Tuesday, 19 August 2008


In my earlier account (posted below) of Wittgenstein’s understanding of the role of grammar and our use of language, I suggested that there is in our meaningful utterances a double movement, a twofold temporality, of anticipation and retroaction. I argued that this is brought out by an argument developed by James Guetti and Rupert Read, to the effect that ‘we may say that each element of a linguistic sequence is presumed in order for another to follow it, or that it is transformed to presumptive status when—or even because—that further step occurs’ (52). They suggest that ‘a rule in action is "invisible" just in virtue of the fact that, to be taken as a rule—to be an actionable or capacitative concept—it must be un-expressed and un-exposed’ (52). In support of this view they cite an example from Wittgenstein, who imagines addressing someone who is in pain and simultaneously hearing a near-by piano being tuned in the following way: ‘"Were you thinking of the noise or of your pain?" If he answers "I was thinking of the piano-tuning"—is he observing that the connexion existed, or is he making it by means of these words?—Can’t I say both? If what he said was true, didn’t the connexion exist—and is not he for all that making one that did not exist?’ [48, cited from PI, 682] On the one hand, the ‘existence’ of the connection (between the person in pain and the noise of the piano-tuning) may be taken as a matter of the conditional, as a matter of what could or would have been said, had the question been put. On the other, the connection seems to come into being only when it is constituted retrospectively in the act of speech. The pre-existing conditions may be said to be what is anticipated by the connections of standing grammar, while the utterance itself constitutes that grammar in its pertinence, brings it into being, retroactively. The temporality of significant discourse is a temporality of the future anterior.

My contention is that this understanding of anticipation and retroaction is comparable to Lacan’s account of the temporality of the signifier. It is an idea of temporality that underpins the Lacanian graphs of desire, beginning with the ‘elementary cell of desire’ [see Graph 1 in ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’ (1960), Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (Norton, 2006), p. 681]. Lacan says of his graphs that they lay out ‘the topology that I have developed in my teaching over the past few years’. Topology, a notion that was to play a crucial role in his later thought, is worth pausing over. It is a form, such as that of the Moebius strip (or an Escher painting), that is not reducible to the linear: if we try to think of language in topological terms such as these we will, it would seem, be led to question any picture of language that represents it as governed by rules laid down in advance, stretching like rails into the future. We may think of anticipation and retroaction as inseparable from each other, each one being the other seen under a different aspect, like the sides of a Moebius strip, a three-dimensional figure with one surface and one edge only. The fact that Lacan designates this figure by the lozenge in his matheme for fantasy, $<>a, suggests that we should see it as an attempt to capture something fundamental about the manner in which he wants us to think through, or think with, the manner of his writing, the mode or style of his presentation. For example, in his formula for the signifiers, S1/S2, the two letters, S1 and S2, are to seen as passing through each other, in a kind of self-exceeding and interminable dialectic: the signifier is the signified of the signified, the signified the signifier of the signifier. The aim is to represent in writing the lack of the very function that engenders it. He writes in 1953 [‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’, trans. Fink, p. 247]: ‘I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it as an object. What is realised in my history is neither the past definite as what was, since it is no more, nor even the perfect as what has been in what I am, but the future anterior as what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming’. Lacan’s concern is not with knowledge-that, nor even with knowledge-how, but with language in act, in its dynamic employment, and I have to say that the assumptions informing his approach seem to me very like those that the various writings of Guetti and Read have also brought out.

Let us look, then, at the ‘elementary cell of desire’, Graph 1. Some pre-symbolic intention (denoted by A) cuts through (or ‘quilts’) the chain of signifiers, S→S’. The result of this is the subject, denoted by $, a matheme that indicates at once the divided, or split, subject and the effaced signifier, the subject as void or empty space in the signifying chain. As Slavoj Zizek has noted, ‘A crucial feature at this elementary level of the graph is the fact that the vector of the subjective intention quilts the vector of the signifier’s chain backwards, in a retroactive direction: it steps out of the chain at a point preceding the point at which it has pierced it’ [The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1999), p. 101]. To say that the effect of signification is retroactive in character amounts to saying that in the progression or unfolding of the signifying chain the signified is left behind, as a kind of after-effect: ‘the effect of meaning is always produced backward, après coup’ (Zizek, op. cit., p.101). The onward, forward movement of the signifying chain, the uttering, is at the same time a turning or folding back of itself upon itself. To put it another way, the act of enunciation always is always ahead of, in excess of, the enounced, until, at some point, this excess is momentarily subdued. ‘Signifiers which are still in a "floating" state – whose signification is not yet fixed – follow one another. Then, at a certain point – precisely the point at which the intention pierces the signifier’s chain, traverses it – some signifier fixes retroactively the meaning of the chain, sews the meaning to the signifier, halts the sliding of the meaning’ [Zizek, op. cit., pp.101-2].

