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On Behalf of the Barbarians
10/23/2009, 9:05 PM
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A selection from the Anarchist Library archive:

“If I don’t know the meaning of a language, I will be a barbarian to he who speaks it, and he who speaks to me will be a barbarian. — Paul, First Corinthians

Civilization finishes when the barbarians flee. — Karl Krauss

In the Heart of the City

The history of a civilization is simultaneously the history of the transformation of its language. A society develops around its knowledge, which is articulated through its language, which becomes concrete in thinking itself. Humans act on the basis of their desires, they desire on the basis of their thoughts, they think on the basis of their language. The form and content of the latter are hence at the same time the condition and result of the whole of social relations. The dominant language of an epoch is therefore always the language of those who dominate socially in that period.

If there is a concept that clearly expresses the relation between language and society it is that of the barbarian. For the Greeks the barbarian was the foreigner and at the same time he was also the “stutterer” since he who couldn’t master the language of the polis, of the city, was defined with contempt. The origin of the word referred to being deprived of logos, i.e. of discourse. If one considers that Aristotle defined man alternately as a “political animal” and as an “animal endowed with logos”, it follows from this that, by confirming the identity of language with politics, the barbarian is excluded not only from the city, but from human community itself. The barbarian is a non-man, a monster.

The Logos of Work

The logos is not only discourse or language, but is also science, law, reason, order (in the sense of a regulative principle and of the plot that connects and expresses the multiplicity of the real. All of these meanings are present at the same time in the word logos, which is veritably untranslatable (the English term that comes closest to it is “expression”). Only by keeping all of these in mind can one grasp the meaning of the Aristotelian definition of man, as well as the nature of its opposite, the barbarian. The first trace of the word logos is found in the fragments of Heraclitus (4th to 5th century B.C), which from time to time, and simultaneously, point to a cosmic principle, the order of reality with its multiple expressions, the human understanding of this order and Heraclitan discourse itself. Already in these fragments the element common to men is identified in the logos.

Until the times of Homeric poems common space is the assembly which the warriors put at their disposal, for the collective good, the loot of war, or discussions. This relation between the center and that which is common is transferred to the agora, that is in the city square, the place of political decisions. The categories of public discourse indicate precisely the act of bringing down (kata) into the middle of the assembly (agora) words submitted for general approval. The barbarian is thus he who is outside categories, he who, not having access to the center of the assembly, is excluded from public life. A stranger in his own house, the stutterer in the language of the city, he will thus join the foreigner outside. The woman and the slave, those banished from discourse (that is order, reason and law) these inhabitants of the internal colony, represent two steps of the staircase that ends in the worst cruelty permitted and committed towards the barbarian, the inferior, the enemy.

The power of assembly belongs to he who knows the art of rhetoric, the techniques for ingratiating oneself for the favors of the powerful goddess Persuasion. The more one has time to gain the possession of discourse, the more one is able to exercise its force, in eliminating the private reason of others, one’s own discourse is imposed as common. “The power of the logos on the soul persuades as it is like that of the master on the slave; with the difference that the soul is reduced to slavery not by force but by the mysterious pressure exercised on his conscience.” Thus wrote Plato in Philebus, illustrating well the dominating force of language. But that which is important is not only to recognize that, in politics, discourse is an arm of war, but also to ask oneself about the relation that links this arm to all others. Only he who has slaves that work for him can chain others with his discourse. The activity of individuals is already specialized because a hierarchical and superior role is attributed to the word. The division between manual and intellectual labor, in the meantime makes the activity of slaves accumulate in objects (and then in money and in machines) for the master, increasing the logos of the latter. “This is the fate of verbalized logic; where the word has all meaning, the dominant meaning loses no time in taking hold of all the words.” G. Cesarono. But the “mysterious pressure” exercised on the assent of the slave would not be possible if the language of his body were not reduced to the coercive rationality of work. It is in producing work that the economy has produced its own language. So, one better understands why controlling the language of the exploited has always been the project of the exploiters. To first give discursive logic all the power (at the expense of the barbaric reason of the body) is to subsequently give to the powerless an increasingly reduced logic. The I that speaks is a figure that represents the body of the individual (corporeality that is first of all a work force) as the state, the holder of public Discourse, represents the whole of society. The more the interior dialogue of the individual — his consciousness — conforms to the dominant language, the greater his assent, his submission will be. In this sense, capital, the dead work of a life constrained to survival, is “discourse” “the organization of fictitious meanings, mechanical logic, the fictitious game of representation” (G. Cesarano). It makes the language of that which extinguishes passions speak to the passions.

A Flight Backwards

But let’s return to our barbarians who tell us the history of civilization, this land of logos and politics, better than anyone.

If the accepted meaning of the concept of barbarians bears witness to a meaning that is that of progressive ideology (the barbarian is the opposite of a reasonable, scientific, and democratic society; that is monstrosity, menacing silence, irrational violence, superstition, gloomy withdrawal etc), there is a whole tradition of thought that has seen the barbarians as more vigorous beings than the civilized because they are closer to nature. From Polibio to Cioran, passing through Tacitus and Giucciardini, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Rousseau and Leopardi one can once again go over the idea that they are illusions, copiously distilled from nature to push men towards generous actions, while reason, the product of civilization becomes calculating, turned on the same eternal doubters themselves. Leopardi said that a people of philosophers would be the most cowardly and wretched of all, precisely because it would be the most civilized. The fall of Rome and “Hellenist decadence” are brought up in particular by Montesquieu, as examples in this sense. From the Germans of Tacitus to the modern Unni of Cioran, the conducting wire of this tradition is the connection between the affirmation of the body, the imaginative faculty, bold virtue and desire for action. Quite often within this conception of history, the time of civilization repeats in a cyclical manner, because of an excess (and not due to a lack) of civilization, the barbarian is born, this counterstroke which puts civilization in the bag, then the cycle begins again. The development of a civilization is compared to that of living organisms, in which childhood is followed by maturity and then old age and death, stages characterized by a different passionality and reflexivity. The same language would bear witness to the various degrees of vitality of a culture (it is not by chance that one speaks of the becoming barbarian of language”).

If the progressive criticism of the conception of civilization has been guided for the most part by a reactionary point of view (like for example in Spengler and Schmidtt) with an abundance of biological and hierarchical metaphors on the struggle for survival, the attacks on the ideology of progress in the name of an enlightenment “other” are not however lacking (for example in Sorel and Adorno) or let loose at the shoulders, with the eyes of the Greeks like in the same Leopardi, in Holderlin, in Burkhardt and in Nietzsche; or still, from the angle of a artistic-craftsman know-how that mechanized work has destroyed (for example in William Morris).”

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