Translation of F. Laruelle’s “Toward an Active Linguistics”

I apologize in advance for the many bracketing of the French, but this was only to render the distinctions between langue and langage clear (as well as pouvoir and puissance). Furthermore, all the footnotes are mine, and I have included them to provide as much context and added scholarly value, so to speak, as possible. -TA

Laruelle, F. “Pour une linguistique active (la notion de phonèse)”, Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger Vol. 168 Issue 4 (Oct.-Dec. 1978): 419-431.

Toward an Active Linguistics (The Notion of Phonesis)

By François Laruelle

 “When one has demonstrated that a thing is of the highest utility, one has however thereby taken not one step towards explaining its origin: that is to say, one can never employ utility to make it comprehensible that a thing must necessarily exist”.[1]

This axiom is not Spinoza’s, but Nietzsche’s (Daybreak, #37). If we introduce a Spinozist point of view (i.e. anti-Cartesian) into linguistics, what will be our estimation of man? Will we impose on science’s serenity the requirements of an Ethics and the point of view of the active passions? How does one speak of God’s enjoying? How does one make of linguistics a science of beatitude in the subject?

The idea of an active linguistics

An era is fading away under our steps, that era in which antihumanism served as the sigil if not for linguistics, then at least for the philosophical usages of linguistics. We are now free to pose our problem otherwise, to add complements and nuances to it, to differentiate this antihumanism. For quite a while it’s been a misunderstanding, both in linguistics and outside. A principle was made of antihumanism, whereas it’s perhaps nothing but an effect; it was made into a project, whereas it was just the index of other deeper critiques and surely the symptom (but it became automatic) of a change of terrain in the manner of apprehending the phenomena of language. Taken in its sense and its ambitions, this structural mutation should be a “break”, but too often it functions less as a veritable displacement than as a simple “revolution”, i.e. a reversal that returns on the spot and passes through the same positions. It leads to refusals that we esteem as fully and completely inefficacious. Furthermore, on this terrain certain rectifications have been set in motion, more or less explicitly (by Althusser, Lacan, Foucault). It suffices to extend this line of new deeds to define the limits that antihumanism may not surpass in order to remain what it is. For on the one hand it’s a method, or, if you will, merely a procedure and a strategy devoted to the determination of certain critical effects against classical anthropological presuppositions; on the other hand, it’s a tendency that can receive new theoretical forms and new instruments, pass through non-structural mutations and become in these forms a guiding thread for a new examination of language’s phenomena, i.e. the project of an “active linguistics” that we shall outline below. What are these limits?

a) We should distinguish a “linguistic antihumanism”, i.e. an antihumanism in the theory of language, from an antihumanism that would claim to be real and practical. A linguistic antihumanism makes no sense except in theory (supposing, provisionally, that we can isolate it from linguistic practice), but it does make sense in the express goal of making much more intelligible the struggles that real men lead in order to be able to speak [pouvoir parler][2]. When these extremely old philosophical figures (of the “mind” [esprit], the psuché, the mental or “speech” as effectuation of language [langue][3]) are eliminated; when reductions, suspensions or indeed deconstructions of various types are deployed onto the almost infinite procession of presupposeds which will function all too often—even in Saussure—as an axiom of the linguistic field’s closure, thereby prohibiting it from opening up to other givens under the pretext that these givens were apparently not linguistic; when, taking up structuralism’s relay but against structuralism itself  à la Derrida, one of structuralism’s “logocentric” chains, which feeds this formation from Saussure to Lacan through Hjelmslev and many others, is sublated, each time all of the above are (this is at least the guiding thread that we’re taking for our accounting of all these gestures) procedures for better comprehending how humans are constrained to speak, and how they are to speak in determined forms and with determined means. But precisely which linguistics has ever been able to explain the necessity of having to speak?

