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Deleuze for the Desperate #13a Order Words and Minor Languages

Dave Harris

We might start by picking up again on some of the criticisms of structural linguistics. We find them summarized in Plateau 4 of A Thousand Plateaus (ATP) Generally, we saw that that approach sees language as produced by an abstract structure of elementary components. The basic unit of communication, the sign, has a signifier and a signified and these are arbitrary -- that is, specific to cultures, not derived from any reality outside language.  Linguistic structures work by establishing purely internal relation between signs, like those found in narrative sequences or in metaphors. The particular version of that claim addressed here is that language can be understood in terms of the combination of linguistic constants, and linguistics claims to be a science by uncovering the limited set of rules which govern the combinations of signs, in all communications and with all sorts of actual communicative content. Linguistic elements are linked by rules connecting signifiers to each other and these will both express and shape subjective consciousness, both of self and other. The claim is to have understood apparently universal components and structures of language. 

Just about every claim in this approach is questioned by Deleuze and Guattari.

(a) Language emerges from a whole collective assemblage which always involves other people and natural and social realities. To take social elements first, all actual speech shows this inevitably social origin for language. Some important linguistic forms explicitly involve a social dimensions, like the 'illocutionary' (85) or the performative, both of which presuppose an audience, someone who will respond.  Deleuze and Guattari also identify  what they call indirect discourse. Whenever we speak, we inevitably refer to the speech of others, for example, telling a story involves 'what one has heard, what someone else said to you. Hearsay' (85).  All statements contain hearsay.  A single voice always contains a number of other voices is another way to put it. They even claim that 'there is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation' (93), although both these appear as abstractions in conventional linguistics. Language use really represents 'the constellation of voices, concordant or not, from which I draw my voice'.

Deleuze and Guattari also want to argue that there are components of language at the level of natural forces, affecting bodies in this case, although they weasel a bit by saying that we can consider mental objects as bodies as well. Bodily effects can also appear as expressions in a statement where they take on a non-bodily or incorporeal form. Bodily effects can often show the effects of the transmission of order words, but they can also be sources of transforming statements. The example is perhaps a bit misleading here by talking of bodies of people coming together to see themselves as members of a class and therefore producing statements about class politics. We look at other examples of natural forces in a later session.  I am sure,though, that any Lacanians would be able to reply to these arguments, as we suggested earlier,  by saying that these non-verbal forms can only assume significance for humans once they are expressed in standard human language.

(b) Expressions are linked to material contents not through some arbitrary cultural history, but through the application of various power relations — we see this in the discussion of order words or major languages as we shall see. This sort of linkage is ignored altogether by structuralist models. They also ignore or devalue how patterns of language use are linked to the assemblage of motivations and understandings at the individual level — pragmatics to use the linguistic term. Actual pragmatic use can change the meaning of so-called linguistic constants

(c) We can see that actual language is constantly varying and changing, for example being modified to fit new social circumstances experienced by different social groups. The example here is the work of the American linguist Labov, who has studied a particular version of the English language spoken by urban American black people. This work used to be quite well-known in education courses. 'Black English' or what Labov initially called 'Non-standard Negro English', and we will have to forgive any lack of current political correctness here, is a perfectly adequate form of language, although many teachers at the time thought it was a very restricted form with limited vocabulary and the inability to express abstract thought. Language variation is not confined to ethnic minorities, however --  we all repeatedly 'pass from language to language' as we play our different parts as father, lover, professional and so on. It just seems unnecessary to see these as variations of one standard linguistic form. Instead, language just accumulates variations, which are put into practice according to what we use language for — pragmatics. It follows that this variation cannot be reduced to some set of scientific constants with fixed rules of use and logical distinctions, found in structural linguistics --like the ones between language and speech, for example. This would be to impose a fixed linear model on something heterogeneous and variable. This excludes pragmatic variations, as we saw, and experimental technique. There are political implications, whether realized or not, in impositions like this since homogenization and standardization serve the interests of power (ATP p.111) as we can see when we discuss major languages.

