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Is language fascist?

 Roland Barthes asserted that 'language'was‘quite simply fascist’.
We shouldn’t see this as a slip, or even as just the waving of a red rag to an audience of academic bulls.  Phlip Thody suggests that ‘when looked at in Barthes’s own terms’, the remark ‘makes perfectly good sense’. Others assert it is the extremity of Barthes logic ,which is its point.

 Barthes speaks of power and its many masks and faces, and says: ‘I call the discourse of power
any discourse which engenders blame, hence guilt, in its recipients.’

We can agree that all language does this, if we are sensitive enough to the way it bends and
breaks things in order to name them..

 ‘We do not see the power which is in speech,’ Barthes continues, ‘because we forget that
all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive.’ Speech can’t get along without classifications – but is that all speech is? – and any classification may be oppressive. Some, like race and gender, immediately and alarmingly are. But language? Won’t it depend on who is doing the classifying, and on what violence is offered to the classified world?
Barthes will have none of this relativism. He is out for mischief and swashbuckling, not a parliamentary debate.

Language is fascist, he says, not because of what it denies us but because of what it forces
upon us: ‘for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech ... Speech is immediately
assertive: negation, doubt, possibility, the suspension of judgment require special mechanisms
which are themselves caught up in a play of linguistic masks ...’

If we imagine a disaster, Barthes writes elsewhere, we are on the way to accepting it:
‘to utter it is to assert it (again the fascism of language).’ The idea (without the political colouring) already appears in The Fashion System, where Barthes points to the ‘astounding phenomenon that language does not allow for the distinction between the simple utterance of a thing and the affirmation that it exists,’ and asks: ‘What new Borges among us will imagine a language in which to say things would be by rights to negate them, and in which an affirmative particle would have to be added in order to make them exist?’

 For some reason we long to believe that the possession of a name confers existence on a thing, when everything we know about language and lying ought to prompt scepticism. Utterances don’t have to be assertions, and often aren’t. But it is true that our speech contains plenty of implicit assertions, even when we imagine we are guessing or soothing or asking questions. And it is true that much speech rests on concealed power relations. Think of all the suggestions and recommendations which can’t really be refused, all the command performances we benevolently require of our neighbours and children and friends. ‘Don’t you think you ought to?’ ‘If I were you, I’d ...’ We have the freedom Barthes denies, but we have less of it than we think, and his hyperbole points sharply to the bullying aspects of a community we like to think peaceable, to the clout behind the consensus.

 Asked by Bernard-Henri Lévy if he rejects power, Barthes says he is sensitive to its ubiquity and its endurance. ‘It never gets tired, it goes on and on, like a calendar.’ Is power itself fascist? No but ‘fascism is the constant temptation of power, its natural element, what comes in through the back door after it has been tossed out the front.’ A political activist could not talk in this way, but then a political activist might not dream of freedom as Barthes does: ‘If we call freedom not only the capacity to escape power but also and especially the capacity to subjugate no one, then freedom can exist only outside language.

Unfortunately, human language has no exterior: there is no exit.’ If we were mystics or supermen, Barthes goes on, there would be an exit, but since we are not, our only option is to cheat speech, or to cheat with speech. This subversion of language under the very nose of the tyrant, this dragging of words towards their impossible freedom. tutoring by Dr Cheevers on Skype

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