Let me frame a sympathetic objection to an earlier post: “For the sake of argument, let’s suppose I accept your claim that tautaulogies (NP1 Be NP1, as in Love is love) are semantic as well as syntactic, rule-like as well as word-like. It’s plausible enough that they are part of the ideology of language, in the way that that the legacy of structuralism in critical theory taught us to see with words. And maybe humanists, to the extent that they’re invested in meaning and form, could start paying attention to the history, meaning, and ideological function of linguistic forms like it. I understand why, from your perspective, what has been subject to literary and cultural study in the last few decades looks not like the full domain of language, but only a relatively narrow band or stratum of language – only lexically specified sign units.
But even if you are right that there is more to see and explain about language than we find in our current lexicons, it doesn’t follow that humanists ought to train their critical sights on such things. Even if politics is pervasive in our language and does real work beyond our vocabulary, it doesn’t follow that scholars should be compelled to identify, analyze, and contests it workings everywhere, in all the strata of language.
The fault lines, the factional and social differences, that matter to our contemporary politics are – no surprise here – organized around differences of race, gender, class, sexual, identity, ability, and so on. We might give somewhat different accounts of what categories belong on this list (caste, species, religion, national origin, etc.), or what words best name those categories. But no matter: they will be words. And the same is true if we study law, or desire and affect (“love”), or our political institutions, or poetics, empire, animals, climate change, disability… or discourse on nearly any topic. When we are interested in culture and history, the kinds of categories and concepts we will be interested in will reside in the lexicon, in the words we use to describe people, identities, institutions, and ideas, and not in tautaulogies and other abstract signs that operate like combinatory grammatical rules. In fact, when we talk about studying a “topic” or “subject,” what we mean (on at least on some accounts) is studying what is picked out by a small subset of our lexicon, by some words and not others.
So while cultural studies could, as your book argues and as your earlier posts suggest, re-gear itself with digital tools to study a wider range of signs, and might have a more ‘complete’ account of language as a result, doing so would be to take a step away from precisely those issues that matter or reasonably should matter most to the work of cultural studies.”
Ok, I think this is a fair point. (Why thank you, imagined objector!) The relative abstraction of tautaulogies and other lexically unfilled sign units like them – the very property that makes them the basis for linguistic creativity – also makes them less germane to the particular content-oriented questions that scholars, working in the cultural studies mode, set out to ask. To give an example, it is understandable that historians of human rights have not taken an interest in the hierarchy of nominal compounds that the term instantiates. And this will be true on a sliding scale: the more abstract the sign, the less lexical and conceptual specificity it will involve.
My response at this stage is speculative rather than self-assured. But I think there are good reasons why abstract signs like NP1 Be NP1 matter nonetheless, and why leaving them unstudied has left a big gap not just in cultural studies’ account of language but in its analytical and critical toolkit.
The formality of linguistic forms are not a distraction from our current political situation. In fact, the abstraction of a sign like NP1 Be NP1 – the constrained indifference of its variables – gets right to a (the) central feature of liberalism as a doctrine and a political regime.
Under this regime, the law assumes, or wishes to assume, a formal existence, and specifically an indifference (within its particular scope) to particular cases, particular people or classes of people, and their particular substantive moral doctrines and aims. (Here I set aside, for the moment, the rise of illiberalism under Trump, which has called this basic indifference into question.) Judges are supposed – or suppose themselves – to apply law in uncontroversial, and even mechanical ways, constrained only by the law itself and the facts of the case, and setting aside normative issues that would compromise the law’s autonomy. Except for a few narrow cases (the named classes protected from employment discrimination, for example) the law is written without respect to the identities of those who are subject to it. As the arch-classical liberal F.A. Hayek writes, “It is the Rule of Law, in the sense of the rule of formal law, the absence of legal privileges of particular people designated by authority, which safeguards… equality before the law” (117).
As Hayek was willing to acknowledge more directly than most of his successors, “formal equality before the law” in this conception “produces economic inequality” and is “incompatible” with the aim of “material and substantive equality.” What’s more, the legitimacy of liberalism does not actually require “formal equality before the law,” only the appearance of such equality. Hayek argues that what can be claimed for the Rule of Law is just that it is not “designed to affect particular people in a particular way.” But even this is claiming too much. All that law’s legitimacy requires under liberalism is that this design is implicit and plausibly deniable.