b) Perhaps it’s necessary to distinguish partially between man and the subject. Although these two values communicate through a whole philosophical network, the antihumanism of “structure” already concerned man much more as an empirico-transcendental entity than the subject as a subjected correlate of the signifying chain (Lacan) or—this can be imagined—of structure as primacy of the relations of production (Althusser). The problem, nevertheless, is to free the subject even further (if this is possible) from its anthropological connotations in view of founding linguistics as what Saussure has failed to do: as a linguistics of the subject. Despite everything, this isn’t Lacanian psychoanalysis…

Having determined the project in this way, the way to attain it is to trace a new line of demarcation between man and the subject and to transform the subject into the correlate of a speaking chain that is no longer signifying or structural. We’ll get to this later on by introducing (as the complement or rather supplement to the phoneme) the radically subjective and antistructural concept of “phonesis”, which will correspond to the position of the “agency” [instance][4] of speaking-power in linguistic reason and will determine it as “active”. In other words, this concept will finally introduce the possibility of considering a generativity at the level of “structure”, a special type of generativity that is both immanent and transcendent to structure.  Let’s say right out that this concept of phonesis has nothing to do with the phonetic, which isn’t being reintroduced here. It’s a trans-linguistic concept, it’s coincident with the enigmatic distinction, here advanced as a slogan or rather as an advertisement signal, between the subject and the all-too-human (rather than the “human”). For the human properly speaking is an entity perhaps without existence, if not statistical existence. The sense of this effort is manifest: differentiate the speaking subject, nuance antihumanism vis-à-vis an interrogation, and above all introduce to a problematic no longer language acts but productions of language. In view of other effects, this is the positive project that concentrates and re-divides the balance-sheet of linguistic antihumanism otherwise and refuses to turn it into a program in any way. The notion of phonesis envelops a linguistic and “anti?” linguistic program proper, but the latter doesn’t enter into rivalry with existing linguistics whatsoever.

This is to say that we’re not positing here a resolutely nonlinguistic question to language and linguistics so as to extend the contemporary inquiries; it’s also to say that it’s not a matter of yet another idealist and eventually “political” intervention, an intervention that would claim to be constituting in the autonomous field of linguistics. Would there be candidates for taking on Marr’s (let’s say Nietzschean) role[5], i.e. for breaking the history of linguistics in two? For all sorts of reasons, some more philosophical than others—we shall therefore not examine them here, having advanced them elsewhere[6]—this type of intervention is not just in linguistics, like the way in which Marxism handled it, but involves a relation of contiguity: to linguistics (to = in / outside = relation of supplementarity), which thereby leaves linguistics (in a manner to be determined) to its objects, its criteria, its autonomy, its field of description. But the weak difference of the in from the to is strictly philosophical here and cannot be elucidated by linguistics whatsoever.[7]

Let’s take up the guiding thread of one of Heidegger’s formulas, and let’s determine that formula through the cross-wiring [le recoupement] of two chains of his text. For example, the chain of Being’s essence defined as power [pouvoir][8] and desire (mögen and vermögen) and the chain of the phenomenological description of the utility of tools: one has to extend these chains to the point of linguistic tools and cross-wire the chains in the famous formula: die Sprache spricht.[9]

This equation is the formula of a post-Saussurian tendency in linguistics, and this tendency must be taken further. Let’s translate this tendency so that we can transform this apparent tautology into the antistructural slogan of this essay: speaking or languistic language [langue parlante ou langagière][10]. This is a joyous paradox, an almost absolute contradiction within the Saussurian framework—the chiasmus of speech and language [langue] toward the subversion of linguistics. And this is despite the fact that Saussure’s evergreen genius had in its own way apprehended what every linguistics strives to fill in and what Heidegger calls “the abyss of language”. To relaunch this line of flight and risk disorganizing “structure” and “grammar”, one can even translate: speaking speaking [parler parlant][11], i.e. the power (— of) speaking.[12] Just as there is a power to punish, a power of working (labor-power) [force de travail], etc., there is a prephonetic and prephonological speaking-power, but it’s always invested in phonetic and phonological productions.

