Speech on the Cross

As we would expect, Rosenstock-Huessy assembles his grammatical material into a Cross. With the distinction of words and names in mind, we can see how Rosenstock-Huessy describes the function of speech in human life and society in a quadrilateral manner. He develops his point through a brief phenomenology of speech. In Speech and Reality (SR), he begins a discussion of the “four responsibilities in speaking” by describing his encounter with a boy across the fence at his home. He called out “OOOOH,” and the boy answered with a “prolonged oooooooooooh.”

This exchange was an exchange of sound, but it didn’t qualify as speech. Why not? Rosenstock-Huessy says that it lacked two essential characteristics of speech – names and answers. For speech to take place, we must have a name of the person addressed, and we must have an answer that is not merely a repetition of what was said in the initial address (SR 47-48).

Analyzing this simple example yields two basic principles. First, if speech takes place only by using names and proper terms, then speech is always a participation in an ages-long stream of communication: “We never start all over again when we speak. Because the success of the speech depends on its being ‘proper.’ Proper language yields more power to his owner than property” (SR 48).

The second lesson is that speech is never repetition between two speakers, but always involves both “identity and variation” (SR 49). The speaker may address another in several ways: He may give him direction in an imperative, with the intention of making him act; he may assert something as an objective fact, aiming at agreement; he might express something from within himself.

The response, to be a response of speech, must be consistent with the speaker’s intentions: It does no good to argue with someone who has merely expressed his internal desires, or to agree factually with an imperative. The speaker sets the terms of the exchange by the mode in which he gives his initial speech (SR 49). Though the responder must respond in kind, his response can never be mere repetition of the initial speech, else “they are a chorus and not interlocutors” (SR 50).

Analyses of language often begin with the lonely Ego, but this is quite unrealistic. Rather, “Language means the liberty between two people to modulate in complimentary ways one and the same word or idea or topic or language.”

Whether strangers are talking about the weather, scholars are debating a point, an attorney is arguing a case in court, the two sides are always “committed to a ballet which they execute together”: “No party speech, no theoretical innovation, no scientific discovery, no part of any dialogue in the world make sense if it is not understood as a variation of something the speaker and public have and hold in common, yet as a variation by which the speaker leads into a new future” (SR 50).

In this initial discussion, we are already most of the way to the Cross of Reality. From the two features of his exchange with the neighbor boy, Rosenstock-Huessy draws the conclusion that his speech also expressed a desire (“I wished to attract the boy’s attention”), and that his call was an “external process.”

My body causes vibrations on the air, which reach his ear. With these two, we have four dimensions of speech: It uses proper words, expects and answer, expresses a desire, and is an external process. And this places us at the center of the cross of reality: Looking back to earlier uses, looking forward to an answer, expressing a desire from within, and initiating an external process, changing the world outside. Every time we speak, “we assert out being alive because we occupy a center from which the eye looks backward, forward, inward, and outward” (SR 52).

This cross works at several levels: It is a cross of persons and of principal parts. Rosenstock aso connects  these persons to various moods. As he makes explicit in The Origin of Speech (OS 69), the various moods gravitate toward one or the other persons. Moods and persons are also linked to various disciplines and courses of study. The grammatical method lays out a whole scheme of education and thought, linking areas of inquiry with dominant grammatical features.

This helps us to see how Rosenstock-Huessy wants to organize the sciences in terms of speech and grammar, but he is also making another point. Speech, he argues, is what enables us to integrate the conflicting but legitimate demands of the Cross of Reality. Torn by the Cross, we must speak or else we die; speech is a response to the crisis of living at the center of the Cross.

As he says, “we speak lest we break down under the strain of this quadrilateral. We speak in an attempt to ease this strain. To speak, means to unify, to simplify, to integrate life. Without this effort, we would go to pieces in either too much inner, unuttered desire, or too many impressions made upon us by our environment, too many petrified formulas fettering us from the past, or too much restless curiosity for the future” (SR 18).

