Who is speaking in the words I utter?

Christoph Keller’s INTERPRETERS or The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers
by Ana Teixeira Pinto

When one watches ‘The Interpreters’ one is at first watching a person who speaks from the viewpoint of poignant personal experience. One sees him or her as an individual who is sharing events they themselves lived or underwent, only to slowly realize one has been listening to simultaneous interpreters who mime the expressions of some absent speaker. While we are watching the video, an interesting phenomenon occurs though. If in the beginning one focuses on the speaker, on the subject who is talking, one tends to gradually loose sight of whomever they are, in order to attend to the speech, which keeps repeating itself in different languages. When the movie revisits the first speaker one is already completely detached from his or her facial expression and bodily posture, one is only attentive to the words he or she utters and to the system of equivalence those words establish with their translation into another language or/and their utterance by another speaker. Speech becomes squarely detached from the speaker. Disembodied, so to say.

In order to explain Saussure’s theory of the literary sign an economic analogy is usually called forth. The linguistic system, one says, is analogous to a monetary system, where the value/meaning of each currency is relative to the value of other currencies and determined by its exchange value. A quarter for example is equal to two dimes and a nickel, more than a penny; less than a dollar. Yet a quarter can also be exchanged for two dimes and a nickel, which have the same monetary value. In the same way the term “bachelor” can be exchanged for “unmarried man” since both expressions have the same linguistic value, i.e., the same meaning. Meaning, it goes without saying, is not identical with the inner psychological experience of the speaker. Understanding language under the scope of Saussurian analysis is akin to affirming that language is a conventional code whose laws and rules relate to inner coherence instead of outer reference. In other words, language does not mirror the world outside of linguistic discourse. To be clear: there is no such thing as a world outside of linguistic discourse. Meaning arises instead from what Wittgenstein would have called ‘shareability’. The very existence of the language rules that make communication possible relies on the potential for “agreement” found within human behaviour – such as uniformity in standard human reactions, which allows one, for instance, to train children to look at something by pointing at it, – unlike cats, which react in a seemingly random variety of ways to a pointing finger. Not only actual languages but also the very possibility of language and concept formation depends on the existence of such agreement. You can see it as synchronised swimming, where an implicit accord is always already present in between the trainees, as if they had an in-built GPS, like bats that always turn left when exiting the cave, or cattle that always graze facing the same direction. Though cows do not make for gracious swimmers. But lets not digress. What we mean is that ‘We don't speak language; language speaks us’. And the “We’ in ‘We who speak’ is but a by-product of speech. In other words, that which I call I, my inalienable experience of an inner self, is but a by-product of my use of language.

If we apply an economic analogy to sexuality we tend to talk about the ‘libidinal economy’. The rules of the libidinal economy dictate that the object of the libido can either be repeated or replaced. In a “normal” sexual pattern the object is usually replaced while its function is preserved. One may for instance conduct a seriously monogamous life, constantly swapping the objects of one’s affection and sexual desire. The objects are considered equivalent inasmuch as their function remains constant. In a perverted pattern the compulsion to repeat will take over the agent and the object will overcome its function. Fetishistic fixation for instance is a good example thereof.

In ‘The Interpreters’ speech stays put while the person who speaks is constantly being replaced. The object overcomes its function; and the viewer gets fixed on the discourse that the speaker ‘channels’ - in the same way in which a medium ‘channels’ a voice from the other side.

In as much as the bodies of the speakers are constantly replaced by one another, also the signifiers they utter are constantly replaced by one another. No signifier however can replace the signifier ‘body’. There is no equivalent linguistic value for “the physical structure and material substance of an animal or plant”. We have only one ‘body’. Unless that body is dead. Whilst dead, signifiers abound; cadaver, carcass, corpse, remains, can all be exchanged for one another, since they all share the same linguistic value. They also share the same cultural cradle. Within our current psycho-somatic dichotomy the etymology for our ‘Body’ is ‘Soma’, the Homeric word for ‘corpse’, which in time became the name for everything embodied. The Greeks had no ‘bodies’ however. Just limbs and torsos and heads with no mirror stage recognition. Neither had the Greeks something akin to our personal souls, for the privatization of the Soul was a Christian endeavour. The first step in the privatization of all the commons.

In a culture, which so pervasively identifies the erotic with the morbid Freud theorized that the compulsion to repeat masks a desire, inherent to all organic life, to return to an inorganic state. Certain platitudes only take on their full meaning when their content is translated from the psychological to the political.