January 31, 2013

You're A Dialect

You’re born into a world already in progress, an elaborate economy of words, food, clothes, medicine, behavior, knowledge. These are all languages that precede you and work to define you: You are a boy; you’re a girl; you were born late and you, young lady, were born early.

The Marxist theorist Louis Althusser calls this hailing. I always loved this figure of the hail because it’s so visceral and immediate. Someone calls your name — Daniel! — and you turn around. Isn’t that the very definition of power?  You are spoken by all these existing languages telling you who you are, how to dress, how to learn, who to fuck. You are hailed before you’re even born.

And yet all these languages that precede you were created by the very people who were constituted by them, just as you are. Fashion, for instance: You come to all these clothes and their elaborate semiotics and must make do with them. Khakis? Really? Fuck. And yet all these clothes were created by people who were, and are, in your exact situation — namely, being determined by the fashion economy.

What is true of fashion is true of all languages — words, gender, medicine, science, desire. All language is a Mobius creation: a hammer that builds itself so it can build itself.

The linguist Roman Jakobson wrote of indexicals, words that have no referent outside of their use — I, here, now, this. I, for instance, always designates the speaker and is only activated when spoken (same as now, here, this). Linguistic language (is that redundant? I don’t think so), then, is an elaborate system of words and relations that remains fundamentally open. The very terms of the linguistic system are such that there are these portals, these open spaces, into which the living actor slips.

As we slide into language through the portal of I, we don the skin of the world. It’s not that we are taken up into its relentless mechanics as much as we are now operators of these systems in progress.  We wear the world, proffer its words as ours, its clothes as ours, its beliefs as ours.

And from within we recreate. Think of Jean-Paul Gaultier who created clothes out of the very fabric of the world — blood and bones, animals, African art.  He (re)created the language of fashion by borrowing this and that from other parts of the world.

Why are you wearing those clothes? Image source: HellN
Why are you wearing those clothes? Image source: HellN

Every speaker — of words, fashion, food, medicine — wields the system in a slightly different way. As you slip on these shoes, those pants, say these words, drive that car in that way to that job, you are operating different languages from the inside. You are speaking a dialect. You slip into the existing economies and, once there, make your way donning this, saying that. You are a this way of speaking all these language at once, a collection of dialects.

All there are are dialects. We all speak the same tongue but in more or less different ways.TC mark

Daniel Coffeen

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.