The Blindness of Language

by Jonas Weaver

[Note: citations were not copied over due to footnotes not being copied. I’ll add them later if I remember. Main citations are Gadamer, Critchley, Robert Williams, Beauvoir, Foucault, a friend’s thesis, and Butler.]

The Blindness of Language

“Can language simply refer to materiality, or is language also the very condition under which materiality may be said to appear.” — Judith Butler

According to Gadamer, language is fundamentally not a tool. It is a mode of being by which humans operate in the world, how they be in the world. In a very real sense, then, language is essential to being human, to grasping onto the world, an operating system for existence. But what, then, are the essential characteristics of this operating system? Primarily that language is, by nature, self-forgetful. As Gadamer states it, “The real being of language is that into which we are taken up when we hear it — what is said.” Any good operating system is invisible, barely noticed. From this, though, two problems stem. Since we are not aware of language when we use it, we “get lost” in it, we tend to fall into 1) self-deception which leads to 2) the distancing and alienation of another person from herself. I’d like to focus on problem two and expand it beyond interpersonal interactions. My basic contention is that self-forgetful language in the hands of the powerful always forms the world of the oppressed. But how does it do so? How does this language shape? I think Critchley’s discussion of Hegel via Blanchot provides a helpful albeit hyperbolic starting point. My basic tenet is that, a la Butler, language refers and makes materiality knowable and framed and that the powerful have the ability to use language to shape and define the oppressed.

My first encounter with the concept of language as dominance was in Critchley’s Very Little…Almost Nothing which is his reflection on death and literature, to summarize it crudely. The clearest expression of Critchley’s explanation of how language dominates is this:

“…that language is murder, that is, the act of naming things, of substituting a name for the sensation, gives things to us, but in a form that deprives those things of their being. Human speech is thus the annihilation of things qua things, and their articulation through language is truly their death-rattle: Adam is the first serial killer.”

(Critchley, and Blanchot, use the hyperbolic language of “death” and “murder” which I find problematic since, within the context of a discussion on literature it works, but when trying to apply these concepts to the daily use of language these metaphors seem inane. So, instead, I’d like to reframe the issue using Critchley’s thematic analysis as a starting point without the language he uses.)

This hyperbolic summary comes at the end of a discussion of Hegel and Blanchot on dialectics and the Subject. As Critchley summarizes it, to Hegel, the Subject is one that can “…mediate the immediate.” This basically means that Subjects can take things as things and translate them it into things for use or understanding. Even more, (I’d contend) Subjects can, with language, (re)define the world of other persons with the progression of time. This taking as one’s own, making something one’s own and/or re-imaging, is pure dominance. How is this done? For Critchley, it is language. It’s more than that, though. Because language, according to Gadamer, always take place in the “we” our thoughts are always already formed by and in language, even before we can understand and differentiate between these thoughts/ideas and determine rightness or wrongness. Essentially, we are always already being given thoughts, ideas, and language by which we define and grasp onto this world and its parts. Our mode of being has already been pre-set by those in power. The immediate has always already been mediated without our consent. The language-being has been made normative in such a way that it excludes.   By examining a few parts of the idea of the “savage” (as discussed by Robert Williams) we can begin to see how a people group can have their language-being redefined without consent such that it excludes them. 


“Long before we possess the cognitive ability to decide whether this way of talking and thinking [caricatures/prejudices related to race] about others is rational or personally acceptable, a good number of ethnic and racial stereotypes and caricatured, cliched images still prevalent in our society have become nearly ineradicable features of the way we see this world.”

For Williams these unwanted caricatures manifest themselves in the idea of the savage. Without the idea of the savage Western civilization wouldn’t know itself, it can only know itself through that which it is not (self-deception on Gadamer’s reading). The West needs the language-being of the idea of the savage otherwise it will not exist as it does. There is, of course, more to this.

