January 16, 2011

common value

Although Plato’s dialogues were written in the form of conversations, they have founded the philosophical tradition as an introspective, monological pursuit. At least, this is the line of reasoning put forth by Cesar Casarino in the preface to In Praise of the Common (University of Minnesota Press), an effort of collaboration with the Italian Marxist critic Antonio Negri. Not suprisingly, when the other (Socrates' dialogue partner) speaks in a Platonic dialogue, he does so by the rules of dialectical progress, based on fixed (that is, assimilated) identities that tend toward sublation. The history of the Platonic dialogue, writes Cesar Casarino,
has culminated in the now hegemonic liberal-democratic discourse of identity and in its suffering invocations of “dialogue” as a means of negotiating and reconciling differences among various and sundry identities (as if there was actually any real difference rather than sheer equivalence among identities, even despite the incommensurable inequities that they always index and that they are meant to redress in the realm of representation alone, and as if, hence, anything like a real dialogic relation—that is, anything like dialogue at the level of the real—could even begin to take place among them). 
It is for this reason that the “dialogic” nature of Platonic discourse must be distinguished from Mikhail Bakhtin’s conception of the dialogic relation. For Bakhtin, the “entire dialogue-monologue binary opposition” is constituted by this relation: the dialogue materializes this relation by affirming it, while the monologue materializes it by foreclosing it. In both cases, language invites (or desires) some form of response, which in turn requires its own response and so on ad infinitum. If the dialogic relation unfolds in this way then the conversation is dialogical, “for it involves response to and from—rather than sublation of—the other.” But to avoid the Platonic connotations (which are due both to the currency and the history of a loaded term like “dialogue”) Casarino wisely opts to speak of such intellectual negotiation as “conversation” (deriving from the Latin conversari: to keep company with) in his discussion of the common.

Conversation is the language of the common because it brings us together as different rather than identical to one another. Casarino points to an early text by Dante, a treatise on the vernacular (De vulgari eloquentia), in which language is described as common to the human collective. Dante argues for the superiority of the vernacular over locutio secundaria (scholarly language) because it is employed by the whole world and because it is more “natural.” The vernacular is, in Casarino’s words, a “linguistic potential (that is, the capacity to learn language) and a linguistic practice (that is, the process by which such a capacity comes to its fruition through acquisition and usage) common to all human beings.” Here, we do not have two different types of language, but instead two different ways of learning, using, and conceptualizing language.

For Dante, the linguistic sign is a translating apparatus that is at once both sensory and rational. It must be comprised of both, for pure sensory knowledge is only possible for beasts and purely rational knowledge is only possible for angels. Human beings are unique because communication occurs across a subjective gap (beasts and angels do not have this problem): language must be sensed in order to be rationalized. Casarino highlights four points regarding Dante’s linguistic configuration: first, in Dante’s schema, the vernacular and the sign are equivalent to one another; second, the sign is able to translate and transcend the individual differences of every human being; third, the sign is described as a medium of exchange which move back and forth between producer and consumer; fourth, the sign is, as we have seen, both sensory and rational, bodily and spiritual. In sum, writes Casarino, “for Dante the linguistic sign functions already like the modern sign of value par excellence, namely, money.” The primary opposition between matter and spirit, which characterizes the majority of Hellenistic and medieval theocracy, is eventually displaced by a new fundamental opposition: matter vs. value. As Kiarina Kordela writes,
While spirit could manifest itself only in the Word, value has two manifestations: a semantic one, as the word or the signifier representing the concept that refers to a thing; and an economic one, as the equivalent exchange-value representing the relevant value of a thing (commodity). The advent of secular capitalism amounts to the transformation of the economy into a representational system.
In Dante’s sign, therefore, we see the beginning of value as a mediating third term: the sign partakes of both matter and spirit and enables their exchanges, and consequently their differential semantic value.

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