An ancient tradition declares that the possession of a speaking voice separates one from the beasts. Though this dictum points to a commonality amongst all speakers, all speakers do not speak the same. Indeed, the ancient Greeks, from whom this thought is inherited, looked down upon their neighbors as adults to foolish children: “Their speech… more a bark than words; all I hear is ‘bar bar bar’,” says the Athenian of antiquity. And though we continue to discriminate against foreign tongues even today, the ancient Greek context bears an important distinction. Emphasis in Ancient Greek, unlike this English you read and repeat in your head, came from pitch rather than stress, so that to our modern ears it would effect that ‘sing-song’ character most resembling Cantonese. Ancient Greek was like a song; all the Greeks heard from the coarse, stressful tongues of their neighbors was “bar bar bar.” And so, though far enough from the beasts to qualify as men, the foreigner was regarded slightly below the civilized status of the native Hellene.

How could Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, not have inherited this tradition, being a Hellenic Jew raised in the diaspora of a major center of Greek learning and culture? His share in this heirloom of his Greek neighbors is evinced in his first epistle to the congregation in Corinth. On the one hand, speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift, a manifestation of the holy spirit, and so shares in an equality amongst all gifts in so far as all emanate from the same body, that of God. But on the other, speaking in tongues is, well, unintelligible; “[…]those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people, but to God; for nobody understands them since they are speaking mysteries in the spirit.”1 The speaker of tongues speaks, but in an ecstatic language foreign to all intelligibility, a language that only God understands; ergo, speaking in tongues will be allowed in congregation but only if there is someone to interpret. So significant is this decision on the part of Paul that the Patristic age, the time of the erection of Christian orthodoxy that will follow two hundred years later, will only faintly know of the practice of glossolalia. The rest is history.2
Translation into local vernacular was a crucial element of early Christianity’s success; the good news must be intelligible. Yet lurking in the shadows was glossolalia, the ecstatic tongue understood by God. Neither the bare vocalizations of need belonging to animals, or a lower form of speech as designated by ethnic prejudice, nor the intelligibility of speech as such, glossolalia presents an interesting enigma in the ethico-theological considerations of Christianity made all the more intriguing by Paul’s refutation of it:

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sound in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.

How Greek of Paul to align intelligible speech with mind, knowledge, and productivity! And the edification of the church as well! It is no wonder that it is to early Christianity that the reformers looked to in translating the Bible into the local vernaculars of Europe rather than permit its confinement to archaic Latin. But what does it say when spirit, the very kernel of faith, points to futility (no project, like the expansion of a  church, can be built upon it), singularity (it is a language belonging to no community, not even a Christian one), and a danger to the church itself (and there is no other reason Paul directs his concern towards it), and yet arguably be the most intimate gift of God?
The crux of the matter is that intelligibility, meaning according to Paul, is marked by distinguishable sound, and so mind, and so productivity. If “nothing is without sound” then spirit, in refusing intelligibility in it’s barest manifestation, the gift of speaking in tongues, the very address of God itself, is on the side of everything rather than certain things. This would be a supplemental dimension of Christian universality if not for the antagonism between mind and spirit Paul establishes. Instead what is revealed to us is the decision between a life of ekstasis and a life of intelligibility, and the two are never reconcilable: the indifference of ekstasis annihilates3 intelligibility; intelligibility can only relate to ekstasis as superiority4.
The speaker, by virtue of the gift of a speaking voice, is distinguished from the beasts, but who says speech must refer to a particular, intelligible language? What is speech itself? Perhaps this is the true mystery, of the spirit even, whose answer thus far has only been in the ecstatic language of the speaker of tongues.


1 1 Cor 14:2. All citations belong to the NRSV translation of the New Testament.

2 I’m not at all interested in discussing the revival of this practice in the Pentecostal movement. Moreover any  connection to what is discussed in 1 Corinthians would have had to endure nearly two millenia of obscurity.

3 What does it mean that ecstasis “annihilates” at all, for surely it cannot be the case that it destroys anything or makes anything impossible (remember that it is marked by futility)? ‘Annihilate’ may even be the wrong word to use here. Perhaps ‘displaces’ would’ve been more appropriate, but I prefer the force of ‘annihilation’.

4 Intelligible speech, and the community that gathers around it, neccessarily subjugates what is discards to the nether realm of nonsense. Minority is inevitable.


~ by Benoît on February 2, 2010.

