Infancy and History (Part I)

Infancy derives its name from the Latin “in-” (not, opposite of) and “fans” or “fari” (to speak). Thus, in-fancy = not-speaking. But “fari” (to speak) is also connected to “fama” (talk, rumor, reputation), “fabula” (narrative, account, tale, fable), and can be traced all the way back to the Greek “phone,” which of course means: voice. Thus, in-fancy = not-spoken. In-fancy then denotes a state of being, or a time in history, where we do not (yet?) speak, where there is not (yet?) a fable or account of our being, where there is not (yet?) voice. This is why, in common parlance, infancy denotes the first months or years of our lives: before we’ve “established ourselves,” as we often say. But we also apply the notion of infancy to other moments in life. We speak of something being in its “infancy stages,” referring to modern space exploration, a new career or project, a new relationship, or even to humanity itself. We refer to “baby steps” (“petit pas”) to indicate the movements of these initial infant stages. Here, in-fancy = not-yet, or just-starting-out. Of course, the word “infantile” is often used pejoratively. Someone is accused of being infantile if they do not abide, or if they don’t yet know or acknowledge the rules; if they are willfully obnoxious and disruptive, say, in a classroom; or if they are laughing over “childish things” (fart noises, words like “vagina” or “fucking,” etc.). This indicates, then, that there is supposed to be a point in time within the development of the person when they “get over” these childish things; where they acknowledge, accept, and abide by the rules and common standards of everyday life; where they, in short, “grow up.”

I point out all these usages of the word “infancy” in preparation for a discussion of Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Infancy and History” (1977). However, in this part, I will only discuss his preface to the essay, written in 1988-9, as it is very concise about his intentions, not only for this essay, but through all his work. For those following along, to my knowledge, these questions are taken up again most specifically in his Man without Contents (1970), Language and Death (1982), Idea of Prose (1985), The Coming Community (1990), Remnants of Auschwitz (1998)…

The essay “Infancy and History” is grounded in two basic observations about in-fancy that are occluded by the common usages mentioned above. First, on a basic level, these usages assume that we know what language “is,” and what it means to start using it. It is a matter of course that we consider “language” to be a set of tools that we ourselves put into action, whether we are trying to craft a political slogan or give expression to our deepest poetic yearnings. Thus, secondarily, the common usage of the word “infancy” presumes that we, at some point, “grow up” into a rule-based vision of language and its usages. Once we’ve grown up, the question of what language “is” is considered to be a fringe concern of (largely useless) linguists, poets, or philosophers; as for other serious adults, we’re told that there are more serious concerns, and the question of language only returns in the question of diplomacy or advertising. In short, once someone starts to speak, it’s a matter “of course” that they’ve “acquired a voice,” that they themselves have “learned how to speak,” something that (obviously!) all the rest of us know how to do. And yet we also speak of someone “finding their voice” as the moment when their “true self” finally comes to “speak their truth.” Whether this be oratory or not matters little: “to find ones voice” means to “come into ones own.”

It is the question of what language itself is, and the question of the ones own, the two presumptions of ‘adulthood’ just noted, that are at issue in Agamben’s essay. He writes in a telling preparatory note, “In both my written and unwritten books, I have subbornly pursued only one train of thought: what is the meaning of ‘there is language’; what is the meaning of ‘I speak’?” As just noted, these questions are not often asked by the child or by the adult. Yet these mysterious aspects of our existence in fact constitute our existence, and these questions are at stake in all we say and say that we are. Even as we are a babbling pre-adult, we are forming our “identities” through the “thing” called language. We speak before we come to this “identity,” this “I,” that later becomes an assumed entity hidden behind each person’s person (all their actions, thoughts, etc.). It is in questioning this “I who speaks” that Agamben finds fruit for countless philosophical explorations.

In this note, I will sketch out his trajectory and, hopefully, enact some of its implications. In my view, Agamben work stretches itself between (1) a critique of the “pre-sumption” of the voice, or a critique of any pre-existing knowledge of what it means for language to “be there”; and (2) literally finding our voice (our history), which is made possible vis-a-vis an experience of language as in-fancy. It points to an ethic (way of life) where we can never take our voice for granted, and where “to speak” is to pass straight through exteriority, on the way “home.” In other words, to pass through the Archimedian point of the cogito, that speaking being, thought out loud, ourselves.

I — Experimentum Linguae (Eff!)

What distinguishes humans from animals? Animals are immersed in their world and their languages, like fish in water, but humans are split between their language (which is mysteriously “out there”) and the question of themselves as a speaker in language (that mysterious and seemingly incommunicable “in here”). There could be no reflection on events, on society or on oneself without this split. Without this split, not a single question could be asked (and perhaps to ask a question is already to enlighten the split, or to be (the) split oneself). As we will see, this split between language and speech, or between logos and phone, becomes the empty space where, for Agamben, ethics begins, in the original sense of ethos as abode, dwelling place, way of life.

