Book Symposium: Words Underway, by Carolyn Culbertson, Week 2

Welcome to week 2 of our book symposium featuring Dr. Carolyn Culbertson’s recently published book, Words Underway: Continental Philosophy of Language. This week we present Dr. Jessica Elkayam’s (Sam Houston State University) reflections on Culbertson’s book. Next week we will post Dr. Culbertson’s response. Enjoy!

(Both Dave Vessey’s and Jessica Elkayam’s commentaries were presented at the author-meets-critic panel at the 2019 North American Society for Philosophical Hermeneutics, hosted by the University of Oregon.)

Enriched by the Thousand Darknesses of Deathbringing Speech: A Response to Carolyn Culbertson’s Words Underway


I’d like to begin today by offering my thanks to the Executive Committee for the invitation to engage with Carolyn Culbertson’s excellent book, which is not only a welcome, but a unique contribution – as much to Continental philosophy as to hermeneutic phenomenology and feminist theory.   In the Acknowledgments to Words Underway, Culbertson notes indebtedness to her mentor Jon Lysaker for the standard of clarity she sets as the companion to rigor in her writing.  In my view, she has so well achieved this simultaneous end and homage that the reader can be tricked into thinking the subject matter of the book is as easy as it is accessible.  But like the performance of a gifted dancer, such ease is an illusion hard won, in this case by the clear effort to distill the object of study down to its essence.  What this means for the humble reader who endeavors to speak to this pithy volume is that so much emerges from the unpacking that it is almost even harder to be exhaustive or at least moderately global in approach than if one were responding to a five hundred page tome.  Thus I propose to acquaint you with the broad brush strokes of Culbertson’s project and to alight on two key questions that aim to speak to some of Culbertson’s foundational concerns.


Culbertson sets up from word one to ascribe to a certain Kristevan notion of the subject, i.e., to the subject as speaking being, in whose speaking its very subjectivity is inscribed.  However, though Kristeva is a key player in Culbertson’s project, and indeed will take center stage in Chapter Five, “The Omnipotent Word of Medical Diagnosis and the Silence of Depression,” Culbertson resists Kristeva’s formulation in favor of her own: linguistic being.  Moreover, though Culbertson will explore the ontological implications of the human relation to language, she does not define the human as linguistic being so as to elaborate a taxonomic ontology of the one that speaks.

Rather, Culbertson stresses the status of language as a “technological invention, an artificial product that humans first started to develop many thousands of years ago and have been gradually transforming ever since” (1).  The notion of language as an invention, as a tool – the acquisition of which we cannot witness as an event in the evolution of the species (1) – anticipates Culbertson’s feminist commitment to worlds that could be otherwise, to worlds that structurally involve alterity but that needn’t (or perhaps better shouldn’t) systematically obstruct targeted inhabitants from meeting the foundational linguistic conditions for flourishing.  Culbertson brings such obstruction under the rubric of linguistic alienation, about which I shall say a good deal more, but for now let it suffice that, consonant with many of the Continental strands of feminism with which she clearly identifies, Culbertson strategically undermines the presumptions of nature as a first effort to hold space for otherwise silenced testimonials. 

Balancing the claim to the artificiality of language as human invention, on the other hand, Culbertson emphasizes its importance to human development.  Again, while we cannot witness the acquisition of language in the evolution of the species, we can witness it in the life of the child whose world increases as much in depth as it does in nuance through the process of habituating to language, first external and only later “something much more intimate” (1).   As with the acquisition of a skill, use of language becomes more fluid over time; in fact we incorporate it as a part of ourselves from which we are less inclined to recognize having ever been separated. I believe this is what Culbertson means when she insists that we become linguistic beings, a theme she elaborates in Chapter Three, where she argues such becoming is not something we attain to once and for all at some fixed threshold in development; “it is ongoing…we continue this becoming for the rest of our lives” (45). 

