Linda Belau


There arises the possibility that we undergo an experience with language, that we enter into something which bowls us over, that is, transmutes our relation to language. Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language

In literature, doesn’t language itself become entirely image, not a language containing images or putting reality into figures, but its own image, the image of language—and not a language full of imagery—or an imaginary language, a language no one speaks—that is to say, spoken from its own absence—in the same way that the image appears on the absence of the thing, a language that is also addressed to the shadow of events, not to their reality, because of the fact that the words that express them are not signs, but images, images of words and words in which things become images? Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus


Pointing toward something in language that exceeds communication, both Heidegger and Blanchot provoke us to think what leaves us speechless. And perhaps, beyond that, to speak of what leaves us speechless. The exigency of this provocation persists throughout both their works, enjoining us to undertake a thinking of what, in language, speech is not adequate to. Responding to this exigency, how might one speak to this crisis of signification, this irrecuperable rift in language? Here one must necessarily speak of the figure: of a language no one speaks, one that is neither figurative nor figurable, that cannot be recuperated or recuperative for any subject, absent or present. Of an experience that bowls us over. In the manner of a catastrophe? But what sort of catastrophe?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau points to catastrophe as the elemental condition for thinking the origin of language. Or what, in language, exceeds the order of signification. In "On the Origin of Language," Rousseau invokes an image of God, or so it would seem, as he situates the inaugural condition for the emergence of language and the origin of civil man: "He who willed man to be social, by the touch of a finger," Rousseau writes, "shifted the globe’s axis into line with the axis of the universe." In his reading of Rousseau, Jacques Derrida suggests both the possibility and the probability that this "slight movement" is nothing other than God’s intervention:

The slight push is almighty because it shifts the globe in the void. The origin of evil or of history is thus nothing or nearly nothing. Thus is explained the anonymity of Him who inclined the axis of the world with his finger....Finger or wand is here a metaphor. Not that it designates another thing. It concerns God.

Within his interrogation of Rousseau’s notion of catastrophe, Derrida questions the feasibility of a divine source through a consideration of the specific characteristics of such an entity. Derrida doesn’t really give us an answer, for he vacillates between probability and possibility, anonymity and identity. Thus, Derrida might appear to give us a notion of God—and therefore, of the origin of language—not so much as a signified, but rather as a signifier. Or, considering Rousseau, not so much a place as a passage—a movement—from one condition to another. In strictly psychoanalytic terms, this is what Joan Copjec might designate as a figure rather than a content. With this strange, paradoxical phrase, Copjec means nothing less than a thought of a limit structure; limit here being the condition, as pure signifier, passage, or divinity, for the possibility—and, perhaps, origin—of language. This condition, however, insofar as it remains at the limit, also must be said to exist beyond: to exceed the thing, the origin, it engenders, as this origin is nothing other than the movement of this ecstatic passage itself. In this sense, then, the notion of origin itself becomes rather diffuse, for it seems, paradoxically, to exist in at least two places: within the parameters of language and somewhere beyond the content of what one might call "language." An origin, then that is, at the same time, both internal and external to language. Following Jacques Lacan’s meditation on das Ding in Seminar VII, one might—in a kind of sublimating gesture—designate this origin for which no place may be decided as extimate; that is, according to Lacan, as an "intimate exteriority."

Here, it is perhaps no accident that Lacan resorts to a kind of terminological manipulation in order to make his point. It would seem, then, that a straight-forward, referential use of language will not, because it cannot, communicate his concept. This, no doubt, because Lacan has somehow pushed us in his Seminar VII beyond the concepts of reference and communication. Beyond to the limits of the possibility of reference and communication where communication, as a linguistic concept, begins to exceed its own possibility, where reference fails in its overt intentions and, within the movement of this failure, opens onto another possibility: the impossibility or failure of communication. Thus, it is perhaps no accident that Derrida reminds us of metaphor, for the possibility that Derrida confirms in his reading of Rousseau, the possibility of the almighty, of a slight push, exceeds the limits of a straight-forward, referential, statement. This possibility emerges in and as metaphor, thought not so much as a function within the communicative parameters of language, but rather as a performance reflecting the rhetorical dimension of language. And here it is important to stress that this metaphor is strictly figure. It has no reference, it designates no other thing except, perhaps, substitution or displacement itself. In this sense, it might be said that metaphor emerges as symptom, as a kind of objet a that signals the presence of something absent, a traumatic gap in the relation of thing to reference.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)