Taking Apart Free Speech (Reading 09)

Before I begin I’d like to reflect on the absolute freedom I have in approaching this blog post. I do have a deadline for tomorrow, so I am compelled to write something, but have been given virtually no content requirements. The prompts for this reading gave me a choice of two almost antithetical positions, and I can formulate almost any argument in support of those two positions. What I cannot do is keep silent, end my post here. John Ashbery begins his book “three poems” with a kind of statement of purpose: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and true, way.” That is not exactly what readers want to hear ahead of a one-hundred or so page book, that the most important details might be left out. In a personal letter, Wittgenstein expresses a similar attitude toward his monumental Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, that the most important half was what he left unwritten. Still, both writers had to commit something to paper and publish it, even if they might have favored what they never put down. The need to respond is the one constraint every speaking subject must face; the primary restriction in any writing is the need to write, even when the topic is incommensurable to our system of language. As Beckett says inĀ The Unnameable, even if we keep silent, we must consider what sort of silence we keep.

I almost titled this post “A Phenomenology of Free Speech,” a close analysis of what constitutes free speech and how we experience it. I chose instead “taking apart,” thinking that a careless ear might elide it as “taking away,” as we say rights or privileges can be taken away. “Taking apart” also suggests the hermeneutic method of deconstruction, the sulky younger brother of phenomenology. Deconstruction better captures what I am attempting with respect to free speech, not to delimit its essence but to destabilize it, and show that it has no true referent. In all the articles this week, they treat free speech as a positive entity, an act that can be performed and that is more readily available in the United States. This was apparent in the Atlantic article, “Why google quit China,” which casts the United States as the nation with some of the most permissive freedom of speech laws. Murong Xuecun expresses this mentality, that freedom of speech is a positive, identifiable condition, most clearly with his observation on China, “Only a small number of people sense what they are lacking.” He sees free information as a positive quality that can be lacked, something that is manifestly withheld by a carefully administered firewall. Although, yes, there are manifest restrictions to information flow, there are also restrictions around our own discourse that elude us. Notice in the BBC article on Facebook’s methods to control terrorist content the term that they completely leave out is censorship. By definition censorship is what Facebook needs to accomplish, to remove rhetoric they deem unsafe or toxic, but censorship is only applied in opposition to the positivity of free speech. The objectionable rhetoric for our society does not assume the ontological status of free speech, and so we do not say it is censored. We speak of free speech like property, as a positive quality guaranteed by law. As I tried to show through a reflection on silence and the need to respond, language is not an entity that can be completely grasped but is always concomitant with absence and indeterminacy.

Language is not just a capability, either impeded or free, but is our way of engaging in the world. Language itself is a kind of technology, and can only be experienced through a certain set of implicit restrictions. Amid all the debates about information technology, and how those structures can restrict speech, we have not sufficiently considered the ontology of language. Speech in itself is a kind of restriction, a set of predetermined conditions that are not fully controlled by a speaking subject but in a way speak through us.