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The Erotics of Language

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: An account of linguistic playfulness, linking the work of the poet back to the child's relation to sound and meaning. The work of Julia Kristeva is referenced for the approach developed here.

In one of the most technical papers I have ever written, (published in my 1987 book Language in Mind and Language in Society), I offer a detailed review of the arguments in David K Lewis's 1969 book Convention and claim that grammatical correction of someone's linguistic performance cannot be immediately justified by reference to the needs of communication. For it is only if we have understood what someone is trying to say that we can locate grammatical faults. If someone is struggling to express themself in a foreign language, they can only be put right linguistically when they have succeeded in communicating what it is they wish to say.

The same argument can be made in relation to spelling correction, and teachers working with young children become adept at working out what is being said through the child's cryptograms, faced with which the rest of us declare incomprehension and cannot even begin the job of correction.

Of course, a teacher's correction of a child's spelling makes the child intelligible to third parties, and the same is true for some grammatical correction. In this way, correction is mediately justifiable by reference to the needs of communication. Some opposition to linguistic privatisation can thus be justified by reference to common interests. Some repression of linguistic disorder, above the level which will spontaneously occur (through the operation of feedback mechanisms and so on), makes access possible to more optimal communicative states than are obtainable under conditions of linguistic free-for-all.

But a great deal of attempted and successful correction is clearly surplus to any plausible account of communicative need, and an obsession with correctness is just that - an obsession. Both in the individual and in society, obsessions have the same roots; they reflect fears of a loss of control or power over something, which may be oneself or other people. And an obsession backed up by an educational system is as much a system of power as an obsession backed up by an army.

Some individuals who preoccupy themselves with maintaining linguistic correctness - the Queen's English brigade, and so on - would rather obviously be better off if they took to a psychoanalyst's couch, and the communal efforts of the Academie Franšaise to maintain the purity of the French tongue have always been regarded by otherwise Francophile audiences as one of the ways in which the French make fools of themselves.

Obsessionality is a reaction to the loss of real satisfactions and a defence against the risks and terrors of allowing oneself to look for them again. It is an overdevelopment of the intellect against the feelings.

There are real satisfactions to be had from language, from playing with it and from working in it as a medium of communication and of art. People allowing themselves such satisfactions are the agents of linguistic innovations which, when consolidated, become linguistic changes and, ultimately, the language the purity and correctness of which will be defended by an as-yet unborn army of prescriptivists.

I choose an example of linguistic change in progress from today's newspaper, 3 February 1996. Glancing through the listings in The Independent (something I have only recently begun to do, having only recently re-acquired a television after a fifteen-year break), I read '2.25 Pyjama Party. Claudia Schiffer guests on the girlie show'. I am afraid that this is not only past my bedtime, but is also the first time I have seen 'guests' used as a verb to mean 'is a guest'. It twins neatly with host , which has both nominal and verbal forms, and in replacing three words with one must stand a reasonable chance of consolidating itself as a linguistic change, if it has not already (after all, I'm only noticing it because I've not read a TV listing for 15 years).

As an academic, I'm more aware of the consolidation of critique as a verbal form, though it is not clear to me whether all the tensed forms are equally acceptable: to my ear: 'You should critique your sources' sounds less novel than 'He critiqued his own earlier work' . Once again, though, critique as a verb effects economies on what was previously said (' You should offer a critique of your sources'; 'He offered a critique of his own earlier work' which may be felt not to be synonymous with ' He criticised his own earlier work' ). Twenty years ago, only pretentious radicals who wanted to Frenchify their speech and writing used 'critique' as a verb; now there are no pretentious radicals left, but the form has entered into fairly widespread use.

To my mind, to create a new verb - a form which might end up with a Dictionary entry (to guest, to critique - is a pretty radical thing to do. And you can only do it if, in some sense, you see the resources of language as themselves a medium which can be used to create new linguistic effects. This is close to saying that you have to see language as a medium of art, as it is for the poet (by which I mean not any old 'creative writer', but the writer whose attention to the working of their medium is integral to what they are up to).

