The Power of Language
A philosophical-sociological reflection
Prof. Dr. Johannes Weiß & Dr. Thomas Schwietring
Social Sciences, University of Kassel
As always, when “power” is spoken of, the first association is that of the power of man over man, of power as suppression of the free will by “commands” and “obedience”. Power can easily appear in this connection as the root of all evil in human societies and as the opposite of freedom as such.
Yet the problem of power is in truth more complex. And especially in the case of the “power of language”, the problem is multi-layered. The “power of language” not only means language in the service of power; language can also undermine power. And above all, as language, it possesses itself power of a very special kind. The relation of language and power is ambivalent.
We have spoken in the first place of the “power of language” as the “language of power”. What is here meant in general is that all power must finally use language, be conveyed through it and manifested in it, to command, that is, to speak, where others must only hear and obey. In a more narrow sense, this understanding of the “power of language” is a matter of the instrumentalisation of language for the purpose of exercising power. The command of language itself becomes a means of power: as political rhetoric and demagogy, as ideology and bedazzlement, as seduction through words, as “persuasion”. This power of language extends from large political contexts, from the manner of speaking and thus also of thinking that dictatorships and totalitarian orders force upon dominated people, to the small scenes of everyday life, to the arts of seduction of advertising, the sales tricks of telephone marketing, or the menacing undertones at the workplace or in the family.>p
This first interpretation of the “power of language” already shows two things. On the one hand, that language and speaking must be distinguished in the exercise of power. The possibilities of language from the way in which language is actually used in spoken words. On the other hand, the interpretation also gives a presentiment that the power which is exercised through language always already bears within itself the germ of its counter-power. For the language of political demagogues and tyrants can be seen through as language. And by means of language itself. So that language conveys the power of violence or domination and at the same time undermines it.
For everyone can take possession of the power of language and in this way see through and unmask the power exercised through language.
Seen clearly, the “power of language” is thus not the fraternisation of language with command and obedience; this uses language for goals other than those which are inherent in it. The genuine, inner power of language is rather to undermine this other kind of power. Since ursurpatious and violent rule as well as legitimate rule must ultimately rely on the power of language in order to be exercised, to command and to assert itself, precisely language is the vulnerable spot of the commanding power. For the concealed intentions of a command can be seen through. The command can be obeyed, but it can also be refused; above all, it can be understood and so interpreted or re-interpreted quite as those might like who are supposed to obey it, but who for their part possess the infinitely divisible and epidemically disseminating power of language.
This mechanism can be generalised beyond the political sphere. Without a doubt, the power of language consists in the fact that it can be used for rhetorical persuasion. But its own authentic power consists at least equally in the fact that every “putting into language” already harbours within itself the kernel of doubt. Every attempt to persuade others with and through language is always also an effort to make oneself understood. And regardless of how rhetorically skilled the speaker may be, in the end he inevitably places his words, as language, under discussion.
Whoever speaks, depends on language. And even the most skilful speaker cannot monopolise the power of language. For ultimately the “power of language” lies not with the speaker, but with language itself. The power of language belongs to language itself. And so this power belongs to everyone who possesses language. Whoever has a command of language has part in its power!
Language is not merely a instrument in the hands of power, but also always a counter-power which cannot be restricted and repressed. Power can rest on many factors; for instance, on the possession of weapons or money. These are in short supply; some possess them and others do not. This scarcity establishes the power of man over man. And it shows the ubiquitous social connection of power and inequality.
This connection, however, does not obtain for the power of language. As with knowledge generally, so with language and the power that proceeds from it: it is illimitably divisible and multiple. Whoever shares knowledge loses nothing of his own share or possession. Everyone can gain knowledge without taking it away from anyone else. Similarly, everyone can attain the power of language without disputing anyone else’s right to it.
At exactly this point begins the empowerment through language that marks the work of the Goethe Institute. It is an empowerment through the genuine power of language, not through a specific content or body of knowledge which is conveyed through language. And it is within this frame that the decentralised, world-wide projects of the Goethe Institute are to be understood.
2. Dimensions of the power of language
The power of language shows itself not only, and not primarily, in the language of power, of overpowering and repression, but also in its emancipatory potential, in the opening of other and new possibilities of speaking, and so also of thinking and acting. All speech ineluctably refers to a possible contradiction, every “yes” to a possible “no”, every assertion to a possible doubt.
A comparable dialectic may also be found where language serves not repression and compulsion, but rather founds, illuminates and corroborates comprehensive and cosmological meaning in aesthetically pleasing, well thought-out forms. This is done above all by mythic or ritualised speech, by means of which man envisages and satisfies himself of the existence of a transcendent and sacred order. Even when in this way a certain social or ruling order is sacralised, mythic and ritualised speech is not another, possibly especially massive, instance of overpowering through language. Man needs the foothold provided by order and social institutions which are established and sustained mainly by linguistic symbolisation.
But precisely here the rendering into language has always opened the possibility of the variation and change of given interpretations, and to the extent that mythic grounds are themselves interrogated about their grounds. Sooner or later, the language of myth presses beyond itself to logos: that is, to word and reason, the language of reason, reasonable and accountable speech.
After a long and eventful history, the rule of logos, the reason seeking, reason and counter-reason weighing Reason, reaches it fulfilment in modern science. This science now speaks with the highest, universally binding authority, world-wide and about everything in the world. Its language is the real lingua franca of the developing world society. Its authority is fundamentally egalitarian and democratic; for it and with respect to it, nothing counts but “the non-violent force of the better argument” (Jürgen Habermas).
