Constitution and Language

This is a translation of an article by Pablo Bustinduy. The original was published on his website on 25th September 2012.

Constitution and language.

To adapt to every change and event, words too had to change their habitual meanings.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, III, 82.

1. Thucydides’s sentence occurs amid a description of chaos. It is a political chaos, full of violence, disorder and uncertainty, unleashed by the civil war in Corfu, Athens’s ally in the Peloponnesian War. Beneath his steely tone, Thucydides can scarcely hide his terror faced with the consequences of the stasis, the conflict that tears the polis apart from within. With the support of Sparta and an army of mercenaries, the oligarchs conspire to bring down the democracy; the demos of Corfu unites with the slaves and takes up arms to defend it and save its alliance with Athens. Thucydides then says: the scene served as a model or a template for a whole chain of democratic revolutions in Greece. And words, in order to adapt to all the changes and events, also had to alter their habitual meanings.

2. In Philosophical Investigations (§531), Wittgenstein says there are two ways of understanding a sentence. A phrase can be understood when it can be replaced by another which says the same thing in a different way. But a sentence can also be understood in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other, nor can even one of its words be changed. In the first case, one can paraphrase, express the idea in a different way, translate, simplify, explain. In the second, one feels that this meaning can only be transmitted by those same words and in that precise order, and that any alteration, however minor, will cause it to lose power or a substantial part of its meaning, as happens when reading a poem. In the first instance, the meaning is common to many sentences; in the second, it is the meaning of a singularity that cannot be reduced.

3. In a political revolution, the established order begins to crack outward from its sentences. Constitutional sentences, policing sentences, consensual sentences: they all lose the potential to determine community, to define what things are trying to say, to delimit, in the end, the sphere of common sense, of meaning and its legitimacy. A constitution is above all a regime of representation, a field of possible meanings that bind what can be said and what is understood at the moment of saying what is said, and thereby ensure, within that field, that concepts and ideas become translatable, reproducible, open to manipulation and control. When a constitution cracks, there are suddenly words which rediscover their singularity, which unhitch themselves from the sentences that contain them, and they allow the recuperation of their meaning, a meaning that is incommensurable with and irreducible to the order that can no longer translate them. The word independence, like the word revolution, no longer fits either the space allotted to it or the established grammar: its meaning demands the generation of a new way of speaking in order to explain it, to render common that which right now cannot be said in any other way.

4. Unable to conceal his disdain, Aristotle says in Politics (V, IV) that revolutions are carried out in two ways: by force or by means of fraud. Fraud in turn has two aspects: sometimes citizens are fooled into assenting to a change of government, and are swiftly betrayed and subjected against their will. In the second case, citizens are persuaded to support the revolution, and afterwards they are persuaded once again to maintain their loyalty and keep the peace in the city. What changes from one case to the other is the attitude of the citizens, but not the meaning of things, since Aristotle implies that the new order never keeps its word. This is something to bear in mind in the present situation: if independence for Catalonia, for example, does not involve blowing apart the corrupt bigwig clientelist system that rules it today; if it is confined to simply struggle against a looting, but not against its source and origin, against the capitalist dictatorship of debt; if it confines itself, ultimately, to being a carbon copy of the transition’s shamelessness, albeit with a local twist, the fraud will be consummated and the opportunity for emancipation lost. The same risk, only different, speaks in Spain through the voices of technocratic demagogy. It is not a matter of saying the same thing in a different way. Emancipation means: making words and things alter in their constituent relation, in what they authorise and make possible when the former are bound to the latter.

5. The word ‘constitution’ does not only refer to a juridical apparatus or a set of laws subordinated to a single order or principle. Foucault explains this in Society must be defended: a constitution is something that does not refer so much to the order of the law as to the order of force, to the force of practices and the force of discourses, to a balance and a back and forth that establishes itself between the two and stabilises them, creating an order between the two, between their asymmetries and inequalities. The conclusion is clear: the sovereign is not he who defines words vertically, from nowhere, and once and for all, but he who is able to rule this order, to make words that already exist correspond to the practices that set each thing in its place and each subject to her position. Hence a revolution is not carried out by simply replacing one set of laws with another, but by accumulating forces whereby laws, unable to contain that which overwhelms them, can no longer keep a hold on practices and discourses, places and positions. A constitution cracks whenever this imbalance becomes ungovernable: just as in the Corfu of Thucydides, it is a matter of getting this force to institute new meanings for old words. To not yet have the language to describe the future is not a problem: the problem is to possess it and for it to mean nothing.

Illustration by Ramón Rodríguez.

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One response to “Constitution and Language

  1. Pingback: La constitución y el lenguaje | pourlafindutemps

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