A clearer example is the link between the language of original sin and the idea of the savage. The language of sin belonged to the Western Church, a white Church. When missionaries came to the “New World” their encounter with indigenous peoples confirmed their pre-experience notion of the savage as “…unredeemed by the Christian God…” The language of sin led to the language of redemption which simply meant redefining existence in Western Christian (white) terms. This forced conversion never really meant becoming a Christian, it simply meant leaving one’s culture and identity behind and being re-made and shoved into the language-being of white culture. This is a clear case in which language(s) of (sin and salvation) functioned as justifications for violence, physical and otherwise. It all goes back to pre-held notions of the savage. As Critchley states, dramatically, “…to grasp things as such entails that those things must be dead on arrival in the understanding.” Essentially, missionaries used language to reimagine realities of Native persons. To phrase it for our purposes: Already missionaries (read: the powerful) had an idea of the savage an understanding of which alienated indigenous persons of North America from themselves and did not allow Native persons to be who they are because that method—the how of existing—was associated already with sin. Essentially, these persons were defined already, which left no room for interaction, only domination and coercion. These persons were already sinful, exotic, simply because they were “savages” which made them ripe for the message of salvation unto whiteness. Western Christianity, when coming to the “New World”, brought with it ideas about good and evil, dark and light, all these oppositions and tensions that were built into the Christian understanding of the world but not into the Native language-being. Missionaries then painted these ideas onto a world they walked into with disease and guns. The death of the “savage” was a fulfilling of the already dead personhood of Native persons in the language-being of white settlers.

Inherited language that is self-forgetful gets used as a way of mediating the immediate, a way of grasping onto experiences for other persons who are then othered from themselves. White settlers mediated the immediate for indigenous persons by applying the language-being of sin to native persons method of being. They were hellbent on convincing these Native person’s that their way of existing, their language, was inherently wrong. Missionaries wanted to attack indigenous persons understanding of how to be in the world and label it depraved for the sake of white washing. It was dominance by language-being for the sake of replacement with a white language-being.

But this applies to more then just persons of color and race. Take the idea of the gender binary, that there exists only male and female. Most members of modern America have grown up with a Christian notion—a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-2—of there only being man and woman. No in between. This notion comes to many unwillingly, and usually with little thought about its legitimacy. But the effects are horrid. When we perpetuate the notion of manhood and womanhood as being strict categories we unwittingly de-legitimize and delimit people outside this binary and their lived experiences. The binary always already mediates the experiences of trans/non-binary persons before these people can mediate the experiences themselves. Labeling a trans woman a “he” is a way in which we tell her that she isn’t really a woman. She’s just a fake. She doesn’t really exist. Her experience is invalidated. This is akin to Beauvoir’s notion that only men exist, women are particularities. Women have no sense of being, at least no being without some form of justification being needed. And when people don’t exist meaningfully, when they are associated with sin, language will always be used that makes them exotic and different. So, for the trans woman, existing in a world of the binary she has no way to be herself because no one wants to understand and instead uses pre-reflective, inherited language-being to “understand.” This act of supposed “understanding” is really an already decided “understanding” and thus no understanding. Her experiencing of the world has already been mediated for her. It was given in language and in language it is held.

However, about both of the previous examples there must be something said for how language use by the Other subverts and empowers. Because language is always tied to hermeneutic situations language is entirely subject to change and therefore being is subject to change. Language, because of it’s accessibility to everyone, is always open for contest and re-imagining. Thus, indigenous persons can use the unwillingly inherited white culture forced on them to refocus the conversation on their actual language and culture. Trans persons can use the language of the gender binary to expand the definition of manhood or womanhood, or even exist outside those categories. Either way, the language of the powerful, despite having already mediated existence for marginalized groups can be used against the powerful since everyone has access to this language now. Trans women and native persons have the power to turn language on the powerful and remake the world in a very meaningful sense. Language reclamation is a reclaiming and mediating of one’s own experiences.