Perhaps out of sensitivity to the temptation to regard the development of a subject as though in a vacuum (too often the result of our diagrammatic philosophical imagination’s effort to sketch in convenient stick-figures), Culbertson emphasizes the interpersonal power of words.  As linguistic beings, we can be struck by the impact of others’ words, as in the joyous, though arguably rare experience whereby others’ expression gives voice to something we had only previously sensed but never fully understood.  However, Culbertson cautions us to recognize, this is only “half the story” (2).  For the linguistic being’s reliance upon language to found its identity can also be a “source of alienation” that takes form both momentarily (as when we experience frustration in bringing a thought adequately to word) or chronically – when, for example, “the terms of the deliberation have been stacked against any genuine disclosure” or “attempts to communicate routinely fail, as can happen in cases of trauma” (2).  In either case, that the linguistic being experiences alienation evinces “the importance of language for our existence,” indeed so much so that when we experience a certain species of linguistic alienation, our very mode of existence has been unsettled (handout, #1: a quotation followed by a schematic that gives you the sense of the broader role of LA in CC’s philosophy of language),


In brief, linguistic alienation expresses itself in two modes, the first of which – as the cause of extreme suffering – should be, at the least, the subject of normative critique, and the other of which, by contrast, is essential to human flourishing.[1]  Culbertson’s strategy is to use the first mode of alienation to demonstrate the short-sightedness of traditional (i.e., analytic) philosophy of language.  On account of its commitment to language as the static possession of a community of speakers (who, insofar as they contract to speak and share it, relate to it identically), analytic philosophy of language is unable to account for linguistic alienation, as a consequence of which it fails to contend with it at the intersection of epistemology and ethics.  As such, and in spite of its democratic aspirations, analytic philosophy of language not only violates the need for a phenomenological fidelity to the ways in which linguistic beings actually live language[2] – adaptively, as an ongoing revisionary process, with differing degrees of mastery and control, modulation and voice – but also fails to mobilize a response to injustice sufficient to initiate significant change. 

The primary instances of this injustice that Culbertson will take to be the phenomena of her careful analysis and to which I will most frequently refer are the suffocation/co-optation of the voice in the trauma of the Holocaust (Chapter 3) and the recourse to silence in response to a discursive, yet alien or estranged self-understanding that characterizes female depression (Chapter 5).  In other words, because traditional philosophy of language has been so focused on dissecting the idiom it takes to be ultimately determinative of the lens through which human existence makes sense of itself – in a kind of closed loop the likes of which it seems reiterates what Rivera called the logic of the social – phenomenologically evidentiary experiences of alienation that demonstrate distantiation (estrangement) within the idiom call to be reckoned with all the more forcefully. 

That said, and the reason one might be tempted to regard the alienation operative in injustice as derivative, Culbertson insists that “in another sense, alienation is intrinsic to our relationship to language and comprises part of what makes linguistic activity so important to human fulfillment” (8, emphasis mine).  In her expansion of this claim, we encounter a favored phrasing, viz., that language occasionally “pulls us up short,” i.e., that we have an experience of language as failing to immediately recognize, understand, or master (hence Culbertson’s eventual identification of such language as non-immediate).  The image of being pulled up short suggests that our understanding cannot go the distance and is left hanging.  It thereby experiences an interruption in the flow of recognitive meaning-making that compels us “to be more attentive to what we are trying to understand, and, in turn, more reflective on and potentially critical of our habitual ways of recognizing and interpreting what we encounter” (8). 

Thus, being left hanging[3] – having been pulled up short – we come to occupy an interrogative posture that, while it is temporarily alienated from the linguistic milieu, is nevertheless (for Gadamer at least, as Culbertson’s Chapter Two attests[4]) a normal part of reading a text and engaging in conversation with another (8).[5]  The suspension of habits of interpretation as well as the continual adjustment of projected meaning are key ways in which alienation – in its positive valence as a species of distance or non-immediate openness[6] opposed to the immediate possession of the instantaneously mastered – is not a source of suffering, but can even, by strengthening the claim of conversation or text,[7] be a source of fascination or joy (8).   Culbertson continues, and here I quote her at length because what she says, I would argue, reveals the stakes of the project as a whole (handout, #2):

“…Although emphasizing…both can create confusion at times, both forms of alienation are important to consider and indeed…must even be considered in relation to one another.  It is important, after all, to resist oppressive forms of social organization that leave people alienated from language…[but] if we think that the ultimate goal of such resistance should be to restore for people a relationship to language that is fully immediate, without the possibility of ever having their linguistically embedded habits of thinking challenged in dialogue with another… [this goal] would be ethically and politically problematic in that it would mean shutting people off from other voices that have yet to speak and be understood, that await participation in the living system of language.  More primordially, it would be problematic in that our openness to dialogue with the other and the critical self-relation that such openness entails are intrinsic parts of our linguistic being.  Without this openness, we become creatures of a different kind” (8-9, emphases mine).