Through the grammatical method, human beings become self-conscious of our place “in history (backward), world (outward), society (inward), and destiny (forward)” (SR 18). Speech itself gives us this direction and orientation, but grammar, language come to self-consciousness, provides “an additional consciousness of this power of direction and orientation” available in speech (SR 18).

More fully, “by speaking . . . man can evolve the boundaries of inner space in any given moment so that they become more and more inclusive. One rose is always a rose. But man is a member of a family, of a town, of a kingdom, of a race, of a civilization, or a church, of a human kind, as far as he cares to create the language that is appropriate in these communities of different size and destination” (SR 54).

Speaking thus integrates inside and outside by articulating the boundary between them, and by extending and contracting the boundaries. Speech integrates past and future, as the command “come” yields to the past tense “he has come” (SR 55).

Speech harmonizes the poles of the Cross of Reality, integrating all the dimensions in every act of speech: “To speak means to be a leader (come), a scientific observer (he is coming), a historian or chronicler (He has come) and a poet (may he come), in the nutshell.” This enables us to “recognize all events in time and space as coherent” (SR 55).

Broadening the point, he notes that language always contains “scientific, political, historical (or institutional), and poetic elements.” Men specialize in one or the other mode of speech, but in our specialized area (science, politics, history, poetry). To speak is to attempt to integrate all these demands, all language assumes the “unity of all these four types of language” (SR 56).

None of these modes of language can flourish without the others, and when one or another gains the primacy there are both social and personal problems. Scientists and philosophers have expended a good bit of effort in an attempt to reduce all speech to scientific and philosophical terms. Normal language is “imperfect” in their view, because it’s full of statements that can’t easily be forced into the mold of indicative factual assertions. So, philosophers and scientists abandon normal speech in favor of mathematics or symbolic logic (SR 58).

This “secondary language” of critical reflection is useful because it offers the possibility of “re-thinking of the things said before.” But when one is a professional “second-thinker,” he’s liable to “superimpose this, his own aim, upon everybody who handles language and condemn all first and primary language as being a misfit.” Thus, scientific and logical language filter out into everyday speech, and language as a whole becomes more analytical (SR 59).

This is socially dangerous, as is any effort to impose one pole of the cross of reality on all speech: “A merely scientific, or a purely educational society or a ritualistic society or a poetical society – everyone of them would cease to live” (SR 61).

Rosenstock-Huessy, of course, says that the scientific and logical and analytical speech is legitimate, but that it operates at only one pole of the Cross of Reality, dealing with the external world. Moreover, science and philosophy are never simply “externally” oriented anyway. We don’t live by “reflection or by formula, alone,” but instead find that our language is full of “suggestive invitation,” the imperative “Come” that Rosenstock-Huessy places under the heading of “politics” and “education,” speech oriented to the future.

However analytical they attempt to be, “the pure scientist cannot help using suggestive invitations.” Scientists are politicians too, since “there is no science without the political and educational act. For the scientific thought is trying to make its way into the world, and that means changing the world, changing society by getting a hearing, being given a chance, getting an endowment, getting students, becoming a textbook, and taking possession of the brains of unsophisticated young people. The ‘actus purus’ of science makes no sense without the ‘actus impurus’ of publication” (SR 61).

Politics, in turn, is inherently poetic. Politics and education, oriented to the future, must be refreshed by the influx of inner speech and desire from writers and prophets, scientists and politicians. A political program originates as a poetical dream: “Politics without poetics are a failure” (SR 61).

In short, “The life of mankind does depend on the integrity of all its members to shift between the four ways of speech freely. The liberty of man is to be found in his right to sing, to think, to invite or lead and to celebrate or remember. These four acts cover the four aspects of reality. By these four acts, the artist, the philosopher, the leader and the priest, within every human being, is regenerated daily. Whenever we use articulated speech we are artists, philosophers, leaders and priests of the universe.”

