A Ku Indeed!

Language and Power

Posted in Course Material by Chris on June 16, 2007

I skipped over what I think is a very interesting passage in the Genealogy yesterday. I’d like to mention it here so that I can hear your comments. In the second section of the first essay, Nietzsche writes:

[quote]The lordly right of giving names extends so far that one should allow oneself to conceive the origin of language itself as an expression of power on the part of the rulers: they say “this is this and this”, they seal every thing and event with a sound and, as it were, take possession of it.[/quote]

This is very interesting. Nietzsche seems to be making a few claims here.

1. The powerful define words.
2. He who defines words rules the world. To control an object is one thing; to control the way it is used, the way it is even conceived is quite another. Here I think of feminism (feminists took N’s point here and ran with it). The fact that in the 50s “woman” seemed to have as an essential part of its meaning “mother” had serious ramifications for women; women who did not bear children were “selfish” and “freakish” and “not good women”. Just as well, being a mother opened up a woman to all sorts of advantages (socially) that childless women lacked. Who defined the terms this way? Feminists argued: men did. And the fact that they defined it this way said something about what men wanted, and how they wanted men to think about women, but more importantly about how they wanted women to think about themselves.

3. This leads to one’s current language reflects the victories of various groups who turned out to have the most power. So, essentially, that words mean this-and-this right now has a history behind it; for every word meaning there was a power struggle, and some group won, a group with a particular interest in mind, and that interest is represented in the meaning of the word we now use. If feminists are right that men have the power, it is no surprise that “woman” means what it is taken to mean.

4. Point 4 is implied: to rebel and take power requires that one appropriate language, to give words new meanings that reflect one’s own plans and projects.

This is highly interesting stuff. What do you think here? Is N right about the fact that defining is the true measure of power? Or is this concern about language, “much ado about nothing”?

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