Such a formula is capable of generating, if not a “new” linguistics, at least a new functionality of objects traditionally described by linguistics, both the structural and the generative type: for it is a question of a generativity that’s considerably less Cartesian but, hopefully, a little more “powerful” [puissant].[13] What this generativity first contains is the critique—not the destruction, but the displacement—of the instrumental and functional conception of language [langage]: language does not speak to communicate, it speaks (to) speak and (to) communicate eventually, as if speaking were first an immanent process, a production, a speaking speaking before being this spoken speaking that linguists call a “Corpus”, thereby turning it so easily into a simple instrument of communication. Speaking language [langue] is the formula of a pregnancy: as if the means were pregnant with its ends, gained the dignity, continuity and limitlessness of its ends and sovereignly attributed to itself their nobility for “itself”. This is precisely what an “active” linguistics must think from the start: speaking [le parler] as simply speaking [parlant] our generativity to us, an unlimited speaking that enjoys its limitlessness.

“Structuralism” is merely a manner of disdainfully regarding language [langage] from its small tip, i.e. listeners and receivers[14] that attempt to analyze a datum of sound and sense.  Let’s ultimately analyze structuralism into producers or into “users”. Perhaps structuralism does not exist, other than stastically, and there are only structuralists or anatomists of dead speaking (have I been understood?)[15] who exploit, i.e. overexploit the being-productive of language [langage] for a profit that is “political” in its own way. This is what implies, among other things, that what’s played out within this interval from the dead to the productive (which is not at all the promise of a classical “hermeneutics”), from the corpus of spoken speaking to the body [corps] of speaking speaking, is the destiny of this piece, this piece that we no longer know where to put[16] or mainly for which function to require it: man. It’s with this principle of a production of the speaking subject that this piece strives to elaborate its full span, which has nothing to do with the structural concept of production or speech nor with the phonetic concept of vocal motricity, and which does not at all represent (by the name of speaking-power or speaking speaking) a simple reversal of the structuralist primacy of language [langue] over speech.

In effect, unlike the current attempts in this direction, an active linguistics in principle avoids being given the superior levels of the phrase and the word for its sole primary matter. Active linguistics is on the surest and most established level of formal linguistic analysis: on the phonematic level, wherein it will attempt to intervene and displace the structural portions. This is precisely where it will succeed or fail, without however entering into direct rivalry with structural linguistics but by seeking to be placed with it in a singular relation, which we have defined as contiguity, i.e. supplementarity simultaneously immanent and transcendent to the objects and methods of phonematic description. Active linguistics nuances, differentiates the phoneme in its own way, yet without destroying it but remaining content with deriving it. Active linguistics adds supplements to the phoneme that take this notion to its most productive regime and make it draw out all its consequences in the procedure of phonematic analysis. Furthermore, in conformity to its rule of activity or of languistic production as its point of view (a rule that it uses immanently and conforms to on its own behalf), active linguistics does not delimit the procedure of the phoneme without first putting the positive and active notion of “phonesis” in the phoneme’s place or on its frontiers. It uses this name as a new translinguistic relevance and a new criterion of what falls under “description”, i.e. the complex associations of phoneses and phonemes insofar as they are languistic production itself: its means and also its shackles. But without defining a new, properly linguistic relevance in rivalry with others (perhaps nothing is properly linguistic, which is what active linguistics wants to make known), without further constituting a philosophical meta-linguistics of language [langage], active linguistics posits (as its criterion of the apportionment and analysis of its field of empiricity) that which plays a role in production—in its limitlessness and its limitation—and, rigorously secondarily, that which therefore plays a role in the reproduction of language, i.e. in the communication of messages. Thus what will be relevant will no longer be the distinctive function (it’s relevant for the externalized reproduction and consumption of language), but its productive function, insofar as the latter, secondarily, can also explain the distinctive function or signalization of a phonematic choice of sense.