9 Responses to “Speaker”

  1. Benoit,I think you raise quite a number of issues, but the question that strikes me to be the most direct is, “Did Paul, because of anthropocentric and elitist biases in his culture which we know to be wrong today, mistake the theological or metaphysical significance of speaking in tongues as a religious experience?” The secondary questions seem to be, “In mistaking revelation to be signifying or intelligible, is the entire hermeneutic tradition of the Greeks that takes over Christian theology also basically an obfuscation, suppression, or “annihilation” of true religiosity? Also, has Christianity as it is practiced also become a normative religion of language, which condemns bodily experience as bestial and earthly and glorifies an abstracted, logo-centric relationship with God?” I think you say that the problem arises when Paul makes a distinction between “mind,” which requires some particularization of an experience to the pre-given and limited configuration of sounds in a language, and “spirit,” which Paul describes as simply that part of you which is directly in communion with (or “praying to”) God while you are enraptured and produces its own unrestricted cacophony in the process. In making this distinction, Paul demands that whatever is going on in the spirit should change or simply be controlled to be able to be articulated by the mind. What then heightens the urgency of your problem is that you believe that speaking in tongues is basically the quintessential religious experience. The assumption seems to be that since God is infinite, particular and contingent experiences such as human speech, which only make sense in a constructed, cultural context, would suggest His exclusive presence less persuasively than the urge to make sounds that are not specific to a language, but more like the purely physical sounds, such as those produced from striking any object, being punched in the gut, or being stirred to an orgasm in which sounds are made while speech is forgotten. In fact, you say that regardless of our own inference of whether God is there in the experience, God would intrinsically want to be on the side of experiences that belong to “everything rather than certain things.”

  2. To me, the case for speaking in tongues as the most special kind of religious experience has not been sufficiently made. Paul seems to assign an order to the experience in the person: some connection is made between the person’s spirit and God, and then some physiological process causes that connection to be expressed by the person’s body. To me, Paul doesn’t set up any antagonism between the spirit and mind, let alone suggest that spiritual experiences must somehow actually take place in the mind. Instead, he says that the mind is “being lazy” when it does not do the work to articulate what the spirit is experiencing in words. However, the experience is fundamentally still religious whether one is articulate about it or not. He doesn’t suggest, for example, that demons are responsible for speaking in tongues whereas God would only be manifest in rational speech. He does, on the other hand, say it is more productive to the church if religious experiences are used to fuel preaching and testimony than be kept incommunicable by the people having them.Now, I’m tempted to compare this to being stabbed in the foot and screaming wildly instead of mustering the resolve to say, “I’ve been stabbed in the foot!” But what strikes me as insufficient about this is that clearly there is some compulsion to say something, and there is apparently even some discourse going on, during speaking in tongues that is by no means essential to cries one makes in response to physical pain (or ecstasy?). Consequently, I think it remains important to ask whether something of the experience is compromised when speaking in tongues is forced to assume communicable speech. To begin with, it seems that speaking in tongues displaces subjectivity, in that sounds are impelled from a body spontaneously by a presumably external force. This is where I see your comments on the futility of the experience coming in: there is something like when one is lost to oneself in death here. Paul’s insistence on maintaining, or producing anew, some reflexive self-relationship to express speech, then, seems to me to be very much along the lines of his more general theology of conquering the death of our present subjectivity and being resurrected in this life. I also see similarities with Hegel’s tarrying with the negative, in which the subject’s deadlock with its death dialectically produces its own positive subjectivity. Though my memory of Hegel is now far too confused to be of service, I would like to suggest that this whole institutional regulation by Paul, of prioritizing the spread of churches over seemingly authentic religious experiences, returning the subject of a religious experience back to intelligible speech, etc., this is altogether hopeful and necessary for the subject herself. It’s the fissure of subjectivity, the loss of the subject’s access to herself in language, the loops of negation through which languages function, etc., which are the original traumatic kernel of alienation to which I see Christianity as a response. The normative power of Greek discourses in Paul’s time is present here, certainly, but I don’t think the problem of alienation disappears when you remove ideologies and culture. Instead, to me the function of language on our bodies is an essential trauma, and all of culture is basically an effort to normalize and remove the intensity of our primary self-alienation. And, in this vein, I’m tempted to say Lacan has the most to say of what speech itself is to the subject.

  3. I find this topic very interesting. I grew up around Pentecostal people. I know Benoit is not really talking about that, but, nonetheless, they (sometimes) have one form of ecstatic speaking. I hope I soon read more about it from this young man who has obviously been thinking deeply about it. One observation I would like to make concerns its designation as Tongues of Fire. The Sanskrit word for fire and the god of fire is Agni (Ignis in Latin, ignite in English). The root of that is *ag which means to be agitated. Like a flame the speaker is shimmering and agitated in the spirit. A shiver runs up my spine as I think of it. Somehow, that has something to do with glossolalia. Also, the phrase " … is speech itself" is powerful. It is one of those philosophical expressions that are stark and striking – but maybe meaningless. To think deeply about this is also to be agitated.