Noting the two points of emphasis in the quotation – on the two modes of linguistic alienation that must be considered in relation to one another, and on the ontologically foundational openness (which, if compromised would significantly alter what it means to be human) – I would add that interpreters of Culbertson’s argument should resist the temptation to suggest that the alienation that characterizes exertions of power to stifle, to silence, and thus to interfere with the flourishing of a linguistic being derives from the alienation intrinsic to the linguistic being’s way of being as the distantiation always at work within language that maintains its horizonal openness to interpersonal relationality, making understanding an act of suspension, deferral, and adaptation rather than one of mastery. 

Certainly in the order of priority, intrinsic alienation is primary (alienation1) and the alienation of injustice secondary (alienation2).  But the relation that obtains between them is something more complex than an order of rank or emergence akin to ontological conditions for ontic manifestation.  It seems instead that [handout, #3] Culbertson wants to ground the normative critique of alienation2 in its interference with the function and flow of alienation1, not to argue that alienation2is a lesser species of alienation1, a hierarchical inferior.  As such, (2) does emerge from (1), but only insofar as it, by definition, frustrates or obstructs the function of (1).  As linguistic beings, we need the space of estrangement.  It is like a breath of possibility, an open…likely silent… interval that enables our very presence to/with our interlocutors, an interval we must  preserve in order to breathe, and in order to speak and be heard (which puts me in mind of a potentially ontological justification for Dotson’s open conceptual frameworks).  This is a need that all too often goes unmet, however, a need all too often frustrated by the secondary alienations of suffocation (silencing) and co-optation (instrumentalization of the voice), to name but a few.


Thus, Culbertson argues that being pulled up short by language, i.e., the primary alienation intrinsic to the way we participate in living language,[8] is the condition for the possibility of knowledge, not what undermines the possibility of our knowing[9].  For it is insofar as I wait…suspend my usual habits of interpretation and remain open…that I am able to listen, whether to the speech of another, or to that of a text within the historical framework to which I must be continually adaptive, responsive.  With this, we can see the link between the epistemological task of articulating the function of the understanding [Culbertson’s aim 3], and alienation1, which allows us, in dialogue with others – and especially when we are compelled to listen to the testimonials of those who have suffered from alienation2 – to keep “interpretation in suspense until the right time.  No mastery in language,” Culbertson concludes, “can fill in gaps like these” (9).

Such gaps again indicate an interval opened by suspension, indicate primary alienation as a way of spatio-temporalizing the flow of a current through pause, pause which opens the space of possibility, pause which grounds reflective critique (and in my view, this is precisely the point Culbertson makes by invoking Butler in the closing pages of her Introduction – handout, #4[10]).   The idiomatic expression that something noteworthy “gives us pause,” seems especially trenchant here.  Culbertson cites Kristeva, from her groundbreaking Black Sun (handout, #5): “Our gift of speech, of situating ourselves in time for an other could exist nowhere except beyond an abyss.  Speaking beings…demand a break, a renunciation, an unease at their foundations.” [11] 

Yet for Culbertson, Kristeva offers more than a poetic rendering of the founding, albeit abyssal, condition of language for the speaking (linguistic) being; she also thereby contests a dominant conception of language in the contemporary moment.  The tendency in the latter is to assume human language can be understood or modeled on programming language, such that all one requires to understand language is technical knowledge of its fixed rules, “a technical means of communicating orders to a recipient” (10).  The programmer “speaks,” and the computer “listens,” i.e., performs the action commanded, “preferably without any of the long pauses…that tend to punctuate all points in the process of human communication” (10).  The comparison may hold, Culbertson grants, for rudimentary, individual speech acts of the kind a new language learner masters first, but its explanatory power ends there, given the bigger picture of human communication when the intervals for listening and/or self-examination become integral to a developmentally mature understanding. 

Culbertson therefore refutes the objection that the tools of science are perfectly adequate for the task of approaching the function of language by arguing that reading, writing, and conversation (the first two of which for the Gadamerian appear to be species of the third) are beyond the scope of any model that regards language as a “process that can be broken up into a series of observable events” (14). Culbertson observes, “We humans delight in those conversations that take us to unexpected places, just as we delight in the book that says something different each time we read it,”  thereby demanding a philosophical explanation where the empirical sciences fall short (14).

