keeps poking up through the communication process, getting in its way, impeding communication, as the Russian formalists suggested–all for the better, as they saw it–that language does. Why should it matter? What’s at stake? As Knapp and Michaels might say, what’s at stake in calling attention to the way in which language does impede communication? In other words, we communicate fine, but what we really mean in saying that is, we communicate fine for everyday purposes. Speech has a rough and ready efficacy, and anybody who denies that, as I say, is simply exaggerating problems that may exist on grounds other than difficulty of communication. So speech is really fine up to a point.

Part of the function of theory is precisely to interrogate the degree to which speech in an unimpeded way communicates and the level of accuracy and detail at which speech can ever be expected to communicate. These are the sorts of questions that we might expect theory to ask, and if you say, “Well, I’m still not very convinced that that’s an important aspect of one’s intellectual life,” I don’t blame you. I hope to have convinced you over the next forty-five minutes or so that it’s pretty important in a variety of ways and that it’s worth keeping in mind.

In the meantime, just to start on this issue tentatively, we can understand theory–and of course, we began the semester by defining it, by trying to distinguish between theory and philosophy; theory and methodology; perhaps even those sorts of approaches to literature that Knapp and Michaels call “poetics”; maybe even to distinguish between theory and hermeneutics, because after all, the whole drive and function of hermeneutics is to discover meaning. There is a certain sense, as we have come sadly to realize, in which theory is more interested in the way in which meaning is impeded, so it may be–as we suggested, as I say, at the beginning of the course–that as to theory, if we’re to get comfortable with it at all, we have to keep in mind that it’s not philosophy.

That is to say, even though you’re good at theory and you understand the purpose of theory, you can still be a system builder. That is to say, you can still have a sense of explaining the totality of things that philosophy needs if it’s going to function as philosophy or as philosophy properly should. You can still, as Knapp and Michaels say, engage empirically with questions of literary data summarized in such a way as to amount to what we call “poetics.” You can do all these things, and you don’t really have to feel as though theory is somehow or another standing on the sidelines sort of shaking its fist at you and wagging its finger. Theory doesn’t have to be understood as a watchdog. At least in my opinion, and not everyone agrees with me, theory really lets us go our own way and simply reminds us that there are certain limits or reservations that need to be kept in mind, that one is perhaps wisest to keep in mind, as we think through problems of interpretation and meaning.

So theory I would define as–and I’ve used this word “negation” a lot–I would define theory as a negative movement of thought mapping the ways in which it is legitimate–as opposed to the ways in which I have suggested it’s perhaps not legitimate–but mapping the ways in which it is legitimate to be suspicious of communication. Theory is an antithetical counterforce to that which is commonly supposed to be true, posited as true, and–here of course one comes to the point–spoken as true: enounced, articulated, spoken as true. So if that’s the case, why the fuss about language? Why do we so quickly narrow the issue down to language?

Chapter 2. Three Ways That Language Impedes Speech [00:08:28]

What I said last time about language and the relationship between language and speech may have seemed unconvincing to you because it was so narrow. I want to broaden today, considerably broaden, the sense of what I mean by “language.” It seems to me that theory encourages a measure of suspicion about the efficacy of speech, that which is spoken as true, in three ways.

Last time I mentioned one, but now let me emphasize three. The first and the one I did mention last time is the way in which language obtrudes itself as sound. In other words, if we think of the efficiency or functionality of speech as a medium of communication, we’re forced to ask ourselves, even as we engage in speech, how and why it is that speech is so much burdened in ways that are of no use whatsoever to us for the most part. Sometimes they are of use. One of the pre-freshmen asked me last time, “Well, isn’t sound a reinforcement of meaning?” I told you when we did the New Criticism that all of you had done the New Criticism in high school. That’s the way you learned literary interpretation. Well, this was a perfect embodiment of a bright person coming out of high school saying, “Interpretation just is the New Criticism and I’ve been taught that sound reinforces sense. That’s what it says in Perrine’s handbook about understanding poetry. Sound reinforces sense.” Well, it often does, of course, and on those occasions we can revel in the complexity of an intentional meaning or intentional structure that is augmented by the way in which sound patterns are used.