In fact, an “active” linguistics doesn’t simply respond (otherwise than other linguistics[17]) to the foundational questions already posed by structuralism and generative grammar. It projects a set of three fundamental questions that disrupt these linguistics and that were meticulously obliterated by structural and generative mechanisms. These questions form a matrix or a “machine” that generates an infinite field of general descriptions and statements, introducing into the heart of existing linguistics a front of political struggle in its own way (it isn’t “Marxist” or “bourgeois”), a line that has the property of passing (among other things) through all the phenomena that linguistics do not explain and all of which partake in the power-of-speaking or in a production of language irreducible to its social reproduction (although it’s not our object to show this here, Humboldtian energeia and Chomskyan generativity still implicitly and despite themselves—due to their theoretical instruments—posit a primacy of reproduction over “production”, or a vicious reflection of the former in the latter). The questions that open up the field of active linguistics are the following:

1. What’s the relation of “language acts” with language productions, considered without particular or privileged reference to real phonic production and without these productions ensuing from, but also no longer denying, these acts? What instruments assemble [agence] speaking-power, and how is a phoneme associated with another? Question of a generatitivty which would not be primarily that of phrases but which would be just as valid (due to its universality) for the phonematic “level”? The solution to this question is the introduction of the notion of “phonesis” meant to explain the notion of phoneme.

2. What are the conditions of the internal reproduction of language productions? How do these productions condition language’s social reproduction under conditions of the corpus and of “tongues” [langues] as specific modes of language [langage][18]? How do languistic agents transform speaking into a Body determined each time? The solution to this question is the introduction of the notion of “language potentials” [langue] meant to delimit the notions of “system”, “deep structures” and energeia.

3. Who speaks[19]? or who is it that returns the productions of speaking-power to the subject? The solution to this question is the introduction of the notion of “collective agents of phonetization and of phonematization”, or even the notion of “speaking masses” [masse(s) parlante(s)][20].

Here we shall only attempt to elaborate the first question.

The notion of phonesis

Structuralism describes the conditions of possible languistic experience rather than its conditions of real experience. It brackets the internal cause or production, it will have systematically ignored what’s in anterior linguistics and phonetics from the point of view of production. It isolates the total effect in the form of a “corpus” where the production of language is nullified, where the flux is cut off, where causality becomes indifferentiated: in the perception and identification of sense, in the recognition and identification of invariant signifying entities. Its ideal is consumption, it begins by suspending the veritable faktum of every linguistics, namely that individuals are languistic agents, agents by and for language (a faktum that’s in the foundations of their activity and for whom speaking is not a possible activity, but a necessary constraint and a necessary existence): these agents are constrained to enter into the cycle of a debt of speech. Structuralism displaces the debt from the historical, concrete and necessary level of speech, where speaking returns to be freed from debt, toward the abstract level of language [langue]: it “sublimates” the debt, renders the debt ideal, cumulative and inexhaustible. Structuralism’s postulate is the hypothetical imperative or end: the effect to be produced (the communication of the message) is at the speaking subject’s disposal, but the means is imposed on him (the message’s distinction) in order to attain this end: hypothetical or conditional necessity, which is in fact the way in which the receiver imagines that one speaks, but which is incapable of explaining why and how one really speaks. Nevertheless, saying that speech itself is necessary is not to say that it answers a categorical necessity—the end as necessary by itself or even the means as “absolutely” necessary: speaking doesn’t stem from a categorical imperative. What we mean is that the modality of speaking is the problematic necessity, speaking is a problem of language internal to language [du langage au langage].

But since there’s an internal problem to be resolved—that of who speaks, and not, like the structuralist, that of who hears—we are evacuating means/end from vicious and circular causality. This supposes the generalization of the means (the “end” of speaking is to produce—apart from any end—language). The true sense of the theory of “Hobson’s choice” is that the choice is itself forced in its relation to another choice, no doubt, but apart from any effect to be produced, i.e. external message effect. It’s on condition of generalizing the technological aspects of language that (paradoxically) one will destroy its instrumental conception which prevents speaking from becoming index sui, i.e. speaking speaking. The external instrumentalization of language [langue] is not a deviation, but structuralism’s congenital malaise.

