|Notes On Slogans
Text for the Freee Art Collective
|Notes On Slogans
The French philosopher of language, Jean-Jacques Lecercle has suggested that a Marxist theory of language can be extrapolated from Lenin’s short pamphlet, On Slogans. In this pamphlet Lenin is concerned not with a theory of language but with the concrete application of slogans to the concrete revolutionary situation in which he found himself in the summer of 1917; however, for Lecercle, it is precisely the use of language as a political act in an already politicised situation, which can stand as a model for all language use. Against Anglo-Saxon linguistic philosophy, which takes the sentence as the unit of language, qua carrier meaning, and against Volsinov, who takes the word as the unit of language, qua site of struggle, Lecercle follows Deleuze and Guattari in taking the slogan as the fundamental unit of language. In French, the word for slogan is the same as the word for password (as in a military password), which conveys the pertinent implication that language inhabits a situation always already constituted as both social and infused with power. The following notes are taken from reading Lecercle, especially The Violence of Language and the essay Lenin the Just from the book Lenin Reloaded; the list is, however, my own.
The slogan is the product of what Lecercle calls a rapport de forces: that is, a slogan is formed in relation to an existing situation which is both a social conjunction and a linguistic conjunction (not that these are in any way separate). Even if and when the particular words of a slogan are suggested by an individual, the individual is not the author of the slogan; the slogan arises from the collective situation and a collective conversation.
The slogan belongs to a particular group or faction (in opposition to other groups): it always comes from a particular point of view. As such, the slogan presupposes a situation of conflict and competing interpretations or conceptualisations of events, rather than one of the neutral exchange of information or communication.
The slogan is an intervention in the current state of affairs. It is not a reflection or representation of events. The point is that the slogan is active in shaping the course of events; it is part and parcel of those events rather than something at a remove.
The slogan is aimed at a specific historical juncture. The right slogan yesterday can be the wrong slogan today. The linguistic act, as with other acts, finds its place within the process of historical events, in relation to which it is justified or not. Since a slogan is not a representation or reflection of events it would be wrong to ask whether a slogan is true: the question ‘is it true’ would evoke the wrong model of language. Instead, Lecercle suggests we should use the idea of a slogan being just, which is to say fitting well with the situation in which it is used. A slogan can still be false, in that it mystifies or misleads.
This is in two senses:
ii) the slogan is formed in relation to the general situation.
By saying that slogans are reflexive I mean to imply that slogans are work within and upon a situation that is already given; I do not mean to imply that they represent that situation.
This is to say that the slogan is never a simple statement (of fact, or otherwise) but is always multiple. The slogan is always understood as part of a larger discourse and social situation and, as such, is always both informed by the greater context and pointing beyond the literal content of the slogan.
By this, I mean not so much that slogans try to persuade an existing audience of the justness of a cause but the more radical idea that the slogan is part of the attempt to create an audience: to call a particular type of subjectivity or group into existence.
N.B. Zizek has commented on Brecht’s ascebic aside that the former GDR government behaved as though it wished to dissolve the people and elect a new one; for Zizek the communist task is precisely this. In other words, its task is to bring forth a new type of subject; without this radical reinvention of subjectivity all that remains of the communist project is managing the economy.
Not only is every utterance a site of struggle but it is a rejoiner in an always already existing situation of division and conflict. We use slogans to damage our enemies; to eke out a position from which to speak; and to put others in their place. It is worth remembering that language can be a violent intrusion on the body: that words can make us blush, feint, tremble, sweat and so on. Such instances should be taken as revealing a universal truth rather than as exceptions: the slogan (language) is violent in that it is an intrusion into both symbolic and material structures.
Not only is every word a place of contested usage and meaning (as Volosinov teaches us) but every utterance positions the speaker and hearer. For Lecercle, speaking is not only a struggle for meaning but a struggle to assign roles: for the speaker to find a role or place for herself and also to get her addressee to adopt another role or position. In this, he thinks that Althusser’s idea of interpellation is of interest. For Wittgenstein, words are tools: the trouble with this idea is that it can lead to a picture of a harmonious toolbox: a hammer as something with which one hits nails, say, rather than as a weapon, a symbol and so on. In contrast, Deleuze & Guattari are keen to show how effective the use of language can be when completely removed from literal meaning. Their chapter on linguistics in a Thousand Plateaus, is titled November 20, 1923: the date hyper-inflation was stopped in Germany by the purely linguistic means of renaming the Mark as the Rentenmark.
We do violence with words but language is also violent to our words; meaning, intention and sense escape us. The language we use is inherently unstable and liable to corruption, misunderstanding and other excesses. Lecercle names this excess that is always already present in language as the Remainder. If langue is the ‘unmotivated’ structure of differences (in Saussure’s terms) that constitutes language, for Lecercle all language is constantly re-motivated by the Remainder: by contingent, unconscious connections and chance encounters. There are always other associations.