At the same time, as the Russian formalists discovered, working through materials that weren’t perhaps so much materials like John Donne’s “The Canonization” or texts of the kind that lent themselves, to a degree, readily to the New Criticism; but rather alliterative verse, folklore and folk verse in the Russian tradition, verse embodying proverbs–what they noticed in studying these materials is that there is simply no way of grasping a semantic purpose, a purpose having to do with meaning, in the sound elements that are involved. I think that as we recognize the way in which there is a strange pull in our spontaneous speaking toward repetitiousness of sound, it’s not just that we all speak iambic pentameter without knowing it–which, by the way, is by and large and true. It’s not just that. It’s that there is an extraordinary amount of alliteration and rhythmic determination in what we say.

Jakobson has an interesting point in “Linguistics and Poetics” about that moment when we’re nearby and an accident takes place or something like that. He says in effect, “You could call a person in a situation like that anything, but we call that person an innocent bystander, and the reason we do so is metric.” A person is an innocent bystander not because that expression has any particular meaning or semantic valence as over against other expressions but because it’s catchy, because it sort of sticks in our mind, perhaps for mnemotechnical reasons, as catchy. Eisenhower won the election against Stevenson because “I like Ike” is a more efficient sort of way of engaging with the repetition of sound than “Madly for Adlai.” Jakobson doesn’t go into that, but I think an interesting political analysis could be made of, as I say, the greater efficacy of “I like Ike.” All of these functions of sound or, I should say, appearances of sound in speech are what an economist might call irrational. They’re there, they’re doing a job, but it’s not really a job of anything that we could call communication. The job they’re doing is sort of free spirited on the part of language. It’s just there in an arbitrary relation with the semantic pattern of speech.

So much then for sound, but it’s not only that. If it were only that, if literary theory were only about the first two or three years’ worth of research performed by the Russian formalists, we probably wouldn’t be having an introductory survey course in the subject. Speech is impeded by language in two other ways. First of all– second of all, I should say, I suppose–speech is disturbed by the way in which language produces in what’s being said an uncontrollable semantic drift. That’s what I want to call it. In other words, the language of an utterance is crafted to say some particular thing. Actually, it was Saussure, in a work of his that’s less known than the Course in General Linguistics, who published a monograph on the way in which you can find acronyms of various kinds buried or embedded in Latin verse. In other words, there is meaning within meaning which can’t possibly have been planted there and yet, miraculously enough, you can find there. You can recite a well-known poem–the one that we took up last time because it was the example given in Knapp and Michaels’ “Against Theory–you can recite a poem while reading this: [referring to what is written on the chalkboard:

Ah slum per dead, um, I spear’d seal,
Eye add, know Hume, ‘n fierce!
Shah seam (duh!) thin; the tic wood-knot fee ill:
Thud! A shover the lee ears.

No mo’! Shun hash e’en now, no fours,
Shhh! Knee th’rears, Norse ease,
Role drown, an’ hurts, die, urn: all corpse,
Whither oxen?–ssst!-onus entries.]

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem’d a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll’d ‘round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Now you can see that to write the poem in this way is to perform an exercise which is essentially what Joyce is doing inFinnegan’s Wake. As a matter of fact, as I transcribed the poem out of my notes [gestures to board]–as you can see, I transcribed it–I kept saying to myself, “You know what? This could be in Finnegan’s Wake.” I was actually quite pleased with myself, as you can imagine. [laughter] [laughs] Notice that I have used all words. There’s nothing in these eight lines which is not a word. I have certainly engaged in a certain amount of anachronism, but I have also used punctuation, and I have worked out ways in which this discourse makes sense. I could have just left it at nonsense–like Lewis Carroll’s “ ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”–which is another way in which language is affected by uncontrollable semantic drift. The point of Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense verse is that we all think we know what it means: “ ‘Twas blusterous and the slimy toads did leap and frolic in the waves.” We think that it means something like that, but semantic drift–which is what Lewis Carroll deliberately introduces to it–prevents us from in any secure way drawing any conclusions about that.

I, of course, am making no claims for this transcription of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” at all, but maybe this can show us the ways in which there is semantic drift. Let’s say that you were a person not really, as Stanley Fish would put it, in the interpretive community to which all the rest of us belong, and you don’t really know what a poem is. Somebody recites in your presence what I just recited to you. Well, if you were quick at writing and you transcribed the thing, you might very well produce something like that [points to board]. In other words, it wouldn’t just spontaneously occur to you that what Wordsworth wrote was what you were hearing, and that’s because the kind of semantic drift that I’m talking about really is inescapably present in any utterance that we make.