I could have done with more detail here, because I am not at all sure that Deleuze and Guattari have made a case for the variability of all linguistic terms. Contents  and voices certainly,maybe some aspects of grammar, vary but do all the basic linguistic terms themselves? Have we challenged the actual form of narratives or metaphors, for example when we speak from different social positions? I think the argument fits much better if we consider artistic experimental forms.

(c) The underlying structure of grammar, syntax or of linguistic expression is not just the structure , or some eternal universal structure, but one option. If we see language variations as equally valid forms of language, we can infer that there must be some virtual system of language producing each actual option. Structures are produced by virtual forces. Structuralism is limited because it doesn't go far enough. As with just about all the other phenomena discussed in ATP, actual language is  produced by deeper forces, and Deleuze and Guattari are going to use terms like abstract machine or the virtual, even the rhizome,  to refer to the operation of these deeper forces behind actual linguistic structures. If we're going to break with orthodox notions of language, we will have to start by tracing back from the specific structure to this deeper level of fluid forces. This is exactly what some experimental writers or musicians have done.

OK let's focus slightly more specifically:

First, let's look at order words. Plateau 4 begins and ends with the discussion of these. The idea is that all language contains orders or commands. Perhaps we see this best in communication deliberately designed to influence people's behaviour, in schools or in asylums. In more normal forms of communication, people also learn how  to apply various semiotic coordinates, how to impose binary divisions for example. Here, order words are not explicit commands, but more a notion of 'a "social obligation"' (p.87), and with this more general notion, it's clear that all statements addressed to others include order words. Explicit commands are therefore unnecessary or redundant. Order words need not even have much actual information in them. They are so widespread in our language that 'there is no signifiance independent of dominant significations'. You will remember that signifiance is a particular way of constructing subjectivity through sequences of communication.

These words commonly severely limit subjective possibilities and creativity. They can even be seen as a kind of death sentence for subjectivity. However, our heroes are never entirely optimistic or pessimistic as we know by now, and order words can sometimes produce a line of flight, a view where even death leads to new possibilities. We can see what was an endpoint as something more fluid. This will help us to grasp the language as something not limited by forms or particular approved forms of expressions and content. We can see an abstract machine or diagram at work to produce actual forms, a rhizome. We can't simply break with all social obligations and therefore with all order words. To do so would risk breaking all social contacts and disappearing into a black hole of subjectivity. Instead we have to look for the revolutionary potentials, trying to grasp the virtual possibilities beneath every day actual forms. We should not see existing order words as indicating a fixed composition of language, but rather try to move beyond them. You will know that I think that in this discussion you can find an implicit critique of Lacan's approach as offering a fixed template for the whole development of the subject and the relations between selves and others.

To take the second concept, we can look at the way in which some writers have developed a minor language.  We might begin with those experimental writers have tried to stretch conventional language to make it conform to particular situations. Kafka, for example, tried to use the official language of what was then called Czechoslovakia, high German, to express the particular meanings and understandings of Czech  and minority Yiddish speakers. I do not read German so I cannot really understand what this looks like in practice, but Deleuze and Guattari discuss it in more detail in the book on Kafka. In that book we are told that Kafka  makes  'incorrect' use of prepositions and pronominals [phrase relating to or containing a pronoun], offers 'malleable verbs' with different meanings, and produces sequences of adverbs. The result is 'the use of pain filled connotations', and discordant distributions of consonants and vowels.  These produce 'a new sobriety, a new expressivity, a new flexibility, a new intensity'.  People note these discordances.  Language therefore is no longer representative but moves towards its extremities (p. 23). What can be said in one language need not be possible in another, providing 'ambiguous edges, changing borders' (p. 24). The language remains a mixture with different functions of language and different centers of power, inter-reacting, 'heading towards deterritorialization' (p. 26) .   In the case of Kafka, we can see a direct political challenge to the dominance of high German and to the elites that promoted it as the only kind of language for writers.

