Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Tiny, ad hoc technologies

by Astrid Lorange

02 Dec 2011

A grammar has been called a list of what is to be done with it.[1]

In the twentieth-century, much philosophical thinking came to read language as the critical concern of metaphysics. Epistemological and ontological questions were questions of syntax: how propositions are made through and by language, and how these language’d objects constitute lived reality – reality of the subject, reality of the object and reality of the world. Analysis of language attempted to locate the way that these propositions account for a world that is lived-in.

The linguistic turn in philosophical, psychoanalytical and critical thinking has sometimes meant that ‘consciousness’ has replaced a more ambiguous category of ‘experience’ to describe a specifically human world, and language has been so thoroughly attached to this notion of consciousness, that is seems, in fact, to be synonymous with consciousness. And so, language is seen as the primary condition for being a conscious human subject. Accordingly, speculative thinking snags and loops back to this first and most deeply-rooted paradox: how can we use language to speak about things that are conditioned by language? Such feedbacking makes for wonderfully seductive and utterly revealing thinking-writing, but the risk is that language is imagined as being embedded somewhere deep in our humanity, acting as a little mirror that catches and reflects shared desire for essential meaning. A way to avoid this risk is to think language not at the level of a total symbolic system, but at the very moment of symbolic interface, where one thing evokes another, one thing is present alongside another, two incommensurate things co-exist. This thinking argues that language is infinite, heterogeneous and antiessentialist.

One, two and one, two, nine, second and five and that.[2]

Language is an ad hoc technology, where ad hoc refers to its circumstantial, occasional use, and technology refers to its modular, recombinatory and reiterative capabilities. There is no ‘language,’ in an abstract sense, only ever languages-in-use. Because language actively produces meaning, a process we might call signification, language is not merely the container or medium for signification but is signification itself. Meanings that have endured and have naturalised as facts can only be interrogated by looking to the ways that language habits are enforced at the level of social, cultural and legal process. Even the notion of meaning must be recognised as a habit: we often assume that meaning (or the meaningfulness of a meaningful life) is intrinsic, but meaning must be made, and one such way is through language. If language is an ad hoc technology there are circumstantial reasons why language is naturalised in certain significations. Language lends itself to such campaigns by being suggestive, but it also lends itself to opposing or resisting such campaigns by being generative.

My interest in poetics is not so much a reification of the aesthetic object known as the ‘poem,’ but the commitment to a method for reading language at the level of the smallest shifts in signification. Attention to how language is made, and for what reasons, is of course, an entirely political act. And attention to how language can be re-arranged and re-signified is an entirely philosophical act: against any call for an essential or singular meaning.

A letter which can wither, a learning which can suffer and an outrage which is simultaneous is principal.[3]

Astrid Lorange is a PhD candidate, researcher, teacher, poet and book indexer from Sydney.

[1] Gertrude Stein, “Arthur a Grammar,” How to Write

[2] Gertrude Stein, “SUGAR,” Tender Buttons

[3] Gertrude Stein, “MUTTON,” Tender Buttons