Interestingly, as Culbertson argues in Chapter One, some of the work that does this best comes from a writer, not from a philosopher per se, viz., Walker Percy, whose invocation of several key figures in the Continental tradition was unusual for a time when, “philosophy of language…was associated almost exclusively with Anglo-American philosophy” (15).  Percy offers three key insights that Culbertson expands and explores through a parallel reading of the phenomenological Heidegger (of Being and Time), and which concern (handout, #6):

  1. what is distinctive about human linguistic activity (emergence into language is a transformation of world)[12]   
  2. what is essential about the role of language for our existence (it is the medium through which our understanding takes place); and
  3. what it is that keeps us from recognizing these things today (our equation of reality with the explanandum of the empirical sciences).

Culbertson patiently unfolds each insight, culminating in a treatment of the experience of Helen Keller which, though admittedly rare, demonstrates how the world transforms with the acquisition of language.  What otherwise “is what it is, an ahistorical field of presence,” comes to be that world that is shot through with life, constantly re-vitalized through speech (19-20).  Given that most of us do not experience language acquisition as Keller did, that by the time we reach maturity we have lived with language as our intimate companion for so long that we forget the wonder of its acquisition, it comes as little surprise that dominant linguistic models overlook its ontological function.  “Still, in times of crisis we may reconnect with this” (20, emphasis mine). 

Crisis situations, Culbertson notes in what strikes me as a very Heideggerian gesture, can interrupt this immersion, revealing to us “the true nature of our mode of being – the being for whom being is an issue,” which is to say, crisis situations put our usual way of being into suspense, opening it to question and, consequently, to the possibility of revelation (I stress possibility because not all crises go the way of illuminating our ontological structure – for many, crises shut down revelation.  Fear is a powerful motivator and perhaps an even more powerful cognitive regulator). 

It is notable that Culbertson slips between world in the singular and worlds in the plural (handout#7),[13] and I wonder if there’s an ontological distinction in play here between them.  Given that I want to hear more about this, my first question goes to whether an ontologically singular conception of world aligns with the enabling conditions of language acquisition (and thus our vulnerable openness to a closed future), while the ontically plural conception of worlds aligns with the variety of ways we live our immersion (some more plurally than others, recalling Anzaldúa’s mestiza).  Accordingly, is there a distinction in play here between something like worldhood [Weltlichkeit] and world [Welt] that might allow the latter to be pluralized?


Recalling the relation between the two forms of alienation, as I read it, Culbertson wants to claim that the first form (what I called alienation2 but which comes first in the order of explanation) obstructs the function of the primordial second – that form of estrangement that is the condition for the possibility of conversation and language acquisition – which has, it seems a temporal correlate to each of its functions: projection beyond [temporalized as future], listening and remaining open [present], and operating always within the terms of an inherited idiom over which we have very little control [past]). 

Thus, what we are called to do, provided we agree that normatively the goal is to maximize linguistic flourishing for all linguistic beings along the lines of a free flow of primordial alienation (as paradoxical as that may sound), is to root out instances of alienation2, to lift its obstructions from the path on which language exercises its function (of estrangement and familiarity, departure and return, distantiated detach and immanent intimacy).  As I endeavored to demonstrate, Culbertson insists that we must terminologically maintain alienation in both of its valences in spite of the difficulty of working the relation between them.  And this because otherwise we run the risk of insisting that everyone is always entitled to a completely familiar experience of language, that alienation per se is without merit.  A dangerous politics, she is right to point out, can be born of the conditions of such entitlement. 

But I wonder if part of the reason she maintains them both as alienation rather than terminologically distinguishing them is that she senses an affinity between them, at least insofar as they are both species of frustration, of a frustrated effort to self-retrieve that is condemned to a stifling opacity (or silence).  While remaining sensitive to the possibility that a colonial distinction between human and non-human may complicate the question of who counts as dying,[14] I wonder further if this opacity has its basis in human mortality as the ontological condition for the possibility of the distinction of language among our kind.[15]