  4. Martin forwarded this post to me so I am responding directly here,As concerns the “bar-bar” language, the discrimination does not only arise from the difference between pitch and stress, although this seems to also be the view of Reza Negarestani (cf. Cyclonopedia), but from a certain universality of reason as opposed to cultural norms and tradition (cf. for this also Negarestani’s “Corpse Bride” in Collapse IV. This article is very relevant to what you are discussing here, especially the antagonism between spirit and mind). That is, if someone makes certain claims according to their own tradition and belief system, from the perspective of one who has adopted reason as his/her basic foundation these claims will seem unfounded and senseless. But this is not all. The one who has adopted reason as the basic system of dividing and assigning values (ratio), must also hold some power in his hands that will allow him to ignore the speech of the barbar (as being nonsensical). In other words, it is not enough for me to say that you are not making sense—for it would be very easy for you to say the same about me! I must have something else that allows my voice to be heard over yours. Apart from physical power (which can easily be discerned from the Albanian use of the expression; “boll bëre bërr bërr,” – Eng: “Stop talking bërr bërr” but literally: “Stop doing bërr bërr,” in which case, the problem is not so much about talking than about doing [or claiming; demanding, or promising to do]. To command someone to stop doing something requires a certain physical power over him, differently from what may be the case in language where one is to convince the other. [Keep in mind here that Albanian is very similar to ancient Greek, and in many cases it is easier to trace the etymology through Albanian than through Greek. A case in point is the similarity of the word, “bëre”{do} with “bërr” {bar} which may even account for the three bar(s) in the Athenian saying. As regards this, Thucydides’, Melian debate in “The Peloponnesian War” may be relevant, in that claims to universality are made, but only as regards physical power.), the development of a system which was to be universal, that is, cross-cultural, or inter-cultural, of course took over in the realm of Ideas.

  5. As for your analysis of Paul, again Negarestani’s “Corpse Bride” is specially relevant in his analysis of Ontology and Aristotle’s Idea of Oneness. That article directly answers also Imran’s objection in his first post. It becomes obvious here that the difference between mind and spirit, as you have defined them (utility/futility) is directly related to power, that is, the mind (reason/ratio) is focused toward achieving something (by division and discrimination), while the spirit can of course make no such distinction, as any distinction would reduce oneness (wholeness). However, paradoxically, only through division can oneness be achieved (although never absolutely since in order to achieve it one would have to achieve Nothingness, cf. “Corpse Bride” and Aristotle’s elements’ rotation). This is not as radical as it may seem at first: consider here, that only through translation into the different languages (therefore division from the original source) could universality be achieved (an understanding from all, “the good news must be intelligible”). At this point, we may introduce another concept: that of division, or the slash as the breaking point or the gap which makes communication possible. This is also Benoit’s source of annihilation, which I will call here ‘messy annihilation’ since it is never complete (ask Martin for a copy of W.D.U.). In other words, messy annihilation is the perforation of spaces, which mingles, blends, and connects surfaces and depths. It is only in this way that communication exists, therefore, it is inherently violent (no communication can take place other than by way of violence, and the aforementioned “Melian Debate” is a case in point). Therefore, if ecstasy annihilates, it is by way of blending together (by making impure), which is I believe your concern with Bataille. I hope the whole thing was at all intelligible (since I was pretty drunk when I wrote it).

  6. I need to state that I've truly enjoyed these comments. Solitude and the individual working-itself-out of thought will always have its place in philosophy, but surprise and astonishment only gain full force in the way self and others fall over into (and out of) one another.I wanted to begin seriously addressing a few things with this post: (1) the demarcation between human and non-human drawn by the bestowal of speech,(2) the essence of the human as incommensurate with the fruit of this former distinction, namely reason and its vicissitudes, and (3) the meaning of speech in general.I thought it clear by the end of this post that this incommensurate essence couldn't imply neither the exclusion of nor consummation in reason and intelligible language (as speech is classically understood). The ecstatic is universally indifferent, but this character lends itself to subjugation by intelligibility. Connections of causality, even their cartography, have as their raison d'etre some end result of action and only in this way does make any sense at all to consider them. The same thing is said in different terms by Aristotle early in his Nichomachean Ethics: we set ourselves upon some course of action in order to beget a result that brings us to yet another course to complete, and so on, otherwise desire would be empty and meaningless. So if I accuse you of laziness, this isn't a matter of indifference (else it would be pointless to even utter it), but an imperative that assumes an ordering of functions, that carves the map of this order onto the skin of the 'inert', so that some thing may come about. The existence of reason is never an indifferent existent in the world, but always-already a violent working-over of something. Subsequently, I'll be reading the Nichomachean Ethics along the themes explored here.Erik appears to be a bit ahead of me in securing a way to this ecstatic component of human essence, and is indeed in complete agreement with Bataille concerning reason's role in this(see the final chapter of Theory of Religion or the section entitled "The Torment" in Inner Experience). Whether this role is that of "messy annihilation" is still something for me to further consider, as Bataille's explication of the role of reason in arriving at the ecstatic is not altogether transparent to me as of yet, though it seems quite plausible.I'll look on all the recommended reading and connections here, but in turn suggest you read Daniel Heller-Roazen's 'Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language' and Andrei Bely's poem 'Glossalalia'