The utterance is not often mistaken because we’re really actually good at understanding context. That’s one of the reasons why the so-called problem of communication isn’t as great as people sometimes claim it is. We’re really good at understanding context. Hence, we’re not likely to go badly wrong, but certainly there are occasions on which we go badly wrong. As we all know, that’s the irritating thing about spell check. You put on spell check, you write your term paper, you don’t bother to edit it, and you turn it in. It’s full of howlers because, of course, the language is full of homonyms, and spell check always gives the wrong word. You’re in the soup, frankly because, of course, your teacher is just kind of slapping his knee and guffawing while reading it. [laughs] [laughter] In short, don’t use spell check, but spell check is [laughter] a phenomenon that shows you the way in which semantic drift permeates language.

But it’s not just that either. There’s a third way in which language impedes speech. Saussure never says this in so many words, but this is definitely what he means by langue. Remember I said that language, langue, is a virtual entity because we could never actually encounter it written down in any codified form. Yes, it is: the dictionary, the lexicon, right? But that’s only part of it. So far, notice that we’ve only been talking about the lexicon when we talk about semantic drift, but in addition to the lexicon, language, langue, is a set of rules–rules of grammar and syntax, rules by means of which, and only by means of which, speech can make sense. In other words, language has this sort of bearing on the choices that we can make while producing speech.

Unfortunately those rules can be a little bit slippery. When we talked about the innocuous expression “It is raining” as an illustration of Jakobson’s six sets of the message, just as an example, we were brought up short by the meta-lingual function of “It is raining.” We suddenly asked ourselves, “What on earth is ‘it’?” In other words, there is a kind of grammatical and syntactical permissibility, obviously, in the expression “It is raining,” but at the same time we really have no idea. It can lead us in strange directions, this “it”: Jupiter Pluvius, God, the cosmos, the clouds. Some of it is plausible but none of it is definite. We realize that “it” is a kind of placeholder in the sentence that is not doing its job and, believe me, it’s not just in English. As I said before, it’s a phenomenon that you can find in any language, even in the expression “It is raining”– il pleutes regnet, and so on. In all of those expressions, “it” is not doing its job, so that’s another way in which, if we lean on a speech, we have to realize that we’re in the presence of what the economists again would call irrationality.

That has to do with the way in which predication works in language. As I said before, an assertion, a statement of truth–an assertion of any kind is the utterance of a metaphor, because the deep structure of any assertion is that A is B. That is an assertion by definition; but–“A is B,” and of course when that construction is grammatical–in other words, when it makes what the grammarians call a copula–when the construction is grammatical, well, that’s fine because we understand that the relationship between A and B is not a relationship that’s insistently one of identity; that a connection is being made–a connection which de Man, for example, would call metonymic–in predication. The problem is that any sentence which declares that A is B metonymically–that is to say, as a grammatical proposition–is at the same time, if we simply look at the sentence for what it is, which is a metaphor, an insistence that A is B in the sense that A is A–is a metaphor, in other words which doesn’t stand on all fours. No metaphor does. It has an element of what’s called catachresis in it, and therefore in a certain sense, as we read the sentence, necessarily undermines the sentence’s grammatical structure.

This is the point that de Man is making in “Semiology and Rhetoric,” that there is a perpetual tension in any utterance between grammar and rhetoric. There is no utterance that’s not grammatical, there’s no utterance that’s not rhetorical, but unfortunately grammar and rhetoric are always rather openly or subtly at odds with each other, just in the way that metaphor and predication really have to be at odds with each other. In other words, there isn’t a sentence in which the rules of grammar and syntax are not subtly interfering with what you might call the rules of rhetoric–the ways in which tropes, in other words, deploy themselves, ways which can be distilled in an understanding of what we call metaphor.

Chapter 3. Language Speaking Through Speech [00:24:44]

So every sentence, as I say, is shadowed not just by the vagaries of sound, not just by semantic drift, but by the incompatibility of grammar and rhetoric, and all of that is implicit in what Saussure and his tradition call language. Those are the ways, in other words, in which language, if I can put it this way, speaks through speech, the ways in which anything that we say on any occasion is shadowed by another voice. We’ve understood this in social terms as Bakhtinian polyglossia. We have understood this in psychoanalytic terms as the discourse of the otherness of the unconscious. We have understood this in purely linguistic terms as language, but we can, I think, metaphorically speaking, understand it now as well as a kind of speech. Language is an unintentional speech. Language is just that speech which, we recognize–having gone through the sort of analysis that I’ve been attempting–is not governed by intention.

