on language

October 13, 2011

‘Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found.’ – Walter Benjamin1

‘A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring down in the world, generally requiring that each thing has its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.’ – Georges Bataille2


Two texts on catalogues by Michel Foucault3 and Susan Stewart4 trigger not so many thoughts on any taxonomy of things but rather on the myth of classification itself; my thoughts turn instead to language.

The two texts look at various collections and orders of things; for Foucault this is a grouping of animals and is from an excerpt of Jorge Luis Borges where he quotes from a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, for Stewart we are shown here own selective entries into the order of all things miniature. What both writers understand though is that in describing various things by their relationships to others we engage in an act of redefining the essence and limits of the all things, as classification is an act of language and as set down in A whaler’s Dictionary, ‘language is a human construction, and speaks the world’s limit as it speaks the world5.’

We could think of the fall of Babel, of the punishment handed down for that attempted trespass, though not a punishment for what was about to be seen but for what was about to be described. And so, ‘Babel’s curse condemns us to languages opacity, to the solitude of thoughts one cannot speak. And the deeper the thought, the higher its aspirations, the more confused language grows. Belief becomes bafflement6.’

And we could think, like Bataille above, that if it is through language that we create knowledge isn’t it also through language that knowledge is lost, and how knowledge is apt to get ‘squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm’? In her writings on the very, very small, Stewart offers that ‘when language attempts to describe the concrete, it is caught in an infinitely self-effacing gesture of inadequacy, a gesture which speaks to the gaps between our modes of cognition – those gaps between the sensual, the visual, and the linguistic7.’

Though is the opacity of language really such a curse, aren’t those gaps in the linguistic, that slippage and the lack in language where we find our sense of wonder in world? When Stewart writes that Raymond Roussel had chosen to “rewrite” his poems in ‘the necessarily incomplete medium of language’8 she is offering us a chance to celebrate that incompleteness, and a chance to focus on the noise that fills the space in between language.

In attempting to find a home for his dislocated fragments of possible orders, Foucault dismisses heterotopias as a suitable venue as for him ‘they secretly undermine language… they dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences9.’ But I suppose I could think that instead heterotopias don’t undermine language at all, but exist within and in-between language. Indeed, I could go so far as to think that heterotopias exist because of language. I could think that, in so many words.

Kim Bridgland


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Collector.” In The Arcades Project, 203-11. Edited by Rolf Tiedman. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

2. Georges Bataille, “Informe”, Documents 7 (December 1929): 384; translated by Alan Stoekl as “Formless,” in Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected writings, 1927-1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p.31.

3. Michel Foucault, ‘Preface’, in The Order of Things, London: Routledge, 1970.

4. Susan Stewart, ‘Part 2: The Miniature’, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

5. Dan Beachy-Quick, A Whaler’s Dictionary, Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2008. p.60

6. Ibid. p.16

7. Susan Stewart, ‘Part 2: The Miniature’, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. p.52

8. Ibid. p.49

9. Michel Foucault, ‘Preface’, in The Order of Things, London: Routledge, 1970. p.xviii

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