At some point or other, we have all experienced ourselves as a kind of “excess” over the seamless distribution of messages. Someone’s offhand joke leaves us concerned about their true intentions; a potential lover’s perplexed glance leaves us wondering what they really think of us; our boss’s indifference to us leaves us with an animosity we don’t know how to cope with; and the whole flood of media and news-of-the-day leave us asking ourselves where we fit within it all. Often, this excess is felt by us as “unexplainable” emotions. How often have we had friends or (ex-)loved ones say, “I don’t have the words to say what I mean,” “I can’t explain myself,” or more simply, “There are not words.” Note that we say such things with regard both to terrifying and joyful moments, after tragedies or before love. In a sense, this “I can’t say what I think/feel” is what we are. And yet for us to be anything, for there to be any whatness or quiddity to us, we have to speak: we don’t exist outside what we can say (of) ourselves. And this is the difficult thing that wears on our soul in these moments: we’re caught between the thought/feeling and the inability to express (or be) it. We don’t know what to do or how to respond, because we feel like we can’t respond on the terms of language (or gesture; it’s the same thing), and yet we only have the linguistic (and gestural) realm in which to act and respond. While we have to remember that the question of “who speaks/thinks/feels?” undergirds our inquiry, it is in response to this “There are not words” that Agamben pursues his train of thought, and brings us to the notion of in-fancy as an experience of language.

Agamben is not content to leave things at the level of the “There are not words” (the “vulgarly ineffable”) precisely because there are words. It is a question of wording the “There are not…,” of giving voice to the voiceless. Agamben wants to purify language of the so-called ‘unsayable,’ whether understood as ourselves in our interiority (the modern view) or as God in his transcendence (the pre-modern view). Agamben does not think that the limit of language is found in the direction of some referent supposedly outside of language (whether this be our human or personal essence or God Godself). On the contrary, Agamben wants to find the limit of language in language itself: to write the thing-itself of language, or to write on the very limit of language. Agamben wants to take us toward an experience of language that is opposed to the Heideggerian experience of language as a deficiency or lack of names, that point where we fall silent, where speak breaks off into thought, where we “have not words.” Instead, Agamben wants to indicate an experience of language as in-fancy: an experience in and of language as not-yet-speaking, as not-yet-having-a-voice.

(This radically morphs how we think of experience itself, for here we no longer “have” ourselves, but instead undergo ourselves: in speaking, in attesting to the “There is” of language, we pass through what it means to be a speaking-being. “What it means to be a speaking being” is thus not an object of knowledge, but is instead what is at stake in existing as such. Asking this question is therefore a “life-long” process of filling in the gaps of knowledge. Why? Because insofar as I “am,” I am in language, and I cannot be said to precede this “in”; and yet I am not that, I am in excess over what I am, and so there is infinitely more to be said. Ideally, “by the end,” the body of knowledge constituted by the inquiry into what it means for me to be a speaking being… is my body! But, on the contrary, how could one ever emerge from the state of in-fancy?)

An experience of language as in-fancy is as an experience of the “pure exteriority of language,” where language itself is (as of yet) in-fantile. Of course, so are we! This is the sense in which all those messages, hints, and glances, are purely foreign to what is really “going on,” that it is all “fluff” covering over the more difficult processes of identifications and dis-identifications, recognition and misrecognition; or rather, that there is only misrecognition on the vulgar level of the communication of messages, that no one knows what he or she is saying or hearing insofar as these sayings and hearings are supposedly siphoned through a language which just the expression of so many interiors (people, groups, nations). But language is purely exterior to us! Quiddity does not reach who we are. But Agamben does not wish to overcome this exteriority of language; he wishes to reach the “quid” of language itself. He wants to, somehow, come in to contact with it: not to send our messages “through” language, but to find the message itself in language, to have the message be the “thing” of language itself. (This does not necessarily mean we will know any better what we are saying, but rather that the question of the meaning of being a speaking-being will at least have been posed.) Here, again, is the beginning of history, the beginning of ethics, the beginning of a radically altered version of community (as in-fantile, as not-yet-speaking). He is seeking the logic or site of this “purely exterior” (the thing-in-itself!) so as to touch upon it, and essentially to write (speak) it out: to have an experience with (and not only “of”) the purely exterior (i.e., what’s properly inexperienceable). In other words, to not only be subject to this exteriority in an unknowing way, but to knowingly subject oneself to the purely exterior thing, so as to transmit it, or so as to “make history.”

In this way, infancy is an “Experimentum Linguae” (which is the title of the preface under consideration here): an linguistic experiment or experience, where the limits of language are found in the direction of language itself. Here, experiencing-language is not the experience of an “object.” Here, the “purely exterior” is not experienced as an object. How are we to think of the “thing” of language as a pure exterior which is nevertheless not an object? I would suggest that there is implied an experience, not just of “language,” but of “oneself” as purely exterior to oneself! It is this sense of the transcendental “self” that Agamben wants to revive in this work, where the transcendental “self” is an experience of language itself, and can “indicate an experience which is undergone only within language.” Again, this is part of the move away from the idea of the ineffable; or rather, towards the ineffable as what must be “effed.” (The euphemism associated with being “effed” is perhaps not entirely beside the point, for what is an experience of (self-) exteriority, if not fucked? But one must also recall that “effable” is etymologically linked to “fari,” where the “ef-” is opposed to the “in-” of the “ineffable.” And yet the prefix “in-” is crucial to the notion of in-fancy. It is as if the “in-” of the ineffable were to be erased, vis-a-vis the production of the “effable in-fant,” or human history proper. Our task would be to “give voice” to the interminably voiceless: to eff language with the power of the mute, or of a mute-experience.) In short, I cannot presume that “who I am” is ineffable; I must ask the question of iterability as such, where it is literally the “it,” the thing-in-language, that must be brought to utterances.