The signifier that fixes meaning retroactively is what Lacan calls the point de capiton, the upholstery button, quilting point, anchoring point (Sheridan) or button tie (Fink). Lacan sums up the situation thus: ‘The diachronic function of this button tie can be found in a sentence, insofar as a sentence closes its signification only with its last term, each term being anticipated in the construction by the other terms and, inversely, sealing their meaning by its retroactive effect’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. Zizek exemplifies the matter by taking an instance of what he calls ‘ideological quilting’. One may think of ideology as a space where signifiers float unanchored, signifiers such as ‘freedom’, ‘state’, ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ and so on. It is not until their chain is supplemented by some master signifier (‘Communism’) that their (Communist) meaning is retroactively determined [Zizek, op. cit., p.102]. Zizek goes on to argue that such capitonnage or quilting is successful only insofar as it effaces its own traces. To put it another way, the grammar of Communism is presumed when it appears to us (Communists) as if real freedom is ‘in its very nature’ opposed to bourgeois freedom, that the state is ‘in its very nature’ a tool of class domination, and so on. This presumption he sees as an instance of the fundamental illusion of transference, an illusion the untying of whose binding structure must be accomplished during the course of an analysis. For Zizek, this aim is pertinent not only to psychoanalytic therapy but also to the analysis of ideology and ideological ‘transference’ also. (We may think in this context of the therapeutic understanding of philosophy, as that is undertaken by Wittgenstein, and by the analyses, including those considered earlier, of Guetti and Read.)

Lacan’s purpose seems rather different, however, inasmuch as he is seeking to give what would appear to be a general account of language and the structure of signification as such. In ‘The Subversion of the Subject’, in the paragraph immediately following his remarks on the diachronic function of the button tie, he writes: ‘But the synchronic structure is more hidden, and it is this structure that brings us to the beginning. It is metaphor insofar as the first attribution is constituted in it—the attribution that promulgates "the dog goes meow, the cat goes woof-woof," by which, in one fell swoop, the child, by disconnecting the thing from its cry, raises the sign to the function of the signifier and reality to the sophistics of signification, and in his contempt for verisimilitude, makes necessary the verification of multiple objectifications of the same thing’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. By metaphor he is referring to the originary substitution of the word for the thing, an evocation of the idea initiated by Hegel and given currency by Kojève, that of the word as ‘murderer of the thing’. In Seminar I he says: ‘Everything begins with the possibility of naming, which is both destructive of the thing and allows the passage of the thing onto the symbolic plane, thanks to which the truly human register comes into its own’ [The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book I, trans. John Forrester (Cambridge, 1988), p.219]. Now, while the idea that there is a founding of language at all is dubious, let alone a founding of it on naming, what Lacan is after is, I think, not a theory of language but rather a prompt or reminder, to the effect that language is given all at once. Jacques-Alain Miller sums up Lacan’s position in exactly these terms: ‘The consequence of all this is that an evolutionary point of view concerning language is very difficult to bring back. On the contrary, we cannot imagine the slow, gradual learning of language, but, rather, language created at one stroke. It is a holistic theory, I would say. If a child can learn language, it is on the precondition that he is already in language’ [‘Language: Much Ado About Nothing’, in Lacan and the Subject of Language, ed. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher (Routledge, 1991), p. 33]. Miller hangs on to the notion of theory here, but in effect his argument subverts it. On his own showing, there is simply no position from which such a theory can be elaborated, since we are, all of us, ‘already in language’. Some earlier remarks in the same essay make this conclusion unavoidable: ‘nothingness enters reality through language . . . this void is created by language. That is, we replace the correspondence theory of language with a creation theory of language, the first creation being a lack, and in this sense it is a lack of all things’ [op. cit., p.32]. What ‘a creation theory’ of meaning amounts to is no theory at all—it is the subversion of theories of meaning as such.

