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  • Liberating Oneself from the Absolutized Boundary of Language:A Liminological Approach to the Interplay of Speech and Silence in Chan Buddhism
  • Youru Wang


This essay takes a "liminology of language" approach to the Chan Buddhist view of language and its linguistic strategy. The advent of liminology in contemporary thought has been inspired by the works of philosophers and thinkers such as Der-rida, Foucault, Blanchot, Heidegger, and the later Wittgenstein. The central idea of the liminology of language is the relativization of any limits of language. The justification for this relativizing is the revelation of the dynamic interrelationship between the two sides of the limits of language. The consequence is an accepting and exploratory linguistic strategy as play at the limits of language. These ideas form the framework for a liminological analysis that is applicable to different views of language and different linguistic strategies. For instance, a liminological analysis will allow us to see what is beneath the claim of linguistic inadequacy. It will allow us to see the interchangeability of two sides of the limits of language such as silence and speech. Different linguistic strategies are then possible due to the claim of linguistic inadequacy.

What is meant by liberation from the absolutized boundary of language, as proposed by the title of this essay? From a contemporary point of view, it encompasses the following meanings. First, it breaks down the myth of any immobile, absolutely uncrossable boundary of language. The early Wittgenstein states: "There is indeed the inexpressible. . . . Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."1 Silence thus marks the boundary of speaking, the limits of language. Within this boundary, Wittgenstein confines the expressible to the use of propositional language. This view, considered an absolutization of the limits of language, has been challenged by postmodern thinkers. For example, Blanchot points out: "What is inexpressible is inexpressible in relation to a certain system of expression."2 "The inadequacy of language runs the risk of never being sufficiently inadequate," otherwise "we would all have been satisfied with silence long ago."3 This peculiar trait of never being sufficiently inadequate is determined by the double structure of language. To use Foucault's expression, language is always both excessive and deficient. This deficiency, this lack of language, means not only the absence of what is to be signified but also the absence of a center. To speak is to bring this kind of absence into play. At the same time, it is excessive. Deficiency becomes the condition [End Page 83] of the possibility of more speaking, more signifying, more language. "Language can no longer avoid multiplying itself." "It is always beyond the limit in relation to itself " and "is fated to extend itself to infinity without ever acquiring the weight that might immobilize it."4 In this view, the notion of an absolutized boundary of language simply cancels the possibilities of language.

Second, liberation from the absolutized boundary of language not only stimulates us to take a fresh look at the issue of the limits of language, but further to rethink the distinction between the two sides of the limits of language. In Hei-degger's existential analysis of discourse as the articulation of the intelligibility of Being-in-the-world, the boundary of language or the borderline between silence and speaking is in no way absolute or static. He asserts: "To keep silent does not mean to be dumb. . . . [K]eeping silent authentically is possible only in genuine discoursing."5 Thus silence involves speaking, while speaking involves silence. The two sides are interrelated and interchangeable. Echoing Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty also states: "The absence of a sign can be a sign."6 "True speech . . . is only silence."7 Despite their contextual differences, these statements all radically blur the distinction between speaking and non-speaking, speech and silence, and show insights into the mutual connection and transition between the two sides. These statements therefore provide legitimation for relativizing the limits of language. As a result, what is inexpressible or silent, namely the Other of language, is no longer conceived in an isolated, non-relational manner.

Third, the consequence of overturning fixed binary divisions and relativizing the limits of language is that...