How To Become Part Of Language


I love the word here. It has this great double sense. On the on hand, it’s so insistent: Where? Here! On the other hand, it’s so generous: Here, I baked you some tasty cookies! This play of insistence and generosity runs through all of language. In fact, I want to say that it is this play that allows, facilitates, and creates meaning, producing the spectacular event of linguistic sense, all those things words do.

Language is weird. It’s a kind of system that includes all these different elements — words, punctuation, meanings — and the way the elements combine, that is, grammar. From one angle, language is a self-contained system. It seems to come more or less complete, ready to be used, a sense pret-à-porter. Or one of those robust toolboxes I’d see at Sears when I was a kid with these fold out drawers filled with tools of different sizes, shapes, sharpness, and function.

And yet language never exists outside of its use. Never. Which is to say, our every encounter with language is an encounter with something — a person, book, song, film, dog. It’s always an event, a reckoning, an occurrence, a happening, an encounter. There’s always a speaker or writer. Dictionaries try to be the Word on high, devoid of body, the delivery of pure meaning. But that’s absurd. Dictionaries have a voice, tone, and style. They have a body.

The structuralists tried separating these two aspects of language — the system, or what they in the French manner, called langue; and the instantiation of language, its use, which they called parole. But of course langue and parole, system and use, were never distinct. There was not first language and then people using language. The beginning of language is the beginning of humans. Or, better, the beginning of both is an existence which has always already begun and which, like humanity, is always evolving, changing, transforming. (This drives my kid crazy. He imagines, like many, that there must be a first — a first person, a first universe. To which I always say: Nope. The universe has always existed. So has language.) Anyway, for those who care, showing how the use (of language) is co-existent with the structure (of language) is what we call deconstruction (see Derrida’s Of Grammatology).

But I don’t want to talk about that here. Not really. Well, I take that back. I do want to talk about that as well as about this, here, now. And about you and I, among other things. (Does it drive you crazy that I don’t use quotation marks to mark the difference between the use of the word and the word as an object? Are you sure there’s always a clear difference between them?)

The linguist Roman Jakobson called these words indexicals. Other people might also have called them indexicals but I discovered the term reading Jakobson so Jakobson it is. All knowledge, all claims, all arguments are bound by the circumstance of those involved, in this case me. I read Jakobson nearly 20 years ago. I have not reread it. I am so glad I’m not an academic who has to cite his sources. I have the great luxury of writing immersed in myself.

Indexicals are very cool. They are words that have no set referents, no fixed meaning. They only take on a referent in their use. Dog has a referent outside of any particular dog; it conjures the concept, image, and idea dog. But the word here — as well as now, here, this, that, I — have no referent other than within a particular circumstance.

This can make things complicated. One of my favorite moments which I used to teach is being in a public bathroom and reading the words, I wuz here. Who? Me? Huh? Aren’t I here now? How can I even say the phrase, I wuz here? The I is present; so is here; but the wuz folds this I and here into another dimension so that, in some sense, I am here and not here. As are you. Or, rather, as is your I.

Of course, we can talk about the now and the I, turn them into nouns and concepts and images we can discuss and bandy about. But that’s something else. As indexicals, they refer to this or that I, this or that location, this or that now. What Jakobson was getting at, amongst other things, is that language is structurally circumstantial. Which is odd. It’s an open system, a moving system, a temporal system. It’s kind of like our civil law. Yes, there’s a code of rules but there’s always — always — the particular negotiation of that code, of those laws.

Through their insistence on circumstance, by only having meaning in a particular time and place, indexicals introduce a kind of play into the structure of language.  Which is what I always really liked about all this and that. For Jakobson, indexicals are generous, a portal into the system of language. They are these moving spaces into which the user — writer or speaker — slips and becomes an agent of language. When I say I, for Jakobson, I enter the matrix as all of language surrounds me and I become at once animator and animated, user and used, operator and operated. Like Neo, when we utter I, we become part of the code.