Lacan’s considerations of Graph 2 (Fink, p.684) elaborate his ideas on signification further, and can be mapped onto the operations of grammar as understood by Guetti and Read. Lacan draws attention to two points of intersection on the graph, A, the Other, on the right of the signifier-voice chain, and s(A), the signified, the meaning, a function of the big Other, on the left of it. He writes: ‘The first, labelled A, is the locus of the treasure trove of signifiers, which does not mean of the code, for the one-to-one correspondence between a sign and a thing is not preserved here, the signifier being constituted on the basis of a synchronic and countable collection in which none of the elements is sustained except through its opposition to each of the others. The second, labelled s(A), is what may be called the punctuation, in which signification ends as a finished product’ [trans. Fink, p.682]. If we put aside for a moment the idiom deriving from Saussure, and see in the topological relation between A and s(A) the relation of grammar and empirical statement, as in, say, the waxwings example, we may see the working together of anticipation and retroaction, presumption and action, that Guetti and Read, in their account of meaningful consequences and the following of a rule, have also addressed. The mode of this relation is captured by Lacan in the following: ‘The subject’s submission to the signifier, which occurs in the circuit that goes from s(A) to A and back from A to s(A), is truly a circle, inasmuch as the assertion that is established in it . . . refers back only to its own anticipation in the composition of the signifier, which is in itself meaningless [insignifiante]’ [trans. Fink, pp.682-3]. Substitute grammar for signifier, and Lacan’s prose may be seen as an attempt to enact, at a schematic level, what is involved in a dynamic use of language, in a use of language to say something meaningful. The complex role of the subject is similarly captured, inasmuch as it constitutes itself only by subtracting from the circuit A-s(A) ‘and by decompleting it essentially, such that he [the subject] must, at one and the same time, count himself here and function only as a lack here’ [trans. Fink, p.683]. The subject is not an ‘after-effect’ of the signifying chain, as certain commentators have argued, it is both inside the chain insofar as it is outside it, and excluded insofar as it is included: it is ‘extimate’ In this, it is rather like the set of Russell’s paradox, the set of all those sets that do not include themselves . [Further commentary on the graphs may be found in Zizek, The Sublime Object, ch. 3.]

Wittgenstein writes in Zettel, 545: ‘Being sure that someone is in pain, doubting whether he is, and so on, are so many natural, instinctive kinds of behaviour towards other human beings . . . Our language-game is an extension of primitive behaviour. (For our language-game is behaviour.) (Instinct.)’ Rush Rhees has suggested that the implication of the first remark in parenthesis is that the extension of our primitive behaviour Wittgenstein has in mind is the extension of a language-game [Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, ed. D.Z. Phillips (Blackwell, 2003), p.94: commentary by Phillips, p.163]. The second parenthesis – ‘(Instinct)’ – endorses this reading, insofar as it implies that the language-game does not result from reflection or ratiocination. Rhees goes on to cite On Certainty, 559: ‘You must bear in mind that the language-game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean: it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there, like our life’. He then insists: ‘In this context it would make no sense to ask, "From what did it emerge? And still less, ‘From what did language – Sprache – emerge?’ [op. cit., p.95]. Wittgenstein, he notes, does not speak of any development from something prior to a language-game: language, we may say, is given at one stroke, in one fell swoop. The conclusion to be drawn regarding Lacan is that drawn by the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus regarding his own propositions: ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must overcome these propositions, and then he will see the world aright’ [6.54]. There is no Other of the Other—the Other does not exist.

© 2008 Michael Grant

Wednesday, 13 August 2008


I wish in the following to draw upon a certain ‘resolute’ and therapeutic reading of Wittgenstein in order to suggest the possibility of a fruitful analogy between Wittgenstein’s approach to language and the understanding of language evident in some of the work of Jacques Lacan. I will begin by drawing upon an article from 1996, by James Guetti and Rupert Read, on Wittgenstein and rule following. It serves to lay out with exemplary clarity issues that are crucial to a grasp of Wittgenstein’s take on acting from rules. [The article, "Acting from Rules", is to be found in International Studies in Philosophy, 1996, 28:2, 43-62.] The essay begins with a sustained critique of Baker and Hacker’s claim that the relation between a rule and its application is ‘internal’. The gist of their argument here is that there is in B&H a failure to distinguish rule-expression and application-description from rule and application as such. The result is that the application seems to take on the character of the rule, as though it were a part of the rule, something already in place within the rule (46). The mistake here is to ignore the active nature of the application of a rule: B&H see the connection of application to rule as something that exists within grammar, where grammar is thought of as a standing set of logical relations, and by so doing they assimilate application or judgement to definition or rule.

