Austin with Bion

The linguistic innovation of J.L. Austin is a North Star around which to orient the development of modern thought over the last century. Let me begin with a double emphasis. On one hand, the radicalism of the performative utterance follows neatly from a long trajectory of western thought towards existential immanence. This conceptual gesture has all the marks of destiny. But then, on the other hand, this theory was absorbed into academia in a way that left intact the semantic hegemony it was intended to revoke. So, the history of Austin’s thought can be read as a case of epistemological immunology. The central frame of Western metaphysics (the proposition, the semantic frame) was breached, but this breach was immediately re-appropriated by the tradition in order to re-fortify it’s ancient conventions. All the theories of pragmatic and communicative language which have spread over the last fifty years hold fast to the hegemony of the proposition, which is the priority of factual descriptions in the form “this is how things are”.

This evasion of performative linguistics is a problematic topos, and a rich terrain for thought today. The question here concerns the relation and non-relation between us and language. The conservative and imperial bastions of Western scholarship have always insisted on the universality of words. This is an often unsaid principle of neutrality, where statements can always be isolated from the context of their utterance. This assumes the exchange-ability of the speaking subject so that everyone uses the same words. According to this convention, we can analyse and evaluate sentences independently of their context. This way there is no need to consider who said a statement, or when they said it, because the statement can be judged (true or false, grammatical or ungrammatical, sensible or nonsensical..) independently from the singular conditions of it’s utterance. Notice how this reflects the liberal bourgeois value of equality satirized by Georg Sorel -”rich and poor are equally prohibited from sleeping under bridges”.

J.L Austin challenged this neutral pillar of classical epistemology by positing the utterance (an always contextual act) as the primary material for linguistic analysis. This brought centuries of radical theory – say, from Paul of Taurus to Soren Kierkegaard – down to a concise analytical turn. He essentially applied Ockham’s razor to the existential theories of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and asserted them as an explosive point at the heart of the analytical philosophy of language. The concept of existential singularity had been developing underground for centuries, and then it erupted in all it’s rhetorical glory in Austin’s theory. But then consider how his theory was incorporated into mainstream linguistic doctrines in a highly truncated form. Instead of treating the utterance as a linguistic paradigm, which would have been revolutionary, the mainstream just adopted it as one more category alongside others. The scholars performed a conceptual analysis to quarantine the dangerous immanence opened by this new theory, so that the performed utterance became only a particular type of statement, such as a vow or promise. Then it was easily shown that these utterances were in fact rare, and so they would not disrupt the semantic ontology of the empire. This way the performance dimension was only registered when there was some transparent determinate symbolic change at an institutional level, so these utterances could be licensed within the framework of propositional semantics. Thus the frontier that Austin opened was closed.

I believe Austin’s gesture can be radicalized today so to avoid the conceptual net of imperial semantics. Instead of performative acts, I think we should consider the impersonal illocutionary force of language. I’m not so interested in contexts and framing, but rather in unframed forces that operate through the unknown circumlocution of language. The question of framing will always return, but it’s the framing of the an unframed (unknown) assemblage of language which is a material apparatus and a relational system of impersonal forces. This way we consider unknown systems of relations as subjects of language, and as substantial individuals. A constellation of material relations becomes linguistic once it attains the power of utterance.

I propose an aggressive conceptual gesture that mates Austin with psychoanalysis, and then throws psychoanalysis away. Psychoanalysis has fine conceptual codes for radicalizing his theory, but it brings with it baggage totally unsuited for radical politics. It has the tremendous merit of being an initiation into a language of corporeal forces foreign to consciousness, a language of the material other. But it has the tremendous disadvantage of assuming the person as a substantial individual and baseline for analysis. So, I propose a linguistics that would proceed as a psychoanalysis of the impersonal. Similarities with the schizoanalysis of Deleuze and Guatarri may seem obvious, however their work is only of limited interest for many reasons. Without recalling all the criticisms of their naivety, let me just say that I favour the more candid and thorough engagements with questions of abstract formality and negativity as elaborated by Lacanian thinkers such as Alain Badiou.

But my preferred version of psychoanalysis is that of Wilfred Bion and his followers. In that school I find the resources for a radical depersonalization that can accomplish a non-psychoanalytic turn. Throughout the last generation of radical theories, what returns consistently are strategies of subtraction – the main debate seems to be over the timing, manner, and direction of subtraction. Is it time for an elision? An effacement? etc. All the contending philosophies seem to be various programs of subtraction. One remarkable case is Graham Harman’s concept of withdrawal – the theory that every object possesses its unique monadic substance only in it’s withdrawal into itself where it is unavailable to everything else. Perhaps withdrawal is the most interesting concept of negativity today. It’s often suggested that language originates out of negativity – such as the emptying of the site of the other which stirs desire. Blanchot wrote about how literature arose from blindness, and much research has been conducted into the fecundity of the incapacity to speak and write. It seems that language emerges from the non-availability (non-apprehension, non-knowledge,. Non-understanding…) of the other. And it may be possible to link Austin’s conception of illocutionary force with theories of linguistic negativity, in order to construct a praxis of linguistic emergence.

Bionian analysis has distinct characteristics that might be appropriated in a literary direction. Most important is how he interprets everything back into the analytic field, or what is called surface-depth analysis. This was a remarkable innovation in the sense or direction of interpretation. If a patient were to speak of a colleague, then that could be interpreted in at least three basic ways. It can be understood literally as a reference to a particular person. Or it can be assumed to indicate an unconscious representation of the other, as psychoanalysts often have done. But, Wilfred Bion developed a third approach where he sought only hidden references to himself, the analyst. Whatever the patient said, Bion was only interested insofar as it was a cloaked reference to himself. This analysis was focused on the analytic setting, and always hinged around late arrivals, missed sessions and changes in behaviour around holiday breaks.

I would like to consider Bion’s brilliant innovation as a withdrawal of the analytic field into itself. He refused to interpret anything outside of analysis directly, and instead waited until the patient’s relations had been registered in the analytic field, so the entire problem was just between him and the patient, and he himself could represent all of the patient’s others. The patient’s psyche had to be internalized into the analytic field, so that the patterns of psychic relation were all there available for re-composition.

Whether we are concerned with science, politics, art, or sexuality, it seems that our performance is always conditional on the absoluteness of our withdrawal. Philosophers have often pointed out that touching the other first presumes touching the self. Bion treated psychopathology as a failed metabolism, where someone was not in touch with themselves. Something was split off, and the symptom could be hallucination, delusion, rash or hicups. His problem was to get those split-off parts registered, and that meant taking them into himself. The patient had to project their symptoms into him, and then encounter them all there together, and then eventually re-internalize them as their own. If the patient missed a session, that could indicate progress, because it could mean the analytic field was getting charged with dangerous super-egoic alterity that repelled them. The patient was considered mad because they had split off some unstable energy they were unable to metabolize, and analysis was a place where they might get some assistance reintegrating that energy.

My curiosity here concerns the mobilization of this Bionian analytic form as a web literature. Instead of a clinical field of analysis, this would imply a broader evental field, into which events are metablized and reflected. This follows conceptual lines I have developed over the last few years (see this), which construct a metabolic praxis of internalization. This is a communist introversion, where external events are reflected (metabolized, translated) onto an internal symbolic milieu. And this is not just a proposal for something that might be done in the future, but a suggestion for how what is already happening may be understood.          

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