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Samuel Beckett and the Postmodem: Language Games, Play and Waiting for Godot JEFFREY NEALON In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon pass the time while waiting by playing at a series of games - language games - which constitute their existence and form their social bond. Language games and play are two key concepts in much of contemporary thought; as Wittgenstein - the "father" oflanguage-game theory - writes, "the term 'language game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of a language is part of an activity, a form of life (Lebensjorm).'" As Wittgenstein sees it, a word is analogous to a chess piece, and utterances can be thought ofas moves within the language games that make up the human social bond. This notion of language garnes, as appropriated from Wittgenstein and modified by 'subsequent thinkers, has had a great influence on contemporary thinking about language, shifting the emphasis of language analysis from an enquiry into the meaning of a statement to its role in a language game. As Fredric Jameson writes in his foreword to Jean-Fran~ois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: ... utterancesare now seenless as aprocess oftransmission ofinformation ormessages, or in tenns of some network of signs or even signifying systems, than as ... the "taking of tricks," the trumping of a communicational adversary. an essentially conflictual relationship between tricksters.2 Such, it seems to me, is the state of language games in Godot; it is the play of Vladimir and Estragon's words, not any agreed-upon meaning for them, which constitutes their social bond. Waiting for legitimation of their society in Godot is, from the beginning, unnecessary; they constitute a society which is always already formed by their participation in language games . As Lyotard writes: ... there is no need to resort to some fiction of social origins to establish that language games are the minimum relation required for society to exist. . . . the question of the The Postmodern and Waiting for Godot 521 social bond, insofar as it is aquestion, is itself alanguage game, the game of inquiry. It immediately positions the person who asks, as well as the addressee and the referent asked about: it is already the social bond. (p. IS) This postmodern social bond is suspended in Godot by Vladimir and Estragon's drive to recuperate a transcendent principle - represented by Godot - which they feel will give meaning to their lives and their speech, thereby legitimating their society. All their games have reference to one metagame (or what Lyotard, in his discussion of modernism, calls a "grand Narrative"): waiting for Godo!. Theirs is the discourse of modernism, which "legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse ... making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative" (p. xxiii), some recuperative metaphysical system such as Platonism, the Christian God, the Hegelian dialectic of spirit, transcendent subjectivity, or the hermeneutics of meaning. These grand narratives, upon which modernism bases itself, have all broken down, giving way to a postmodern society which is characterized by incredulity toward both metanarratives and legitimation in them. In postmodern society, it is precisely in the social bond of language and language games that we can legitimate our own society. In such a postmodern society, people have untied themselves from the belief in a metaphysical, trans-historical, absolute ground for their existence. It has become apparent that no such system exists, but this does not reduce postmodern society to barbarity and choas, as the modernists thought it would. Postmoderns look to themselves and their communicational interaction in society to legitimate their existence. In Waiting for Godot, Gogo and Didi have such a communicational society but they do not realize it because oftheir deep-seated drive toward legitimation in Godo!. Early in the play we see how this belief in a static metaphysical support displaces any postmodern notion of society: ESTRAGON Let's go. VLADIMIR We can't. ESTRAGON Why not? VLADIMIR We're waiting for Gadat.3 This simple sequence occurs several times throughout the play,4 and always after a long pause following the fmal "trick" played in a language game: when their games break down or are played out, they constantly refer back to their metagame, their metadiscourse - Godo...


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pp. 520-528
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