David A. Powers

Molecular Revolution

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Zizek on the torture-house of language

While it is certainly true that writers play games with words, I've always found the idea of language-games to be problematic. I also never bought into Habermas and his theory of the ideal speech situation. In opposition to Habermas, I would argue that the ideal communicative action is the speech act of the father who says"No!" to the child, and threatens punishment. As Elias Canetti has noted, the command of the father is ultimately rooted in the threat of death.

I was therefore interested to read Zizek's comments on the torture-house of language. Unlike Canetti, Zizek connects torture with the libido. He also claims that poetry is a form of linguistic torture:

Not only does man dwell in the "prison-house of language" (the title of Fredric Jameson's early book on structuralism), he dwells in a torture-house of language: the entire psychopathology deployed by Freud, from conversion-symptoms inscribed into the body up to total psychotic breakdowns, are scars of this permanent torture, so many signs of an original and irremediable gap between subject and language, so many signs that man cannot ever be at home in his own home. This is what Heidegger ignores: this dark torturing other side of our dwelling in language - and this is why there is also no place for the Real of jouissance in Heidegger's edifice, since the torturing aspect of language concerns primarily the vicissitudes of libido. This is also why, in order to get the truth to speak, it is not enough to suspend the subject's active intervention and let language itself speak - as Elfriede Jelinek put it with extraordinary clarity: "Language should be tortured to tell the truth." It should be twisted, denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut and reunited, made to work against itself. Language as the "big Other" is not an agent of wisdom to whose message we should attune ourselves, but a place of cruel indifference and stupidity. The most elementary form of torturing one's language is called poetry - imagine what a complex form like sonnet does to language: it forces the free flow of speech into a Procrustean bed of a fixed shape of rhythm and rhymes…
[1] Slavoj Zizek, Language, Violence and Non-violence. Retrieved from zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/view/154/240 .


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