Guetti and Read want to insist that, no matter what grammatical relations may in place at any moment, ‘an application of grammar must consist in something beyond or in addition to them, some further step’ (46). To support this view they quote from Wittgenstein:

I see that it is red—but how does that help me if I do not know what I have to say or how, in some other way, to give expression to my knowledge? For sooner or later I must make the transition to expression. And at this transition all rules leave me in the lurch. For now they all really hang in the air. All good advice is no help to me, for in the end I must make a leap. I must say "That is red" or act in some way, which amounts to the same thing.
To act according to a rule involves a leap away from the rule, supported by nothing other than the anticipation involved in the leap itself. I am at this point reminded of a question put by Stanley Cavell: ‘Is the issue one of a leap [not of faith but, let us say, of reason] from a ground that is itself implied or defined by the leap?’ The ground—the rule—is retroactively defined by the leap away from it.

Guetti and Read imagine a chess game whose players hold in one hand a table or chart of the possible moves of the chess pieces. ‘Before any move they look back and forth from the game board to their charts. But when they actually come to moving a piece, they no longer do this, but give all their attention to the positions on the board’ (47). Applying a rule here involves literally turning away from the charts formulating the rules. The application of the rule is something of a quite different kind from the formulation of the rule itself. Thus, when Wittgenstein writes ‘I follow the rule blindly’ (PI, 219), he may be read as saying that when I follow a rule, I am blind even to the rule-formulation itself. The question arises: if I leap away from the rule to something that the rule, just because I am acting on it, cannot describe, how do I know I am following that rule? Here part of the answer may be that I do not leap towards anything, I act as I have acted before or as others have acted. As Cavell puts it: ‘nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections’ (MWM, 52). To invoke in this connection Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘forms of life’ is to offer no more than a reminder that it makes no sense to ask for the foundation or ground of our practices; for the most part, we rely in our use of language on a fact of agreement for which there is no further explanation. (One may think here of Wittgenstein’s discussion of adding 2.)

As an example of what they have in mind, Guetti and Read offer the following narrative: ‘Two people are walking in the country, in light woods along a stream, and just ahead of them several birds fly up from some high branches and down along the water, and then return fluttering to the bushes. "Waxwings!" says the one who was looking in that direction. And now the other looks. What is the relation of that word—"waxwings"—to his action? Probably we should think that his looking for the birds, or his seeing them, was governed or directed in some way by the word naming them. And he might quickly have them in view, and perhaps as quickly say, "There they are," or, "So those are waxwings," or simply, "Waxwings!"’ (47-8). The problem this story raises for Guetti and Read is how to account for the second speaker’s non-linguistic action: what did he do with the first speaker’s remark? ‘How exactly should the relation among the increments of such a sequence be understood?’ what seems to emerge from this story is that the first speaker’s empirical observation, expressed in the exclamation ‘Waxwings!’, comes to function in the temporal development of the sequence as a grammatical stipulation, a stipulation that is constituted retroactively by the change in register brought about in the first remark by the second speaker’s comment ‘So those are waxwings’. As Guetti and Read note in a later paper on a similar theme:

In this development the role of such expressions [i.e. ‘waxwing’] changes "dialectically" from active to "static," from a temporarily descriptive and even "referential" functioning to a new and undoubted grammatical establishment, a background or "foundation" against which one can make another testable observation. Expressions that serve initially as description of fact are transformed, evidently just by the onward sequencing of the discourses in which they occur, into presumptions that make the next description assertable; and each presumption amounts to a further articulation of the grammatical rules of the sequence, a determination of the logical "range" appropriate for further empirical expression, and hence a modification of the grammar of the entire discourse to that point. ["Meaningful Consequences", The Philosophical Forum 30:4 (December, 1999), 303. Also see the updated and expanded version of this article online HERE.]
It is here that one finds what it is to speak of ‘a dynamic conception of grammar’: ‘a conception such that the grammar of a sequence is to a certain degree being generated as one goes along’. Thus, in the example given, the second speaker’s remark could be responded to by the first speaker’s saying: ‘Indeed! Notice the red tips like sealing wax on some of the wing feathers’.

