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Language can never be private

Johannes Binotto

Shrewing the Tame

Published: 26.10.2018


Speaking of taming and speaking against it has to begin with getting the word itself to speak. “Tame”—the puzzling expression goes back to the etymological root it shares with “dam,” “timber,” and the German “Zimmer” (room). Taming, as is clear from the etymology, is an act of containment, separation, and adaption. What has once been tamed now has its own place, its own chamber, in which it no longer even needs to be confined, because it permanently carries its room around with it in the form of its taming. The bear on its showman’s chain, still paraded through fairgrounds in the early twentieth century, appeared to stand in the village square, but it was actually cruelly trapped inside the invisible timbers of its tamer’s cage.

The French is even more indicative, calling a tame animal an “animal privé,” which can be translated as an animal both deprived and private. A creature deprived of its wildness therefore becomes a private creature. Here it can finally be seen how politically charged the concept of taming actually is, for it doesn’t just vaguely describe a change from wild to docile; rather it identifies the transition from public to private. And it is in this, even more than in the dressage it imposes, that the violence of taming is revealed: what it robs from what it tames is nothing less than participation in public space. The tamed thing is confined to the intimate space of the private, whereby conditions of ownership are also established. Only a tame animal can be declared a private matter and thus an item of property: “Who does this dog belong to?”

We should be advised to remember privatization when we talk about taming, because then we begin to notice that the restraint we might believe to be a guarantee of peaceful coexistence in fact calls the democratic community into question, as it declares something that is actually a public matter to be a private affair. When something is tamed and thus declared to be private property, very soon the rules of community no longer apply, and it can be treated as the tamer sees fit. So a shift to separate, tamed, private space enables what is done there to be all the more despotic. The “secteur privé,” the private sector, is very much not a “tame sector,” as we know, since it is rather an area of aggressive expansion that refuses to tolerate any restriction from its public counterpart. If something is tamed in the “secteur privé,” it is the right to veto of the community itself, so as to unleash proprietorial authority all the more completely.

The literary text that explicitly deals with taming, that reveals its relationship to privatization and impressively shows how the act of taming is one of terrible violence, is still William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—a play that is all the more unsettling for showing its violence in the guise of comedy.

It tells the story of Katherina, the daughter of a wealthy merchant in Padua, who is considered unmarriable on account of her keen wit, tartness and gift of the gab. But Petruchio, wandering more or less aimlessly through the world after the death of his father, is enthralled by this unruly woman, even through hearsay. When the two are introduced, Petruchio behaves as if all Katherina’s barbed comments are friendly compliments and summarily declares he will marry her whether she wants to or not. Katherina agrees, as she believes she has at last found someone equal to her and her quick tongue. But on the day of the wedding Petruchio arrives demonstratively too late and inappropriately dressed for the ceremony. Back at his private estate he subjects his spouse to a long series of humiliations and deprivations, refusing her food and clothing with the explanation that nothing is good enough for her, and forcing her to agree to the most absurd assertions. On their return to Padua at midday, for example, he claims that what is shining in the sky is the moon, and refuses to drive on as long as his wife disagrees. When she finally gives in and declares the midday sun to be the moon, he tells her it’s the sun. This sadistic game ultimately seems to work, as the now tamed shrew intones a song of praise to the docility and self-denial of women in the play’s final soliloquy:

I am ashamed that women are so simple

To offer war where they should kneel for peace;

Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,

When they are bound to serve, love and obey.


But now I see our lances are but straws,

Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,

That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,

And place your hands below your husband’s foot:

In token of which duty, if he please,

My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

This explicitly misogynist narrative rightly gained the status of a “problem play” in the wake of the emancipation movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its sexual politics were required to be contradicted. All the more disturbing, then, that despite its problematic content a play that allows its audience to sanction violence against women, not only as apparently necessary for coexistence but also as the cause for general laughter, is still part of the popular comedic repertoire. The patriarchy applauds itself and its own despotism in The Taming of the Shrew.

But Katherina’s final soliloquy, in which—at the summit of sadism, so to speak—the victim herself praises her abuse as justified, is at the same time one of those moments in which such misogynist fantasies are about to collapse. As the feminist literary scholar Penny Gay has argued, whether we take Katherina’s apparent taming and her final declaration at face value or rather as dissimulation, and thus as a denunciation of the order of the sexes for which she appears to be putting the case, depends on how the performer of Katherina delivers this monologue and how the audience receives it. But even if the speech is made without any apparent irony, it can hardly avoid arousing the audience’s objection. Its confirmation of the patriarchal order becomes a contradiction in itself.

For in fact, as the psychoanalyst Darian Leader has shown, the moment in which Katherina’s apparent transformation from shrew to docile wife takes place also reveals the power of the taming father as frail: “Katharina’s metamorphosis follows the scene in which the figure of the father is unmasked […] and all the imaginary attributes of paternity are put into question.” Along with this questioning of the father, something in the language also begins to slip: if at first Katherina’s harsh words are intended to directly affect the people and objects to whom they are addressed, they now enter into a linguistic game of continual displacement: “Words for Katharina are there to strike their objects. But what has happened at the end of the play? Words now are not made to strike but to be exchanged […] The word does not have an intrinsic relation to its referent but may find a substitute in another term. This linguistic turn is exactly what is introduced and made possible by the paternal unmasking that precedes it.” So while language is initially understood as a rigid system of clear relationships between words and objects, in the course of the play it gives way to a more dynamic structure. What actually happens in Shakespeare’s play is the opposite of what its title claims. Instead of unruliness being subdued, the subdued is made unruly. Shrewing the tame: a previously far too “tame” notion of language is overturned.