Language [langage] as action or power has a formula, which is: speaking (for) speaking and (for) communicating; such phoneme (for) such other phoneme and for discriminating. The discrimination of the signified, which guarantees its reception, is a local “secondary” effect that is associated or connected to the “primary” effect of production, i.e. of the phoneme as phonesis (phonesis: phoneme qua productive flux or speaking-power). The question isn’t: how does one make to speak, with what instruments, why choose a certain phoneme rather than another? But: how does one speak in an actual[21]way and can one continue to speak? What can language do? How does one explain generativity, not merely that of phrases, but first off that of phonemes themselves? How does one perceive a generativity at the level of the phoneme itself? How can a phoneme be associated to another phoneme and form a continuum, a flux or a conveyance of language—how can a phoneme arise from its opposite, all while remaining opposed in a partial way that remains to be determined (no doubt as the receiver’s specific point of view)? How is the continuity of speech instituted (not as excluded by language [langue], but speech as the speaking of language [langue]: die Sprache spricht…) once the reductive Form of substance is suspended, i.e. Form as the transcendent morphological continuity characteristic of speaking’s reproduction and not of its production? How is the discretion of phonemes, or the break of the languistic flux, also (speaking for speaking and for…) what allows the flux to restart and to be re-launched? What’s the condition of this trans-phonematic generativity that we should postulate, once the two classical solutions to the very production of language [langage] (Saussurian Form and Cartesian Innateness, both of which break the immanence of speaking or its reality) are refused?

The only answer that’s phenomenologically exact, i.e. that respects the principle of the immanence of speaking language [langue], is that the phoneme functions not just as opposition or break, but also and first off as retention beyond opposition in the in praesentia and the in absentia. The phoneme can (this is speaking power itself) be exerted as a passive retention, a passive synthesis. Synthesis = production = action…an action in the mode of passivity or a primary continuity of the flux of language [langue] in the form of a “living present”. This is a retention that’s both the debt of speaking language [langue] (not of “language” [langue] alone in the abstract Saussurian sense) and its production: language [langue] as passive, preoriginary or prephonematic memory, and consequently capable of explaining the phonematic flux in its qualities of flux without the need to resort to habitual puppet-fetishes.

This solution is also the critique of structural “opposition”, either of that of phonemes, or instead (Saussure, Jakobson) of that of their distinctive features. Opposition is defined, for example by Jakobson, as the reciprocal implication of two terms, and by a “clear, reciprocal and necessary” evocation of one distinctive feature by another. This overly vague and abstract definition obliterates two problems that structuralism avoids posing.

a) The possibility or rather the reality and means of passage from one contrary to the other: this requires an associative capacity [puissance], a retention of one phoneme that is unlimited as a flux when the other phoneme (either in the paradigm, or in the syntagm) comes to determine or limit it. This limitlessness of the phoneme is nothing but phonesis, and this is precisely and solely what guarantees the coupling with the following phoneme; in this way, due to the immanent concept of association, the explanation is freed from the recourse to the mental fetish of “evocation”.

b) The non-reciprocity of the coupling of phonemes. The reciprocity of passage or symmetry is valid only for production (instance from which structuralism selects its abstract conception of language [langue]). In production, there is an asymmetrical coupling in the following form: an unlimited phonesis is cut off or limited by a phoneme which, in turn, re-launches as unlimited phonesis, etc., so much so that phonesis always identifies with the break that “is” distinguished from it: unilateral or fractional identification and distinction. These are the two immediate sides of the phonetico-phonematic entity or of the fractional organ of language [langue], which is an object of a complexity superior to that of the phoneme alone and is produced by associative contiguity of “contraries”. All structuralists, but also Jakobson, remain content with an abstract and imprecise phenomenology of the break under the aegis of distinctive “opposition”. It’s advisable instead to subordinate “opposition” to retention as a passive objective synthesis that takes place in the subject and not for and by the subject. What will be accounted for in this way are trans-phonematic tensions, dynamisms and fluctuations that suppose a dehiscence in the phoneme, but these cannot then be called intra-phonematic; or remarkable points will be accounted for that exclude an absolute equivalence or an exchange (the commutation of phonemes), to be supposed the real act of speaking.

