In my previous post in the series, i outlined some strands of the emergence of Postmodernism as it relates to its earliest core: language. Postmodernism is, by and large, a reaction to modernism’s schema of language, most notably the structuralism that was becoming dominant in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Prior to the “rise” of post-structuralism, there was a major infatuation with language in philosophy. Everyone in that time period was becoming increasingly obsessed with language. Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others while not focusing on language each had their own view of language. Others like Wittgenstein were more focused on the language phenomenon. But, after post-structuralism, language became less of a focus. Of course, there are different trains of thought today when it comes to language, the emphasis has become less and less. The following is primarily my thoughts on language from some kind of postmodern context. It is adapted from a paper i wrote in March on the question of language after postmodernism.
One of the major strands that arose in the post-structuralist movement was put forth by Deleuze. He had criticised the concept of “deep structures” where the meaning of a given utterance was below the surface of the actual utterance. His primary suggestion was that meaning was also found at the surface but at the edges of it. Think of it like a plate where the utterances are closer to the center of the plate, but the meaning understood by the recipient is found around the edges and corners. Beyond this, he suggested that there is some kind of “external” reality (although this doesn’t really require any particular kind of epistemological view for it to work) and an “internal” reality. The internal was marked by thought while the external was marked by objects of thought (or even representations of those objects). Communication occurs, for this view, when the two randomly intersect at points Deleuze calls “singularities.” Each singularity is the transmission of thought from one to another. Here, though the meaning of a given phrase is in some kind of contextual flux where the given utterance is understood within the given context and isn’t necessarily understood that way in a different context.
Derrida picked up on some parts of Deleuze when he said that “there is nothing outside the text.” For Derrida, the meaning of an utterance is only as good as the known context…and everything is context. This is where i will pick up. Deleuze’s “external” reality is more like a formless liquid. The meaning of a given utterance is arbitrary in that something like the word “red” refers to what is considered “red” because it has been imposed upon the “external.” There is nothing inherent to a cherry or an apple that makes it necessarily “red.” That color can just as easily be “grurpue” and those objects would be that. Therefore, i suggest that language is much like a glass which is used to constrain the “external” reality. Language is limited by itself and is self-referential. The “external” reality that remains apart from the glass of language is beyond a given language community’s understanding. Things like death and infinity are beyond most, if not all languages, but that is because the cup of language hasn’t been able to contain those “external” concepts. Communication is only possible when the communicants have some understanding of each other’s cup of language. It is generally assumed that those who use similar utterances are using similar cups, but that is just an assumption. There is nothing inherent in any of my writing here that guarantees i am using English. That is something assumed by you (my reader). In a more functional view, this assumption is worthwhile because otherwise nobody would be certain of their communications.
This leads us to a kind of disjunct where the theoretical differs from the functional. It would be better to continue using the functional for the reason that it is functional. The theoretical is good for conversation pieces, but not for any kind of functional working. Yet, this leads us to the matter of interpretation. Not only should one be concerned with how one interprets another’s communication directed at the one (e.g. how do you interpret these symbols and the meaning contained within their patterns) but also how does one interpret something written by another to another (e.g. how do you interpret something like the Bible which was written by somebody to somebody else…and neither of those people are you). In the next part, i will explain this further and how we should approach interpreting communications that are completely external to somebody. It may well be impossible to place oneself within a totally foreign context, meaning that we may never be certain of the communication. But, there may be some functional method with which we can have some kind of working understanding that will remain fluid so that if more context becomes available, the interpretation can change.