The scene in which Katherina apparently complies with her husband’s wishes and agrees to call the sun the moon in fact documents this revolution by exposing the arbitrariness of a language in which terms such as “sun” and “moon” are linked to their referents not naturally but on the basis of convention, which can be played with for this very reason.

At first it seems as if Katherina spinelessly defers to Petruchio’s commands, but in fact her alternation of the words for sun and moon exposes the hollowness of the symbolic authority that men and fathers invoke.

This is what Jacques Lacan means with his cryptic phrase “Il n’y at pas d’Autre de l’Autre”, there is no Other of the Other: the “big Other,” standing for the paternal law of the symbolic, has nothing upon which it can base its apparent authority. Its power is a mere claim, which can begin to slide as easily as the language with which it operates. Psychoanalysis pays particular attention to this linguistic skidding, as is shown in its interest in phenomena like dream narratives, jokes and slips of the tongue. In these forms of speech, which can make no claim to complete authority and are apparently erroneous and not meant seriously, psychoanalysis sees a particular truth, namely the truth of a desire that is never entirely revealed, never completely determined and therefore tamed, but that is continually evasive, drifting, seeking roundabout ways, and making surprisingly direct hits. And it is the symbolic, with its inherent slipperiness and arbitrary gaps that can articulate this circumlocutory desire—not in the sense of a complete definition by way of an uncertain half-saying, a “mi-dire,” as Lacan calls it. Similarly, when Lacan insists that the subject is, as the term already indicates, a “subiectum,” something “subjected” to language, this is often misunderstood to mean language as dressage, as a seamless order that dominates the subject entirely. But in fact psychoanalysis sees language a space of possibility in which something unforeseen, incongruous or improper can take place precisely because it functions through arbitrariness. Instead of muzzling subjects by telling them what to desire, psychoanalysis should be a “practice of breaks,” as Félix Guattari emphasized, in which supposedly unambiguous sign relations become unstuck and are “deterritorialized.” So in the symbolic subjection that Lacan speaks about, the throwing (Lat. iacare) in its second syllable should be particularly emphasized: Subjectivation is subversive; the process of symbolic subjectivation overturns the hierarchies of the imaginary.

Finally, subjectivation is revealed not as a synonym for taming but rather its opposite. Where taming aims to make the dam fast and the cage narrow, subjectivation always pushes the boundary. And this can be seen in The Taming of the Shrew even when Katherina seems to give up her will entirely. For when she pulls the antonyms together in her final soliloquy, as in the phrase “our strength as weak,” we have to remember how easily the two opposite words can change places, as previously did “sun” and “moon.” What is weak and what is strong in Katherina’s monologue can no longer be readily answered. Doesn’t the apparently weaker sex come out of this as the stronger? And who guarantees that Katherina’s exhortation to “place your hands below your husband’s foot” isn’t a call to women to pull the rug from beneath the patriarch’s feet?

The most important thing, however, is not what Katherina says but the fact that she says it. Instead of allowing her speech to be tamed, to be contained in a docile silence, Katherina has the last soliloquy and thus retains her participation in an untamed language.

For the literary scholar Elisabeth Bronfen, Katherina and Petruchio’s participation in a shared discourse is the prime example of a true “conversation.” This unavoidably also implies physicality, since “conversation” was an Elizabethan codeword for sexual intercourse. And by the same token this also makes the point that physical interchange is not structured outside of language but is itself highly symbolic. Finally, conversation also entails a change in the positions of the two speakers, a conversion, which will make it “unclear who tames whom here. And whether a taming occurs at all, or rather a mutual acceptance.” Instead of installing a rigid hierarchy, a conversation ensures that the participants can encounter one another on a level playing field as radically different and at the same time as equals. And of course this participation in a shared language is not restricted to couples, but unavoidably refers beyond the intimate framework to a public space. For no matter what linguistic capriciousness goes on in a tête-à- tête—saying moon to the sun and vice versa—such games are only possible against the background of a language that is not simply one’s own but is also shared with the community. It is not by accident that Katherina delivers her soliloquy in public before the assembled players and not in her private chamber. The boundary of the self-only is already overstepped by the common language, which is never invented alone or à deux, but which exists outside of the private and into which one is born without seeking it out.

Language is something that can never be private. As the very idea of a private language that can’t be understood by anyone but yourself is meaningless and ultimately impossible, the private boundary is always overstepped by speech itself. Every attempt to limit speech, to contain it, to tame it, is confounded by every word. There is no “langage privé.” Where words are uttered, the taming is shrewed.

  • subjectification
  • Shakespeare
  • feminism
  • language
  • theatre / drama
  • gender

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Johannes Binotto

Johannes Binotto

is research and teaching assistant at the English Department at the University of Zurich and works as a freelance writer and curator. His main research is focused on the intersections of cinema, film technique, and psychoanalytic theory, as well as on spatiality in/as media studies.
Among his most recent publications are essays on digital conflict in James Bond; signal, noise and affect; mafia and/as male hysteria; border crossing and transgression in Sam Peckinpah; or the aesthetics of rear projection in classical Hollywood cinema.

Other texts by Johannes Binotto for DIAPHANES