But if there is in fact something to the distinction of death in being human (hence a distinction ontologically primordial to the social), significant implications for the testimonials of the alienated would follow. Though often characterized by traumatic tears in the fabric of (discursive) immersion, does alienated experience not have the potential to speak back to the originary tear in the fabric of time that both bounds our mortality and opens the intervals of possibility[16] through which we move?  Does this potential not make the alienated most qualified to speak to the ontological structure of human experience, not as fetishized others instrumentalized for alētheiac disclosure, but as meriting an ontic distinction[17] with ontological purchase to which particularly those privileged to not experience such “distinction” are compelled to pay especially close attention?  There is no doubt that normatively speaking, we make a better world the more we eradicate trauma, but insofar as it has happened, insofar as it is happening, and insofar as the prospect of stopping it once and for all may, though importantly setting a normative standard, never be once and for all achieved, should others, and especially those who claim to do philosophy, not do their part by listening?  Naturally, great care has to be taken not to instrumentalize testimonials for the sake of ontological clarification – this would be precisely that subsumption of otherness to an alētheiac impulse that would fetishize it.  The ethical import of listening here cannot be underestimated, as indeed Culbertson goes to great lengths to show in both chapters three (in the discussion of bearing witness and poetic language) and five (as therapeutic for the one who would transform her depressive silence into linguistic flourishing). 

Hence my second question: is our (potentially distinctive) relation to mortality what, on the one hand, conditions our openness to language and, on the other, furnishes the closure that frustrates our efforts at total transparency? Or do you want to maintain that the primordial alienation in/of language exists independently of mortality, since our deeply politicized relationships to death/dying (consider, for example, social death or the disparity in value between lives) give the lie to the claim that death is the originary condition of distinction?  Especially in light of the role death plays in your reading of Blanchot (as the originary condition of fleetingness to be transformed/negated into meaning by the word), as well as in the study of Celan (to which I alluded in the title of my response, and in terms of the ruinous remains of what has passed through deathbringing speech), why is there no discussion of being-towards-death in your treatment of linguistic alienation?


Questions now posed, I’d like to beg your indulgence a moment longer so as to close with a final observation on Words UnderwayWords Underway offers a compelling justification for its embrace of Continental philosophy of language.  The fact that we put such little stock today in the kind of understanding that develops from dialogue with our contemporaries, and even less in the kind that emerges in (textual) dialogue with the past, Culbertson argues, “has troubling implications for our attitudes towards public discourse and, of course, for the fate of the humanities, in which the art of such understanding has traditionally been fostered” (11).  Furthermore, in overlooking the social conditions that nourish our flourishing as linguistic beings, that give us the sense that we have a voice in our communities, we not only miss the opportunity to link the cultivation of justice for the linguistic being to the function of democracy, but we also we miss the opportunity to recognize how frustration of the cultivation of voice leads to tremendous suffering (11). 

I want to emphasize, in the end, that one of the chief virtues of this book is the masterful way in which its author justifies recourse to her field not on the grounds that it is good because it is her field, not because it is so obvious that, should she elect it, it must be the most resonant with life.  Rather, Culbertson actually demonstrates why, in light of pressing concerns of the day, Continental philosophy of language is able to carry us considerably farther than those theories, the current dominance of which, through exclusion and dismissal, silence those potential interlocutors to whom the contemplative, the investigative, and especially those who would envision a better world are most compelled to listen.

Thank you.

[1] “The first form occurs when one’s linguistic being is jeopardized and in a way that causes extreme suffering.  Within the Continental tradition, it is this form of linguistic alienation that is often and rightfully the object of normative critique.  The second type of alienation, by contrast, is regularly valued by Continental philosophers” (8).

[2] I should remark that I find this need to be self-evident, a founding condition for doing philosophy.  However, it should not be assumed that this need is self-evident for all; it is assumed that a faithfulness to experience is valued, whereas I get the distinct sense that often in analytic philosophy of language lived experience (Erlebnis) is a foreclosed category, set aside as inferior on the grounds that it psychologizes the laws of logic and thereby implicitly commits to a tempting, yet erroneous metaphysics.    

[3]A formulation that reminds me of Heidegger’s in GA 29/30, viz. that of being left empty by boredom.  Because of the lens through which I read these analyses, I can sometimes overlook the reliance upon that methodology.  That is to say, it is when our usual absorption, the way we proximally and for the most part behave, is interrupted, that we experience the alienation that calls us to become more aware [of, for example, what we structurally are in terms of the function of time (Heidegger’s Angst or Langeweile) – or, for Culbertson, in terms of our intimate, though foundationally abyssal relation to language]. 

