Does an essential yet still unthought relation between death and language exist? Martijn Buijs turns to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to reconstruct his analysis of the voice in relation to death and with reference to both Aristotle and Martin Heidegger, examining along the way being, language and the ethical consequences arising from it.
Martijn Buijs in IIIIXIII Magazine:
In The Essence of Language, Martin Heidegger writes:
Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but still remains unthought.
Man as mortal speaks; speaking, man is mortal. Do these two sentences present the contingent overlapping of two attributes of man, either of which could be thought without the other? Or is there, indeed, an essential yet still unthought relation between death and language? And if one were to grant there is such a relation, would it perhaps provide the way for us to understand the being of man in its most intimate sense? Or yet, might it rather be the case that the relation between language and death, strong if inarticulate a hold as it may have on the history of Western thought, is itself fundamentally problematic, not as a mistake one could with more rigorous logic rectify, but as a net within which thinking is wrapped up and from which it needs to extricate itself if it is to overcome its present predicament? Is there such a predicament?
That there is such a predicament, and that this predicament is essentially an ethical one, is the fundamental thesis of Giorgio Agamben’s early study Language and Death. Agamben writes:
Both the ‘faculty’ for language and the ‘faculty’ for death, inasmuch as they open for humanity the most proper dwelling place, reveal and disclose this same dwelling place as always already permeated by and founded in negativity. Inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, in Hegel’s words, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is” or, according to Heidegger, the “placeholder (Platzhalter) of nothingness”.
Agamben’s analysis focuses on this place of negativity which, by his lights, man occupies in the tradition of Western metaphysics; and he will conclude that if one cannot account for what is proper to man other than through the negative, one will not be able to think the ethical either – and thus remain mired in the disturbing political consequences of that failure.