SUMMARY OF NOTES FROM THE FIRST OF THREE SESSIONS, “The Voice and The Gesture,” A SEMINAR DIRECTED BY GIORGIO AGAMBEN, GRADO, ITALY, AUGUST 21-23

Yesterday Giorgio Agamben in the first of three sessions scheduled under the title, “The Voice and The Gesture,” after remarking that English is not his mother tongue, nor is it equivalent to Latin hundreds of years ago, no one’s mother tongue, unlike English – and since Socrates left the study of physis to concentrate on logos (discourse), circling a poetic element in philosophy itself: a philosopher without a poetic/expressive problem is not a philosopher – he announced that, remembering Heidegger, who would say that in seminar there is no authority but the thing itself, the thing itself of our seminar should be called, VOICE.

Agamben then recited a quotation: “Phone (voice) is the arche of dialectics and grammar.” So we began from grammar. Plato and Aristotle are considered founders of grammars. Never consider language, the strange object grammar simultaneously presupposes and describes, to be a natural thing; its historical (re-)constructions have taken centuries to realize. Its governance is a philosophical as well as political problem – perhaps more important than the governance of people.

We began our inquiry from the VOCATIVE. This is what in language CALLS. What does, TO CALL, mean? To not say something of something – just to call it? Must I know something of you before calling? The vocative at once calls and asks to address a word to the one it calls: it simultaneously gives the other, and has the other bring, a name. Dear Giorgio…

Indo-European languages have been teased into cases. What is a case? The word comes from a Latin one, casus, which translates the Greek, (word missing from notes), which means, FALLING. So: these grammarians have installed a falling element in their constructions of language. For example, in Latin there are many names to name WOLF. Grammarians have understood these many to fall from one: the NOMINATIVE case. But this is fabulous: the many are not identical to the nominative, nor does the nominative retain their identity. We have to abandon the idea of a TERM — of the many falling from the (nominative) one.

The vocative has a peculiar structure. Many grammarians say that it is not a case, since cases express a syntactic relation, but the vocative does not – it interrupts discourse. Since it just calls, in some way it stands outside the discourse. It is, perhaps, the original form of the name, as the imperative (what Emile Benveniste calls “the naked semantic core” – a paradoxical expression) may be the original form of the verb.

I can touch, lick, caress, drown, pet, scratch, comb, draw, hit, cut, fondle, punch, withdraw from, nail, kiss, tug, etc. a being without (giving it) a name, but when I use the vocative I call its name. I give it, and have it bring to me, a name. There is a relation between the vocative and identity, but they are not the same. “Call me Ishmael.” Melville does not have his character say that his name IS “Ishmael,” but to command to be called by that name. The one who gives the name can be the one named. Also, the one named need not be present, as for example when Leopardi says, “O hope, O hope!” The lyrical “O” does not refer to a real presence.

Emile Benveniste splits the field of language in two: (1) Semiotic: names. (2) Semantic: discourse. The semiotic is proper to langue (Saussure’s category) – language as such. It DOES NOT provide for the possibility to translate. Entry is guarded by a simple YES or NO: members of a speaking community do or do not admit it as a sign. IE, YES to “flower” “ocean” or “bed.” NO to “dlower” “acean” or “qed.” The semantic is proper to parole (Saussure’s category) – the actual practice of language. It DOES provide for the possibility to translate. It requires understanding of the speaker’s global sense. These two – semiotic and semantic – never coincide. Thus we have a problem. How is it possible for one to pass into the other? How is it possible to speak? (Are there really such things as the English language? The German, Italian, Russian, or French?? – At a bar yesterday evening he said about this, “I don’t think so.” And, “The semiotic is probably false.”)

The vocative seems not to belong to either of these two fields. It is outside of langue – it only exists in parole, yet it’s proper to no discourse. The vocative neutralizes this divide. It belongs to a third space. This space does not serve to connect the two, but stays there, in between. We’ll CALL this space the space of the voice.

To better understand voice we need to better understand what TO CALL means. Probably what calling means is, THERE IS A VOICE. (Not necessarily MY voice. That’s another question).

“Let’s stop now for questions…”