The real act of speaking doesn’t juxtapose exemplary entities selected from classes of linguistic objects, but it associates a fragment of phoneme or even of a distinctive feature, acting as phonesis, with another fragment of the following phoneme. This fractional character of the organ of language [langue] does not designate a subset of the phoneme. The phoneme is an entity whose differential character still remains external and indifferent from the moment that this difference is maintained not only as relative but as op-positive and negative. Precisely, the association of two fractional phonemes must be formed outside any opposition and negation as Form and external continuity that break the immanence of the power-of-speaking. Phonematic difference must be fully “internalized” to the phoneme and serve as its vehicle. This is only possible if the phoneme, qua continuous and fractional object, becomes a complex entity (through internal syntax, not through its distinctive features) and builds on two series: a “phonetic” series and a phonematic series properly speaking, internal/external borders of the phoneme that form an open system and transform a minimal invariant term in an asymmetrical process wherein the inferior series of phonematics breaks is articulated in the superior series and intertwined in it by the successive gaps of the terms of one series to the other.

In this graph of phonetico-phonematic coupling, Ps here stands for phonesis, and Pm stands for the phoneme.[22]

The essence of languistic production requires a “transcendental” principle that is “superior” to that of the phoneme. The notion of phoneme is purely empirical and descriptive of the adjustment of speaking to social conditions: it does not explain the reality of language [langage]. The phoneme is a micro-unity capable of being reproduced under an identical concept. It would be absurd to deny that such phonematic properties exist. But we’re not proceeding with such entities to produce the diachrony of speaking speaking. We have instead found with phonesis and its prephonematic generative syntax a tool that doesn’t exclude the phoneme and its properties, but can instead explain them insofar as they are selections from the power-of-speaking. We cannot show this here: the phoneme is a term, genuinely a relation, but phonesis instead implies a whole play of immanent syntaxes that explain the generativity of language [langage]. Undoubtedly the phonesis-phoneme correlation tends to nullify its dehiscence in the phoneme alone, which then becomes divisible into two phonemes on the same level, where the flux of speaking speaking can be totalized into a corpus, indifferentiated and decomposed into equivalent unities that are instrumentalized and prepped for treatment by cybernetics and computer engineering: language’s linguistic gregarization.[23] But phonesis is the active and productive procedure in language, and the phoneme must be subordinated to it. This means that the phoneme is still a phonesis despite everything, even when it’s devoted to language’s [langage] functions of reproduction and social adaptation, to the functions of “language” [langue] in the Saussurian sense of the term.

Structuralism obliterates action, it’s incapable of giving action a theoretical status (there’s no question of doing this by re-alienating production in language acts or even in grammars…); structuralism selects the phoneme from all the effects that speaking-power draws out each instant. But the positivity of an entity or a level, for example one that’s supra-phonological but equally phonological and a-signifying (distinctive), cannot be avoided, it’s an inevitable problem structuralism encounters and to which it must give mentalistic, phenomenological or even hermeneutic solutions, solutions that contradict it. The principle of opposition cannot be maintained for long and calls on a level where it’s no longer valid, where entities receive a substitute of positive function. The “form”, for example, receives the capacity of “designating” a content (the exception being a logical and positivist conception of opposition which would refuse to account for the necessary retention of trans-phonematic production: but that’s an abstract theory which is purely hypothetical and unthinkable, save by resorting to “behaviorist” substitutes…). Nevertheless, this way of crafting weapons and avowing the abstraction of this principle, i.e. this way that the phoneme has of still postulating phonesis as simple capacity [puissance] or actual power [pouvoir] of speaking, is a little shameful and can do nothing but leave the principle to a hermeneutics whose presupposed is recognized: listening, reception, identification.