Perhaps it is true that an experimentum linguae begins, at least here, with a big “fuck you!” to language; but implied is a journey towards its limits where to “fuck” is to “make speak” (or to make-moan, if you like…). In a sense, on the basis of “a” language, we either fuck it or we are fucked by it. Perhaps all neuroses and depressions and anxieties are based in our being fucked-over by language, where it is language that speaks us and not we who speak it (is this not Althusser’s notion of “interpellation”?). Agamben says as much: “the experimentum linguae… is an impossibility of speaking from the basis of a language… an experience… of the very faculty or power of speech.” In other words, there is always an excess over and above the ideological constitution of the subject “in” language, and we experience this as the very power or possibility we have to “find our voice” outside the given coordinates of the situation. In other words, there is room for us to speak, and not everything is already said and done. Language, or ideology, is itself inconsistent, and it is in those gaps or inconsistencies that we ourselves can “find our voice”: when we come in contact with, or experience, this inconsistency as such, and say “fuck it!” To be complacent is simply to be determined by language, whereas to be ethical would be to determine “a” language for ones own (i.e., to dis-course). (To be an idiot; to become-idiom.)

Saying “fuck language,” “effing” the thing of language, takes place in the passage from language to discourse, or from the logos to phone. But we have to say right away that this passage is impossible. Where the ancients assumed this passage between phone (voice) and logos (language), we moderns cannot, for ancients made this assumption in a confused way. Aristotle famously introduced grammata, letters, as the things which both pre-exist the voice (as the sign, or logos), and as the accomplishment of the voice’s articulation (as the constitutive element of the voice, or phone). Again, gramma comes to assume this paradoxical value of the sign of the voice (on the side of language, logos) and an element of the it (on the side of articulation, phone). Thus, gramma becomes an index of itself: it always precedes the voice, and the voice only gives voice to it. It is the written-thing and the voice-which-is-written. This will come up in the essay itself as the relationship between particular individuals and what Aristotle calls the “passive intellect,” where the ‘true’ would be the point at which the already-written gramma is given back its own voice, speaking what was always-already pre-determined or destined by it. This is precisely what is to untenable for us moderns.

Agamben’s hypothesis is instead that there is no articulation between phone and logos, and it is in this “empty space” that ethics begins. The letter, gramma, is but the presupposition of the potential-to-speak and of the self-who-speaks. Modern thought is characterized by a critique of this two-sided presupposition (recalling Agamben’s guiding questions, What is language? Who speaks?). This critique of the gramma led to Derrida’s observation that “The voice has never been written into language,” and Agamben adds that:

The space between voice and logos is an empty space, a limit in the Kantian sense. Only because man finds himself cast into language without the vehicle of a voice, and only because theexperimentum linguae lures him, grammarless, into that void and that aphonia, do an ethos and a community of any kind become possible.

The passage from language to voice cannot base itself in the certainty of the voice; it must be experienced. (Agamben’s book Potentialities collects essays that deal with the question of passing the passage itself, where the transmission of the “thing-itself” of language is the prime endeavor.) The voice has never been written, phone does not jump the gap into logos. And yet if presence never makes it into the trace, we’ve also said that there is no presence outside its trace. Here is an a-poria or an a-phonia that implies an encounter with language. It implies that “I myself” do not have my “own” voice; but that we speak and that to speak is to speak in our name. Always. Here, again, is an ethics, a writing of history. No longer are there any letters, “a” language, on which to base our writing. Neither is there “a” voice. It is this emptiness, this aporia, this “transcendent,” which implies coming up to the limits of language, although in no other direction than language itself (the impossible).

We cannot represent that there is language; on the contrary, we must pass through it, or have an experience of it, at the limit where we experience this empty void between what passes and what we can say about it. We have to pass through the non-latency of language and the not-voice, lack of logos and phone. (We should mention that this inquiry in to the “There are not words” (Paul Celan’s “No one bears witness/for the witness”), leads directly to Agamben’s later work, Remnants of Auschwitz, where the question of bearing witness to the unspeakable is most vigorously pursued.) In light of all this, Agamben finds the properly “infantile task of future generations”: To seek a polis and a home befitting this experimentum linguae wherein we seek a correct expression of existence (of language, of world) in the absence of a voice, in the absence of “a” language “in which” to express “it.” How do we manage the ordeal of there being no “expresser” behind the expression, of there being no “language” “in which” we have an experience of language? How do we take up these tasks? For now, we can only repeat our initial question: what does it mean, for us, for language to be? And what does it mean, for us, to be a speaking being? It is to the properly modern investigation of these questions that Agamben’s essay “Infancy and History” turns.

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