‘On Interrupting Speech’

If speech is not about exposing its mortality, no speech is possible. Mortality is the key to a freer distribution and circulation of speeches. ‘Mortality’ is the condition of possibility of speech, in a word: the ‘immanence’ of language. In its entire sense, language is resistant to closure or its culmination in transcendent language where language falls like the proverbial Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel is the figure of language falling into a state of paralysis, a failure to communicate as it aims to close the gap between speeches.

The Tower fell because speeches are resistant to totalization and technical mastery. In this light, language must remain unfinished, that speeches must be interrupted to avert the ultimate destruction. Interruption is essential to avoid an otherwise preventable disaster.

Where interruption is essential to the liveliness of speeches or their resistance to closure, ‘translation’ meanwhile secures this interruptive dynamics in terms of, as Benjamin writes, “[refraining] from wanting to communicate something.” Insofar as it is also resistant to closure as a continuing work of speech, translation “has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed” (Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn [New York: Schocken Books, 2007], 78). We may find this counter-factual claim of translation similar to the form of Adamic naming that Benjamin explores in “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” In Adamic language, it is assumed that language immediately communicates a ‘spiritual’ content without discursive mediation.

Benjamin allowed himself to explore this non-discursive dimension of Adamic naming on the presupposition that there is no ontological coincidence between essence and content, or between concept and essence. The ‘reflexive’ dimension of communicating an inherent meaning behind any object is here rejected in favor of communicative participation within already ‘situated’ entities or speech givens that can be directly apprehended, a kind of communicative ‘affordance’ that precedes the speaker, actor or translator, writer, poet, etc. In this sense, Adam is not alone; besides Eve, there was the environment, the ‘material community’ that Benjamin also described to be “capable of communicating to one another” as a community, in a word: “the magic of matter” (Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott [New York: Schoken Books, 1986], 321).

We mean the reflexive dimension as the familiar Cartesian subject that arrogates the sovereign terms of translation, culminating in what we previously called the closure of gaps between speeches. But then, translation presupposes of a community of speakers who themselves resist closure on behalf of speech or language. It is in this sense that translation is also a way to interrupt speeches insofar as it sustains the integrity of language as unfinished, refractory to reflexive claims, yet accommodating to spiritual, but also material, communities.

2 thoughts on “‘On Interrupting Speech’”

  1. Interesting. But what does it mean to write: If speech is not about exposing its mortality, no speech is possible.
    Speakers are mortal. Speech acts are acts performed by speakers. To call a speech act mortal seems to me to be a category mistake.

    1. Hi Bob. Sorry for tardy reply. Mortality, that is what I actually said., and that also extends to material or non-human communities, although their manner of communicating to one another is deprived of the basic principle of language, which is sound. Benjamin Benjamin laid these out in his three early essays on language. (Your question on ‘what does it mean to write’ is actually a limitation of Benjamin’s philosophy of language as will be pointed out later by Derrida). But the context of these essays, or language-essay, is that Benjamin is actually challenging the analytic current of his time, so the category mistake is unproblematic for him. He in fact was aware that it is if not close to a category mistake. But he has his agenda. Benjamin’s generalization of this current put these early works in conflict with what he described as a bourgeois conception of language, or the bourgeoisification that followed after the demise of universal naming. What would count as a brief but provocative exegesis of the Genesis in light of the gift of language, the first essay, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” sets the background for the two other essays, “On the Mimetic Faculty” and “Doctrine of the Similar” in which the founding act of naming gets reproduced throughout history through the mimetic faculty said to be immanent to language. Nonetheless, this faculty of becoming similar would reach its low point in the age of technical reproduction.

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