In fact, however, the language of the sciences is, at least to a good degree, comprehensible and accessible only to the relevant experts. For the bulk of people, on other hand, it is a secret language – also when it is not expressed mathematically but in a very reduced English.
In this certainly lies considerable possibilities for the abuse of power, of which many representatives of science, often together with those who hold political or economic power, avail themselves. But the deeper problem consists in the fact that scientific language, as helpful and indispensable as it is for rationally revealing and taking hold of the world, tends at the same time to an enormous narrowing of man’s perception of reality. Not only recently but as long as there has been science, people have observed and criticised the extent to which our experience of the world and of ourselves is stunted when it is restricted to what can be expressed in scientific language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, to whom precisely this restriction seemed imperative, later set against it the insight into language as a “form of life”. A very similar insight, if a different philosophical goal, has its source in Martin Heidegger’s speaking of language as the “House of Being”, where the language here meant is the historically developed, living language in its great and wondrous particularity and variety in general, and the language of poetry, which draws on, extends and goes beyond the historical language, in particular. “Man dwells poetically” (Dichterisch wohnet der Mensch) says, or better hopes, Friedrich Hölderlin, and this sentence brings the power of language to expression in its most important and deepest, at any rate in its most beautiful and freest, sense.
Those who speak the same language not only can make themselves understood to each other; the capacity of being able to make oneself understood also founds a feeling of belonging and belonging together. This identity-forming power of language is not a secondary effect through which individuals can form themselves into small or large social groups, or with whose help the social cohesion of societies or state and supra-state unions can be fostered; it takes hold much earlier than these.
In his process of growing up, in the formation of his person and personality, language is not an element that the individual acquires at a certain point, but rather the acquisition of language is precisely this process in which the individual constitutes himself, not only as individual but also as an independent subject. By means of language he attains to a consciousness of himself and his surroundings. He acquires competencies to act and to make himself understood; in a word, he not only learns to interpret his world, but he also receives his world through and as language.
The first language acquired by an individual necessarily become his “natural language”. Everything that he latter thinks and decides can be analysed and interpreted by his understanding, but finally he must always reach back to the level of his natural language.
This observation touches on the double function of the first language. The first language lays the foundations for the understanding, its possibilities of grasping things and expressing them. And at the same time it socialises the individual. And again in a double sense: on the one hand, an individual becomes an individual by participating, in his innermost core, in a language; and on the other, through language he acquires membership in a culture and a group. Regardless how ruptured his experience of this membership may later become, it remains a foundational element of his individuality.
In elaborating the programme “Power of Language”, it is essential that the Goethe Institute on the one hand translate these general reflections into concrete individual questions and thereby enter into the variety of cultural experience acquired in the work of individual Goethe Institutes; and on the other hand, link these reflections to the general goals and practical work of the Goethe Institute, and in this way in turn reflect on them, but also translate them into generally comprehensible and publicly effective projects. The thus designed concrete projects and events can be focussed in sets of themes. Decisive here is that language be seen not only under the instrumental aspect and in its function within, for instance, the spheres of power and politics, but also always in its inner dynamics and own special power.
3.1 Language, Multilinguism and identity
In their practical work, many Goethe Institutes are confronted by diverse forms of multilingualism and the related questions about the role of language in forming cultural identity and political communities and in the realisation of democratic self-determination.
In multilingual contexts, problematic constellations regularly arise from the fact that one language is elevated to the status of the official language and so the language of the elites and the powerful, while other languages are relegated to a lower status and discriminated against. This may be observed in various political and historical contexts, and invariably where a plurality of indigenous and partly unwritten languages are subordinated to an official language in state affairs and transactions. This is particularly clear in post-colonial Africa, where the problems of de-colonialisation amidst the continuance of colonial power structures may be read off from the linguistic relations.
The problems of a multilingual context show themselves in another form in Latin America in the relation between Spanish and the indigenous languages. Revealing here can be the contrast between post-colonial contexts and the situation in Eastern Europe, where in 1989 not only a phase of Soviet political predominance came to an end, but also an epoch of cultural and political influence. In the new phase of democratic orientation, we may directly observe the complex relation in which political power stands to the conflict over linguistic-cultural hegemony.
3.2 European identity, cultural variety and the future of the major European languages
The question about the relation of language, cultural identity and political self-determination is particularly timely when seen against the background of European integration, which aims at forming a common European identity while at the same time pursuing the goal of preserving and fostering cultural variety as a core element of European identity. This debate can be placed in a larger context and especially suggests the usefulness of a comparative approach. Revealing insights may be hoped for from the comparison of, for example, the prospects of the major European languages like German, French and Russian in a (linguistically) globalised world.
3.3 Linguistic change and linguistic politics
A third major complex of themes revolves round the question of the possibilities of political intervention and influence in the field of language (for example, through targeted advertising for and policies of promoting the German language) on the one hand, and round the autonomous dynamics of linguistic development on the other. In this context belong questions like those about the relation between the “preservation” of standard language traditions and the openness of standard language to further development in global cultural and economic exchange. Here a discriminating judgement is essential, one that avoids reifying language or that understands the preservation and promotion of language as the fixing of traditional contents, for this view would contradict the peculiar openness and dynamics of language.