Interdisciplinary Connections on the Limits of Language

** preface – this is about the inability of language to accurately capture and convey ideas, which really comes through in the writing of this post, so please bear with me**

As I sat in my political science class discussing postpositivist international relations (IR) theory, I was struck by the similarities to the conversation that we had on Wednesday about the inability of language to capture concepts/beliefs/ideologies.

Though I am by no means an expert in postpositivist theory and am still trying to understand its intricacies, from what I gather, the main idea of postpositivism is that all theories are biased by the values, beliefs, and interests of the people who construct these theories. For example, an influential IR theory is realism, which argues that all states (nations) are primarily interested in self-preservation and will act accordingly to ensure their survival in the international system. So, every action taken by the United States in the international system, such as acting as the “world police” and spreading its democratic values into other states, is to ensure its survival as a state. However, postpositivists would put forth the argument that realists construct and utilize language in their theory in order to sustain their position of power and dominance in the global system. Theories then become tools to justify your own selfish interests and actions that maintain those interests. So, the actions of the US start to look less like actions needed for survival and more like actions merely in pursuit of power.

Postpositivism is essentially concerned with the contingency of language, something that Morrison and Dante are (ironically) in conversation with. I try to make meaning between postpositivism and Morrison (and to a lesser extent Dante) for their similar goals. The point of including postpositivist theory into the general discussion of IR theory is to provide a voice for marginalized states, whose ideas have been sidelined by overarching Western theories and ideology. The three main IR theories have come to be associated with Western perspectives and interests, preventing the interests of smaller, non-Western states from being realized.

As Professor Herzman indicated, Dante is trying to write in a way that is accessible to his readers in order to help them understand God and the concepts of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (Canto IV, lines 37-48). Similarly, by invoking Apollo in the first Canto of Paradiso, Dante is referencing terminology of overarching power and knowledge through a vehicle that most people know and understand, rather than trying to encapsulate the concept of God into words. Not only does Dante represent the acknowledgement of the fallibility of humans and their language, but as he as been exiled, he also represents the dissenting and questioning voices of those who are marginalized and considered inferior to those in powerful positions.

In the same way, Morrison’s work seems to try to bring a voice to the marginalized black population, whose interests and perspectives have been suppressed by white perspectives conveyed through language of power, into mainstream conversation. It seems that one way that Morrison is trying to combat this white suppression through language is creating a new language. Just as Dante did in Paradiso, Morrison is creating new words, as well as recreating existing words (such as taking nouns and making them into verbs), in order to inject the perspectives, interests, and outlooks of black people into the larger conversation. The example of purity in Jazz comes to mind when thinking about a new perspective. I found it strange (strange is not the word that I want to use, but I will because it is the only word that is coming to mind) how Morrison used “pure” to describe both black and white within a few pages of one another. It seemed like an attack (not the right word, but once again, it’s what is coming to mind, so I’m rolling with it) on the word pure, and it inspired a few questions. What is the meaning of pure? Does it really mean anything at all? How can two supposedly opposite things both be pure? Where is Morrison coming from with this juxtaposition? What kind of purity is she complicating? The way that purity is being used by Morrison seems to indicate that there is a common consensus of purity – a white one – and her usage injects a black perspective onto the concept.

Just as more inclusion of postpositivist theory in the body of IR theory would diversify and attack historical, seemingly engrained power hierarchies through establishing a closer analysis of language and its inherent biases, so too would incorporation of new words explicitly tied to the black struggle and experience break down white hierarchies in the United States.

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