Other writers have experimented with an approach called 'creative stammering… making language itself stammer' (109). There are some literal examples in Beckett or in Luca, indicating a crucial hesitation while the poet tries to decide which words best fit the meaning, breaking with just using conventional linkages,and trying to express some intense meaning (that is not defined in extensive terms). Luca's example actually appears in Plateau 5 on regimes of signs, page 149 of ATP, but we'll include it here:

Do domi not passi do not dominate
Do not dominate your passive passions not

One technique in particular involves replacing the conventional conjunctions, the rules which join things together, by a simple sequence of 'and… and… and'. This is making your own language foreign, as Proust apparently said, and it draws attention to those possible variations that are not found in conventional ways to join words.

Avant-garde or experimental musicians have also tried to go behind existing laws of tone and rhythm, for example to develop a form of experimental music where 'all its components are in continuous variation' (ATP p.106), a musical 'rhizome rather than a tree'. The effect is to include sounds and rhythms which are normally left outside conventional music, to help us address the effects of sound.Again if we philosophize about this and what connects all the different possibilities, we can see that any form stressing constants, constant linguistic or musical elements, we will grasp the virtual or machinic level beneath. Linguistic constants then become seen better as functions 'centres... endowed with stability and attractive power' (p. 105), working almost like attractors do in structuring the creative flow of forces in complexity theory.

Developing a minor language takes us one step further from avant-garde and experimental creativity. It is more political, more of a challenge to major languages. It's not a matter of the size of the population speaking a particular language, more to do with the characteristics of language. Major languages are more constant, standard and based on some average subject speaking standard languages. Of course these imply a level of power and domination. Minor languages can be seen as offering more impoverished terms, and 'shifting effects, a taste for overload and paraphrase' (ATP p.115). These are not flaws however but techniques which tell us something about the limits of major languages, that they confine things and try to suppress the presence of multiple voices.  There is a political potential to combinations of 'excess and default' (p. 118). We see the dynamism of language in minor languages.

We can develop a minor language for ourselves. The best way to get creative with language is to try to dispense with some of the elements of a major language and vary them. This will help us develop 'becoming minor of the major language' (p. 116). Developing a minor language is an important part of becoming of all kinds including becoming woman. We will have deterritorialized a major language. This sort of philosophical transformation is what creative writers do, and it is more creative and politically critical than developing a private language or speaking in some existing dialect — which are forms of reterritorialization. Above all, the existence of minor languages shows us that major languages can be challenged in ways which still make sense. To the extent that this activity becomes minoritarian consciousness, it can lead to political demands for autonomy.

One last point. In this plateau and in the others on language we find the work of a Danish linguist, Hjemslev. I think I have already said that I would not consider myself to be an expert on this work, but that the point is how Deleuze and Guattari refer to his work in making their own arguments. There is a useful article by Schreel on the approach and how it informed Deleuze's work on cinema. Here, they insist that there are matters of content and of expression in language, which we can grasp simply as referring to things and to signs respectively. There can be several links between content and expression, and contents themselves can produce expressions as incorporeal statements, to use the phrase above relating to bodies. In actual language, contents and expressions are commonly combined in assemblages, although never in a finished manner. Both can be deterritorialized, for example, sometimes unevenly — it might be easier to deterritorialize signs rather than things, possibly. This can produce another kind of variation in language as new possibilities of meaning, semiotic possibilities, arise. This gives us a kind of little grid to explain the structure of assemblages — both content and expression on the horizontal axis, with deterritorialized and reterritorialized possibilities on the vertical axis. Incidentally, this seems to be their explanation for how metaphors work. We can now explain the actual patterns of using elements of languages and words by locating them on this grid. The grid is a diagram of a linguistic machine. Actual options do not appear at random, but indicate the existence of a plane of consistency affecting this machine.

Deleuze, G.and Guattari, F. (2012) Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (my notes here)
Schreel, L. (2016) Pure Designation. Deleuze's reading of Hjemslev in The Time Image. Retrieved from :