Ever since Michel Foucault wrote Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison [Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison], his thoughtful readers, I think, have been on guard. In the work, he shines the light not on dungeons of the dark ages but on the penitentiaries of the Enlightenment and of modernism. Modern prisons use light—the lights are always on for the guards in the guardtowers. And this keeps the imprisoned imprisoned. Let’s be very very clear, however, that although Foucault distanced himself from structuralism, he did not want to be known as a postmodernist. And, a self-described “Nietzschean,” Foucault claimed: “I don't write for an audience; I write for users, not readers.”
That little biography is just to say this: Foucault disliked light, not because it enlightened, but precisely because it did and therefore, he thought, it imprisoned. So, I think, we all should be as suspicious that Foucault did not go far enough. Light is not useful to any user, or to any guard in a tower for that matter, unless it shines within.
As Richard Rhodes and I have talked in blogs and emails, there’s something that needs to come to light. I have asserted or at least inferred that he does not take into account the personal in language and its translation. At least, that’s how he’s heard it. Which says volumes. In fact, I did snipe back in my comment that replied to his initial comment in my last blog. He didn’t say it there, but actually our agreement is most profoundly shared in the personal.
So let me define what I mean by personal. And along the way, let me define what I mean by define. And by ambiguity, parable, postmodernism, literature, linguistics, translation, feminism, and rhetoric, and all the other terms we bandy about.
And let me turn to a brilliant English phrase that Elizabeth Cady Stanton endorsed and repeated, one that Thomas Jefferson probably penned. It’s this:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
There’s incredible humility here. Implicit in the statement is dependency on the Other, in “we,” which is not just “I.” And there are other pluralities: “these” “truths.” The verb “hold” is what lovers do and what a mother does—how much more personal an action is there? But “self” gets at autonomy, and “evidence” at light. So whatever is “self-evident” here gets birthed from persons together who find a personal stake in not just “The Truth” as Aristotle might want to understand it but also in varieties of difference. The arbitrator and the agency are of, by, and for persons.
And yet, I think, we all should be as suspicious that Cady Stanton and Jefferson did not go far enough. Truths are not useful to any of us holders of truths unless they shine them within.
Are we talking about politics? Postmodern philosophy? Literature? Linguistics?
Yes. Nature does not determine our categories however it might, at first glance, constrain them. When we are insiders of a language, or native speakers, then there are differences in the nature that we hold to be within the same category. Perhaps even the category of “self-evident” truths. When we are outsiders, or non-native speakers, the differences in nature are more visible to us because we have not yet learned, or even care to learn, how to hold them as the same.
“Whenever two or three are gathered together…,” then there is the possibility of different variants or “allo”s being held together as an emic unit. There is psychological reality on the inside; there is belief. This is Pike talk. It’s why the light of logic and math and formalism and even pure generative semantics is not enough. It cannot just be shined in the prison yard.
Everyone of you reading this understands that there is insider language in this post. Either you’re familiar with the categories of unity-of-differences I am holding with a few certain readers, or you are not familiar with them. Whether you’ve patiently read this far also says something about you. Why should you care? That’s what I mean by personal.
So let me move from Pike to Charlotte Hogg and Nancy Mairs and Jacqueline Jones Royster and Cheryl Glenn. From tagmemic linguistics to feminist rhetorics. The careful precise delineation of difference, whether of Nathan’s and Jesus’s parables or of varieties of ambiguities is important only insofar as there’s some insider stake in these categories. For a religious lay person or scholar or for a linguist, perhaps, the distinctions may be huge. And the religious and the linguistic types might seem more interested in translation. The literature types might seem interested in other things. African American scholars seem interested in their thing. Feminist scholars seem interested in their own concerns. Whose got the light to shine down on the others?
If I take Jesus’s parable of the woman finding the Greek silver coin by turning on the light and sweeping the house as allegory, then the literary qualities might distinguish the parable from Nathan’s. The light of literature is not enough. It cannot just be shined in the prison yard. But if we take the woman as being God, or at least as saying something about God to us, then our body feels as much as David’s and Bathesheba’s and Uriah’s did. There is talk in various directions, and light inside, and change.
The important question for me, and important for translation too I think, is whether we can talk to one another. Which means there's deep listening to the other person. Jacqueline Jones Royster has much to say about talking with the other, and about being talked about (in her “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own”). The key to learning another’s language (and, yes, to Using the Others’ languages Mr. Foucault) is the acknowledgment of the subjective. It’s starting with our bodies, our selves. It’s letting light shine within, and not insisting always and only on my categories or even my group’s categories. What Rich is saying to me and me to him is not just the fun “smite” that wins us a Lingy (although there may be some of that as seen by Lingamish). Our corrective talk is most effective when either one of us shines it within. There is hope for the profoundest of freedoms. To me, Rich has genuine care, and not just for the clearest of categories and ideas in language.