Keep in mind: nobody–no theorist, nobody in his right mind–would ever try to resist the claim that speech is intentional, that we intend what we say. That’s the way in which Knapp and Michaels are right and give us a bracing reminder about things where our skepticism is misplaced. The idea that speech is somehow not intended–what could that mean? Speech just is intention, but I’ve been trying to argue that there is a speech, the “speech of language,” which is unintentional, which is just there. It can’t be factored out. It can be bracketed, but it can’t be set aside as though it were not there. It will always come back. It will always confront us at some point if we take the arts of interpretation seriously enough–if, in other words, we really do bring some pressure to bear on the things that people say: not just a pragmatic pressure, which I think works just fine for most of us, but a pressure that goes beyond the pragmatic and notices what’s really in a sentence, what’s really in anybody’s utterance.

Language speaks through speech partly as its origin. In other words, the way language gets into something that you or I might say is a reminder to us that what we say comes from someplace. It has an origin and its origin is precisely language. Language keeps saying, “Oh, oh, here I am,” your origin, right? The birth of what you’re doing, in other words, way back before you discovered that language was useful for something. Remember what we said about that last time: you have to discover that fire is useful for cooking. Fire is not “for” cooking. A cave is not for dwelling. A prehensile thumb is not for grasping. You have to discover the ways in which this is the case. Language is there in what we say to remind us that it wasn’t always the case, to remind us that it’s just the origin of a history of conscious expression during the course of which we began the never-ending process of trying to master language. That’s, of course, what it is to be a writer. You try to wrestle language into submission. That’s the ambition of all of us, whether we’re writing the great American novel or revising a term paper. We’re wrestling language into submission, and we all know it’s not easy. I’m just trying to explain some of the reasons why it’s not easy.

Chapter 4. A Study of Epitaphs [00:29:37]

So language speaks through us as the origin of speech, but it also speaks as the death of speech. It speaks, in other words, as the moment in which the purposeful agency of speech is finally called into question, in a certain sense undermined. I think it’s appropriate, I think it’s fair, to call language–again metaphorically–the epitaph of speech, the way in which in any given speech the end of its own agency is inscribed even as that agency is going forward.

Now I want to test this example and also show you a little bit more about the way semantic drift–but even more than that about the way the perilous relationship between grammar and syntax and rhetoric works. I want to actually try out on you a couple of epitaphs. If language is the epitaph of speech, why not talk for a little bit about epitaphs?

Now my favorite epitaph by far: probably–well, we won’t speculate about where such an epitaph might be found, but if and when you come across it walking through a cemetery, it’ll probably elicit a chuckle. On the gravestone it says, “I told you I was sick.” [laughter] Now this is a very interesting expression for a number of reasons. For one thing, and one should pause over this, one can infer speakers speaking efficaciously, not just one but many. There’s plenty of precedent for this in Emily Dickinson and in other writers. The most obvious speaker is the dead person speaking from the grave: “there I was, sitting in the corner all those years telling you I had a headache. You never listened to me” and so on.

That is the most obvious identification of a speaker, but of course the speaker could be somebody else, and I’m notintroducing a measure of skepticism in saying this. When we posit an intention, we just decide which of these speakers it is. The speaker could be an apologetic relative, someone acknowledging that they hadn’t listened, but with a sense of humor, and so putting in the voice of the dead person the complaint, “I told you I was sick” as a form of apology: “Yes, I know you did, and unfortunately I had to go to the grocery store.” [laughter] That, too, can be the speaker.

Well, on the other hand, it could be someone simply moralizing over the grave, which is a frequent habit of the eighteenth century–one of my periods, so I’m familiar with it. It could be a philosopher–right?–saying, “Well, this is the human condition, [laughs] as I kept telling you. I published thirteen books, the whole purport of which was ‘I am sick.’ I’m Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. I am a sick man. I am a very sick man. Well, let it get worse.” It could be in this mode that a philosopher is moralizing over the grave, or again it could be a cultural critic. It could be someone in a kind of an allegorical mood inscribing on the gravestone the death of culture. Civilization has been in a bad way for a long time and here finally it lies. The way to communicate this would then be, “I told you I was sick: civilization has ways of letting us know that all is not well with it: we didn’t pay any attention, and here is the result.”