  7. Benoit, the role of reason in arriving to the ecstatic is immense. An interesting read in this connection would probably be Aleister Crowley's "The Vision and the Voice." The trick is in not stopping where everyone else stops, i.e., in continuing with the exercise of reason, or following thought to where it leads you (basically around the circle, for it leads nowhere). In "The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge" Bataille says, "Thought that offers itself the temporary stop that is the word God is incorrect in seeing its defeat as a resolution to the difficulties it encountered. The defeat of thought is ecstasy (in power). This is, in effect, the meaning of what I am saying, but ecstasy has only one meaning for thought: it is the defeat of thought. There is a real temptation to give ecstasy a value for thought: if the dissolution of thought puts me in ecstasy, I will extract a lesson from ecstasy. I will say, what ecstasy revealed to me counts more than the contents of my thought, which seem to me to be the most meaningful. But this only means: nonsense has more meaning than sense." Nonknowledge, pp. 203.It is obvious from this passage that ecstasy is only arrived at at the confines of thought, or rather, since thought has no confines in movement (in that it moves in the paradoxical circle), at the arbitrary stoppage (science for instance would not be possible without the arbitrary stoppage, which betrays the source of its power–incrementality, i.e., measurement–Gr. ratio, or the word that we have today, reason). However, in order to completely grasp this, one should better understand the paradox of thought as it continually moves around the circle, and by way of reason discovers the impossibility of reason–that is, by following a line of thought which ends in its opposite (e.g., the very big ending or imploding in the very small, and ultimately closing up on the sizeless, and nothingness), it annihilates itself, like a serpent that eats itself up starting with the tail. Suppose that the serpent's mouth ate all the body, and therefore the size (the circumference as well as the radius) of the circle is reduced, however, all that was is still there, but resembling now more a point than a circle (Here you have the reduction of sizes–from big to small). What thought really seeks however seems to be complete annihilation, and therefore that the mouth should also eat itself (like the word that must explain everything, including itself). But reduction to nothing is impossible by the exercise of the word, since it would seek another word to explain itself and this last would seek another and so on and so forth, just like the serpent's mouth cannot consume itself. In short, wholeness can be reduced (as in Negarestani's ( )hole complex) but it cannot be completely reduced to nothingness. Again, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, Negarestani's "Corpse Bride" is very relevant to what you are developing here, and my example of the serpent would make a lot more sense if read in view of his analysis of Aristotle's elements. You can find it online (see Collapse IV). If it has already been taken down, let me know and I'll send you a copy, I must have it saved somewhere.

  8. By the way, the book that you have suggested by Daniel Heller-Roazen, "Echolalias…" seems to be very interesting. I have not yet read it, but interestingly enough I read a disfavorable review which apparently failed to do what it was designed to do, namely, to keep readers away from it. It seems to me that the author is heading towards what is missing in language, but is always already there as an incision, a cut, or split, which is precisely that which enables any communication (the violence in communication). Let me know if I got it all wrong.

  9. Erik,You won't find much opposition here. As you could already discern in my references to Bataille's 'Theory of Religion' and "The Torment" of 'Inner Experience', I'm rather familiar with the notion of reason as the way to ecstasy/non-knowledge ('Theory of Religion' being a strict, systematic development of the point). Summit and Decline, in 'Inner Experience', are his ethical terms that respond to the impossibility of self-annhilation even. Your contribution is helpful however in allowing me to further grasp Bataille's efforts here as I mentioned I was still in the process of clearly comprehending their fruit. Perhaps this also explains why it seems I may be attempting some kind of refutation in relating intelligibility and ecstasy as I do, but I assure you that this is the result of a student's working-in-progress rather than any conclusiveness that has grasped its objects clearly. That being said, I find a value in exploring the country thinking may offer to my eyes, my hope being further traversal finds some fruit.I've acquired Collapse IV and will read the specified content as soon as I give myself the time.

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