This leads Guetti and Read to emphasise something they see as fundamental, namely, what they call ‘the interval condition’, which comes between the grammatical ‘cues’ generated by the onward movement of the sequence. Developing their earlier discussion of the ‘leap’, they want to argue that during the course of a dialogue, about waxwings for example, the grammatical cues, the rules, of that dialogue efface themselves, becoming not so much transparent as invisible. They quote Merleau-Ponty in support of this position: ‘In the way it works, language hides itself from us. Its triumph is to efface itself . . . There is language after the fact, or language as an institution, which effaces itself in order to yield the meaning which it conveys’ (51, cited from The Prose of the World, p.10). they back this up with a citation from Wittgenstein that captures precisely the effacing involved in the progress from grammatical increment to grammatical increment during the course of a meaningful linguistic utterance:

It perplexes us that there is no moment at which the thought of a sentence is completely present. Here we see that we are comparing the thought with a thing that we manufacture and possess as a whole; but in fact as soon as one part comes into being another disappears. [51, cited from Philosophical Grammar, p. 108]

There is in our meaningful utterances a double movement, of anticipation and retroaction: ‘we may say that each element of a linguistic sequence is presumed in order for another to follow it, or that it is transformed to presumptive status when—or even because—that further step occurs’ (52). Just as in the Tractatus it was stated that the logical form of a proposition—of an actively meaningful expression—cannot itself be meaningfully represented, so, Guetti and Read argue, ‘a rule in action is "invisible" just in virtue of the fact that, to be taken as a rule—to be an actionable or capacitative concept—it must be un-expressed and un-exposed’ (52). They cite an example from Wittgenstein, who imagines someone who is in pain and simultaneously hearing a near-by piano being tuned.

"Were you thinking of the noise or of your pain?" If he answers "I was thinking of the piano-tuning"—is he observing that the connexion existed, or is he making it by means of these words?—Can’t I say both? If what he said was true, didn’t the connexion exist—and is not he for all that making one that did not exist? [48, cited from PI, 682]

The ‘existence’ of the connection is a matter of the conditional, a matter of what could or would have been said. At the same time, the connection seems to come into being only when it is constituted retrospectively in the act of speech. The existing conditions are anticipated by the possible connections of standing grammar, possibilities that will have been realised retroactively in the fact of the actual utterance.

What is crucial here is the temporal, not the spatial, structure of the logical or grammatical process, as that is involved in meaningful utterance. As Lacan points out in his 1946 paper on ‘Logical Time’, the ‘eternal’ prestige of the forms of classical logic reflects an ‘infirmity’, ‘i.e. these forms do not furnish us anything which cannot already be seen at a single stroke [d’un seul coup], an infirmity which, one may note, is precisely that emphasised by the presentation of logic as given to us by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus. [Newsletter of the Freudian Field 2:2 (Fall, 1988, 9.] it is in these terms that one can take Wittgenstein’s remark in Philosophical Grammar (p. 145, cited by Guetti and Read on p.54):

By "intention" I mean here what uses a sign in a thought. The intention seems to interpret, to give the final interpretation; which is not a further sign or picture, but something else, the thing that cannot be further interpreted. But what we have reached is a psychological, not a logical terminus.

As Guetti and Read point out, 'it is not logic that makes an interpretation ‘terminal’—for it is not within the capacity of logic to do so—but only some action (an action, as it were, upon or from logic)’ (54-5).

The point of invoking psychology here is not to call upon it as some source of extra-logical explanation or justification. It is in effect to point to the limits of philosophy, and to do so by pointing to what Lacan would call the subject. What Guetti and Read have done is to show Wittgenstein’s profound understanding of the role of the subject in the temporality of meaning. The subject is manifest in the interval between two cues, where it functions as the irreducible excess, or what Lacan termed the ‘extimate’, inseparable from the dynamic use of language that it constitutes and by which it is itself constituted. The consequence would seem to be that any attempt to understand meaning as a process of which meaning is an effect or to grasp meaning by grammatical or logical considerations anterior to our engagement with language as language, that is, language in its active employment, will result in nonsense.

Lacan saw the minimum structure of language, based on Freud’s fort/da game, as two signifiers, S1/S2. Emerging from these signifiers, as an effect of their combination, is the subject, barred S or $. Something similar can be seen in the analysis of how grammar is presumed in the use of language as that use is described by Wittgenstein. As for Lacan, the subject may be said to emerge in the void of the interval between two cues. Not only that, but it is clear from what Guetti and Read have shown of Wittgenstein’s approach to language, that for him, as for Lacan, there is no metalanguage: ‘there is no big Other’. There is no a priori formal structure determining what our words mean. When Wittgenstein remarks: ‘One is tempted to say that a new decision is necessary at each application of the rule’ (PI, 186), his comment may be read as a reminder to us that our uses of language to say what we have it in mind to say are acts of speech that are contingent and frequently inconsistent. To put it in Lacanian terms, the big Other is itself barred.

© 2008 Michael Grant