We cannot speak at all without using metaphor (poetry/inner), pronouncing a judgment (science/outer), memorializing (ceremonial/past), and selecting and seeking to govern the course of events (politics/future). Normal human beings can’t fulfill all these demands fully all at once, and thus we move from one pole to another, in a constant dance, in constant tension, seeking to integrate our diverse demands by speech (SR 62).

Speech attempts “to integrate one and the same cross of reality into every human heart and brain” (SR 64). When we speak, we declare our faith in the “essential unity of past experience, future destiny, inside feeling, and external sensations.” The same language is modulated to “express emotions, register impressions, record historical facts, and meet future challenges.” A single language covers all “four states of mind.”

But no individual (except Jesus) can do it all on his own. Instead, “it takes the common adventure of all mankind, and the constant translations of one type of language into all other types to save us from madness, indifference, hatred, and forgetfulness. These four deficiencies of all of us often block us. We have to overcome these obstacles to reach the level of speech. When we speak, despite our forgetfulness, our indifference, our stupidity, our fear and hatred, we fight for the unity of all future destiny, all past history, all human poetry, all scientific observations” (SR 64).

In The Origin of Speech, Rosenstock-Huessy expresses how speech integrates the poles of the Cross of Reality in a complementary way. We’ve noted already how he describes speech as a means of dissolving the boundaries of skin that divide persons from one another, that divide the “inside” of the person from the “outside.” At a sociological level, speech overcomes the inside-outside divide by aiming for communication, communion, a common language across the boundary that divides group from group.

This is why Rosenstock-Huessy says that anyone who speaks “believes in the unity of mankind” and in the Holy Spirit who unites mankind (SR 184). When we speak convinced of the truth and importance of our utterance, we hope that not only our group but all mankind will hear, understand, and embrace what we have to say.

But speech not only dissolves the internal/external boundary, and integrates the spatial axis of the Cross of Reality, but also creates a “cup of time” between past and future, integrating the temporal axis of the Cross of Reality. Imperatives, he argues, command the listener, but also “lights up an alley of time into the future.” Alternatively, he says that the imperative forms time into a “cup, still empty but formed for the special purpose of being filled with the content demanded by the order” (OS 46).

This order remains in force, and the time ordered by the order remains in force, until the listener responds with the indicative report that the order has been fulfilled: “the logic of speech demands that the two sentences ‘march into Germany’ and ‘we have marched into Germany’ are understood as two pieces which do not make sense apart from one another!” (OS 48). This poses a challenge to “all grammar, all linguistics, all formal logic,” which have assumed that “sentences are the independent elements of speech.” On the contrary, sentences are “interlocking” and mutually dependent: “Imperative and narrative are two aspects of one speech. Both have to be said before either makes sense or creates an epoch” (OS 48).

“March” and “we have marched” are not “two different tools such as a hammer and a wrench I may have in my tool chest,” but “correspond to each other as aspects of one process which forms a cup of time until it is fulfilled” (OS 48). Commands and reports thus integrate past and future: Commands are now, but lay out a path into the future; reports are now, but describe how orders have been fulfilled. Speech forms epochs, and speech closes epoch; we integrate time and future by speech, by imperatives and indicatives.

Speakers and listeners are united in speech. An imperative may order time for centuries (“Let there be science” or “Let us not mix religion and politics” or “Let us vote for our leaders”), and those who obey and report their obedience may live centuries after the command was issued. And speech places the speaker and listener in time, places them as speakers and listeners in a drama in which they change places over time: “One speaks in advance, the other speaks afterwards. He who speaks first listens afterwards; he who speaks afterwards listens first” (OS 49).

This again is radically at odds with the way language is normal analyzed. Speakers and listeners change place over time. The mood of their speeches changes from imperative to indicative. Finally, perhaps most importantly, “sentences are the beginnings and endings of actual changes in the physical world. They are not ‘mental’ or ‘intellectual.’ They are not thoughts communicated. They remove a barrier which physically divides two people, fuses them despite their bodily separation, and then closes this barrier again. The speeches are as much cosmic processes as the breaking of the twig. They proceed in the outer world as sound waves between mouth and ears.” (OS 49).

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