In contemporary theory, it is Julia Kristeva who has given the most systematic psychoanalytic account of how we get to use language as a medium of art, and in what earlier states such use is rooted. She distinguishes a semiotic aspect and a semantic aspect of language. The former is pre-linguistic in origin, rooted in the cries, gurgling, cooing and laughter of the infant and its responsive mother. The latter is language as meaning, conventionalised and prescribed. In some poetry a main drive is to find a controlled and ordered way to express again the desires expressed in the infant's pre-linguistic sound making, using the resources of the semantic.

What I want to emphasise here is the self-directedness of the child's use of sound and language, the ways in which the child seeks satisfactions from its own sound - and utterance-making. Infants coo to themselves in their cots, when no one is present, and young speakers talk to themselves - I'm tempted to say: at least as much as they talk to anyone else. Such self-directed sound and utterance is part of the child's play, and in it sound and meaning can and will be played with. The child will discover satisfactions in playing with both sound and sense. In complex ways, such self-directed play links up to other-directed imaginative activity. That other-directed play comes later, and involves the child not only in mastering technique but also in taking the role of the other in a play situation. Remind yourself that there are few situations more difficult than those in which young children announce that they are going to perform a play for you, and you sit down only to discover that there is no plot and no end in sight.

I justify my title by observing that the child's self-directed play with sound and meaning is, in the broadest sense, driven by erotic needs for love and the security of love. Some of the baby's cooing substitutes for the cooing of the absent mother; some of the child's talking to itself wards off terrors of aloneness. As time passes, other-directed uses of language express love and the desire for love.

In such erotic activities, grammar is not in place. And it can be displaced in the adult derivative of such play, which is poetry.

It would be a mistake to think that all those who are poets practice poetry. Some poets are obsessionals who would not dare disturb the orders of language, grammatical or metric. They write prose in verse form. Worse, they write prose laid out in verse form.

The practice of poetry by some poets and many non-poets is engagement with the medium of language, as sound and sense, as a medium for creating novel linguistic effects, constrained by a feel for words rather than the orders of grammar.

A poet is not someone adept at finding words for a feeling, but someone who has a feeling for words.

A feeling for words has one characteristic pathological expression in what is called glossolalia - speaking in tongues. As I understand, glossolalia does not extend a person's ability to communicate with others; it is a self-directed activity, gratifying phantasies of omnipotence. It also seems to provide comfort, like a transitional object (a blanket or a cuddly toy).

Less extreme but in my view related, is the situation of someone who takes pleasure in writing in a foreign language in which they are not bi-lingual (just) because that focusses their attention onto the language as it is being worked into a text. It is an activity which, in itself, makes strange what is usually familiar and taken-for-granted. For in writing in a foreign language, the management of the language itself is in the foreground of attention and the writer has to feel an (uncertain) way with words. This does not sound so very different from the situation of a poet feeling their way in their own language.

On reflection on the previous paragraphs, they are suggesting that the poet and some others are engaged with language in ways which might be charactersised metaphorically as tactile: the poet feels a way with words, almost as if they were touched objects, tested for warmth and coldness, hardness and softness. And, indeed, linguists happily talk of hard, soft and liquid sounds. But the testing (at least for the poet - perhaps this is where the pathological cases differ) is also against feelings, so that what is at issue is whether a word (as sound or sense) can act as a container for - as a means of expression - for feelings and emotionally-charged thoughts. If they are good containers, then they can contain what is deposited in them and the poet has thereby let go of what they contain: a result which may occasion relief or depression.

For some poets it is necessary that they make a mess with words before they can make a poem of them. They have to scribble down odd phrases which sound in their minds; they write drafts which turn into palimpsests; they screw it all up and throw it in the bin. All this is little different from play with paint and paper, and is evidence of trying to do something (difficult) through engagement in a medium which is sometimes resistant and sometimes yielding. It can only be done by someone free to experiment, to play, to make a mess.

Do all these remarks and sketches add up to anything like a theory? Much of what has been said is like the hand-waving which accompanies a lecturer's exposition - 'You see what I mean, don't you?' My task now is to say something with my hands tied behind my back.

1998; unfinished. Not previously published