I would say that all of those ways of reading the epitaph are consistent with hermeneutics. They are consistent with the way in which we can try to come to terms with the intention of a speaker; but suppose we say that “language” must be obtruding itself in this utterance like any other. What would that be? You see, that isn’t just a question of sound. It isn’t even a question of semantic drift, in this case. It’s a question of our suddenly coming to understand the sentence in a way that perhaps no individual speaker would want to give it. It’s an allegory, precisely, cleverly introduced by language, about the inefficacy of speech. That’s just the problem with speech, isn’t it? “Again and again and again I tell you something and you don’t listen”–that’s the problem with being a lecturer, [laughs] that sort of “I told you I was sick and you–” “Oh, well. He’s just joking.”

So it is–according to the allegory introduced by language at the expense of speech–with speech in general. It’s an allegory about the limits of communication because that’s, after all, what the speaker–insofar as there is a speaker inscribing this expression on the gravestone–is concerned about. This person sitting in the corner, complaining bitterly about nobody ever listening to her or to him, is actually an allegorist telling us that that’s the way speech is. Speech, in other words, has its limits. In a sense then, when I say language is the epitaph of speech, we realize that if we understand this utterance as an allegory, it is precisely speech that’s lying here–the end, as I suggested, of speech’s powers of communication as announced or declared by language.

Well, let’s try another one: “Here lies John Doe,” probably the Ur-epitaph. Supply your own name: “Here lies John Doe.” Well, let’s not even pause over the speaker there. Let’s get immediately to the problems posed by language. In the first place, John Doe obviously does not lie precisely “here,” right? In fact, if you think about it, it’s altogether possible that John Doe could be absolutely anywhere except precisely “here,” because where the sentence is we know John Doe not to be. He could be anyplace else, as I say. So any epitaph is therefore a self-declared cenotaph, an inscription on a place where the body isn’t, which of course tells us a lot, too, about the arbitrary nature of language. Language does not hook on to the real world. It doesn’t hook on to the body. The one place where language is not is on the body. The one place where language is not is on things. Speech is on things. Speech can be inscribed on a piece of rock.

So “Here lies John Doe,” except not here, anyplace but here–which is why, of course, the interest of the word “lies” is so interesting. [laughs] The utterance is a lie, but it’s not John Doe who lies. Poor John Doe is just lying someplace. John Doe is not lying, right? It’s language [laughs] that’s making speech lie, and it’s doing it on any number of levels, as we’ve seen. It’s a funny thing about epitaphs, and this has been noted by certain authors writing in the tradition of what we loosely call “deconstruction”: the epitaph is a particularly fruitful locus for the study of the ways in which language challenges, undermines, and displaces speech, and as I say, these two examples show more or less the way that works.

So speech lies everywhere except here–I don’t mean here!–speech lies because it can never stop being language, and therefore we can never really possibly mean exactly what we say. We can mean what we say, but we can’t mean exactly what we say. That’s probably the most commonsensical way of putting the matter. When Stanley Cavell poses the question in the title of one of his books, Must We Mean What We Say? [laughter] he is actually offering us the possibility that maybe that’s not the be all and end all of speaking, [laughs] that the speech-act situation is more complicated than that. Sure, we all have it at heart as an objective to mean what we say, but at the same time in speaking we are performing, we’re acting, as the neo-pragmatist would suggest, and we’re doing all kinds of things besides meaning. That really needs to be taken into account, even in understanding what speech can do, let alone in understanding what speech can’t do. So it’s plausible to say that yes, we can mean what we say; but it’s a question–indeed, it’s a very insistent question–whether we can mean exactly what we say.

Chapter 5. Final Reflections on Tony the Tow Truck [00:40:59]

Now you ask–you must ask, because after all it’s been our constant guide–you ask, “Does language speak in Tony the Tow Truck?” I know this has been on your mind, and so of course we have to address it. I think there are a few interesting things to be said about that. I spoke earlier in the semester about the parade on the vertical axis, of that vertical axis, called “I.” As you read the text, there it is, [laughs] sort of out of Lacan, out of Lacanian feminism, however you look: the phallogocenter right there, I. But now I is never the first word spoken by an infant. That’s another lesson of Lacan. I is what you have to learn how to be–maybe to put it in Judith Butler’s terms–so that I, insofar as it is this incredible upright pillar starting one sentence after another in Tony the Tow Truck, is a promise of, precisely, agency: the promise of the kind of identity which stands upright, which is a successful simulacrum of what is seen in the mirror, and which then develops into what Freud called, referring to the way in which infants begin to get their way in the world, “his majesty the ego.”