[4] Whereas in Being and Time, Heidegger articulated a conception of language as equiprimordial with understanding in terms of what is proximally and for the most part true of how we live in the world of our concern, in the later work “Heidegger retains the argument that our primary relationship to language is immersive…but places a new emphasis on the need to ‘make our way to language’” (33).  As Culbertson reads the later work, much of it is intended “to provoke a transformation in our relationship to language,” and it unfolds through hints and gestures as modes of speaking that open up “something inexhaustible for thought” (34).   This runs the risk, however, of making the non-immediacy of thought not only impenetrable to understanding, but also the true nature of language, “a nature that is hidden from us for the most part but occasionally can be grasped” (35). 

  Gadamer, by contrast, handles the non-immediacy of language as a moment of recognitive understanding, and thereby with greater clarity, though she holds out for the performative dimension of Heidegger’s lectures, i.e., for the possibility that what he does is more consistent with how she reads Gadamer than what he says

[cf. 39]


[5] In Chapter Two, Culbertson begins by situating Gadamer in the hermeneutic tradition of which he came to play a major part.  Unlike many of his 19th century predecessors for whom the non-immediacy of language, i.e., the withdrawal of the context in which the original [text] was written, its unavailability to the present moment, was a problem, Gadamer regarded such non-immediacy as “serving a positive role in the development of understanding” (35).  As interpretation of the work of art makes plain, our task is not to reconstruct what the work said, but to ask what it says to us, today.  This does not mean foisting subjective associations onto the work.  Rather, we should allow the work to interrogate us, which means “coming to see some of the habitual presuppositions that we carry as particular and finite, thus allowing our understanding to expand beyond the limits of our present presuppositions” (36). As such, interpretation involves a “bidirectional movement” that makes the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar, unfamiliar. 

  Though the non-immediate quality of language is significant, Culbertson explains, Gadamer’s advance beyond Heidegger can be located in the crucial insight into the relation between immediacy and the non-immediate.  The latter enriches the former, deepening our understanding over time, making it an act of recognition:

“It is recognitive understanding that results from interpretation, which is to say, from our encounters with those objects whose meanings are not immediate.  Through the bidirectional movement of interpretation…A part of our pre-reflective understanding is brought to light for us and raised to greater truth” (37).

Non-immediacy is not, therefore, a deficiency.  Accordingly, “philosophical hermeneutics ought to recognize the unique cognitive import of such encounters” (37). 

  This goes hand in hand with my own questions as regards the purchase of the alienated testimonial for a deeper understanding of what it may mean to be human.  Insofar as language retreats from the trauma survivor as from the female depressive, their own coming to understand its non-immediacy can have a therapeutically transformative effect (though there is no guarantee that it will).  Beyond what it does for the meaning of their lives – which is enough in and of itself, though not all there is – does the import of such encounters also partially lie in what they can teach?

[6] Importantly, Culbertson refers to this as alienation from language as a “ready-to-hand source of meaning,” (8) nodding in the direction of the first two chapters of the book, which will rely upon Heidegger (and consequently Gadamer) to ground her Continental philosophy of language as intrinsically open and adaptive – i.e., temporally oriented by futural projection from within the thrown horizon of a past, yet integrally interpersonal in its orientation to the present (hence Butler in Chapter 4). 

[7] Cf. Chapter Three, and specifically Culbertson’s closing discussion of Derrida on bearing witness and poetic language.

[8] To give the sense that what makes it a living system (cf. the block quotation from 8-9, and my emphases, above) is alienation1, that breath, that pause.

[9] A claim mirrored in her reading of Gadamer in Chapter Two, for whom the non-immediacy of language is not a deficiency, but plays a positive role in the development of the understanding (cf. specially the discussion on 35-37, confirmed by the analogy drawn in Chapter Three between alterity as the foundational condition for bearing witness and the “non-immediacy of the text…[as the] condition for the possibility of truly reading” (58-59). 

[10] Her reference is to “What is Critique?: An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” in The Political: Readings in Continental Philosophy, ed. David Ingram (London: Blackwell, 2002), 2015.  Butler writes, “One asks about the limits of ways of knowing because one has already run up against a crisis within the epistemological field in which one lives.  The categories by which social life is ordered produce a certain incoherence or entire realms of unspeakability.  And it is from this condition, the tear in the fabric of our epistemological web, that the practice of critique emerges” (Butler 215, Culbertson 10).  

[11] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, Columbia University Press, 1989), 42.