Some of the best-documented examples of the disparity between the formal indifference of law and the particularity of its history, design, application, and effect involve the war on drugs. In 2010, four years before Washington D.C. legalized the recreational use of marijuana, black people were 8 times more likely to be arrested than white people, despite using and selling pot at similar rates. Nationwide, black Americans arrested for drug charges were almost 6 times more likely to go to prison. These disparities persist despite the fact that laws regarding drug possession are “color blind,” with no mention of racial identity, and the politicians who made the laws had learned to expunge racial vocabularies from their public statements. But journalists and historians have brought to light compelling evidence that the unequal effects of the war on drugs were hardly incidental to its design. Legal scholars and sociologists have long studied the gap between the formal indifference of the law and the inequitable particularity of its application and effect.
As long as literary and cultural studies in the structuralist tradition works only with words as the sole bearers of meaning, the sole building blocks of utterances, and the sole protagonists of linguistic history, it will be unable to take account of the gap between rule and application, between the relatively abstract and law-like non-specificity of langue (language as a system), and the particularity of parole (what is said).
What I am proposing here is a rough analogy between the formal equality of law and the formal abstraction of forms like NP1 Be NP1. The NP “blanks” or variables in a tautaulogy are lexically unspecified, allowing them to be filled in ways that speakers haven’t encountered before, even as they are constrained to be noun phrases rather than other constituent constructions. But the blanks in tautaulogical constructions are never simply blank, never neutral or empty containers that can be filled equally by any NP. They have an internal structure that is the product of the form’s history. What can be said is built out of and configured by what has been said. This is what linguists mean when they call a theory of grammar “usage based” and what Derrida took account of in Glas when he wrote that langue is constituted by the contamination of parole. It is easier to repeat what has been said before than to invent anew – easier to repeat prefabricated instances such as Boys will be boys or girls will be girls than to produce unwitnessed instances, and easier, until quite recently, to say War is war than Love is love. Repeated use wears grooves into the blanks in our constructions, so that there are more and less obvious, more and less costly, ways to fill them.
(The name we give to those who break from the grooves worn into the blanks of our constructions is “poet.”)
Linguists have developed a range of ways of describing the structure of lexically unfilled blanks that are not simply a matter of frequency. Instead they make full use of our figurative capabilities – our ability to establish likeness and difference. Since George Lakoff adapted the prototype theory of the psychologist Eleanor Rosch to linguistic categorization, linguists have observed that many open blanks exhibit a “radial” structure, which means that they are organized around a central exemplar or exemplars, with less central members derived by metaphorical extension. Without further evidence from a corpus or archive, it’s not plain that the blanks of tautaulogies have a radial structure, but examples that do are not hard to come by. When we read I shop therefore I am or I eat, therefore I am, we know that shop and eat are not simply members of the category “verb” but also analogical replacements for Descartes’ exemplar think.
Understanding tautaulogies and other abstract signs requires resisting two kinds of reduction. On the one hand, they are lawlike elements of (langue) insofar as, in their abstraction, they are different from and irreducible to the totality of what is said (parole). A blank’s internal structure arises from the history of its use, but by virtue of abstraction it is never identical to that history. Conversely, a form never achieves the pure or autonomous formality of the categories Chomskyan rationalists suppose we possess at birth, before linguistic acculturation begins. Its blanks never pull free from the history of saying out of which they emerge.
Let me draw out more explicitly the analogy between linguistic forms and the form of law under liberalism. Both emerge from a concrete history, a history of lives lived and things said. Both necessarily acquire a degree of autonomy or “formal existence” that differentiates them from the concrete history that birthed them. It is this formality that allows a law to determine unforseen cases and allows a form like NP1 Be NP1 to license unwitnessed instances. In their formality, both are to one degree or another removed from the lexical specificity of the identity terms (black, white, male, female, gay, straight, etc.) that have preoccupied recent decades of literary and cultural theory in the Lacanian/Althusserian tradition. But their formality nonetheless arises from and is configured by a history of dramatically unequal treatment. They bear that inequality in the structure of their categories and reproduce it in their subsequent use – “colorblind” laws when they are applied to particular cases, lexically unspecified constructions when they are instantiated in our utterances. (It goes without saying that the formality of linguistic forms and the formality of law, while both matter, have quite different consequences for our collective life.)
A cultural theory unable to look beyond our inherited vocabularies is in the position of a legal studies capable only of critiquing those laws that make explicit mention of particular identities. Without understanding the categories of linguistic forms like NP1 Be NP1, we won’t understand how inequality is built into the structure of our language or the mechanisms by which that inequality reproduces itself. At the same time, these forms are fundamental to our everyday creativity and our ability to remake that structure. More on that anon.