So the I has that function, but as I’ve said, it’s a story about friendship, and the disappears. This, too, I think, can be communicated as relevant to the infant in ways that at the functional level of language can’t really be called speech. For example, the friendship exists between Bumpy [pron. BUM-py] and Tony [pron.TO-ny], uh-oh: long before the baby says “I,” it says “uh-oh,” and that “uh-oh” resonates in the friendship of Bumpy and Tony. Why “uh-oh?” Because Tony is stuck and Tony’s natural response to being stuck would be, “Uh-oh.” Along comes Bumpy and–“uh-oh”–not only recognizes the problem but takes care of the problem.

Now on the other hand, the problem of self, the problem that’s caught up in this vertical I, comes into focus for the infant as the awareness of otherness or that which is alien. That which is irreducible to the self begins to come into focus, and a way of expressing this is to say, “e-e-e-e,” which is perhaps in some way or another a mask or a simulacrum of “he-he-he-he.” I think it’s for that reason that the two antagonists of the story, the unassimilable others who do not help, are called Speedy [pron. SPEE-dee] and Neato [pron. NEE-to]. In other words, that sense of otherness–of that which is intractable, that which cannot be reduced effectively to self–is I think articulated in “e-e-e.” In other words, what the infant speaks is not speech, is it? It’s language. If you want to hear language in speech, just listen to a baby. That’s why nonsense verse has such appeal to young children. They’re still hearing language. It’s a way of putting Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode.” They’re still hearing the mighty waters rolling evermore. They’re hearing “ohm” where we’re all hearing speech.

As I say, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The history of the human species is a history of coming to terms with speech, mastering speech–or, I should say, perhaps, mastering language. Well, so it is in the individual. The individual who is hard wired–isn’t he?–for language must somehow or another wrestle that hard wiring in to what we call speech. So the first thing we hear in an infant, and maybe what is most predominant in stories for toddlers and in nonsense verse, is language, which you don’t reduce semantically, you don’t parse it semantically. Sure, I’ve just interpreted it into a kind of meaning, but it’s a meaning which comes simply from the observation of feelings and noticing what children actually say on actual occasions, which can’t really be called speech but is rather a kind of experimentation with language dragging itself toward speech. It’s not anything that one would ever really confuse with speech, yet partly an imitation of what is heard in the adult world. That’s where you get “uh-oh.” But when the adult occasionally says, “Uh-oh,” there’s nothing like the investment in it that there is in the child for whom it is very often the first articulate sound. It is the encounter with otherness and the attempt to master otherness, as in Freud’s story of fort/da, that this “uh-oh” seems to be expressing.

Chapter 6. Three Final Theses [00:47:07]

All right. So much for Tony. I’d just like to confuse–I’d like to conclude with three theses. Well, you have to speak very carefully or language obtrudes. I had to say very carefully “three theses,” right? And of course I made a mistake just before. I didn’t want to say “confuse,” did I? [laughter] Notice that “confuse” was not just anything getting in the way of communication. It was precisely what I did not want to say [laughter]–precisely. I could have said anything else, but I said “confuse.” That is the Freudian slip that I’ve been talking about.

Well, anyway, [laughter] three theses about language. First, it never makes sense. Language does not make sense. It’s arbitrary. It is a system of arbitrary signs that are not natural signs. You make sense, not language. You make sense by invoking an intention–that is to say, by having an intention–and wrestling language into speech: that is, commandeering language for your purposes. Language doesn’t make sense; you make sense.

Language in itself, secondly, says nothing about reality just because it is a system, a code, a system of arbitrary signs. I want to put it two different ways to show you what’s going on. You come to terms, as we say, with reality. That is to say, you find the words for reality as you grasp it. Another way to put it is you figure it out. In other words, you come to understand what language is, “I figured it out,” but of course in rhetorical theory, “figure” is precisely a figure of speech. You bring to bear figures just as you come to terms. You bring to bear figures on reality. You figure it out.

Finally, to adapt an expression with which you’re probably familiar, I’ll conclude simply by saying that the road to reality is paved with your intentions, be they good or bad. Thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

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