[12] “ To talk about development of language as the entrance into a new world…[means that] there is a fundamental transformation not only in how we think about the world, but even more fundamentally in what appears to us and how it appears.  Language’s function becomes ontological rather than instrumental” (17). 

“When one has a linguistic world, one pushes for everything to have a place and meaning in language.  In children, this is manifest as the desire to know the name for all things.  In adults, it is the desire to expand one’s understanding of this world through language” (18). 

Also note: In Chapter Five’s discussion of how Kristeva theorizes depression, Culbertson explains the two senses of the archaic preobject, the loss of which characterizes (narcissistic) depression (or melancholia).  First, the preobjectal phase in development is characterized by a time before the world is split into subjects and objects, and the loss of this phase by the advance in development that comes to recognize oneself as distinct from others still can, like an open wound, “continue to throb throughout even adult life” (89).  Second, preobjectal loss is characterized by loss of a certain relationship to the mother, who protected us in our time of utter vulnerability and from whom, as infants, we were primordially unable to fully distinguish ourselves.  “Putting these two together,” Culbertson writes, the loss of the preobject “is the loss of that mode of being that preexists a world of subjects and objects, a world structured by an awareness of my separation from others.  In sum, in order to understand oneself as an individuated subject…one must undergo a difficult transition…[This] is a necessary feature of any life wherein meaning is set forth between people through language.  This is because meaning requires a transformation away from the infant mode of being for which no other exists.  It requires that one inhabit the world as a linguistic being, so that meaning is found not in the immediacy of things, but in the participatory process of world disclosure” (89, emphasis mine).  Note that the singularizing/individualizing (Vereinzelung) quality of death is not primary; that place is reserved for the intrinsic alterity inscribed into the development of linguistic being (subjectivity) by language.  Cf. also Chapter Six on the otherness inherent to language for Derrida (as Culbertson reads him against Bennington), 117.  She appeals here also to Butler, and thus to Levinas throughout Chapters Four (on Butler) and Six.

[13] Cf. for example, “In these ways, the worlds I am immersed in shape not only what I care about, but even shape the basic way in which things appear to me” (22).  Also, “These examples go to show that, when we interpret language – verbal or nonverbal – we do so always in the context of shared worlds of practical concern” (23, see also 24).  Interestingly, the latter instance follows upon an excellent discussion of the empiricist claim that the only way in which beings appear to us as they really are is when we set aside our practical interests (23).  Heidegger, Culbertson rightly points out, counters that “beings appear to us, proximally and for the most part, through such pre-reflective acts” and in this way, understanding [Verstehen] is most basically constituted.  Moreover, she continues in the next paragraph, this is characterized by thrownness, i.e., by the effect of factors beyond our control on our horizons of interpretation, and she speaks here to ways of interpreting as plural possibilities in response to a singular world (23, cf. also 31, the opening lines of Chapter Two).

[14] And here is where I think the move to subsume the ontological distinction of death under the social (vis-à-vis a European obsession with mortality, the material conditions of which are arguably colonial) is insightful even if I cannot subscribe to it entirely.  If only human beings die, and the colonial distinction involves naming the human to the exclusion of the non-human (which puts me in mind of Derrida’s now famous reading of Heidegger’s 29/30 lecture course on the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, wherein he claims that the restriction of the animal’s world to an Umwelt means the animal merely croaks [creuver] rather than dies), then it seems that any categorical consideration of the human on the basis of death exposes itself to this objection.

[15] And here is where I think the move to subsume the ontological distinction of death under the social (vis-à-vis a European obsession with mortality, the material conditions of which are arguably colonial) is insightful even if I cannot subscribe to it entirely.  If only human beings die, and the colonial distinction involves naming the human to the exclusion of the non-human (which puts me in mind of Derrida’s now famous reading of Heidegger’s 29/30 lecture course on the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, wherein he claims that the restriction of the animal’s world to an Umwelt means the animal merely croaks [creuver] rather than dies), then it seems that any categorical consideration of the human on the basis of death exposes itself to this objection.

[16] Here I’m thinking of Bewegtheit and the three senses of possibility operative in Being and Time, one of which is deactualization.

[17] This makes me think back to my interest in the form of distinction Ortega cites in Anzaldúa.  I cannot recall the exact term for this, but what it describes is on the one hand, a condemnation of the individual to extreme suffering, but on the other, an opening of transport between worlds that grants the one who suffers a species of visionary power that becomes a deep part of their spiritual identity.