From the outset, there’s a lot placed onto the terrain that avoids this complicity, not counting the complicity with the phenomenology of consciousness: and what’s placed there is activity-production qua “phonetico-phonematic” synthesis such that it breaks the signifier/signified parallelism. With its differential mechanisms of retention, such a syntax destroys the possibility of applying the cybernetic and computer-science distinction of the “digital” and the “continuous” to language [langage]. This syntax transforms language into an immanent process and a question for itself, which language resolves by identifying its production and its functionality in a continuous way, but with many more traversals. Distinctive opposites merely suppose two dimensions or a plane and induce a Euclidean linguistics, but the latter is itself incessantly constrained to denounce its insufficiency and to recognize that it says nothing about the nature of “opposites”, i.e. to act inversely to its fundamental principle which consists in sectioning off and abstracting tiny unities, not from big unities (morphemes) but from real flows alone and from the conveyance of speaking speaking. In this way it wants to reunite what it has begun by separating: the dissymmetries, thresholds, intensities, strategies that problematize language and turn it into a production that traverses distinctive oppositions as well as levels of articulation.

It’s this first phonetico-phonematic “synthesis” that immanently contains in it the two other moments of language’s process [language]. On the one hand, language [langue] potentials: against the Saussurian break, which has let loose in linguistics the powers [puissances] of conservation and languistic normalization, put forth the “super”-linguistic[24] power [puissance] of phonesis. On the other hand, collective agents of phonetization: lived experiences [vécus], experimentation of intensity, are the subject’s only real content, the speaking masses who make language [langue].

                         Translated by Taylor Adkins 9/3/13


[1] Here I have followed Laruelle’s format of quoting, though it leaves out the title of the aphorism and the remainder of it, as well. [TN]

[2] This phrase foreshadows its formalization below as linked by hyphenation, where it will be translated as “speaking-power”. [TN]

[3] Here Laruelle switches registers from speaking about ‘langage’, which I have translated above as “language” (for example, “theory of language”), to a Sassurian register about “speech” (‘parole’) and “language” (‘langue’). It should be noted, though, that Saussure also speaks about ‘langage’ as a universal system, not an instantiated “tongue” (‘langue’), so to speak. I will be sure to mark ‘langue’ whenever Laruelle uses it, but from now on the word “language” will always translate ‘langage’ unless noted. [TN]

[4] In other contexts in Laruelle’s work (for example, Determination-in-the-last-instance), this word would always be translated literally. Here I have translated it as ‘agency’ in order to make it correspond with the manner in which Lacan has been translated, i.e. “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud”. Notice that Laruelle explicitly mirrors this title by referring to ‘linguistic reason’. [TN]

[5] Cf. Nicolas Marr, who, among other things, was famous for postulating a unique, originary common language. [TN]

[6] Laruelle is presumably referring to Machines textuelles (1976) or perhaps Le déclin de l’écriture (1977), the latter of which contains conversations with Derrida, Nancy, Kofman, and Lacoue-Labarthe. [TN]

[7] Here it should be noted that the prepositions “to”, “in” and “outside” translate ‘à’, ‘dans’ and ‘hors’ respectively. [TN]

[8] Here as well as above, power has always rendered ‘pouvoir’, which roughly can also mean ‘to be able (to)’ as an infinitive, which is how it’s used in the reference in footnote 1 above. It should be noted here that juxtaposed against Heidegger’s mögen, perhaps a better translation would be ‘capacity’; nevertheless, a ‘speaking-capacity’, as it’s used earlier, might give the wrong appearance that it’s about a measurable ability (speaking well, etc.). [TN]

[9] ‘Speech/Language speaks’, cf. Heidegger’s 1950 lecture Language (“Die Sprache”). [TN]

[10] This is my neologism to indicate an untranslatable emphasis and play on ‘language’ (bad pan)… In any case, it should be noted that this is the first instance of ‘langagière’, which is only quasi-synonymous with ‘linguistique’ as an adjective; this is because ‘un langagier’ is a “linguist”, i.e. more like a “philologist” than a savant of linguistics. So, this makes the phrase “langue…langagière” much closer to Heidegger’s formula, but it also forecloses the sense in which the disciplinary meaning of ‘linguistique’ is evacuated from the notion. Finally, to be clear, Laruelle is not coining a neologism here, but I am resorting to one as a compromise, so reader beware! [TN]

[11] ‘Parler’ is an infinitive meaning ‘to speak’ or ‘speaking’ as gerundive, and ‘parlant’ is the participle form of the same verb. [TN]

[12] It should be noted that with the parenthetical “bracketing” of the preposition in Laruelle’s work, the phrase should be read in reverse (along with the hyphen), thus as speaking-power, which is how Laruelle formulates it earlier. [TN]

[13] This marks a change from discussing ‘pouvoir’ to ‘puissance’, and the most likely reference is to the notion of ‘Vouloir de puissance’, i.e. will-to-power, and this notion of power/powerful is taken up explicitly in Laruelle’s Machines textuelles; cf. the intro to that work. [TN]

[14] Cf. Saussure’s famous diagram of listeners-speakers in his Course in General Linguistics. [TN]

[15] This phrase mirrors Nietzsche’s from Genealogy of Morals. I thank Brian Dooley for pointing this out in the following passage from Nietzsche: “That the ascetic ideal has meant so many things to man … is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui: it needs a goal— and it will rather will nothingness than not will. —Am I understood…Have I been understood? … “Not at all, my dear sir!”— Then let us start again, from the beginning” (GM 3.1).  It should also be noted that “understood” in Laruelle’s text (‘entendu’) also means “heard”, and so there’s a sort of punning on Saussure and the notion of “dead speaking” here, coincidental or not. Lastly, there is a resonance with Nietzsche’s critique of philosophers as producing dissections, rather than vivisections, as he proposes to do. [TN]

[16] The sense of this phrase is not quite about “where” to put the piece “man”, but more about: which side of the binaries does this piece go (i.e. the dead/productive, the corpus/corps)? [TN]

[17] It should be noted that here and in what follows, Laruelle is referring to linguistics in the plural sense, something that the English makes obscure at times. [TN]

[18] Here and below I will begin translating ‘langue’ as ‘tongue’ for more clarity when appropriate, but Saussure should still be kept in mind. [TN]

[19] Cf. the introduction to Machines textuelles for a similar question of “who deconstructs?”. [TN]

[20] In French this turn of phrase can function in the singular and the plural, although in English this sense is more or less untranslatable, since ‘masse’ in the singular in French already means a ‘group of people’. Beyond this play, it should also be noticed that the bracketed “s” for both of these words would be silent in spoken French, which is fairly ironic in light of the discussion of the phoneme. [TN]

[21] It should be noted that the French word (‘actuelle’) also means and can mean “current” or “contemporary”, which may resonate with the italicized “continue” in the sentence here. [TN]

[22] I have not included the graph here, but suffice it to say, it’s a simple staggered model where the Ps—Pm chain branches down into a Ps—Pm chain ad infinitum; alongside to the left of this staggered model, there is a single, diagonal ray pointing down and to the right on the border of the staggered chains labeled “continuous phonetic flux”. [TN]

[23] Cf. the notion in biology where ‘gregarization’ (etymologically linked to the notion of ‘gregariousness’) indicates the formation from individual (insects) to that of swarms. [TN]

[24] “‘Sur’-linguistique”, which should also resonate with Nietzsche’s ‘overman’ (surhomme). [TN]

6 thoughts on “Translation of F. Laruelle’s “Toward an Active Linguistics”

  1. Pingback: Laruelle Bibliography (English & French) | Linguistic Capital

  2. “Just as there is a power to punish, a power of working (labor-power) [force de travail], etc., there is a prephonetic and prephonological speaking-power, but it’s always invested in phonetic and phonological productions.” – L

    I am here interested in what he is saying about a return (he notes this in the next paragraph) to the Corpus, or the body. Indeed, the immanent ‘enjoyment’ of the body, or what I call the ‘sensation of the corpse’ – does this for L precede even the pre-phonetic, or is it pre-phoneme itself?

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